Nerve Classics

Calling Out of Context

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CBS has replayed The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show twice this month. Thanks to the writer’s strike, we again get to see Seal in silver glitter pants, Heidi Klum singing, and Brazilian model upon Brazilian model proclaiming how perfect their lives have become since joining the Victoria’s Secret family. Oh, yes, and a few shots of Jeremy Piven and Mystery seated side by side, presumably giddy with excitement for the imminent Spice Girl reunion.

For a brief moment in time, years ago, I was a part of the Victoria’s Secret family. I answered the phone when you called, I took your nervous, low-spoken orders. I recommended thongs in lilac, and lace garters, and told men what women wanted. I had just turned eighteen.

Working at Victoria’s Secret Catalogue is nothing like working at the stores in the mall. The stores are tawdry explosions of pink satin and taffeta curtains. Near the cash registers, they sell cinnamon mints in the shape of tiny, pursed lips. They are full of buxom young women and confused, hopeful men and too much clotted mascara in the corners of saleswomen’s eyes.

No, Victoria’s Secret Catalogue is adult, sophisticated, operated out of a remote, sprawling complex on the outskirts of an Ohio suburb. Like all of Les Wexner’s buildings that I’d driven by — he, the faceless owner and multimillionaire behind Victoria’s Secret, Abercrombie & Fitch, The Limited, Bath & Bodyworks, half of Ohio, probably your car — it is a monolith of steel and black modernistic construction. Even though Victoria’s Secret spells “catalogue” the British way — which always made me believe that a puffy, British fifty-something woman of great means and great sexual proclivity was behind the empire — it is made, manufactured, and headquartered in Ohio. Like so many things you don’t expect — Katie Holmes, Sarah Jessica Parker, the invention of flight, Jeffrey Dahmer’s childhood — it actually comes from Ohio.

It was Lisa Bevilaqua’s idea that we work there over the summer. I was flattered to be invited. Popular, with a beautiful albino streak through her honey-blond curls, Lisa was one of the few non-Catholics at our sainted high school (oh, the freedom!), had a car, and had achieved the perfect amount of sluttiness. (The stereotypes are absolutely true: all Catholic schoolgirls are either sluts, or desperately trying to become sluts.) She prepared me for giving blowjobs: “It’s like eating vanilla ice cream with pickles.”

It was our first job that didn’t involve selling orthopedic shoes or carving turkeys at a buffet for the elderly. There were security guards and a gleaming reception desk. We were issued laminated ID badges and our own giant black folders with every recent incarnation of the catalogue, triple-hole punched inside, which we’d scour for the fabled transsexual model, though we never found an Adam’s apple and they all had big feet. If you didn’t want to eat in the spacious employee cafeteria (complete with fro-yo machine and glamorous, multigrain breadsticks), you could have your packed lunch in one of the upstairs lounges, sitting at small metal tables beneath billboard-sized photos of Stephanie Seymour lounging on satin pillows. So much Stephanie Seymour, the size of a Tyrannosaurus, looking down on your carrot sticks and dreams.

Before I worked there, I imagined the customers would be wealthy college graduates, professionals with expensive hair and teeth and pinstriped suits taking a few minutes out of their busy days to call the toll-free line and order teddies and satin chemises to pack for their weekends in Tahiti. I didn’t think so many housewives would call in, or that so many housewives would work the phones: acres of housewives wearing mom jeans, as far as the eye could see, with a few of us teens scattered in, and — on the night shift — the goth couple whose matching nose piercings jingled when they walked by. But soon, I discovered that these mothers knew what women wanted. Unrattled, they could consult with clients on which bra best fit a double-D. They never suggested a customer buy a white suit to wear to a wedding, and so were never reprimanded by said customer.

Despite my nerves and inexperience, I tried to answer every call with a low, sultry purr: “Thank you for calling Victoria’s Secret Catalogue. My name is Nicole, how can I assist you?” I wanted my voice to convey, “I am a mature, confidant woman who knows what she wants, and how to get it.”

