Maybe it’s the bourbon, but lately, we’ve been feeling nostalgic. With writing this good, can you blame us? This article originally ran in 2012.
I moved to the San Fernando Valley at the worst possible time. Right after the financial crisis hit at the beginning of 2009, Los Angeles was probably running at about 50% unemployment. My friend Kate worked at Trader Joe’s, and they received 300 applications for one job opening. The only people working regularly were the Mexican fruit pickers standing outside Home Depot, and even they would sometimes wait half a day before anyone drove by. The counseling center I volunteered at started to fill up with clients who had been unemployed for a year and were deeply depressed, considering suicide. Los Angeles is a terrible city to be desperate in.
I was sending out ten resumes a day to Craigslist jobs, with no responses. I assumed that the moment they clicked “Post,” HR directors were immediately inundated with resumes and panicked, choosing new employees at random. My boyfriend, Jason, was struggling to pay his part of the rent by selling musical instruments on eBay. We were living in a pool house and eating street-cart tacos every day because it was cheaper than buying groceries.
So I went to the fallback job: internet porn.
I signed up with a third-party website to be a cam model. It works like this: you have a webcam. Guys go to the website, pick you out of a lineup, and instant message with you a little bit. When they decide they want to fork over $3 a minute, they click the “Pay Now” button and take you to a private chat room, where you can do whatever you want. I got half of the money for each minute, and grew quite adept at stripping slowly. The guys mostly just wanted straightforward tits and ass; I learned how to pull my pussy lips open, how to use camera tricks so it looked like I was shoving four fingers in my asshole.
As porn work goes, it was incredibly low maintenance. I didn’t have to shave my legs or wear high heels, or even put on lipstick; I didn’t have to actually touch or talk to any of the guys who were watching me take my clothes off. I spoke into a microphone and never heard their voices. Sometimes I got strange requests: put a can of hairspray in your pussy. Let me hypnotize you. One guy wanted me to pee in a cup and pour it on my chest. I said no to anything I didn’t want to do. Jason walked back and forth through the house as I worked on the living-room sofa. I’d wave at him over the top of the camera, while showing close-ups of my ass cheeks to some unseen guy jerking it in his darkened office. It was a steady paycheck, and these gullible souls all believed I was twenty-two years old and my name was Samantha.
Except for one guy. Screen name: THEPROFESSOR. He showed up one day and immediately made me laugh — really laugh, not the fake “tee hee” that actually meant “Just click the button, asshole, time is money.” His repartee was witty, and his vocabulary was huge. All the other guys sounded like panting idiots hoping to trick me into a free show, begging me to shove things in my ass or dramatically fellate a dildo. The Professor enjoyed being the smart one, the one who knew the truth behind the facade, who I really was. It was only a few messages before he said, “You’re not 22. How old are you really?” I tried to pass it off, as I’d learned to do with private questions — keep them on the hook, believing the fantasy, and you make more money. Make them think they have a chance with you. But he wanted to know, really, so I told him how old I was, what I liked to read, that I wasn’t actually in university anymore. He hoarded the information I gave him; he was always careful never to say anything where the other guys could see.
One day, he finally clicked “Pay Now” and took me to a private room. But I don’t think he knew what to do with me. We just talked for a while, at $3 a minute. By then, I knew him a little bit, and liked him. I asked him what he wanted to see. He said he just wanted to watch me get off. So I did, and for once, I wasn’t faking it.
The pattern continued: he’d come in almost every day and message me for hours, throwing out comments about the other guys that they couldn’t see, sometimes taking me to a private room when he could afford it. He wanted to see me enjoying myself, instead of simulating bad porn. He wanted to see my face when I came.
I started getting to know him. His name was Arthur. I found out he was a real professor — he taught at a small liberal-arts college, which is why he was online all day, grading papers. I found out he was occasionally cranky, often bitter, but always receptive to banter. He mentioned children, in passing. I mentioned Jason, which, since I pretended to be single online, was another slice of my real self.
Finally, I told him one day that I couldn’t keep taking his money. It wasn’t fair. I liked him too much. I wrote him a long email from my personal email account, the real one, told him my real name, and said I couldn’t keep our interactions financial. It felt wrong. We were friends.
Then we started emailing back and forth, long, gloriously in-depth emails of feelings and thoughts and background and history. He told me about his early twenties doing dangerous and illegal things on the beaches of Hawaii. He’d moved to the mainland, met his first wife, had a child, divorced, met his second wife, bought a house, and had a second child… whose name, coincidentally, was the same as mine. He read a lot, loved music of all kinds, and got every reference I threw at him. I told him how much I hated living in Los Angeles, the failures of my relationship with Jason. I pressed him for details on his attempts to climb Mt. Rainier, about his weekend boat trips in altered states with his friends. He worried about what I ate, and suggested books I might like.
I started to keep my personal IM client open while I showed strangers my body, and he chatted with me the whole time, making comments about the little snippets I told him. “This guy wants me to spray whipped cream in my ass,” I’d type, and he’d say something back that would have me biting my lip while I worked, so the guy on the other end wouldn’t see me cracking up for no apparent reason.
I gave him my phone number. We began texting each other, slowly at first and then ramping up to dozens of messages a day. What are you doing? Where are you going? How’s work? What are you making for dinner? He gave me a nickname in German, and asked about my mom. We video chatted a couple of times; I saw his wry smile, his messy office.
I knew he was married, that his wife didn’t know about his forays onto webcam pornography sites. But I still took my clothes off for him, watched him stroke himself as he listened to me whisper what I wanted to do to him.
It’s sometimes said, with some truth, that nobody has friends in Los Angeles – there are only people you know, and people who want you to do something for them. But Arthur was my friend. He wanted to listen to little stories about my day, and he wanted to fuck me. I wanted to fuck him, too. He was shaggily attractive, disheveled, with a concentrated, thoughtful face and mop of brown hair, a college professor from Central Casting. He groaned as he showed me his cock and I licked my lips, imagining it inside me.
We said we loved each other, finally. Neither of us had believed you could build love only online, without ever meeting, and yet, here we were. We feverishly talked about meeting, me flying to his town to couchsurf and sneak to his office during the day, so we could finally touch each other’s skin. It became a bit tortured, as he realized he couldn’t have both me and his wife. Everything was laced with sadness and the forbidden. But he sustained me, a light in the seedy darkness. He said I did the same for him, and that he would love me forever.
Eventually, I left to study in Australia. He texted me throughout my packing crises, and his was the last text I got at the airport before switching off my phone at boarding. I went to Laos, and then Thailand, emailing him from internet cafes that were no more than tin-roofed wooden shacks. I thought I’d damaged my lungs diving in Pattaya, and had to go to a Thai hospital at midnight, sobbing and unable to catch my breath; he instant messaged me while the medication took effect, calming me down until I could sleep.
We started to grow apart a little bit — it was hard to keep up the stream of constant communication with the different time zone. He told me his wife had been offered a job in Europe; it would mean losing contact with his child and probably hamstringing his own career.
Just as they made the decision that they would move to Europe, his wife found out about me.
He sent me an email telling me briefly what happened and that we had to sever all contact with each other. He wrote that although he wanted nothing more than to hear from me one last time, it was for the best if I said nothing. So I didn’t.
The lines of communication fell completely silent. Day by day, piece by piece, I picked up my broken heart and tried to move on. I wanted to write him every day, message after message with the same thing: do you think of me? I love you. I wanted selfish proof that I was memorable, adored. I wanted to say his name.
Years of silence later, I got a message from him on Facebook, presumably the only means of contact unmonitored by his wife.
It was only one word: “Still.”