Confessions of a Call Boy – J. Michael Norris
Lounging on a leather chaise in the living room of an overpriced suite at the top of the Canal Street Marriott, I gazed out of the floor-to-ceiling windows and across the French Quarter, wondering when my trick would arrive. I hadn’t pegged him for being late; he’d been so adamant on the phone about having me for the entire hour. Bored, I got up from the chaise and studied the crowd swarming through the streets below. Maybe someone down there cared. I sat back on the chaise, the leather still warm, dug a glass pipe shaped like a penis from my blue duffel bag, sparked up my torch lighter, and smoked a little Tina. I was blowing a thick cloud across the room when the desk phone next to me rang. My trick would be twenty minutes late. I took a deep hit and exhaled; a thick chemical fog, faintly scented like dying tulips and chalk, filled the room.
I didn’t mind waiting per se—I’d get paid the same—but I did mind people disrespecting me by showing up late. I changed out of my slacks and button-down into some gym shorts and a wife-beater. Figured I’d look tough if he wanted to start some shit. Late tricks and talkers liked to start shit, and this guy qualified for both. His first call to my work cell lasted damn near half an hour, with him going on about how he mainly wanted to ask some questions—not like a cop, he said—and that I could wear whatever I wanted. Best guess, he wanted inside me. Either to fuck me or fist me or crawl in my head with some S&M bullshit roleplay, the kind where I’m licking his shoes or some degrading nonsense. Talkers—they want to get in, as far as possible.
He showed up dressed like a junior undertaker, frumpy black suit and all. I guess he wanted to look official. Seemed around twenty, with his polka dot tie, thick-rimmed glasses and slicked-over hair. I found out later he was twenty-eight, barely younger than me. At least he wasn’t one of those patchouli-infused hipsters who wanted to try out a guy “for the first time.” He spent a few minutes explaining he was an anthropology grad student talking to male prostitutes for his master’s thesis. Said he needed a few more interviews and thanked me for agreeing to talk. He put his phone on record and set it atop the cocktail table by the chaise I’d lounged on while he performed his monologue.
“It’s possible,” I said, “we have a misunderstanding, Alex.” I sat up and tapped his phone to pause the recording. “If that’s your real name. You’re paying for my time, not my story.”
He scrunched up his face to try and look confused. I imagined he’d heard the same before. “It is Alex. My real name. But Todd,” he said, “which I can only assume is—”
“Dilbert.” I closed my eyes. “Or Dill. Call me Dill.”
“Pickle. Yes.” I opened my eyes and leaned forward, spreading my elbows on my knees.
“Okay. Well like I was saying . . . Dill. I don’t want to have sex with you, I just want to interview you.” Alex sat down in the chair he’d been standing next to. “Get an ethnography.”
I leaned back on the chaise and put my hands behind my head. “I think you might want my body just a little.”
“That’s beside the point.” Alex took off his glasses and cleaned them with his tie. “But I need to get this project done.”
“So you want my story?” I said. “You want to know what makes me tick?”
“I’m trying to find out what drives people to do—what you do.” His words were safe, calculated. He held his glasses up to the light, then put them in his coat pocket.
“Fine.” I stripped off my wife beater and threw it on the ground. “Take off your clothes.”
I stood up and slid my shorts to the ground. “If you want my story, I get –”
“To see me naked. Fine.” He pulled the polka dot tie from his neck in one motion. “But I promise you, it’s nothing worth seeing.” He threw off his jacket and unbuttoned his shirt. His body was white and pudgy beneath. “Don’t think you’re the first to try this with me.” His belt cracked as he whipped it from his waist. “I’m here for your story.” His pants fell to the ground.
“First, we smoke some Tina,” I said. “I’ll need some extra money for yours.”
“I don’t do drugs.”
“Whatever,” I said. “But we’re making some ground rules.” I slipped off my underwear and picked up my duffle bag. “You get one question. Then I get one question. A Silence of the Lambs quid pro quo. You’ve seen that movie, right?”
He nodded as he pulled off his socks. “I’m not that—”
“And don’t interrupt me when I’m talking.”
