the exchange

You can’t hit me anymore. ever. You cant do these things to people, and maybe Im not the smartest or so skinny.  I don’t like to do it like in those movies. But I have been a good wife toyou and I have taken cared for you!  like when you had to sell your fathers truck when he died.  It was hard it was for you even though if you wouldn’t talk to me. I don’t know why you have to hit. I love you.  I love you I love  you I love you.  I know you love me.  im sorry. I am a terrible person. forgive.

Linda – 31, housewife

A critical, and ostensibly poetic, part of the previous communiqué is that it was written, in its entirety, across the bare and meaty back of the author’s dead husband.  Written with a black Sharpie.  Now, taken out of context, that may seem a bit vengeful.  And I won’t dismiss the notion that, at least in part, some culmination of vengeance is probable when deconstructing the reasons for his death.  Now superimpose circumstance; beside him, on the floor, was her dead body – a woman who had been treated multiple times for domestic battery – inflicted on her by the presently afflicted.

Not too much was made out of the murder/suicide.  It happened last summer on one of the caged and sweating blocks in the South Bronx.  The New York Times released the story, I think, trying to capitalize on the grisliness of the incident. The actual note was published three days later in a short afterthought on page 21, focused on underscoring the dreadfulness of crimes against women and women in poverty and the lack of resources for women…something like that.  Linda was (briefly) made a symbol, rather than anyone important in their own right.  Interpreted as blasé and conventional – hers was a fate broadcast as the predictable passing of a linear homebody with one too many bruises on her legs and far too few dreams on her ceiling.

I guess I agreed with that.  Was it a deep and moving note?  No.  Was she uneducated, white trash?  Obviously.  I had clipped her last scribbling from the paper and taped it inside my binder, sketching a man’s back around it.  I read it several times a day for a week.  Despite the obviousness of her violent history, the hopelessness and the volcanic contempt that percolated, and then ultimately escorted her into the green room of madness, I began to believe that Linda had died with punctuation, but without true resolve.

I couldn’t get past the idea that the “note” wasn’t truly intended for the dead man – though obviously written to him.  He was, after all, dead.  He was never going to read it.  I love you, I love you, I love you.  Forgive. Even with the sweetened flavor of sealing her sovereignty with an eight-inch carving knife, plunged in just above his collarbone, she couldn’t bear to face him with her final words.  She wrote them on his back.  That bothered me.

But after another week I began to respect the simplicity of her life – and her note.  On that summer Monday, she stood on a safe shore and hurled a stone across the icy channel of shame and self-doubt that she was never able to bridge – delivering a lethal blow to an impending giant before she herself stepped off the edge and sank slowly into the abyss, asphyxiating on shame while self-doubt trickled into her lungs and began to fill them.  She wrote that note and dotted the final period on his right kidney, and then Linda slit her own throat.  Gruesome.  And that was it.  They found her lovingly wrapped around his corpse as if the two were merely spooning in a quiet chamber of stage 3 REM sleep.  She bled out entirely in the sixteen hours before they found them.  He’d been dead for a day.

When I was a teenager, I would get erections when I was excited, and when I was really nervous.  This has stayed with me in my twenties, and yesterday morning, I was rumbling through the San Francisco underground with a raging hard-on, and I wasn’t nervous.  It was raining again.  Three days straight, but I hadn’t been on shift.  I smiled to myself, but only slightly, encouraged by the prospects the salty weather brought.  Though I won’t call it a career, my job is one deeply affected by the weather, though not directly.

Three blocks from the BART station, I was climbing the stairs to a residential craftsman in North Beach, as I’d done at least four days a week for the last two months.  The drainage gutter clings to the house, making its way down the side until it meets the top of the porch, where it is cracked and hemorrhages when it rains.  Streams of rainwater hit the elbow and gurgled, some splashing out at the incision while the rest continued on, emptying onto the rocks below.  I watched briefly and was reminded of a note I read on last Wednesday.

