It's been almost a year since we published Stories About Penises on 28 Nov 2019. In honor of the anniversary, I am delighted to share with you my story 'We're So Sorry' which appears in the anthology.
The photo is from our book launch at The Word Bookshop in London - me (right) my friend Orlaine MacDonald from Goldsmiths College - back in the day when you could be in a room with a bunch of people without a mask.
I hope you enjoy the story, and that perhaps it's a nice distraction from the election results...
xx Julianne, editor Guts Publishing
We're So Sorry
There were five guys from Kuwait who called me once. I’ve forgotten all of their names, one might have been Mohammed and one Abdul, but I really don’t remember. They had the white headscarves with the black band around the top. Teacher where are you from? they said. And then I told them where I was from and that I’d lived in Saudi and then they laughed because they couldn’t believe I’d lived there and then someone’s cousin came in the room and someone handed him the phone and he said – Teacher I want to sing to you. And I said ok, and then he started singing – Help, I need somebody, help not just anybody, help! And I laughed and said – Hey let’s all sing it together – because I thought that would be funny but apparently that wasn’t funny because then they hung up.
There were a lot of hang-ups with this job. And a lot of reading between the lines. Them the mischievous young Arab men, me the blonde American English teacher, all of us blank canvases. And why did they hang up? I don’t know, maybe because they knew they’d crossed a line and felt embarrassed and it became too real when I said – Hey let’s all sing – and that was just too much and then it was all over. And I didn’t have a minute to even think about it because then another call came in. It was funny because it was like working for the phone company and I just kept answering and answering the phone.
Hi! How are you? That’s how I always started out. Sometimes I waved. Sometimes I didn’t. Then if no one answered I typed into the messaging box: Hello! And then sometimes someone answered and typed back and said: I can’t hear you! And then I’d say: I can’t hear you either! And there were all kinds of technical issues and I guess it is a pretty sophisticated thing to put together a website for English lessons with a live feed and texting and all of that, and usually it worked pretty well but lots of times it didn’t.
After a while I just knew this would just happen, that screens would go black, or sound would go out, and that there wasn’t really anything I could do but sit there and keep saying – Hi! How are you? Can you hear me? – and wait until someone said something or hung up. Sometimes we had really long interesting conversations, if they spoke enough English. I’m a great conversationalist and can keep it going even if the person is boring as hell, but most of the time they weren’t, they just wanted to speak English and talk to a native speaker and occasionally be corrected but mostly they just wanted to talk.
Some of them wanted to know about me, like there was one guy from Saudi Arabia who wanted to know my life story. That was after I stupidly told him I was a memoirist. Stupid because I really shouldn’t have told anyone anything personal about myself at all because you never know what kind of creeps are out there. Anyway, I was knee deep into this and this guy kept asking for my life story so finally I told him. It was the abbreviated version with simple verbs and graded language. It went something like this: I was born in Chicago. I grew up Catholic. I went to Catholic school for nine years. Then I went to a public high school. Then I went to college and studied art. Then I became an artist. Then later I became a writer.
It was funny, because even as boring as that is, the guy just lapped it up and kept asking questions, like he’d stop me and say – How many years did you go to Catholic school? And I’d say nine. And then he’d ask me what I studied at Catholic school and I’d have to explain that it was all the normal subjects you would study anywhere except that we studied religion too, and the whole time I was telling this guy my life story he was walking around the streets of Riyadh, dusty cement streets, I don’t think I saw even one tree, it’s funny that anyone would think of building a monstrous city like that in the middle of the hottest driest desert in the world, but they did and I didn’t miss it one bit, and I guess I didn’t mind telling this guy my life story because he was such a good listener.
Anyway, there were tons of guys like this. The picture I had on my profile was nice, I suppose nice is an accurate word. Nice and young. It was taken about 10 years ago. Anyway, so a lot of Middle Eastern guys called me, and flirted with me, and I didn’t really care because it seemed so harmless. The Turkish guys called too. I’ve never really been sure what part of the world that is, I mean it’s not really the Middle East and it’s not really Europe, so I don’t really know what to call it other than Turkey, some vague distant place lingering in cyberspace.
I had one guy who was Turkish and he was living in Brighton doing an intensive English course for a few months. He was really nice, I mean we talked everyday for about a week and each time it was about forty-five minutes and he kept making reservations for lessons and I guess it all seemed pretty harmless even though I knew he was married and knew he was interested in me. He’d say things like – I really like that sweater you’re wearing, what color is that? And I’d say lavender and he’d go on for a minute or so about how nice it looked on me and I’d say – Oh, I usually wear black, that’s my color – and I suppose it was flattering and I suppose I liked the attention, but anyway it was pretty obvious that he was interested.
