It was 7:55 in the morning, and Manhattan was already beginning to simmer and stink in the summer heat. Ida was sweating under her light jacket as she stepped through the service entrance at the back of the Royal Carlton Hotel. Inside it was not precisely cool, but it was dim and smelled of lye soap from the enormous cauldrons of laundry in the basement. She held the door for a tradesman carrying in a huge box of apples, punched her timecard, nodded good morning to two bellhops and a harried maid coming out of the service elevator, and let herself into the switchboard room.
“Oh, Ida, you are a sight for sore eyes!”
Ida blushed, though she knew Louisa just meant her arrival as a coworker was welcome. “Good morning, Louisa.”
“Morning. You look nice. New dress?”
Ida smoothed her dark hands over the sunny yellow fabric. “My sister said she’ll never fit in it again after the third baby. You don’t think it’s a little too bright?”
“You’re a bright person,” Louisa said. “It suits you. Makes your face glow.”
“Oh – thank you.” Ida’s cheeks were warm, but it was beastly hot in the little room, from the machinery humming behind the switchboard. “You look nice too.”
Louisa stretched, and Ida could see a patch of sweat on her back, turning her white blouse semi-translucent, showing the outline of her brassiere beneath. “I look like a ham sandwich someone sat on.” Her pin curls were rumpled from wearing her headset all shift, and her lipstick needed to be reapplied, but Ida thought it was ridiculous to see her as less than beautiful. Louisa waved away Ida’s spluttered, half-laughing protests and said, “I can’t tell you how ready I am for a break.” She yawned without dignity, showing pearly teeth and pink tongue. “I’d kill for a cup of Joe.”
Ida clicked her own tongue sympathetically. Louisa had the morning swing shift, four to noon, with a break when Ida came on at eight a.m. “Off you go then.”
Louisa slid her headset off and got to her feet, smoothing her hair down haphazardly. “Bring you anything?” They were strictly forbidden to eat on the job, due not only to the indignity of speaking to customers with one’s mouth full, but also the risk of crumbs and sticky fingers near the expensive equipment. Louisa’s lips quirked upwards. “Some of those butterscotch candies you like so much?”
Reluctantly, Ida smiled. “I suppose it can’t hurt.”
“That’s right. Back in a jiff.” Louisa departed, blonde hair bouncing and heels clicking. She always wore her hemlines daringly high, above her mid-calf, and Ida couldn’t help her eyes following Louisa’s stocking seams out the door. Then she took the second chair at the switchboard and put her headset over her ears just as a call from one of the upstairs rooms lit up on the panel. She picked up the cable, grabbed a call slip and her pencil with the other hand, and connected the call. “Hello, this is the operator.”
“Morning, Ida,” came a pleasant and familiar male voice somewhat distorted by the line.
“Good morning Mr. Levine.” Mr. Levine – or rather, Mr. Daniel Levine Junior – was the son of the formidable Levine Senior, who owned the Royal Carlton. Young Mr. Levine always stayed there when he was in New York, and he always knew the girls’ names by their voices when he called, even though he spent most of his time upstate. “How can I help you?”
“Put me through to my brother-in-law, would you?”
“Yessir. The Hayworths at #37 Westchester, sir?” He placed this call often enough that she knew it by heart.
“That’s the ticket. Oh, and when it goes through, go ahead and ring off, there’s a good girl. Give us a bit of privacy. Family business and all that.”
“Of course, sir. More’n my job’s worth, sir.” Jotting the number down on the call slip she reached for the correct cable.
“You’re a gem.”
She rang through to the exchange in Westchester, and gave the number to the girl on duty there, who patched Ida through to the house of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Hayworth.
A woman picked up the phone. “Hello?”
“Call for Mr. Hayworth, ma’am,” Ida said.
“Honey!” the woman called, muffled, hand over the receiver, “Phone for you! Come get it, I’m already late for the gala.”
A man’s voice in the background, inaudible and then coming closer, the tail of the sentence perfectly clear as he picked up the phone. “…nice time, dear. Hello, operator? Who’s calling?”
“Mr. Daniel Levine,” Ida announced.
“Oh good, put him through.”
“Connecting,” she announced, doing so, and pulled her own headset out of the jack just as she heard Mr. Levine say, “Morning, Bobby!”