The bedroom of the suite was pretty nice, king bed and everything. If you could get past the mauve and forest green décor, or the cheap modern prints, their frames bolted to the walls. I guess the gold accents were supposed to give the place a Mardi Gras feel, even though the room seemed more like a waiting area in a doctor’s office than some sort of celebration. We settled on opposite sides of the bed, and I leaned back, making sure to flex my abs while Alex talked to me.
He said the kinds of things tricks usually said to butter me up. I’m not like most guys. I just want to talk. Things I’d heard again and again before they asked me to do whatever they wanted to make their bodies feel good. To make their egos feel good. The whole time he kept his
hand in front of his crotch, hiding himself. This was different. This had promise.
Alex never moved past that. He insisted his thesis advisor kept rejecting all his best stuff. He couldn’t shut up. I wondered if all the Tina I’d been smoking was giving him a contact high. I laughed when Alex claimed he’d spent six months interviewing drag queens at The Corner Pocket, a discount strip club on Rampart Street, where they hung out after their shows. As if anyone cared what some drag queens at a strip club thought. Professor Whatever rejected that project, told him to start over. Get something better.
I guess Alex forgot our arrangement, because he went on for quite a while, telling me so much of his story—how he’d come to New Orleans because of Katrina, seen the flooding on TV and wanted to help out some way—before he even got to asking me a thing about myself. I was right—he was a talker. Transplants often said the same thing about moving to New Orleans. Almost ten years since the storm, and I still hadn’t really figured out what they meant.
“So what, exactly, is your story,” he finally asked.
I brought the meth pipe to my mouth, watching the fingers of flame from my torch lighter wrap around the glass bowl, bringing the Tina inside to a clear, bubbling boil. I took a drag, blowing the smoke out through my nostrils like a dragon. “You don’t want my story. You want some safe fiction made up for your ‘research.’”
“You said I get one story. What’s yours?” he asked, his eyes fixed on mine.
“My ex died,” I said. “And that’s all your getting tonight. So now it’s my turn. What did your father think when you came out?”
Alex pressed his lips together and glanced at the ceiling. His forehead crinkled and his eyes became strained. He shook his head. “‘My ex died’ is not a story.”
“But it is,” I said. “And all you’re getting. Now, what did your father think—”
“I haven’t told him yet. I couldn’t.” He looked down at the bedspread, disappointment on his face. He seemed beaten, small. I should have told him not to interrupt me.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” Instinctively, I reached out and put my hand on his knee. His skin was soft, warm. I pulled my hand back quickly and took another drag from the pipe.
“I really just need your story.” He looked at me, his eyes begging.
“Maybe next time.” I glanced at the digital clock by the bed. “It’s 11 p.m. Your time is up and I have another trick on the way.”
“But I really need—”
“Do you think arguing with me is gonna work?”
Alex shook his head, and I stood up and pulled some slacks out of my duffel bag. I watched as he got dressed, the clumsy way he put on his socks, the way he tried to pry his shoes on without sitting down. After he left, I stripped off the bedspread and lay there alone, keenly aware that I wouldn’t sleep for hours. I didn’t have another trick coming—I told him that because I wasn’t sure what he was up to. He was cute, an awkward cute, and I wondered if he was someone I could be with. Someone I could love. Sure, sounds crazy, but my brain works like that when I’m high. Two hours later, I left and headed home before dawn. Before I had to face the morning work crowd with their fresh clothes and judgmental stares.
* * *
I hadn’t been in love since Devin, almost a decade before. We’d met at the bathhouse on
Toulouse Street the April before Katrina. An odd place, I imagine, to start a love story. We both lived in the Marigny at the time, and the downstairs at The Club New Orleans in the Quarter had the best gym around. Some of the weights had rusted, but they did the job just the same. Who cared if an occasional guy in a towel strolled through while you benched? $35 per month was cheap, I needed cheap since paying for school at Delgado sucked up most of my bartending money. I planned on being a top interior designer in New Orleans when I graduated.
I was in the middle of a heavy squat when Devin came in from the locker room. Almost dropped my weights when I glimpsed him in the mirror. I’ve never had a type per se; been more like the United Nations concerning sexual partners. But I still hadn’t imagined a short redhead would be the one to make my record skip.
