I wrapped my fingers around the handle of my refrigerator door. I hated this. I hated doing this. Why even look? I knew what was in there… Even so, I gave it a tug and let myself become reunited with this useless trio:
-a dwindling pack of tortillas
-a bottle of coarse grain mustard
-an off-brand half carton of soymilk
Yup. Still there. Still an inedible combination. I pushed the door shut.
I laid on the floor of my living room, which was almost bare save for a record player, a fish tank, and a long folding table that I used for my artistic pursuits. I did really like that table. I decorated it and the space all around it. A coworker at the grocery store had given it to me; she and I had never spoken much, but when I left a note on the bulletin board asking for help in the furniture department, she came through. Thank you, Small Spiky Haired Lady. Thank you for helping me.
My record kept spinning. My muscles kept still.
I had been working at that grocery store for a few years at that point. I had started in the bakery department for a bit, and genuinely enjoyed decorating the cakes and sneaking the crumbs of baked cheese that would fall off the bagels. I had friends in the deli department, fellow early-twenty-somethings with “Fuck everything” attitudes. They would complain to me incessantly about the perils of the deli department- burns, cuts, inefficient protocol and management that insisted on it being followed- still, when I found out that cross training to work in the deli department was an option, I traded in my white apron for a black one. It would mean more hours for me. Which meant more pay. Which meant, I’d be able to save up and invest in my art and someday, maybe I could quit the deli gig and be a real artist.
That was the idea, anyway. Yet, there I was, years later, still borrowing $200 a month from my mom’s boyfriend. I spent 40 hours a week away from an apartment I couldn’t afford, just to come home to an empty fridge. Talk about bleak.
My phone vibrated in my hand. My sister had been talking to me about her recent ventures in a far more interesting line of work- professional cuddling. Apparently she had joined up with some small company that would provide background checks on clients and drive her to their residences, where she would engage in some rather tame physical interaction. I love the idea of that. Being touched by another person is, to many people, an important part of health. I loved that my sister was helping people.
In my job at the deli, what was I doing? I wasn’t helping anyone. If anything, I felt that I was helping people to hurt themselves. Everything in the hot case was deep fried; everything in the cold case was in a soup of mayonnaise. I would joke with my customers, something about how I should be charged with facilitating bodily harm- especially when selling them a soda cup as large as my torso. I was happy to provide people with comfort food a lot of the time; all the same, my heart was breaking as the hearts of some of my every-day customers were building breaded blockages…
My record stopped. I pushed myself from the scratchy tan shag carpet to flip it, then sat at my table, where I would drag a pen around until the marks resembled a human face. My job not only paid me so little that I was unable to afford the sandwiches I made all day; it robbed me of my energy, until the release I found in drawing felt like work, too.
This. Had. To stop.
My phone vibrated on the plastic table top. My sister had been telling me about some other work she had been getting into. Camming. I was familiar with it, and had even tried it a couple of times with an ex-boyfriend… however, he seemed much more into being intimate with me when the camera was on, and that gave me a bad taste in my mouth. I wasn’t even a total stranger to camming by myself, as a general concept- when I was 18, I remember giggling quietly in my bedroom in the middle of the night, flashing my breasts at surprised strangers on Omegle and ChatRoulette. Most of them thought I must be a recording, and I was happy to prove them wrong. No recording here, just a young woman “cursed” with an infinite supply of flirtation and a need to sexually express.
After discussing with my sister for a little while, I thought… I’ll give this another chance. If it means being able to get some cheese from that damn deli to put in my tortillas, then I will put my whole heart into it. Something’s gotta give.
Now, hold on. Let me tell you, as much as I enjoy being a sexual beam into households around the world, this was not my original plan for making money as a self-employed individual. I had been trying to find a way to make people care about my art since I was nine years old, going classroom to classroom, trying to sell drawings for a quarter. A couple years later, I was trying to sell customized stationery. Then bracelets (made with wire, they were truly terrible). As an adult with health limitations that made working “a regular job” difficult, my interest in entrepreneurialism turned into desperation. I remember sending emails and messages to every single one of my family members and many of my friends, letting them know that although I was working full time I was having trouble feeding myself. “I am begging you,” I told them, “Please look at my Etsy store. I have some stickers on there for only $1. Please help me.”
While almost everyone had opened and read my messages, ultimately only my mother and a boy who had a crush on me had ordered something. My heart was in the bottom of my feet. As grateful as I was for my mother and this boy, I felt like everyone else that I loved had told me through their silence, “We do not think helping you to eat is worth even $1. We do not believe in you.”
Looking back, I have no way to know what actually prevented them from helping me; at the time, though? I felt like I was less than dirt. I wanted to feel hopeful again. No one was going to rescue me, and what I was doing wasn’t working. Time to try something new.
One night, I sat against the wall of my living room, nestled between my fish tank and my record player. I logged onto the Chaturbate account that I had made with my ex-boyfriend. I pushed my breasts together in a padded bra. I clicked, “START BROADCASTING”. And I waited.
“Hi, I’m Erin!” I told each person who entered. There weren’t very many that first night. I didn’t mind. I already felt welcomed. And I made just enough tokens to get a sandwich the next day.
As the days went on, they got more bearable. Waking up at 3am to plop 10 pounds of potato salad into a bowl didn’t seem so bad when I knew that there were people waiting for me to clock out, hang up my grease-soaked apron, and shower off the stench of retail while they watched.