It was that slow hour of the morning, after all the wake-up calls, which usually happened on Louisa’s shift, and before the business day started in earnest. A call rang through from another one of the rooms upstairs, just a guest wanting the front desk, and she connected them, and then nothing else for several minutes, until an incoming call from outside the building lit up.
“Hello, this is the operator.”
A woman said, “This is Mr. Levine’s office, calling for the young Mr. Levine.”
“I’ll try to connect you – Mr. Levine put a call through a bit ago, he might still be busy.”
“Thanks. His father says it’s urgent.” The woman lowered her voice, some of her professional polish slipping so that a Jersey accent was audible beneath. “Between you and me, Mr. Levine is in one of his moods.”
“I understand. Hold, please.” She switched the jacks, plugged her own headset into the lit-up line to Westchester, took a breath to say I’m so sorry to interrupt, gentlemen, but… and heard, clear as day over the connection, someone say, “Are you touching yourself?”
Ida jolted as if she’d stuck her finger in a live socket. For a wild, frantic instant she thought that somehow, impossibly, the man was talking to her and she snatched her hands off the switchboard, holding them up as if in protest of innocence.
Then came a low, unsteady laugh, and Daniel Levine’s voice, in a tone she’d never heard, said, “What do you expect? You going on about the match like that, about how sweaty and hot you were. Can’t stop picturing it. Are you alone?”
“Emily’s gone to some Rotary event. The nanny took Tom and Danny to the lake. What are you picturing?”
“You in your tennis whites, of course,” Mr. Levine said, voice deep, and Ida yanked the plug out of the panel as if it had started to smoke.
She sat staring at the switchboard and the innocent little light by the jack, heart thundering. Ridiculously, she glanced around as if someone might have seen or heard something suspicious, as if she weren’t alone in the hotel’s switchboard room, with thick walls that blocked out all sounds except the faint rumble of the elevators going up and down.
The secretary’s call was still on hold, light blinking. Ida shook herself and jammed the plug of her headset into the jack. “I’m sorry, ma’am, he’s not answering the line. That is, he finished his call, and now he’s not answering. He might not be in. I could go ask the doorman if he saw Mr. Levine leave, only the other girl is out to coffee and I can’t leave the phone.” She shut her mouth sharply, aware she was babbling. Her cheeks felt scorched, as if she’d spent the first sunny day of spring out of doors without a hat.
“Darnation,” the secretary sighed. “Well, will you keep trying?”
“I’ll put him through as soon as he answers,” Ida promised, and added out of habit, “have a nice day.” Her hand shook as she unplugged the call.
The light beside the other connected call jack was blinking still. And it wasn’t a local call, the bill would be astronomical, Mr. Levine’s father would be furious… But perhaps not. Mr. Levine had made lengthy calls to the same number before. Perhaps his father assumed, as Ida had, that he was talking business and horse racing with his brother-in-law, getting Mrs. Hayworth on the line and catching up with his sister, perhaps playing devoted uncle while one of the children babbled newly acquired words like “Ma” and “no” at him at ten cents a minute.
That was clearly not the case.
She told herself firmly it was none of her business. Told herself it was between them and God, or them and the police, or them and Mrs. Hayworth, or whoever else wanted to deal with it, not her. She distractedly sorted all the overnight call-slips into order of call length, and then by number, and then back as they already had been, in order received. She tapped her pencil against the desk until the lead broke, and then she sharpened it industriously. She stared longingly at the switchboard, wishing something, anything, would light up other than that single, solidary call.
She couldn’t stop hearing his voice saying Are you touching yourself. The back of her neck felt itchy, sweat starting at her hairline. It was filthy, something she couldn’t even imagine man and wife saying to each other. What else might they be saying to each other? And the way Mr. Levine had laughed in response, breathy and pleased to be caught out – he sounded just the way Ida’s sister did when her husband said something like, “Did you put on that dress special for me?” and she said “Do you like it?” But they weren’t man and wife, not nearly. Of course, she knew two men could…that they did. She weren’t born yesterday, as her mother would say.