Seasons drip out of the year and I am swallowed.  The moment…is very rare.  I hate to admit that it is a pleasant purging, and a cleansing of sort.  As a kid I was  afraid, even as an adult I was, to bleed.  It is reminding me now of patience and where it goes.

Josh – 37, college professor

I used to get mad at this note because of the arrogance and bullshit Emily Dickenson symbolism.  Later, it was released that its author had downed half a bottle of Quaaludes before bedding down in his ivory tub and hacking through the sinewy parts of the fleshy underside of his left wrist (not his dominant hand.)  For a note with such delicate phrasing, the jagged engraving job he did on himself sure was reckless.  But the drugs caused a polar shift to my original opinion.  This man’s world had been minimized to his final window of immediate existence – one last, morbid snapshot and a flash of reminiscence – and that’s what his note was about.  It was merely a commentary on how he experienced the blood spilling out of his body, and for that, I commend both him and his note.  At times, like today, I’m even jealous.

There is an antique coat rack inside the door of the Exchange.  And though the soppy weather outside warranted a rack full of dripping outerwear, there is never more than four of us on shift at any time.  That is, except for the three weekends after Christmas.  The deflating holidays plus Super Bowl Sunday usually keep our phones ringing non-stop for those weekends.  But it’s rarely anything good, usually first timers who got a smack from their male counterparts because the Patriots didn’t cover the spread, something like that.  We’ll give a referral; that’s not our thing.

From the outside, the Exchange appears no different than any of the rows and rows of stacked, box-housing in North Beach.  Careful detail is paid to not looking out of the ordinary.  We can’t exactly have any of our clientele stopping over you see.  Inside, the building is set up exactly like a two bedroom flat, except the living room houses four study carols that have two phones each.  There is a kitchen with food and beds that are meant for sleep.  Despite the fact that no one actually lives here, it is staffed twenty-four hours a day, so it is meant for living.  After hanging up my dripping coat, I passed the carols, and the person whose shift I was taking over – Emily, and made my way to the kitchen where there is always a fresh pot of coffee.

Suicide has been defined a thousand different ways, usually interspersed with a fluid, quasi-intellectual interpretation of the actor’s motive.  Most people concede that suicide, as a whole, is an act of self-indulgence.  Just a side note, I don’t agree with that, at least not a blanket agreement.  Sure some suicides are selfish.  Some people are selfish.  But believe you me, the world’s obsession with labeling self-murder is what’s selfish.  Humans have an innate fascination and drive to be able to control everything on this planet – believe that.  Things that can’t be completely explained and neatly defined are what really frighten people.  In this country, killing yourself is outlawed in nearly every state!  No court in the history of the planet has ever been able to enforce that law, and none ever will.  That kind of legislation will forever remain a futile attempt to harness and corral human morality.  Now that’s selfish.

Working on a suicide hotline is a unique line of work.  And as a result, it attracts a unique brand of human quality.  Hopeless people.  Hapless people.  Crazy people.  Most often – selfish people.  We’re not therapists, let’s be clear about that.  It’s not my job to help a person work out all of their psychological chokeholds.  My job is to do everything I can to create a widening body of space between a destitute person and death – that’s it.  We are beacons of light in stormy times, cutting through the blackness like radiant lifelines, attaching to those that have slipped off the deck and are twisting in the arguing currents of life.  It’s not our role to solve problems for people, other than try and keep them temporarily safe.  We don’t develop relationships.  We don’t even use our real names.  My name is Max.  But trust me, if you’re standing on the ledge of the forty fourth floor of the American Garden Building and you call here when I’m on shift – you’re going to get “Sean”, my alter ego.  We don’t tell people our names and we don’t tell them what’s right or wrong in their lives.  Bridges to safety, that’s what we are, nothing more.  Some workers forget this.  Rather, some workers never understand this.