After I wobbled the weights back onto the rack, I did my best to avert my eyes while he did pullups. But the way his freckled shoulders bulged and his butt clenched when he tugged up, I couldn’t help it. He caught me watching and came over to say hello.
“You know where there’s a clinic around here?” he asked. “I’m down from Atlanta and I need to get my meds.”
A weird panic buzzed through me. “I don’t know what you mean, ‘a clinic.’” I got up and started unracking my weights.
“An HIV clinic.” He stared at me in the mirror.
“Do I look like I have HIV?” The plate I carried slipped from my hands and slammed onto my foot. “Fuck!” I hopped on one leg, moaning.
Devin ran over and helped me to a bench to sit down. He let me squeeze his hand until the pain died off a little.
“You gonna be okay, man?” he asked.
I waved a hand at him and said, “I’m fine. And I don’t have—”
“I don’t care what you have. I’ve got a week of pills left, and I just moved here.” He looked angry or panicked, I wasn’t sure. “Hope your foot’s not broken.” He walked over to the Smith machine and resumed his pullups.
I slid off my shoe and sock. My foot swelled with pressure. I tried to wiggle my toes, but they just sat there, throbbing. “There’s one in Mid-city. It’s free. Called the HOP Clinic. I have a nurse friend there.”
He dropped down from the pullup bar. “Thanks.”
Devin grabbed some weights as I tried to stand up. The room spun and everything went blank. When I came to, he had my head in his hand and the most genuine look of concern I’d ever seen.
“You’re beautiful,” I said.
“You definitely need a doctor. I think you’ve got a concussion.”
We both laughed.
* * *
The weekend after I met Alex the anthropology student at the Marriott, I’d booked a gig with my friend Angel dancing at Oz, the biggest gay club on Bourbon Street. A bald guy pushing three hundred pounds stared at my crotch while I danced on the bar, thrusting my junk to the rhythm of remixed pop songs pulsing through the air. Occasionally he’d reach a five-dollar bill and tuck it
under my waist band, brushing his hand against me with a crooked smile. He hadn’t tried to shove a finger in my ass or anything, so I figured he couldn’t be too bad.
Angel danced over from the other side of the bar and grabbed my wrist. “Come on, girl. Our shift is done.” He waved his watch in my face.
“But this guy—”
Angel yanked my arm. “You don’t want to start shit with the West Hollywood queens.” He jerked his head, indicating a group of bodybuilders in their underwear waiting to get up on the bar. “Bottom in one porn and they think they’re stars.”
I rolled up the bills from my speedo and tucked them in my sock, then bent down and kissed the bald guy on his head. In the dressing room, I slipped my hand in my pants and slid off the cock ring I’d been wearing all night. My penis had turned purple. “Man,” I said, “I hope this thing keeps working when I’m done dancing.”
Angel slapped my butt. “You always got this. And that mug, girl. The face to launch a thousand—”
“Ships, yes,” I said. “But—”
“Loads, bitch. Launch a thousand loads.”
“Whatever,” I said. “I’m getting back into design.”
“And how you gonna do that, boo?” Angel pulled some jeans out of his backpack. “Fucking an architect?”
I pulled a glass pipe from my duffle bag and wagged it at Angel. He shook his head. I heated the bowl and drew in a deep breath. I blew the smoke at Angel.
“Don’t puff that shit in my face.” Angel flapped his hand in the air.
“As a matter of fact, I have been fucking an architect. Says he needs—”
“Girl, please. Tricks tell you what you want to hear.” He spread his jeans on the back of a chair and smoothed the wrinkles out. “You talked to that anthropologist, yet?”
I nodded. “He came by the other day.”
“Heard he’s been out at the bars, drunk as fuck. Acting a mess. Maybe he’s not who he says he is.”
I took another drag off my pipe. “He’s the real deal. Trust.” It bugged me to think Alex was getting a bad rap.
After getting dressed we headed through the Quarter to Rawhide, a self-proclaimed “Levi/leather bar” a few blocks away. Truth be told, Rawhide was more like a dive bar with a dark handicap bathroom where guys hooked up. If they weren’t getting head by the pool table. The streets teamed with tourists, many wearing store-bought beads out-of-season. The Tina started to kick in as we dodged through the crowd, the sensations of strangers’ bodies pressing against me turning me on.