Her mother also was fond of saying God made all sorts, sugar. Black an’ white ‘n’ yellow, and I reckon He knew what He was about. Ida wasn’t so sure what her mother, or God for that matter, would say about the two gentlemen on the telephone. She was very sure, however, as she reached for the cable, that if her mother knew what she was about to do she would say Are you looking to get a switching, Ida May Jones?
Ida plugged her headset into the listening board and held her breath as it connected.
“…lick your sweat off your throat, off your chest,” Mr. Levine was saying. A mortified, tingling flush rushed over Ida’s skin beneath her blouse, pouring down her torso into her belly. “I miss the way you smell. Need to put my mouth on you.”
A low, unsteady moan crackled on the line, and Ida realized that must be Mr. Hayworth. “Daniel,” he said unsteadily. “Please.”
“All that running around the tennis court in this heat, I just want to put my face in your underarms, in your ass crack.” Ida slapped both hands over her mouth, her pulse leaping in her throat.
There was a shaky laugh over the line. “I thought we said we already jumped in the lake together after the tennis match. I’m all washed clean.”
“Goddammit, Bobby,” Daniel said without rancor. “Ruining my fun. Where are you right now?”
“In, in my office,” Bobby said, sucking in a noisy breath. “Sitting at my desk with my cock out in broad daylight.”
“Imagine I’m there, between your legs on the floor.”
“Mm, yes. I’m imagining.” Ida was imagining too – handsome Mr. Levine the way he looked walking through the lobby, except all disheveled, his wavy dark hair come loose from its pomade, face flushed, kneeling in front of a hazily imagined Robert Hayworth who in her mind’s eye looked slightly like Cary Grant. “Going to open up for me?”
“Yeah, open up and wrap my hand around the base. I’d leave my mouth open so you could see yourself leak on my tongue every time I squeeze you.”
“Christ,” Bobby swore, “the mouth on you.”
Daniel chuckled. “That’s the idea. Are you squeezing yourself? Do it the way I would do it.”
“I – I am. Fuck.”
“Is it making you leak?”
“You know it does, bastard.”
Ida had her fist pressed against her mouth, teeth grinding down on her knuckle, the tiny points of pain grounding her as it felt like the rest of her body was dissolving into a sticky, hot puddle on the floor.
“I’d lick it off your foreskin, suckle on it a little,” Daniel continued. “Then I would start playing with your balls. Rolling and tugging them the way you like. I bet they’re all tight for me, huh?”
“Yes, y-yes, they are, ohhh.”
“Tug on your sac for me.” There was soft huffing breath over the line. “Are you doing it?”
Bobby groaned, “Yes, damn you.”
“Good boy,” Daniel purred. Ida felt like she sometimes did the day before her bleeding, like the pit of her stomach had a mind of its own, clenching and twisting, nearly painful. “While I did that,” he continued, “I would play with the head of your cock. Drag the foreskin back with my lips, tongue the slit, feel you open up just a little bit for me. Feeling you throb on my tongue.”
“Oh god, ohh Daniel.”
“Fuck, you sound so good. Tell me what you’re doing.”
“I’m – ah! I’m rubbing the tip of my cock. Pretending it’s…it’s your tongue. I’m spreading my legs for you.”
“You want me to fuck you?” Daniel asked, the words snapping down Ida’s spine and throbbing between her legs.
“Yes,” Bobby panted. “Yes, please.”
Daniel hummed thoughtfully, barely audible with the distortion of the line. “That’s too bad. I think I want you to fuck me instead.”
Bobby moaned loudly enough that the crackle on the line hurt Ida’s ears. She flinched, and realized that she had one hand tucked between her legs, pressing through her skirts at her crotch. She hadn’t consciously put it there and when she pulled it away she felt the soaked fabric of her underthings move stickily against her cunt, making her shiver.
“Slick myself up, finger myself open for you, make you watch.” Daniel’s narration was growing breathy, halting.
“Are you touching your asshole now?” Bobby asked, and Ida felt her own muscles clench, between her legs and beneath her, against her chair. What a thing to ask someone!
“Just the rim. Don’t want to put the phone down to get the Vaseline.”
“I’d get it wet for you, if I were there. Lick you open till you were trying to ride my face like the Kentucky Derby.”
Daniel spluttered out a breathless laugh. “Does that make you hung like a prize stallion?”
“Sure does, sweetheart,” Bobby said, and Ida could hear his smile. “Going to ride that too?”