Some workers, like Emily, take this job to fill a void.  Emily was a 900 sex operator for two years before coming to the Exchange.  Here is a woman who can’t function in reality of any sort, her entire life wrapped in some brand of fantasy.  Existing in an eternal quest to maintain anonymity, yet struggling to fill the imaginary role of a reciprocal relationship with every call, Emily waits between crises with baited breath, craving the chance when the phone rings and she will again be needed.  Because she is a fat woman, I suspect that she covets the one-dimensional aspect of the calls we take.  At times I’ve noticed when she herself seems in need of intervention; her dirty blonde hair hangs around a pie-shaped face like wispy threads of mop, heavy with dirt.

Listening to Emily on the phone is like listening to a young, unskilled mother try and soothingly guide a ten-year old back to nap time.  Everyone goes through training when they start here, training of various sorts; it teaches you how to do your job.  What that training should not be mistaken for, ever, is a formal education of any sort.  But people like Emily, sloppy, unfinished and uneducated constantly over-assume their vocational training, and take on the full-blown role of clinical psychologist in every aspect of their exterior lives.  I always picture her at some smoky, country western bar, sitting at a table littered with the clear shavings of Marlboro Red boxes and labels that have been peeled off of the bottles on special that night.  She’s listening to her chubby clones rattle on about their pathetic lives, offering up her “professional” opinion, herding the cattle into little stalls, where they hungrily eat up the pellets of advice she rains on them, telling her how insightful she is and delivering her to Emily’s private Shangri-La – the place where the world unconditionally needs her.  That’s what I think about.  But then I know she doesn’t have any friends.

So back to my erection on the train.  I think I mentioned – I was excited.  It was the rain, the embalming weather that tends to slip around the vulnerable like an embryonic water sack, encasing them for as long as they can’t escape.  The longer it lasts, the deeper they plunge.  Our call load triples on days like yesterday.  And, as the law of averages will tell you, so do the chances of me finding what I’m looking for.  I licked my lips and slipped into my carol.  I placed the headgear on my head and pulled the microphone to my lips, eagerly waiting for the first ring, wondering wildly what pressures and circumstances were waiting for me on the other end of the line.  My hand hung lightly above the console of the telephone, and I smiled – remembering a note I copied onto the inside of an address book that I use to write occasional messages to myself.

It is my last wish that my son, Carson, keep my sister Phyllis in financial security.   Do this son, or I will haunt you.  Love, Mom.

June – 67, Widow

After several minutes of silence, my hand lowered to the desktop.  I became temporarily dispirited.  I had high hopes of a busy day.  I sat back and sighed.  That’s usually what a rainy day brings.

We have regular callers if you can believe that, people who call in chronically… sometimes weekly…sometimes daily – calling in to insist that today is the day that they won’t be able to push through.  After ten or so calls, they become quick release valves on the supposed altruism that is thought to harbor in the hearts of those of us who guide the misguided.  One unchanging dynamic about the Exchange that constantly infuriates me is that we can never be judgmental with the callers, even the one’s that have been calling for more than a year.  We can’t say anything that may validate their feelings of self-deprecation or possibly contribute to the assumed heavy load that they are supposedly carrying around on their back, knees trembling, only seconds away of being crushed by the sheer weight.  It drives me nuts with the regulars.  These people that call in to commiserate about their lives in the safety net of some obviously biased, and structurally deficient relationship are enough, some days, to make me want to let loose.

Like I said, we’re not therapists.  But we’re not supposed to be friends with callers either.  I have an opinion that we do more to enable the regulars to not move forward in life, to not make changes for the better, and to not stop wasting our time and resources on them, than we do any good for them.  In my opinion, these people, “The Regulars” are on the edge all right, but it’s not the crumbling ledge that flanks life and death.  They live on the edge of stagnation and growth, comforted by the color of the walls and desperately seeking out others that are as pathetic as they are so that they can unify their philosophies and rationalize their inability to move forward in life, together – and we are helping them!  In my opinion, telling these callers the truth would (hopefully) push them one way or another, but at least off this fucking fence of codependency with the Exchange.  It’s a strong opinion of mine.  And two weeks ago, I tested my theory.

The Story of Fred

We have the ability to trace calls at the Exchange.  In the event of an apparent or impending tragedy, we have the capacity to identify the precise origin of a call, and then turn it over to the proper authorities.

