“Dispatch from a Pandemic: Ypsilanti, Michigan” by Elizabeth Royce

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Woman in Black Stockings, Egon Schiele; Ergsart

I began as a webcam model to make some extra money in early March, before the Covid panic struck. I learned all kinds of terms I had never heard; JOI, CEI, SPH, Findom, received offers of money to meet on Skype, or to live with someone for a month to perform favors, offers to fly me out to see them, causing me to state, “I am not actually a corona samsex worker or escort, I only exist on your screen.”

By March 15, although I was still getting paid from my job with the public school I worked for as a secretary, I had lost all my restaurant and music teaching side jobs so I was hurting. “Camming” was a way to make sure no checks were bouncing.  With my cat-eye glasses and hair in a bun I could be the schoolteacher you always had a crush on, or your Dad’s girlfriend or the next door neighbor.  I’d sip on my coffee and juice and vape while showing off my fishnet thigh-highs in six-inch patent-leather heels and padded hot pink bra. “Does your underwear match?” many would ask.  I’d dangle  my shoe and let it fall off, for the many who loved foot worship.

“How are you?” I’d say to those entering the chat room. “Bored and horny” was a frequent response. The conversations moved quickly from, “Where are you from?” to “I am going to give you my stimulus check!”  Some had lost jobs and were too poor to pay for much attention.  A fan coined the term “essensual” worker for us, helping me to justify that I was doing my part to “flatten the curve.”  I felt useful as my presence seemed to brighten the days of my guests, “You ARE my stimulus check!” one remarked.  Meanwhile, I was still on my same sleep schedule so by 8am I was wide awake with nothing to do. My depression is triggered by unstructured time and so I found even if I wasn’t feeling great, when I put on some music and lipstick I could entertain for hours. The attention was better than a sugar buzz.

My shift became 8:30 to 11:00 a.m., a time when most would normally be at work.  I’d make $50 relatively easily, while having to keep my voice down so none of my male housemates would hear me faking orgasm.  But mostly, I just chatted, posed and empathized, while complaining about the “Covid 15” weight gain.  It was an escape from the numbing fear and exhausting confusion for me, certainly.

Even though I was called a “MILF” often, as a single woman living alone I was relatable to others who also didn’t have a live-in partner or children.  “I’d love to be quarantined with you,” they’d lament.  The need for privacy was urgent for some living in close quarters with relatives. One man had treated to his broadcasting studio to make the call to me. “Everyone is home all the time!” he said , exasperated.  To some, fantasizing with me was a way to remember sex existed. “When is the last time you had sex?” they’d ask me.  I’d tell them what they wanted to hear, that I had been alone all quarantine, even though I had let my partner come over a few times. Solidarity with my guests was important, after all.

By early May, we didn’t talk much about the quarantine, though one of my guests did want to talk about the dangers of the virus: “I still have to work.  I’m on call and afraid to go into people’s homes for repairs.”  I said, “I hope no one calls, unless you need the money.”

It did something for my self-esteem as a woman in her late forties, hearing things like, “You have the body of a twenty-year-old,” “You are my fantasy,” or “You are the definition of sex appeal.”  I was told that my personality, long curly red hair and natural beauty set me apart from other web-cam models women I considered sexier than myself.  I felt like I was the ideal woman, kind, funny, friendly, smart and willing to do almost anything your heart desired, virtually.  Even when new models flooded the scene and I was no longer the new girl, I had “friends” and fans I started my day with, and if I missed a day I missed them.  I symbolized a promise of future sex, maybe; of consequence-free orgasm; I made it worthwhile for someone to stay in the house and not feel alone.  In the time of enforced celibacy, my work kept me connected to my sexuality,  and I learned what matters to men.

–May 22, 2020

Postscript, June 18, 2020: In late May I received my stimulus check and I no longer needed the camming money. My full-time job had become more demanding and I was no longer free in the morning. So I quit. Although I miss it I am glad not to need to do it. It was intoxicating but playing a fantasy was exhausting.

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Elizabeth Royce is a nonfiction writer from Ann Arbor, Michigan. She has a BA in English Literature from Franciscan University with a concentration in poetry and classical literature and worked as the newspaper editor. She is also a performing and recording artist in comedy, vocals and piano and works at an after-school program teaching music to K-12 children. She is working on a book about her upbringing in the Word of God Community. This is her first published article and she feels very honored to tell her story.