“You betcha. Love to feel your cock sinking into me, so full. Stretching me, slow as I want, making you hold still while I take you.”
Bobby groaned. “You and me both, pal.”
“I love the way you look while I ride you. You gonna stroke my dick for me? Spit in your hand, make it all slick and touch my cock?”
“Yes,” Bobby rasped. “Do it now. Do it for me.”
There was the wet sound of Daniel spitting, and a staticky noise as the receiver was dragged across something. “Nearly dropped the phone,” Daniel said. “Wish I had three hands. One to hold it, one for my ass, one for each of our cocks.”
“That’s four hands,” Bobby said fondly. “What are you imagining right now?”
“You teasing just the tip of your cock inside my hole. Leaking a little and making it even slicker.”
“Oh fuck, yes. I’m leaking now. Playing with my foreskin the way you like to.”
“Yes – ah! I’m…I got my finger inside me. I’m, I’m close, it’s been too long, Bobby—”
“I want to see you finish for me,” Bobby said, voice dropping even lower. “I love to watch you. Want to see you on top of me, tug you off. Make you spend all over me. Your fat cock shooting everywhere. God, I want it inside me. Finish whatever your goddamn father wants in the City and get up here and fuck me till I can’t walk. And when I’m barely conscious you can lay me out on my back and use my cock however you want. Get yourself off on it.”
“Bobby,” Daniel gritted out.
“Fuck,” Bobby said. “Are you gonna come? You are, aren’t you, I can hear it. Do it for me, Dan, shoot for me, mark me up while you fuck yourself on my cock.”
Daniel gave a hoarse shout, and Ida, helplessly, pictured it – Daniel’s piece, vaguely modeled after paintings she’d seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and embellished by her recent, rapid education in male pleasure, shooting his seed over Bobby’s bare chest, liquid glistening on his skin.
“Sound so good, Daniel,” Bobby moaned. “So damn sexy.”
Daniel just panted into the phone.
“Was that good? Did you make a mess?”
“Mm. Ruined my pajamas,” Daniel said. His voice was throaty, satisfied. Ida was deeply glad she didn’t work the front desk and would never, ever have to look him in the face. She couldn’t afford to quit her job because of the way Daniel Levine sounded after climax. “Your turn.” Bobby groaned, and Ida could hear Daniel rallying his energy, voice strengthening. “Going to finish you off. Want to make you come all over yourself, all over the floor. You’re in your office? I’d get two fingers up inside you and milk it out of you, make you shoot across that fancy parquet flooring you put in last summer, so you have to get down on your knees and clean it up after—”
Headphones over her ears, Bobby’s urgent moaning making the line crackle and Ida’s heart thundering like a river, she didn’t hear Louisa come in at all, didn’t notice anything until Louisa moved into her field of vision, taking the seat next to her and saying something inaudible.
Ida jumped and snatched the plug of her headset out of the call jack.
“I said, I bought butterscotch and orange creams.” Louisa frowned at her. “Are you all right?”
Ida’s ears were ringing. She felt dizzy. “What? Me? Yes. Yes, of course.”
Louisa peered closer, making Ida’s cheeks heat worse than ever, thankful at least that her complexion hardly showed it. “You look awfully queer. Sure you’re not ill?”
“No, no.” Ida rubbed her sweating palms together, trying to steady her breathing. “I’m fine.”
“You look real spooked.” Louisa looked back at the still-blinking light on the panel beside the connected call, and then picked up her own headset and plugged it into the jack on the listening board.
“Oh, don’t!” Ida exclaimed, lunging for her, but it was too late. She ended up clutching Louisa’s shoulder as the cable connected, and saw, from very close up, the curious, concerned furrow on Lousia’s brow leap all at once into an expression of shock. Louisa was already pink from the hot day outside, and Ida watched helplessly as the color deepened, faint freckles vanishing in the flush.
Her mouth opened slightly, eyelashes flickering, and despite herself Ida wished she could hear what was on the line, what was making Louisa look like that – had Bobby finished? Was Daniel still talking about riding him? Louisa caught her lower lip between her teeth momentarily, leaving it pink and glistening. Ida felt that hot clenching between her legs again. It seemed like ages but was probably only a few seconds before Louisa’s hand went to the cable and pulled it out.