Last summer, on a day when it was raining, my patience with a regular finally drip, drip, dripped right out of me.  After a session of familiar indirection with a man whose voice I had grown to loathe, I hung up, sighed, looked at the phone and I did the unthinkable; I traced the number, and wrote it on a receipt from Burger King that I found in my pocket.  Later at home, I took the receipt out of my pocket, placed it on my kitchen table and allowed it to exist undisturbed for the short period of time it took for me to become completely crazed with preoccupation.  And then, in a smooth chain of simple actions, I coolly slid the number into my hand, sashayed to my computer and did a reverse search on the internet – finding out the true identity of one of our most famous regulars – Fred.

His true name was Marvin Adams.  And, as I found by doing a few other, more in-depth searches on his person and address, he was single and living in a studio flat in the southeastern, urban part of the city.  I was infuriated to find that “Fred” was single and lived alone.  Although most of his “crises” were fielded by Emily (I now think that many times he would phone in and hang up until he got her) on several occasions I had spent up to an hour on the phone with him, listening and sympathetically cooing that his wife and two children, Justin and Justine were counting on him, looking up to him, in awe of him and his ability to provide for them.   In this world that’s drowning itself in the hustle and bustle of forward progress, you are a hero Fred, I would say while trying to mask my contempt.  They know it, and I know it.  You are needed.

Once I found out where he lived, I drove by his house a few times a week to see if he was the pathetic little waif I envisioned him to be.  He was, but he wasn’t little.  Overweight, pale and balding, he looked doughy when he would climb the stairs to his studio in the afternoon.  Fred worked at Wonderbread, loading and unloading trucks.  It wasn’t as physical as it sounds though.  He always used a forklift or a pallet jack.  Something that I would have guessed, but never came up in our “chats” is that our little friend Marvin was obsessed with porno.  He made regular stops at Adult World, a boutique of sin that was, conveniently, within walking distance of his home.

Slowly I started to see the bigger picture.  Fat Fred would wake up every morning, stuff a few dozen Krispy Kremes into his bulging body, and go to his predictable job where he didn’t have to interact with anyone.  Closing time would come at 5:30, and until his next shift as a mono-task worker bee, he was free to fill his hours with fantasies of lives that didn’t so vividly resemble his own.

Fantasy Number 1 – Women Want To Fuck Marvin

Loads of them.  All of them.  In his apartment, Marvin has been invited to single trysts, threesomes with lesbians, orgies, swinger’s night in the suburbs…he’s even occasionally begged to dominate and discipline a litter of frightened, soon-to-be obedient, college girls held captive in a dark and lusty dungeon.  He stops by Adult World nearly everyday.  Some jaunts, he rents enough videos so that a trip the following day isn’t necessary.  Marvin never browses the shelves looking for something new.  He has a complete understanding of the inventory at Adult World.  Instead, as he shuffles sideways down the flesh lined walls decorated with hundreds upon thousands of variations of the human anatomy, his breath guttural, audible and labored…he tries on lustful fancies the way some connoisseurs with their taste buds over the best year and vineyard for the Merlot that will accompany the London Broil set for next Tuesday’s banquet dinner.  Then, he makes a selection.

Once he’s made his choice, he trudges home a few steps quicker, walks up those steps, the doors closes behind him…and Marvin has been transformed.  That fat warehouse worker from Wonderbread morphs into a testosterone charged hybrid of John Holmes meets Attila The Hungry…a real cocksman.  Forty to fifty women are pleased nightly, tickled by the fantasy that swells inside him…inflating from the sour air that is sucked down his windpipe…growing…  They beg for it…beg for him…until, in a fabulous crescendo of electricity, he bursts into throes of ecstasy, leaving them drenched in a fluid representation of his flight of imagination.  Splatter art.