Crossing Royal, we saw two homeless guys lying next to one another by a stoop across the street. One rested his head on the other’s stomach as they passed a cigarette back and forth. I took out my phone to get a picture.
Angel grabbed the phone from me and said, “Bitch. What are you doing?”
“Isn’t it beautiful? That’s real love right there.” I reached for my phone but he held it away. “C’mon,” I said, “I want to capture it.”
“First off, you can’t capture love. Second off, that’s not love. That’s drunken homeless guys, and you’re high.” Angel pocked my phone. “You’ll get her back when we’re in the
When we walked into the bar, Angel gave me my phone and took my duffle bag. He handed the bag to the bartender, who stashed it in the back and gave us two rum and Diet Cokes, Angel’s go-to drink because it has no carbs. A single drop light over the pool table lit the entire back room of the bar. I could barely make out silhouettes of men leaning against the walls or guys crouching before them. Angel took off his shirt and headed to the back. I hung tight up front; public sex was never my thing.
After I’d downed three drinks, Angel reemerged from the back. I didn’t care what he’d been up to, just hoped he wouldn’t share. We’d dated for a hot minute when he first moved up from Miami, and even though I don’t like to think I’m the jealous type, it still stung a little when he talked about having sex, even a blow job in the back room.
He got busy chatting with the bartender—some guy who’d worked there for twenty years or so, always wore a cowboy hat. I went into a small bathroom near the front of the bar, the one with a locking door, and pulled out a miniature Ziploc baggie full of Tina, dug my house key in and did a couple of bumps. The sting felt like a hot pick shoved in my nose, causing tears to leak from my eyes. As I leaned over the toilet trying to whizz, someone banged from the outside.
“C’mon. I need to piss.” The voice sounded familiar.
I opened the door to Alex in a tight white T-shirt and skinny jeans, crossing his legs and pushing his fist into his crotch.
“Doing some more research for school?” I asked.
“Seriously. I need to go.”
I swung the door open and stepped back into the bathroom. “Who’s stopping you?”
He slammed the door behind him. “Fine. But don’t look.” He unzipped his pants and a loud stream splashed in the toilet.
I locked the door and said, “I’ve seen you naked before.”
“That was different.”
“Because you were in charge?”
Alex zipped up his pants and leaned against the wall. His hair glistened with sweat and his glasses were foggy. Even in the dim light I could make out dark circles under his eyes. “I was never in charge. I paid, but I was never in charge. And you still owe me a story.”
“Isn’t this a story?” I dug the Tina out of my pocket and loaded up my key. I sniffed another bump into my nose.
“Not the kind I need.” He wiped the sweat on his forehead and nodded his chin at me. “You always doing that stuff?”
“Quid pro quo. You know the deal,” I said.
“I need your story,” he said. “If I don’t get another ethnography soon—”
“Call me when you’re ready to talk.” I leaned in close and whispered in his ear, “I’ll give you half off,” then kissed his cheek.
Alex kept his eyes down at the bathroom floor while I left.
When I got back to the bar, Angel was still talking to the bartender. I got my duffle bag and said my good-byes, then headed to Canal to catch the streetcar back uptown. All the way I thought about Alex, wondered why he made me so curious.
* * *
The last time I’d gotten curious had been with Devin. After he had driven me from the bathhouse to the emergency room to have my foot looked at, I didn’t expect to hear from him again. But Devin called the next day and asked to come over, check up on me. Had some silly line about his Florence Nightingale complex. He showed up with a gift box, bow and all. When I opened it, my shoe was inside, along with a note explaining that he refused to be my Prince Charming, no matter how much I came off like a little princess. I knew he’d end up nothing but heartache and trouble.