“Well,” she said, sitting back and removing her headset, “how shocking.”
“Shocking, yes,” Ida echoed weakly. She lived in Red Hook, down by the docks. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t walked past the bars where men did things like that – women too, sometimes, dressed as men. Her stomach gave a little flip. But it was shocking to realize that her hand was still on Louisa’s shoulder, that Ida could feel the warmth of her body through her light summer blouse, and that Louisa was looking at her with an unfamiliar expression – an almost shy smile.
“Were you listening to them?” Louisa asked, low and intent.
“No, I – no,” Ida stammered. “I mean, just on accident. I didn’t mean – I wasn’t…” Louisa wasn’t moving away, she didn’t look upset or disgusted. She was still smiling, her lips softly curved up; Louisa couldn’t stop glancing down at her mouth. She gulped. “I just…”
Their eyes caught and Louisa’s smile widened. “I don’t blame you if you were. I wish I hadn’t missed the good parts.”
“Louisa!” Ida exclaimed, half-laughing.
Louisa laughed back. “Oh, don’t be shocked now. I’ll be so disappointed if you come over all shocked. Haven’t you heard men make calls to their mistresses?”
“Well, of course.” It was a swanky hotel – men placed calls all the time to their mistresses, and worse, and when a man asked where he could find a companion for dinner, Ida knew the number of a seedy bar in Hell’s Kitchen where the girls’ fake jewelry would pass inspection dining at the Ritz. “How much did you hear?”
“Nothing so scandalous. I think they were…ah, finished. Mostly just I miss yous and come home soons.”
“Oh. Really?” Ida thought she might have quite liked to hear some of that.
“Yes. I thought it was a bit sweet, actually.” Louisa lifted her chin as she said that, and there was a slight tremor in her voice, though her expression was still calm and assured. Ida was reminded suddenly of her youngest brother facing off in the street against boys twice his size because they were throwing pebbles at a stray cat. She wondered if that made Mr. Levine and Mr. Hayworth the stray cats, and if it made her the one with a stone in her hand.
“Let he who is without sin,” she quoted, and added daringly, “I hope it makes them happy.”
Louisa beamed at her and reached out to grab her hand. Ida felt a shivery flutter in her belly at Ida’s soft palm against her own. “Oh, I hope so too.”
Ida was looking at her mouth again, at her beaming smile. Louisa had fixed her lipstick while she was out, and Ida pictured her pursing her bow-shaped lips in a plate-glass window, oblivious to the people inside thinking how beautiful she was. “Louisa…” Their linked hands were warm, resting on Ida’s knee. Was she imagining that Louisa was leaning forward toward her?
There was a cursory rap on the door and the two girls sprang apart like startled rabbits as it swung open behind them. It was Julio from the front desk. “Something wrong with the line? Teddy’s been trying to get through to the dry-cleaner’s for five minutes.”
Ida swiveled in her chair and saw that three different unanswered calls were lit up on the switchboard, and the connection to Westchester had gone dark.
“One of the cables was on the fritz,” Louisa lied cheerfully, “but Ida spliced it neat as anything. We’ll get that call put through now.” She reached for her headset and Ida did the same, avoiding Julio’s gaze.
“Well, good,” Julio said, and the door closed, leaving them alone.
“Oh, brother,” Ida said. Their eyes met and then they both burst into giggles, Ida with her hands pressed over her mouth and Louisa making a sort of hiccoughing noise that made Ida laugh harder. Their knees knocked together and remained touching as they both sucked in breaths, attempting to regain control.
“The calls,” Louisa panted, wiping the corners of her eyes, “Oh, God.”
“Okay. Okay.” Ida set her jaw and reached for a cable.
“Operator,” they said, almost in unison, and nearly set one another off again. Ida had to bite her lip hard to keep from giggling into the phone line as someone in room 411 asked for the Natural History Museum.
“Connecting,” Louisa said into her headset, and slid a call slip across the desk to Ida. Scribbled across the boxes for checking off a number was a note – Want to get dinner with me tonight?
“Absolutely,” Ida said aloud, and added “Natural History, right away, ma’am.” She connected the call with her thigh pressing against Louisa’s and felt Louisa pressing back.