Fantasy Number 2 – Fred Is A Productive Family Man

He lives in the Presidio.  A mortgage banker by day, there isn’t a commission he’s made that wasn’t earned for his loving wife and two children, Justin and Justine.  Churn and earn, churn and earn.  It’s not hard for him to eclipse everything in his life for his family.  That’s the way he was brought up, to love unconditionally, to provide and to nurture.  His wife, Marion, is a Pediatric Oncologist.  They met at St. Luke’s hospital.  Fred was admitted through the urgent care when a piece of aluminum that was angrily sucked up by his whirling lawnmower blade was flung up and lodged in his shoulder the summer after he finished his MBA at Michigan.  She was in medical school, doing a rotation in the ER and…insert comparable love-at-first-sight metaphor and sprinkle with flowers. No matter what, no matter what, every school day, since the kids became school age, Fred awakes with the sun to prepare a completely balanced breakfast for his two angels, process with them the immense amount of data that they are sifting through their elementary eyes and finally, walking every step with them to the broken rock, by the stairs, where they kiss and say goodbye, and the kids run into the schoolyard.

Fantasy Number 3 – Fred Is On The Edge

His self-imposed dedication to a prosperous life for his children, his wife and himself has taken a toll.  How could it not?  When you give and give and give…and then you give some more, at times you begin to see the bottom of your own personal reservoir of hope and self-preservation.  Lately, when he looks in the mirror, Fred is transparent – a ghastly specter connected by only a few single stitches of thinning optimism.  Worse yet, tugging at the threads that only barely keep him together, is the growing understanding that his wife is having a torrid affair with his best friend – an old college buddy named Steve-o.  Enter now crushing insecurity.  Empathize with a tormented man’s inability to analyze data, accurately track stock trends.  Sympathize with morning waffles, Dad and his two angels, but Dad’s eyes are trying to dam tears while mom is sleeping in, tired from a late night rendezvous at the hospital, or so she says.  Insert a flat key card from the downtown Hilton found in the side panel of the Coach, lambskin purse that he bought her for Christmas last year.  The girls are asleep.  The wife is at the “hospital.”  The house is full of shadows. And he calls me. Or usually Emily.

Once the picture had reached maximum clarity, I, nearly white with rage, decided that I had taken my last phone call from the regular I knew as Fred/Marvin.  He’d fed on the system, my patience, Emily’s co-dependency and his daily injections of Krispy Kremes and Go-Go Girls for long enough.  This balancing act from Fred/Marvin was about to topple to one side, or the other, and I secretly hoped it was going to be the other.  Because Fred/Marvin didn’t really have a family, there wasn’t much I could do with Fantasy Number 2.  Fantasy Number 1 – also out of my reach.  No women wanted to fuck Fred/Marvin, and none were going to.  But Fantasy Number 3, that he was somehow on the edge, that he was in serious need whenever he called the Exchange, this had potential.  This was something I could work with.  My mission quickly became to eliminate the fiction associated with Fantasy Number 3.  Fred/Marvin’s hopelessness was about to either become a reality, or be mystically dispelled.

That night, I sat on the couch, and in a matter of seconds, scrawled out the following letter:

Dear Marvin (A.K.A “Fred”)

It is with little regret that I write to you with the purpose of revealing you, you fat sack of shit.  I feel like I have a relationship with you, which feels infected, and I’m eagerly itching to shed the rotting skin I’ve taken on that is your wretched existence.

You’ve got neither a house in the Presidio, or a family to house in it. You’re have a studio apartment on 8th street, only a stone’s throw from Adult World, the sole establishment single most patronized by you, you masturbating fuck.

And you call the crisis hotline daily to bask in the only semblance of a “true” relationship you’ve ever known.  I find it interesting that at least three days a week, you “create” a life on the edge, a respite from your yanking and cranking to bathe in a fantasy of a normal man’s accomplishments, and you pretend that it is too much for you to handle.  You create a fictional need for help when really,  Fred/Marvin, your life is enough to make any normal human being stir a fistful of arsenic into their morning fruit loops and choke out right there at the breakfast table.  I’ve never met someone more in need of professional assistance than you. (Marvin, not Fred.)