Devin had moved to New Orleans to go to Tulane. Planned on getting his bachelor’s in civil engineering. Wanted to change the world, improve people’s lives. I exaggerated my studies at Delgado, said I wanted to become an interior designer so I could make public spaces more accessible for the “differently-abled,” as we said back then. Really, I wanted to get paid too much to help rich ladies pick out trim for their throw pillows. I needed something easy after Mom and Dad cut me off for coming out. They still haven’t learned what the word “unconditional” means. I also needed something worthwhile to be with Devin, since he made me want to be worthwhile. The way he talked so bold and sure about his future scared me and excited me, made me feel below his level. Made me yearn to get on his level.
After a few months, we moved in together—rented a shotgun house out in the Bywater, about three blocks from the Mississippi. I’d graduated and started a job interning at an architecture firm drafting with AutoCAD, and he’d registered at Tulane. Things were good. Before he could start his semester, Katrina hit. We’d stayed behind because his Civic might not make the drive to Atlanta, and my parents didn’t want to see me, much less me with a boyfriend.
We figured it would blow over like all the other storms that came through. They always did.
The first few days were peaceful, almost like a camping trip. All the neighbors had left, and the city was quiet in a way I’ve never seen since. At night, the sky filled with stars, casting a subtle glow that caused specks in the asphalt to shimmer. Country sounds like cicadas and owls reminded me of the farm I’d grown up on. Devin and I managed fine a week without electricity, and enjoyed plenty of food in the pantry, though cold canned beans got old pretty quick. Guess we were lucky; houses close to the river like ours didn’t flood. Two blocks away the water started, looked like an ocean that went on forever. Some days I’d walk to the edge and drop in a brick or a rock, anything I could find, and imagine the ripples spreading all the way across Lake Pontchartrain.
One night we stayed up drinking cheap merlot, talking about what we’d do when things got back to normal. We sat in his little red Civic, the engine on, listening to the news we could get on the radio, passing the bottle back and forth. The moments in the car were the only A/C we had during those hot days and nights. Sometimes I’d sneak out after Devin went to sleep and start up the car to cool down. He wanted to make sure we didn’t waste gas, so he tried to keep car time to a minimum.
The air that night smelled like dead animals and mold, a stale, dirty stench that snuck up over several days and clung to the city. Eventually the news on the radio began to repeat, so Devin said we should get back in and get some rest, figure out what we needed to do for when things got back to normal.
“There’s fucking sharks on Canal Street,” I said. “It’s not getting back to normal.”
“Please,” he said. “The news always blows things up.” He chugged from the bottle of wine. “The curfew was sundown. We need to go inside.”
“What? You afraid of looters?” The way he kept trying to be in charge since the storm irritated me. He didn’t know New Orleans like I did. Nobody cared if two guys were hanging out in a car.
“It’s time to go in. We’re wasting my gas.” Devin shut off the ignition.
Something about him staking that claim made me twist. “Oh, it’s your gas now, is it?”
He got out of the car and walked back to the house. I stopped him at the front door.
“Don’t,” I said, “ignore me when I’m talking.”
“I’m not trying to fight with you. There’s a curfew.”
“Fuck the curfew!” I shouted, my voice echoing down the street.
“You know what Dill, I’m out of my meds. I’m cooped up just the same as you. I’m hot and I’m hungry, too.” He wiped his face with his hand. “And I’m not being a dick.”
“So now I’m a dick? Is that what you’re saying?”
Devin shook his head. “I need some space. I just can’t—I’ll be back in an hour.” He walked off toward the river, the bottle of merlot in his hand.
I went inside, opened a fresh bottle by banging the bottom against the kitchen counter, popping out the cork. I drank the entire bottle down, waiting for him to return, ready to tell him to fuck all the way off. By midnight and he hadn’t come back, so I locked the front door, took an Ambien, and curled up on the sofa. Nausea growled in my stomach, mostly from embarrassment, but a bit from anger. He knew I got sloppy with my words when I’d had too much to drink.
Hours later I woke to someone beating on the front door. Then glass breaking. Then gunshots.
Funny how sober you can get when adrenaline pumps through you, moves through your veins and turns on your brain. I switched from a fuzzy haze to utter clarity by the time I opened the door. Flashing blue and red lights illuminated the porch. They had mistaken Devin for a looter.
* * *
After that night at Rawhide, something switched. Perhaps it was seeing Alex in the bathroom. Perhaps it was Angel getting blown in the back of the bar. Perhaps it was the homeless guys on the street sharing a cigarette. Whatever it was, something had switched in me, and I decided I needed to stop getting high.