Most of my shows in the beginning were shower shows. Despite a lifetime of theatre programs and glee club performances, I’ve always been a nervous performer- and the shower has always been my safe space. Performing in the shower? Suddenly, my knees get the memo that this isn’t the time to shake.
I would lug my record player into my bathroom and sing along with David Bowie and Freddie Mercury as best I could, belting passionately into the handheld showerhead. This is behavior I engaged in frequently by myself. Doing it with company was… energizing.
“Hey, guys!” I would say, washing soap from behind my ears. “Only 100 tokens until a cum show!” I was learning the norms of the culture. Cum show. Such-and-such tokens til tits. Butt plug at goal. Amazon wish lists were expected, and clients liked to purchase sex toys for their favorite models. I still wasn’t making very much money, but a few “followers” considered the sex toys to be a worthy investment. Before long, I had accumulated a modest collection of dildoes, butt plugs, and beginner’s BDSM gear. I really appreciated the help; the toys attracted a much wider audience than just my shower head and my fingers.
In a matter of weeks, my shows evolved from quick and casual to full blown productions: I would come home from my day job, lay a towel on my bed, and spread my toys across it. I would arrange them from smallest to largest, and nestle a bottle of lube in there. I hung a blanket over my chintzy venetian blinds and figured out that if I piled up books on my bedside table, put my lamp on top, and angled the shade a certain way- well, the lighting was downright decent. I even made a new Twitter account to advertise when I was online- I snapped pictures posing with my toys and accompanied them with captions like, “Come give me your money and I’ll put this plastic peener all up in my private parts!” I liked being silly. Everyone at the grocery store thought that I was a Grade A Weirdo- and, okay, so did the people on Chaturbate, but that was why they liked me.
I began to learn the names of my regulars. I had regulars! I couldn’t believe it. And unlike the regulars that would visit me at the deli, I knew for sure that I was making a positive impact on these lives. I was making Kevin laugh. I was giving Marcus advice about how to talk to the girl he liked. I was teaching Dylan about the female anatomy in a way he hadn’t been privy to in his abstinence-only sex education. Soon enough, my regulars were starting to learn each others’ names. They would welcome each other into the room, Cheers style. Norm!!!
I was definitely pleased with myself and my progress, and though I was occasionally treating myself to a toasted turkey sub with swiss, my fridge remained more or less as empty as it was when I first started. I knew that only luck could make someone an overnight success- everyone else has to take their sweet time. But… I was hungry.
Decisions must be made when one begins any new career. When it was just me, offline, I looked into my naked fridge and clicked the latch that made the light go on and off. Should I be an eternally happy-go-lucky nymphette, always poised for a poke? Or, should I let my online persona wax more in line with my reality? My reality was, although my mental health was showing real signs of improvement as the camming community provided me with attention and validation, my bank account was as depressed as ever. Bootstrapping only goes so far. I needed help just to reach my laces.
Returning to the cold comfort of my shag carpet, I starfished and stared at my ceiling. I thought about my brothers and sisters, some of whom I perceived to be quite well off, unwilling to risk even a dollar on me. In addition to feeling forgotten, I was embarrassed. I had begged, I had literally said, “I am begging you,” and it seemed like it didn’t matter to them. What if that happened again? How would I feel? I have always been a cryer… Would I bear my soul, only to be digitally booed until I boo-hooed?
I considered the likelihood. The relationships I had developed over the last six weeks or so felt different than the relationships I had with my family and long-distance Facebook friends. And while I don’t think I initially had a mental image of my audience’s demographics, I would venture to say they were different than most would picture. Instead of a chatroom full of 30-something basement-dwelling neckbeards treating me like a virtual sexbot; I had a wide variety of viewers, from every walk of life. Some of them weren’t even masturbating when they watched me, and genuinely just enjoyed having an interaction with femininity. They seemed to genuinely enjoy getting to know me and making me happy.
With that in mind, a plan was formed.
That night, I hovered my cursor over START BROADCAST and enthusiastically smashed my trackpad. I felt brave. I started everything off completely normal- this is how many until butt plug, this many is two minutes with a vibrator, so-and-so tokens til cum show. As usual up until this point, only a couple of people actually tipped. Their tokens dropped into my virtual vault with a tinny ding! as the rest of the room reaped the reward. When I was satisfied that I had a good group engaged, all systems were go.
“Everyone!” I stood from my bed, glass dildoes clinked against each other. “I know this isn’t sexy, but I want to show you something.” I picked up my netbook and carried the show into my kitchen. I wrapped my fingers around my refrigerator door. I loved this. I loved what I was about to do. “Everybody, look.” I pointed the camera into my fridge, where my inedible combination counted its days til expiration. I explained, “I know this isn’t sexy, but my fridge has been like this for so long. I need help, y’all.” And then…
I couldn’t believe it. The chatroom filled with “Oh no!”s and “Here you go!”s. I remember especially clearly, as new members came in, one of my regulars told each of them: “Guys, tip her! She has no food in her fridge! Every token counts!”
I made about $50 that night, enough to get cheese and beans for my tortillas, cereal for my soy milk, and hotdogs for my mustard. At the grocery store the next day, I was walking on air- the shelves were no longer full of forbidden fruit. They were full of opportunities. As my basket grew crowded, I thought, “Thank you, Horny Online Strangers. Thank you for helping me.”Tweets by CaringErin