One day when we were practicing questions he started saying – How long does it take to get from Brighton to London? And I just kind of ignored it and said I don’t really know. Because I don’t think I told you this but I live in London and this guy knew I lived in London and Brighton is only about an hour away by train, and so when he said that I decided to blow it off because if I paid any attention at all to this it would have been weird. Weird, like an acknowledgment of the weirdness of it and a busting down of boundaries because we were in this bubble-like cyber world that seemed safe and I liked it how it was and then finally we stopped practicing questions and he didn’t ask that again. But later, on another day when we were talking about Islam and I asked him how many times a day he prayed and he said five, then we started talking and talking about the Muslim religion in great detail and how some things are different in different countries, and how the guys from Saudi Arabia covered their cameras because they weren’t supposed to be talking to a woman, but they all pray five times a day and I think this guy really liked it that I’d taken an interest in his religion, and then we started talking about some book and I can’t remember the name of the book but it was something about Islam and he said – If you send me your address, I’ll send it to you.
That was when it started to feel creepy. So I said – Oh you know what I’m moving next week. That’s what I said because I was moving, and because obviously I didn’t want to give him my address. So I said – I’ll give you my new address after I move – which I didn’t intend for a minute to do because again it was this awkward moment and I didn’t like all the pushing this guy was doing and then he said – So you’re moving? And I said – Yeah, this weekend. I’ll take a few days off. And he said – But you’ll be back next week? And I said – Yeah, I’ll be back next week.
A few days later I had a reservation with one of my regular students, Ayah. She was Syrian but living in Jeddah because of the war. I think it was our second lesson and we followed one of those pre-made lesson plans and this one was about living abroad, and what kind of challenges there are, and how it takes time to adjust to a new culture and the food and the people and all that kind of stuff. It was fun to talk to Ayah. She was 28 and sweet and reserved and wouldn’t say a bad thing about anyone. She smiled a lot and talked about her children and how she wanted to learn English so she could help them learn. And it was nice that she didn’t cover her camera, almost all of the women from Saudi covered their camera and I ended up staring at a black screen, but Ayah was different. I could see her face, and her head was wrapped in a patterned pale blue scarf that she kept tucking behind her ear. It was very easy to talk to Ayah because she was so sweet and angelic and I’d lived in the Middle East for three years so I knew what kind of things to talk about.
The conversation went on for about an hour, then we said goodbye and then another call came in and the screen was black and I kept saying – Hello! How are you? Hello, hello! Until finally I saw a black and white checked shirt and then the camera started moving around like they were getting situated, and so I waited a few seconds and stared at the screen and the moving camera as it scrolled down and down to the man’s crotch, his hand grasping his erect penis, sliding up and down and up and down and up and down.
Oh god this isn’t happening. Oh shit this is disgusting what the fuck kind of fucking pervert called me? Jesus fucking hell, what the fuck?
I hit the report/ban this student button, the button that was on the screen for every call, and the call disconnected.
A number of windows and empty boxes popped up on the screen and I was asked to explain what had happened. Reeling with shock, brain blank, not knowing what the hell just happened or what to do next, I answered their questions like this: Indecent exposure and masturbation, that’s why the fuck I’m reporting this fuck-wad you sent me.
Then, as if this were protocol or just so typical that they had a system in place, a window opened up and said: Now take a 10-minute break. Or, you can be released from your priority hour without penalty. It was so fucked up.
I clicked on ‘take a 10 minute break’ and stood up dazed and foggy and trying to shake the image of that guy’s dick and his hand stroking it from my mind and went outside on the balcony to smoke a cigarette. Take a 10-minute break? Some guy fucking plows his way into my face and shoves his camera in his crotch and starts masturbating and what do I get – TAKE A 10 MINUTE BREAK! Fuck, it was so fucked up, that was all I could think.
I walked back to my computer and saw from a distance what had happened, some horrible car crash, and it began to sink in and I took two more calls, short ones, but couldn’t keep up the conversations and each time I answered I kept thinking, god it could be that same pervert and then I got through the second call and logged off. Then I sent an email to the company and told them what had happened and that it was fucked up and that I was cancelling for the rest of the week and didn’t know if I would ever come back.
While I was waiting for their reply, I clicked around on the pervert’s profile and found his preferred language: Turkish. Was it the guy from Brighton using a fake name? I suppose it could have been but he didn’t seem like a pervert, then again what is a pervert like when they’re not being perverted? And of course Turkey was a big country and it could’ve been anyone and the whole account and profile was probably fake and did he know that he was being recorded? Was that even a consideration? Or part of the thrill? I really didn’t know anything.
And why do men do this? What the fuck is the thrill of forcing a woman to stare at you while you masturbate? Why is it that women don’t do shit like this? Would you ever see a woman do something like that? I doubt it though I suppose anything’s possible but I have a hard time imagining a woman spreading her legs and pointing a camera at it and forcing someone to stare at her. Unless she was a porn star. But why would a porn star be trying to learn English? Wouldn’t she rather be on a porn site getting paid to have people stare at her?
