Lonesome Tonight

Marshall Moore


The woman on the other end of the line is hissing about breasts: her own, as well as somebody else’s. I’m alarmed, not aroused. The caller has a British accent. She’s telling me about a sexual encounter, her first time with another woman, and trying to sound seductive. But seduction isn’t on the menu tonight. I didn’t sign up for this, not exactly. I’m gay. She tells me about kissing the breasts, sucking them: how much she loved it, how transformative it was, how erotic. I hold the phone away from my head, swivel around in my chair, wave for help. At 25, I’m neither as mature nor as adjusted as I thought before joining DC’s Gay and Lesbian Hotline (there were fewer letters in the quiltbag back in the ‘90s) as a volunteer. During orientation, the trainers told us to listen. Don’t interrupt. Practice paraphrasing. Be supportive. That’s why people call us. We’re giving back to the community. When the woman I’m there to support and paraphrase and give back to begins to describe going down on her lover, I hold the phone away from my ear and mouth HELP ME NOW at the senior volunteer. It’s not misogyny, it’s just the third call like this I’ve had since I started two months ago. Tom (not his real name, but it’ll do) listens in as well, his ear next to mine. He’s about 15 years older and handsome in a pinched, peevish way. He’d swat me away if he could. But his ear is close to mine and there are lascivious whispers coming from the earpiece. We hear the word pussy. He hangs up. I think she was masturbating, he says. He’s probably right. I’m not sure what I’m doing here, what we’re doing here, how we’re helping right now. There’s a tension tonight, and a disconnect.


Most of our calls are less pornographic: tourists use the hotline to ask for nightlife advice; locals want referrals to gay-friendly doctors and lawyers and such. One night a man calls and says he’s just come out. He hasn’t told anyone else yet, just himself. Tom snatches the phone away from me. I’m too young to have anything valid to say. The half of the conversation I hear is his own canned personal history. Tom says, looking back I can’t believe I was in my thirties before I touched another man’s cock. He goes on to say something about not being in the lifestyle until his thirties, how he regrets losing those years, how the caller still has time. His choice of words appalls me, not the revelation behind them. The lifestyle? We all know not to call it that, or I thought we did. Although no one has a clear fix on the origins of sexual identity, there’s consensus. It’s not like getting into yoga, becoming a vegan, or joining the Rosicrucians. You are who you are. There’s no choice in the matter. Pretending not to listen, I swivel in my chair to put my back to him. I open my book and look at the words. Tom would scorn any objections I raise. I came out so young, after all. I had a two-decade head start on him. What could I possibly have to regret? What could I possibly have lost? I keep my mouth shut, which is just as well: Tom is still on the call. It’s likely these two men will never meet but we can let this tiny, tenuous connection be real for as long as it lasts. They’re still talking when I leave.


The man on the phone is irate: I moved to Takoma Park a year ago and they told me I’d love it there because it’s so cute but I don’t love it because it’s all lesbians. Why didn’t they tell me it was all lesbians? Where are all the gay men? I ask him who they are. You know, he says. My friends. Everybody. They say Takoma Park’s such a cute town. So different from the rest of the suburbs. All those bungalows. Where are all the gay men, though? How am I supposed to meet gay men here? I bought a house a year ago and I haven’t met a single gay man the whole time. Not a one. So you haven’t met anyone at all, I paraphrase. I don’t tell him the hotline itself is housed in the District, not its Maryland suburbs. There’s a reason for that. I also don’t tell him I live less than two miles away, in Silver Spring, the suburb right next to Takoma Park, also just north of the DC – Maryland line, and don’t expect to meet other gay men there. That’s partly why I’m volunteering. It’s not working out, though: Tom is one of the younger volunteers, and he hates me. He’s watching me squirm my way through this call. Enjoying it too, despite his disdain or because of it. We’re not supposed to tell callers where we live, not even in vague terms. I can tell he’s waiting to see if I’ll blurt something out that I shouldn’t. Have you tried classified ads? I ask. Or America Online? The caller hasn’t done either of those things. I shouldn’t have to leave town to meet other gay men, he insists. It shouldn’t be so hard. I agree with him. I observe Tom’s baleful gaze. You’re right, I tell the caller. It really shouldn’t be.


