by Elisa Albert
When the Hotline phone rings it makes my shift partner Miranda and me both jump. I had a roommate once who had the same exact phone, leftover from the fluorescent eighties, the plastic cover see-through with all the incoherent mechanisms of telecommunications visible underneath. It's ring, shrill and indefatigable, would startle me in the most unpleasant way whenever someone called her, which was not often: she had few friends. It is not often that we get calls here, either, lately. Miranda and I and the rest of the counselors speculate on the reasons for this. We do a poor job publicizing perhaps, or people are embarrassed to call their peers (some of whom they probably know -- have classes with, see in the student center, pass with a glare, or avoid altogether), or anti-depressants have taken over. We sarcastically bemoan the apparent lack of desperation on campus. Kids today and all that. We are simply not needed by the people we want to need us. Like old, ugly whores, though, we have our regulars. They call as faithfully as good, far-off, grown up children.
The ring is as full-bodied as liquor to which one is not accustomed. It makes us shiver and wince with recognition, our senses in upheaval, and then drops us back into ourselves carelessly, so we don't know quite what to do. There is always that rushing, quick, answer it!, the scramble to remember our words, careful to present empathy, the breathless wanting to please: Hello, Nightline. It is melismatic and brimming with what we hope is comfort and ease.
Tonight, when it rings, Miranda is reading a magazine on a couch worn down by expectation. Behind her the wall stands indignant with amateur artwork: vines like telephone cords with sick-looking leaves and absurdly colored flowers, people's names, quotes. There are unidentifiable swirls and waves that look like whoever painted them just did so for the sake if it, giving up on anything concrete before they even started, not knowing what they wanted to say.
I am sitting across from Miranda, slowly, methodically picking stray hairs out of my arm. The scream-like rrrrriiiinggg! yanks me out of my hair-pulling trance, but for a second I continue to indulge, unable to look away from my arm.
There is a panicked hesitation between Miranda and me as we rush over to the phone on the desk, a silent debate over who will pick up the receiver, who will quiet it. We decide, with shrugs and pointed fingers and nods, that it will be me. I feign competence, even to my shaking self, as I pick it up.
"Hello, Nightline?" I say it stupidly like a question. There is really no doubt who it is on the other end of the line. I am hoping against hope for a standard third party eating disorder call ("Hi, ...um, my friend Jennifer? Well, she's kind of not eating? ...And, well, we're all really, um, concerned about her?"), or maybe a nice freshman-depression call ("I just - I hate it here, and-- you know, it's just...not like I thought it would be, you know?"). These I can handle. These I can offer some kind of service. Validation, Reflection, Referrals. Our motto. Stephen, another counselor, likes to say them as an aerobic chant when the phone rings: Validation, Reflection, Referrals, Whew! Validation, Reflection, Referrals, Whew! Validation, Reflection, Referrals, Whew! On the Whew! he'll wipe his forehead in mock exhaustion.
But it is not a third-party eating disorder or a freshman depression, or even a good old my-parents-are-making-me-insane. It never is, lately. It is Him, again, on the other end of the line, breathing his soft, heavy breath. The phantom release of air into my ear makes me flinch. Of course it's him: the clock says 11:30. He's as consistently regular as a several apples-a-day eater. We've nicknamed him Fiber-man in a nod to his regularity. At meetings we all laugh politely at our weak attempt at humor and then lapse into thick, sad silence, thinking about him.
"Hi," he says, hopefully. And then again, less earnestly, as though he is slowly deflating, "Hi."
"Hello," I say, lamely. I roll my eyes at Miranda and start doodling apples on the legal pad in front of me. She sits back in her chair and shakes her head at me.
His voice is enigmatic. Older, but so saturated with uncertainty that it seems juvenile; dense with a low-class Boston accent but slyly manipulative; full of shit but pathetic and open and raw. I wonder, every time he calls -- which is all the time -- who he is. Where he works, where he comes from, how he reconciles his habit of calling a college Hotline nightly with whatever else he does in his life. I talk to him more often than I speak with my family. He is my family. "How are you?" he asks. My parents never ask.