I wanted my voice to be everything I wasn’t, but it was a traitor. By the end of each call — after finding the catalogue the customer had, the page number, discussing sizing, getting the credit card number, and desperately trying to sell five panties for twenty dollars (twenty-five cents commission for every panty sold!) — my nerves would be frayed, and my voice so high it was closer to Minnie Mouse than Marilyn Monroe. “Goodbye!” I’d squeak.

I don’t remember my first caller, but I do remember my first perv call, and the slow, blood-in-your-ears shock when you realize this person is masturbating. This was a time in our lives when we couldn’t even talk about sex with our boyfriends — whom we were having sex with. I couldn’t even tell Lisa I thought she was insane (blowjobs do not taste like any flavor ice cream and pickles). How incredibly, weirdly, intimate. What did they think I looked like? Did they imagine my voice coming out of the girl in the point d’esprit teddy’s lips, the way I once thought the Virgin Mary statue’s lips moved in chapel? Were their bedroom curtains drawn, or did they hunch down in the living room, with Jeopardy! muted in front of them?

You could hang up on perv callers (or worse yet, when someone wouldn’t provide a credit card number up front), but sometimes I’d stay on the line. There was an old man who liked to rap about panties and pussy; I’d compliment him on his rhymes (what else did he have?) Just when I had gotten used to the pervs, the heavy breathers, the grade-school prank calls, something new would throw me. The time I couldn’t understand what the male customer was asking, and a put him on hold to ask my manager: “Which thong do we recommend for ‘tucking’?”

Or my first female perv call. Sure, it was odd that she just murmured, “Mmm, huh,” as I enthusiastically described my favorite push-up bras and teddies. But it made it easier to read the special features I always forgot to mention (“And the best thing about the see-through lace bodysuit? It’s crotchless!”). Then she asked me what I was wearing, and I could feel my heart pound in my ears anew.

What was I wearing? Not the same things as this beautiful family of women who cavorted in these glossy pages. I wanted that model’s body, smile, hair. The painful joy of the summer catalogues! If only I could be that bronzed girl, lounging against a white-washed wall in a blue-sky utopia that could only be Greece, or Bali, or Baja — anywhere but Ohio. That freedom! Was this what college would feel like? But when I used my employee discount and ordered a nightie, it arrived oversized. The cotton was rough against my young breasts, which poked out embarrassingly against the material like science-class volcanoes. No bras I ordered inspired wonder.

Men and women proud to call Ira Glass a sex symbol melt when I say I used to work at Victoria’s Secret Catalogue.

At parties, flocks of boys crowded around us while we to pretended to answer the VSC phone. I can’t say I learned about love or sex from the catalogue, but I learned postures that looked a lot like them. I could bite my lip just so, lower my voice just right. I could close my eyes and imagine myself on a beach in Tahiti, as warm as Ohio nights. I could keep my eyes closed with boys, in basements, at parties, in warm corners with their dry, rough hands. But it wasn’t right yet. It wasn’t perfect.

“You need to get in touch with your sexuality,” said Lisa. “You need to be an animal.” We were in high school. We idolized Sharon Stone, though we weren’t old enough to see Basic Instinct. We could say things like this and believe them. She handed me a Hershey’s Kiss, even though snacks were forbidden on the work floor. “Making love is like eating chocolate,” she intoned, sucking on the Kiss, her thighs pressed together, her eyes shut. She’d left the cavernous call center, flown up and away from her body and found some greater high, her own angelic vision.

To this day I can see her pursed lips. But now I wonder, could she really have been so transported by Hershey’s? Watching the Fashion Show on TV, I’m in awe of the spectacle Victoria’s Secret has created for itself. Even today, men and women who are intelligent, politically astute and proud to call Ira Glass a sex symbol melt when I say I used to work at the Victoria’s Secret Catalogue. They beg me to “answer the phone.” (Hell yes, I’ve gotten laid using my old phone voice.) And now I can work the underwires, easily recreate the catalogue poses: a finger against the lips, a tilt of the hips. It’s so easy and fake and fun and horrible, that sometimes it’s hard to let go. I wonder if the real models face this dilemma: when they actually fall in love and someone sees through them, what do they do when the poses grow old? A first step: open your eyes, take off the bra.

This essay originally appeared in Nerve’s Personal Essays.