Tom’s face draws taut on the next call. He answers, not me. I pick up anyway, listen in. Heavy accent this time. Asian. His friend has just been arrested. They went cruising on the grounds of the Iwo Jima Memorial. Got busted. The caller escaped. The friend got hauled off to jail. He’ll be deported for sure, sent back to Vietnam ruined, not just with a criminal record and no hope of return but also outed. He won’t survive it. He’ll kill himself out of shame. Tom springs into action like he was trained for this. In fact, he was trained for this. Notebook out, pen uncapped, Rolodex at the ready. Were you there with him. Right, of course you were. Good thing you escaped. Was it entrapment. Right, of course it was, how could it not be. Did your friend do anything, did he even get the chance. No, of course not. All he had to do was unzip. He could have just been taking a leak in the bushes. If his dick was out, he was fair game. I’m sorry. Got a pen? Here are the names of a couple of lawyers. And you need to call this organization that specializes in gay and lesbian immigration. They also handle cases like this. After confirming that the caller has the information he needs, Tom hangs up. Gets up, paces the room, sits back down again. Mutters about how the greatest nation on earth just wants us to fuck off and die. Somehow this feels directed at me. I hope there won’t be another call before our shift ends. The wall clock ticks. The fluorescent lights overhead buzz. Tom slams the door behind him when he steps out for a smoke break.


I’m not sure I’m still a lesbian, the caller says. Her sibilants slur. I wonder how many drinks she’s had tonight. The story continues: I used to be able to see the beauty in all women. That’s how I knew I was a lesbian. I love all women equally. Loved all women equally. I used to be able to see the beauty in all women, but it stopped. Is there a lesbian on the hotline tonight? I think I need to speak to a lesbian. I think it’ll take another woman to help me understand this. I’m not sure I’m still a lesbian. I reply no, I’m sorry, we try to keep things balanced but it’s just a couple of gay guys tonight. I’m here if you’d like to talk, though. Tom isn’t here tonight. My fellow volunteer is named, improbably, Cherry. He’s in his fifties and commutes between Washington and Atlantic City. Prone to ranting, he’s incensed that New Jersey’s train services keep being cut. He’s appalled that straight people have discovered Dupont Circle, DC’s gay neighborhood. He’s adamant that, as he puts it, his gay ghetto remain unmolested at least a few years longer. The caller goes on to say she loved each woman’s body parts equally before this crisis. Big thighs, thin ones. Small breasts, big ones. Flabby bellies, flat ones. Young. Old. I used to be able to see the beauty in all women. Why did it stop? I don’t know why it stopped. When I look at a woman now, I don’t see the beauty there. Why can’t anybody tell me why it stopped? I used to see the beauty in all women. I want to see the beauty again. I hold the phone away from my head for a moment, look at the earpiece. Fluorescent light from the buzzing tube overhead reflects off the earwax-sheened plastic. Distance shrinks the woman’s voice down to the drone of a wasp or a large housefly. Perhaps you should call back tomorrow night when Katherine’s working?, I suggest. Cherry whirls around, aghast. Don’t say that, he mouths. You can’t tell them that, he barks when I hang up. Weren’t you listening during training? Christ, how old are you?


The last call of the night is a young man with AIDS. He’s 31. So many people only find out they have it years after seroconversion, after their immune systems go into free-fall. They come down with everything. He’s so pale now, he tells me. There’s the flu he can’t shake. You can tell yourself it’s a stubborn cold for only so long, he says. Then the blotches show up on your chest or your arms or your face. I’m clutching the headset so hard that my hand hurts. When terror washes through you, it feels like bleeding out. I was in a bad car wreck as a kid, got slashed up by flying glass, and lost blood: quite a lot of it. Although I didn’t get a transfusion in the emergency room, the doctors considered it. Things felt dreamy, at least until they stitched up my face and it hurt. Things feel dreamy now, far away. I’m not sure I’m breathing. How can I help you, I ask the man. It comes out as a gasp. What can we do for you. I don’t tell him how I’m certain no one I know will make it to forty and neither will I, how I’ve already buried one partner and a couple of friends. The terror is constant. It gnaws. I don’t tell him our volunteer on the other call is ranting about straight people in the bars. How there used to be more places to go. How it’s getting harder to meet people. So many have moved away; so many have died. My caller can’t move back to his own hometown because his family want nothing to do with him. He needs housing, maybe a hospice bed. He’s on his way out and he knows it. This exsanguinates me. I make myself breathe. I keep listening. I tell him I’m sorry. Read him the names and numbers on the lists that we keep by the phones. I tell him good luck and take care. Call us back if he needs to. What was that about, Cherry asks, his own call over now. Another guy who’s got AIDS? You get used to it. He shrugs. Or you don’t. The first time I met Cherry, he told me he hits the bars in Dupont after his hotline sessions. He stays out until they close. His hangovers often have hangovers. It’s not sudden, the thought that occurs to me next. It’s been biding its time. I’m not sure who the lonesome ones are here, ourselves or the callers. I’m not sure who’s helping who. It’s time to go home.


Marshall Moore is an American author, publisher, and academic based in Cornwall, England. He is the author of a number of books, the most recent of which is a memoir titled I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing (Rebel Satori Press, 2022). He holds a PhD in creative writing from Aberystwyth University, and he teaches at Falmouth University. For more information or to stalk him online, please visit linktr.ee/marshallsmoore.