A long time ago when I was in college I was sitting in my car and it was late at night and I was parked on a side street and I was fumbling around getting situated when I heard someone tap on the passenger’s window. Tap tap tap. It took a minute for me to look up because it was such a light tap and when I did look there was this guy with his pants down masturbating with his dick about an inch away from the window. I was pretty freaked out because it was late at night and no one else was around and I didn’t know where my keys were, so I started digging through my purse and by the time I found my keys and started the engine the guy had come on the window, a thick spatter of yellowish white disgustingness. Then I drove off. And the funny thing was that he knocked. Because it wasn’t good enough to be masturbating in public, someone had to see. I had to see. Just like the Turkish guy. And I wonder what he did after I disconnected the call or if he even knew I disconnected the call or if he was watching me, yes of course he was watching me, one hand holding his phone and one hand holding his dick all the while leaning back on his bed and what an acrobatic feat to do such a thing. Yes of course he was watching me watch him for all of five or ten seconds, and what was the plan he had in mind? Like do they think this all the way through and imagine what it will be like afterwards? Did that even cross his mind? Did he think I would say something or send him my phone number or scream or pull my clothes off and say – Oh god you are so fucking hot. Maybe it was more like an alcoholic taking a drink, unable to stop, knowing they shouldn’t but doing it anyway, and on and on I tried to imagine what the fuck the guy was thinking and what would possess him to do such a thing and why he thought, or thinks, that he wouldn’t get caught.
The thing is that I don’t know who it was. It could’ve been the guy from Brighton even though he seemed nice and I had no reason to believe he was anything other than nice but then again how does anyone know what another person is really like? I mean one minute a person can be completely appropriate and the next minute dropping their pants and pulling their dick out and masturbating. No one really knows anything and that’s what bothered me. I wanted to know, and I needed to know who the hell it was. The company wasn’t much help and that bothered me too. They were in San Francisco. And when they replied to my email they said they were really sorry and that they were doing everything they could to keep people like this off their platform and how very sad and deeply disturbing that something like this could happen to one of their ‘dear teachers’.
It went something like that, and then they said – Although this doesn’t make up for what happened, we have added one hour’s pay to your account. Ten dollars and seventeen cents. And when it finally began to sink in what had happened and how fucked up it was and that no one was going to do anything about it, I started to get pissed off. And then I replied to their email and asked to speak with someone on the phone. A day later they replied – We’re very sorry but we don’t have the resources to talk to our teachers on the phone. But don’t hesitate to get in touch by email!
It was pretty infuriating. They had the guy’s IP address. They had his email address. And they had the incident on video. Because they recorded all the lessons. And it occurred to me that this probably wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. And they were washing their hands of it, washing and washing and scrubbing their filthy hands. And that really pissed me off.
So, I called the San Francisco police and asked to file a report and they said they had to do it in person and if I wasn’t there in San Francisco then I’d have to go to the local police in my area, which is what I did. And it’s funny how the British police are, meaning very British and proper as hell and how they don’t like to say the word masturbate, so I was really blunt and told the story about three times until the lady behind the glass window finally got someone to fill out a report for me and she started to explain that – Someone exposed himself to her and he was – and then there was this uncomfortable pause as she stared at me and so I finished her sentence and said – masturbating – because she couldn’t seem to bring herself to say the word. I don’t know, what the hell else was I supposed to do. Then the guy who was writing the report asked a million questions like what the guy looked like and I laughed and said I only saw his penis and his hand and the man said – Oh, I see – and kept typing up the report until finally when he was almost finished he said – If the suspect is caught would you like to press charges? And I said – Yes.
Because it was real, and he was real, and I was real, and the whole fucking thing needed to be acknowledged as real, really fucking real, really fucking perverted, really fucking fucked up, as much as anything is real, and as much as I know that it doesn’t always feel very real when I see someone on a screen, more like an episode of The Jetsons back in the day when no one ever thought it even remotely possible that you’d be able to see and talk to someone on a television screen, science fiction at its height, of course that could never happen, but it did happen, and does happen and of course it’s real, real as can be, real pixels connected to real people, people who are sometimes complete perverts, or people who own companies who recruit English teachers without the slightest mention of the possibility of a dick being thrust in their face while performing their job, people who gasp and balk as if this has never happened before, people who click and type and shoot off pathetic emails, conveniently hidden away in some posh office in San Francisco, as they say: We’re so sorry!
* * *
Julianne Ingles is the editor and founder of Guts Publishing. She is also a writer, as you might have guessed. Stories About Penises is our debut anthology. A collection of fiction, nonfiction and poetry about, well, exactly what it sounds like. Click here to get your copy.