Landlines and Love: A Response

This morning, I read a lovely piece on Gizmodo titled “An Ode to Landlines and Desk Phones” which turned out to be different than I thought. Sentimental as I am, I expected it to tie in a love – and I mean a  real love and a yearning sense of nostalgia – for landlines and phones of yesteryear. Instead it was an informative piece about using Google Voice over a land line, about desk phones and about the sheer weight – literal and figurative – about using a landline. Very well written and smart, and with the perfect accompanying images,  it just didn’t go down the path I was on with a title like that. But then again, I’m always looking for signs of love.

The title alone was, for me, enough to evoke memories of dialing the old rotary phone that my Great Aunt Fran had in the dining room of her home outside of Boston (North Shore, baby!). We would visit her all the way from Miami, Florida, where I was born and raised, and where the main telephone I used was a kitchen handset model that was anchored to the wall. The summers we spent in Maine at our family’s farmhouse were conspicuous for their lack of a telephone. These were rustic summers, and among the best gifts my parents ever gave me, with our only ties to the outside world being letters, the use of a neighbor’s phone (we would call home collect), and day trips to church and county fairs.

As I grew up and into a teenager, the phone in our kitchen stayed the same. There was no need to change our phone every year or two with passing trends, the way I do with my iPhone now. Rather, the phone that my parents had to hand down to me so I could talk to relatives or friends, back when I was too short to reach above the counter, became the phone that – as a teenager – I would talk on while sitting on the countertop. It was the phone that rang with happy news (like friends coming over) and that rang when relatives got sick and died. But it was also the phone that my first real boyfriend called me on. And it was the phone that, after we broke up without really talking about it, became our only connection. Once a month, he would call to say “hey, how’re you doing?” (I should’ve said “I miss you” instead of “Great, and you?” but this is a hard lesson to learn.) He and I are now Facebook friends though only the kind who occasionally “like” each other’s status updates.

For a while we lived with my grandparents. I was around 12 and 13 and 14 in those days. I would pull their bedroom phone out into the hallway for privacy and my grandmother would get upset that the cord was being stretched too far. So we got one of those ginormous extension cords like in Napoleon Dynamite and I could take it 15 or 20 feet away! At boarding school, the girls in my dorm and I actually had to sign up for small blocks of time to use the pay phone to call home or across campus. Some time later, I bought my first phone: a cordless phone that was so much better than the kind my parents had briefly experimented with years earlier. Theirs had already run out of juice and got dirty. Mine was white with blue keys – I remember it like I remember my first kiss – and it held its charge.

What really comes to mind when I think of my experience of phones, however, is the sheer sensuality of them – and I don’t mean this in a sexual way, although I study sex and write about sex all the time. It’s just that there are all these different ways that I’ve experienced using a phone. I’ve used my finger to dial a rotary phone and waited, sometimes not so patiently, for it to click back into place before dialing the next number. The handset models I grew up with had a beautiful backlighting thing going on with their keys and the numbers that I used most often would wear away, like my old laptop keys did. For a while my mom had one of those huge cell phones that looked like an oversized beige lego and I had to press those numbers with some sort of force in order to dial out. And don’t even get me started thinking about the phone I had to learn to use when I was a restaurant hostess in college – the typical office-like phone that was bolted to a wall, had several different lines and transfer buttons, and we had to manage it all while welcoming customers, showing them to their tables and flirting with co-workers. When I had a Blackberry, its keys were so tiny – and there were no ABC markers on the numbers so I couldn’t call a lot of phone numbers that were advertised as things like “CALL 555—COOL”. I loved the clickety clack of my Blackberry keys even though they were extraordinarily small. Then when I switched to the iPhone a few years ago, I was taken in by the soft, gliding feel of the screen. It feels so good and smooth on my fingertips even though I sometimes miss physically pressing keys.

None of these phones, in terms of their sheer sensuality, is better to me than the other. It’s kind of like kissing. My first real kiss tasted like a combination chinese food and toothpaste that I can recall with an odd familiarity even today. As I grew older, I experienced kisses that tasted like Heinekens and cigarettes (neither of which I touched at the time), kisses that tasted like coffee (among my first morning kisses) and kisses that tasted like goodbyes or – far better – like coming home.

It’s easy to think that a person’s life can be mapped by the kisses they’ve had (or pined for). We commonly associate certain time periods with lovers or relationships. But it’s perhaps less common, even strange, to think that a person’s life can be mapped by telephones, even though this Ode to Landlines piece has made me see that my own life and loves can quite easily be mapped this way. I can’t help but to wonder what’s next.

[Image from 1000 AwesomeThings.]

About Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick is a sex researcher at Indiana University, sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, columnist, and author of five books about sex and love. Learn more about her work at