You’ve wasted an incredible amount of other people’s resources on yourself.  And you are undeserving.  You know this.  You need to make amends. You need to let Emily know that you don’t really think that all of the advice she has given you, Fred, is a load of horseshit, that somehow, you haven’t squeezed out all of her sympathy in vain, leaving it the way you leave your soupy nightly loads – generated for your pleasure, now wasted and decaying – a sticky bi-product of your selfish and hurtful indulgence.  Asshole.

Thank you for reflecting back to me the true worth of my life.  Before playing spectator to your pitiful cycle of lies, fat and ejaculate, I was frustrated about my own challenge in finding satisfaction in my life, with my daily chores.  Meeting you has allowed me to establish again the baseline of humanity, and you my friend, fall very, very beneath that.

You can make amends Marvin.  Make things right.  Fix this, or I’ll fix you.

Not bad, I thought.  Sometimes I can say things that are real cutting or visual.  It’s a beautiful thing when it comes together.  I hadn’t intended to threaten him like that, in the end.  But after I wrote the letter, I read it a few times and decided to leave the ending the way it was.  I was somewhat concerned that Marvin was too simple, that he wouldn’t really get the actuality of what I was calling for – his self-execution.

After he hadn’t called for a week, I watched Emily slip into a mild-grade depression.  Her hygiene, which as I noted is usually on the brink, slipped even further away from what most people would consider to be decent grooming.  I heard her sniveling in a supervision meeting with Antoinette that she was afraid he had finally killed himself.  He did, I know this.

But no one else knew that Fred was Marvin and that Marvin was dead.  And without a sincere note from him, even I felt a little incomplete.  He made the obituaries, but not the news.  I was surprised Fred/Marvin got even that much recognition.  I kept imagining the loads or pornography that the police had to bag up and cart out of there like a bunch of X-rated Santa Clauses.  I had watched, from my car, as they carted out Fred/Marvin on a shaky little gurney and heaved his remains up into an inanimate ambulance, which are truly not dynamic vehicles in the absence of real crisis.

Things changed significantly around the Exchange after that, and for the better, if you ask me.  Emily switched to mornings and weekends.  Now, unless I pick up a shift, I never see her except on days like yesterday, when she is leaving.

I sat for another ten minutes, waiting for a call, not wanting to get busy with another activity.  When the phone didn’t ring, I let out a big breath and decided to do some reading.  I fished my binder from beneath the desk, and opened it to page seven, where a note had been copied by me onto a yellow piece of legal paper and taped inside.

Dear Loved Ones,

God, do I love you.  I had a memory this afternoon of our vacation at Sorenno Falls.  Ben, you were wearing an orange t-shirt with a mock-leather vest. So cute.  Ally, your skin was burned from the sun.  You were six and your brother was four.  The four of us had never been in the mountains, at such high elevations before.  You kids had such faint skin, fertile, like your minds.  And Peter, all of the training that went into showing us how to evenly cook a marshmallow over an open flame failed only you – yours were the only marshmallows that charred, burned and bubbled, and melted into the lapping flames.  Ally, Ben and I looked    at each other and we were nervous baby!  And then we burst.  You had to laugh too Dad, under a million and one stars, nestled between pine trees on a hill, we cackled like lunatics as the cement that is our family bond poured down upon us from the heavens, sealing us to one another.

My daydream came in traffic.  Three years it has been since we began fighting this hideous disease that has bunkered down inside of my body.  Since then, the weight of our battles has taken tolls on our personal lives, our school lives, our work lives and our financial well-being.  Today, as I sat in traffic, after my appointment with Dr. Kessenbaum, I had memories and I had visions.  It is with little regret and only brimming excitement that I reveal to you-today was my last appointment.

We are a strong family.  We will continue to be a strong family, even in my absence.  And although I will not be there in body to help you pin your corsage Ally and someone else will need to assume the role of taping Ben’s paintings to  the fridge, I will be the fuel that you will use to carry yourselves from one adventure to the next.  I will live inside of all of you.

Forever,

Mom

Betsy – 35, housewife, professional and mother

I was halfway through the next note when the computer tone of my phone jolted me, and I pushed the Answer button too quickly, before I was ready.