The first few days were the worst. I emptied the different baggies of Tina I had into an aspirin bottle and stashed it beneath my bathroom sink, to give away to one of my addict friends when I felt better. That’s what I told myself, anyhow. I stayed in bed almost 72 hours straight, waking from time to time in a sweat, with barely enough energy to drag myself to the toilet to piss. I’d collapse back in bed afterward, sleeping in fits, vivid dreams leaving me in a semi-waking state for hours on end. Devin consumed my mind when I was lucid, a profound regret coming to the surface, like all the times I tried to get clean.
But this time I was going to make it. Alex would call and he’d come by and we’d talk and he’d see in me what I saw in him. Things would be okay. He’d get his story and I could move on. The fifth day I ordered a large peperoni pizza after being up for an hour and ate the entire thing
before crashing out again. On the seventh day, Alex finally texted. Took him that much time to save up for a night, even at half off.
When I called back, he sounded excited. Said his advisor reviewed a few of his ethnographies and gave him the green light. “But Dill,” he said, “can we go to a cheaper place? I don’t really have enough for another suite.”
“I do in calls, you know.” I usually didn’t offer. But I wanted to help him out. He was genuine, and his drive reminded me of Devin. Besides. I needed the cash. I hadn’t worked in a week. “I can have you over by nine. I need a few hours to finish some things up.”
He agreed, and I spent the next three hours throwing out garbage, scrubbing dishes, sweeping, mopping, cleaning the tub and the toilet—getting my place presentable. When he got there, my apartment smelled like an unfortunate mix of pine trees and bleach.
He showed up in the same black suit as the first time, looking cuter than he had before. Maybe it was because he had on a different tie. Maybe it was because I’d grown fond of him. We sat on the sofa in silence, him with a tight-lipped smile and me with a sudden worry that the air smelled more toxic than clean.
“Can you believe I got the go-ahead?” he said, loosening his tie.
“Is that your question?” I asked.
He raised an eyebrow. “I don’t know, is that yours?”
We both laughed.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “if I’ve been difficult.”
“No more than anyone else I’ve been talking to. You guys have been through it.”
Alex nodded. “It’s not right, you know, what some of you have had to do, had to see. I don’t know.” He rubbed his forehead. “But I’m not supposed to tell you about the other guys. Would cloud my research.”
“Oh, would it now?”
He fumbled in his coat pocket and pulled out his phone. “Do you want to ask your question first? Quid pro quo?”
“Sure,” I said. “What’s in this for you?”
He looked around the room, as if searching for the right words. He smiled slightly and nodded. “I want to make people’s lives better, you know? If I can show something through this research that helps others see the kind of people you really are beneath it all, it might, I don’t know, change things somehow.”
“Sure,” I said, caught off-guard by a sadness I hadn’t anticipated. “Not like you’d date someone like me, but we’re just great beneath it all. I hear ya.”
“I would,” Alex said.
I cocked my head at him.
“I would date someone just like you,” he said. “You even. Who wouldn’t?”
We stared at one another in silence.
“You would date me?” I asked.
“Sure.” Alex smiled. “I mean, if I didn’t have a boyfriend. Of course I would.”
Feelings of panic and betrayal grip me. How could I have been so stupid? I stand up, trying to keep myself from shaking. “I gotta pee,” I say. “Be right back.”
“You okay?” he asks.
I nod, and hurry out of the room.
In the bathroom, I turn on the faucet and pull the aspirin bottle with my Tina from under the sink. I open the bottle and turn it upside down over my hand, pouring out a few bumps worth. My eyes tear up. I lick the salty, bitter grains into my mouth, then drink from the running tap, swallowing the Tina down. I sit with my back against the door until I feel lightness spread through me, warming my chest, my arms, my fingers.
I flush the toilet, dry my eyes with some toilet paper, and grab the doorknob. Steeling myself to head back to the living room, I inhale three times, deep, like I’ve surfaced from a swim, finally able to breathe again. My story can’t be told; I need to let Alex know.
Determined, I fling open the bathroom door.