"Fine," I say, although I am not supposed to answer him. I am supposed to remain silent and passive and let him exhaust himself with no encouragement. This is supposed to get him off the phone as quickly as possible. (This is another group joke: "How long did it take you to get him off?... --giggle giggle--...the phone! ??!" We relish our feeble stabs at jocularity where he is concerned, they are our linen armor.)
I wait for a while, unfolding and settling into a silence that is both barren and pregnant at once, yin and yang. Soon he will tell me he is lonely and I will say hmmmm. Miranda is sitting back in her chair, still shaking her head slightly, reflexively. Join the club, asshole, is what I want to say, but I won't.
"I'm lonely," he tells me.
"Hmmmm," I say.
"You know, it's hard," he says then, covering the whole of his emptiness with a plush and vague blanket. He sighs like a weighty stone left to its own devices in gravity. I know.
"Yes," I say. "It can be very hard." Then again, he may not be talking about the living of life. He may be talking about his dick, enveloping it in his coarse hands even as we speak, as if they were my female voice. I clear my throat. He always hangs up the phone when male counselors pick up. "Life," I say, to clarify, "can be very hard."
And now I want nothing more than to launch into a monologue about myself. About all about the disappointments and the failed friendships and unrequited love and the desperation and the crying myself to sleep and feeling safe only in the methodical pulling of stray arm hair. Isn't it? I want to ask. Isn't it just impossible to get through this life in one piece? Dontcha think, mister? Life sure is a bitch. What a pair we would make, the two of us, with our penis and arm hair; we could meander off into the sunset, mollified and finally fulfilled.
"Yeah," he says, drawing out the word like he's making a sweeping gesture with his hand over a barren and battered landscape.
The possibilities of who he is are so endless as to be overwhelmingly manifold and finally, impossible. Is he sitting in a lazy-boy on orange carpeting from the seventies with only his shabby self for company, or is he calling from a mahogany desk in a room lined with windows, while the wife and kids sleep? Is he the bagger at the supermarket? A university administrator? Someone's dad? Yup, he thinks every night, looks like it's time to check in with my girls. He unzips his pants and dials like it were the most normal thing in the world, sandwiched between a late dinner and Letterman. The 'who is he?' drives us all crazy.
"I saw him today, in the square," said Jennifer once at a meeting. "He was caressing a pole and talking to it with his cheek pressed against it like they were going to dance," she had giggled. Or another time, when someone had gotten back an unfortunate paper from a notoriously snotty professor: "Come to think of it, Prof. Williams does have that accent, and I heard his wife left him." Stephen said he bet it was the glassy-eyed janitor from the student center, the one who asked all the Freshman girls for their phone numbers, but Miranda told him that was just classist and to shut up. I don't say a whole lot in meetings, to any of them.
He sighs now, a loaded huhhhhhhhhhhhh.... , hoping I will take the bait. Miranda is staring at me. She scribbles a little note for me: Get him off the phone! Someone else may be calling! I nod like I have every intention of ending this, but instead bite firmly down on his loaded hook and ask him how he's feeling right now. Miranda begins to shake her head again and rolls her eyes at the ceiling.
"Oh, you know," he says. "Frustrated."
Again, whether by life's circumstances or the mounting blood and pressure in his member, he doesn't specify. I offer another of my hmmmms and give Miranda a 'sue me' shrug with my palms upturned.
All the other girls avoid talking to him. A girl named Jackie had refused to answer the phone if it rang at his usual time. Eleanor and Becky both dropped out altogether, each citing some touchy-feely crap about taking care of herself before she could take care of anyone else. Miranda came up with a little speech: I know you've called before and I don't think we can help you anymore. If you're in an emergency please call 911, Good-bye. Everyone agreed this was the way to handle his calls. Miranda is pointing to the words now, written out in hazard red, stop sign capital letters on a piece of construction paper taped to the wall. She draws her hand over her throat in a horizontal line, mouthing get off. But I can't, or don't want to, or both. He is lonely and he needs me. Me. I tell Miranda to back off with the back of my hand and a flick of my wrist. She lets out her own sigh and jots down, have it your way, going to the bathroom. Then she leaves. I feel like an unsupervised child, justifying what I am about to do with the awareness that I was inappropriately left alone to begin with.
"What do you mean when you say you're frustrated?" I fairly whisper into the receiver, sheepish. I hope Miranda has to shit.