“Helpline.  How can I assist you?” I stumbled.

It was a woman.  I could tell by the breathing.  They have an airy, lighter respiration.

“Uh…I…need help…”

“Maam, my name is Sean.  Are you or anyone else in immediate danger?”

“No uh…no.”

“Ok.”  I deflated a little.  “What’s your name?”

“My name?  My name is…Anne,” she sighed.  “I’ve never called here before.”

“Ok Anne.  What’s going on?”

Silence

“Anne?”

“I uh…I just don’t know what’s going on.”

I waited for a second, letting her unfold the untruths of that sentence herself.

“Anne, you called me.  You found this number and you dialed it.  I think maybe you do know what’s going on.  I’m here to help you Anne.  That’s what I can do for you.  I can help.”

She was quiet for a minute or so.  And although her voice was still impregnated by the nasally remnants of a post-cry sinus shut down, the trembling was gone and all that existed between us was the smooth quiet, the top layer of water on a lonesome pond, just before a storm.  It’s this point that you don’t wade through.  Cutting through the wrong kind of silence can create an undertow effect that drags everything to the bottom.  Silence is a tool, and used effectively, it can gently ease a string of knotted words from the mouth of a defeated person or hypnotize a brewing tornado.  In today’s case, it can even begin to paint the seasonal backdrop of a person’s canvas of life, which, until this call, had recently become one-dimensional and black.

“My husband is cheating on me…” she finally managed, slipping into a quiet sob.  Still, I allowed her to bask in the reality of what she had just revealed.  “He…he works.  We moved here for his work.  I don’t work.  We moved here so he can work.”

I waited.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be here.”

“Anne,” I said, not forcefully, but with the implied assertiveness that a chiropractor might use when teaching a spine to stand at attention and walk upright, “you should be here.  I’m glad you are here, and I am here for you.”

The dam slightly weakened, and she slipped back into a gentle sob.

“Thank you.  I’m sorry.  Thank you.”

Listening to her cry allowed me to compare the tonal qualities of her voice both prior to her sobs and during.  Virtually no air was channeling through her nose and it was nearly impossible to understand her; I had to really listen.  That lack of differentiation between voice modalities allowed me to conclude, indisputably I believe, that Anne was a fat person.

I let her cry out.  My suspicion was that I was the first person to whom she had unleashed this tormenting little demon of shame.  I was a little excited and wanted to hear all about her philandering husband, but I had to be smart about it.  Allowing her to tap out her tear resources would inevitably leave Anne exhausted and make for a communication passage that was a little less rocky than the choke and gurgle of someone who is processing everything as they go.  I hate that.

She wasn’t hanging up.  I could feel that she was relieved to roll back that sheet of shame that had been covering her life, disguising her as a person she thought she’d never become.  When I sensed that she was actually trying to think of what to say next, I showed up right beside her to grab her hand and walk forward.

“My father had an affair on my mother when I was six.  I remember being awoken by the argument they had the night my mom followed him home from the bar with the other woman,” I lied.  “I didn’t really understand what was going on at the time.  But I can remember how crushed my mother was.”

Infusion of silence – five seconds.

“Listening to you reminded me of that night.”

Silence – three seconds counted off on my right hand, then sigh.

I sighed, “I’m sorry.”

“What happened?”  She responded after a few moments.  I smiled and licked the front of my teeth.

“Well,” I began slowly.  “She was very strong.  That I remember clearly.  Anne, I have to be honest with you.  I don’t know how they worked it out.  I wasn’t there.  My parents are still together today,” I lied again.  “Whatever happened, I attribute it to my mother and the tough decisions she must have made that night for me and herself.  I know she made the right decisions – whatever they were.  I always wonder how long she thought about it, how long it took for the pain to become familiar and unemotional – so that she could work with it and really think about things.”

See what I was doing?

“Lately, I’ve thought about asking her…maybe even my dad.”

Not father – dad.