He is confused by my indulgence. "Well," he says carefully, not wanting the call to end, "it's kind of like a build-up, you know? Like, I'm desperate, you know?"
His vagueness irritates me. I am trying to indulge this poor, strange man and I want him to be disgusting. I know he has it in him (so to speak). The audacity to ask for a hand from me (oh will the double entendre never end?) in releasing his frustration would entitle him at least to a bit of my respect. I'm tired of people being too chickenshit to ask for what they need.
"What do you want to do about it?" I ask him, trying to nudge him into the land of sweet, sticky honesty. I want nothing more than to be what he needs me to be, to make someone happy, to take the edge off of whatever has led him to us, to me. What kindness can I ever extend anyone I actually know? It is only him I can help, only a stranger; only him, a stranger who is willing to ask me for something I can give.
He weighs my odd offer, dumbstruck, before answering. "Uhhhm....," his voice cracks endearingly, like a scared, gawky pubescent. He lets out almost a giggle of disbelief. "Ahh, I uh...."
I wait, poised to hang up if he won't be truthful.
"Could you, uh, ...could you um, could you maybe, um, ...maybe just talk to me?" he stumbles. "Just, you know, talk? For a while?" It is only in his post-call, semen soaked dreams that he has asked this of me, or anyone, before now. I think, in a protracted flash that coincides with a glance at the door out of which Miranda has exited, about our little Hotline group. I think about Stephen and Miranda and Jennifer and the rest of them, trusting me to answer this phone; about them having bestowed on me the right to answer. As if I were somehow in a position to take on anyone else's troubles. And then, somewhere inside, I feel a ticking begin, a dangerous and loose ticking that gets louder and louder in my head each second I don't hang up the phone.
So I do it: I begin to talk to him, in a voice slightly higher pitched and more self-conscious than usual. I tell him I wonder who he is, I wonder why he calls us, what his story is. I tell him he should make friends, go out into the world and have it dirty him like it does all the rest of us. I tell him he should go back to school and become a therapist, since he sounds just fucked up enough to excel at that particular vocation. I say for all I know he is a therapist; he is someone else's therapist, he someone else's therapist's therapist. I tell him I certainly know that things are not always black and white and that people are complicated. And I tell him, in an overshot of compassion, because I don't really believe it, that I don't think he is a bad person for doing this.
Throughout my little monologue, I can hear him breathing like a compulsive excersizer on a binge. "Go on!" he says, my captive audience, inflating my sense of civic duty so that it balloons massively -- a true, red, beating heart to prove to me that I matter.
And so I go on, with the assurance of being heard. It doesn't matter at all to me that he is not really listening, or that he is, in fact, using me. I tell him that my name is Miranda, and to make up for the lie I start to tell him other things, like what it was like when my parents split up, or why we had to move to Baltimore after my freshman year just when I had emerged victorious as a popular girl, or how my dad married his secretary and my mom has no one but me. These are things I don't talk about, ever. Because they are mine and once you give these things away they are scattered like useless feathers to the deaf wind of other people's empathy.
He is still letting out rhythmic exhalations that echo and imitate the beating of my heart as well as the still present, inexplicable tick tick ticking in my head when I have exhausted myself of Important things I need to tell him. And, like an old lover in sync with me, he comes just when I finish, at the same instant, with a gasp and a pitiful roar. We both sit quietly, spent, entangled in the fiber optics between us. Dazed and embarrassed, I have nothing to say. It seems that I will never again have anything to say.
Miranda re-enters the room. She startles me back to myself as unpleasantly as the ringing of the phone took me away from me. She furrows her brow and opens her mouth in disbelief that I am still on the phone with him. This is Not Cool, she scribbles on a pad. What the hell is the matter with you?? I can't look her in the eye. She is poised with her hand over the phone, threatening to hang it up herself if I won't.
I want to say something as yet unformed in my brain to let him know gently that I have to go now. But before I can speak, he hangs up his receiver carelessly and easily, thinking nothing of it, with a click like the last tick of a bomb before it explodes.
About the author:
Elisa Albert is in the MFA program at Columbia University, where she is working on a collection of short stories. Her work is forthcoming in Response: a journal of Contemporary Jewish Literature, as well as in the second edition of Body Outlaws: Women Write About Body Image and Identity (Seal Press).