“Then I think maybe its best that I don’t.  I don’t know how they would feel knowing that I know.  Listen, Anne…”

“I can’t believe you are telling me all this,” she interrupted.  “I thought I was supposed to be calling you for help,” she chuckled sadly.

Two seconds for a convincing moment of reflection.

“Yeah.  Anne, listen.  I am so sorry.  I just, you just…You reminded me of a very tough time…”

“Oh it’s ok,” she said, blowing her nose like an explosion in a rock salt mine.  I closed my eyes and winced inside my headset.  “I just can’t believe that I got someone who actually has any idea what I am going through.”

I closed my eyes.  Comments like that one really get me off.

“I don’t know what you’re going through Anne, not exactly.  No one could.  I just know how hard it was for my mom.  I respect her so much.  And I respect you for calling.  In a way, it helps me to be reminded where I came from sometimes…how lucky I am.  Thank you.”

How’s that for an unexpected crop dusting of confidence?  Then, add a sprinkle of reality to legitimize…to humanize.

“I’m really not supposed to be sharing personal information,” big breath.

A short quiet.

“I’m glad you did,” she said.

Three seconds to indicate an introspective vulnerability.

“I don’t have any kids,” she said.  “We moved here from Michigan, where all my family is.  I don’t have any kids and I don’t have any friends here.”

On my yellow pad, beneath the word Fat, I wrote No Kids and beneath that – No Friends.

“Can I tell you something without you getting weird about it?”  Confidence was stepping its way back into her voice.

“Sure.”

“When I called tonight, I had already made up my mind to end my life.”

“Anne,” I began, noticing a rise in my pants.

“No, no. It’s ok.  I’m ok right now Sean.  I’m not going to do anything.  I feel better now.  You’ve made me feel better.”

I got a little nervous.  What was she talking about?  How had she forgotten that her low-down husband was out sticking it in and out of another woman just by my little made up quip about my parents?  As I thought about it, I began to settle down.  The fact that she was reporting to be alright made me realize that she was still emotionally volatile.  All was not lost, yet.  Black and white thinking is characteristic in many people who are trying to cope with crisis.  I relaxed.  Her alleged new-found clarity wasn’t fooling me.

“Anne, you’ve got a lot going on.  And I’m glad you feel better.”

Three seconds to indicate premeditation.

“I shouldn’t do this, but all things considered, it may not be such a strange request.  Can I ask a favor of you?”

“A favor?” she asked.

“Yes,” I chuckled.  “Don’t worry.”

A sigh for punctuation.

“I would just like to know that after we got off the phone, everything continued to be ok with you.”

The hook had been baited.

I looked at the schedule on the wall.  I needed a time when I was alone.  I didn’t want Emily getting a hold of this one.  Fortunately, I was on-shift by myself again the next day.  “Do you think you could call me back tomorrow and just check in?”

She sighed.  “Yes, I think that would be a good thing for me too Sean.  I can do that.”

The bait had been taken.

“Great.  Same time?” I asked.

“Sure.  That works for me.  I don’t work Sean, so that’s fine.”  Quiet for a moment.  “I think that’s why I get so worked up.  I’m new here and I don’t really have anything to focus on.  My family has been preoccupied with my younger sister’s new baby.  Now that I know Bob is seeing someone else, I just sit around and think all day.”

No Job, I wrote, just underneath Family is Unavailable (Younger sister has new baby).  Then Husband Bob=Cheat.

“That’s understandable,” I said.  “Well then let’s check in around two.”

“Deal,” she said, and I could tell she was smiling.  I was too, for reasons of my own.

“Things are going to be tough Anne.  We’ve had a good chat but remember…this isn’t reality.  Be strong and we’ll talk tomorrow, ok?”

She was quiet for a beat, and then said “Thanks.  I know.  Talk to you tomorrow.”  She hung up.

I’m sure we both ended that phone call with a few moments of silence and recapitulation – but for different reasons.  For me, I was shaky with excitement.  Glittery letters orbited my head at a breakneck pace, swirling up and around me until they splintered and destroyed the sky, bits of blue crumbling and falling around me until all that was left above was one glowing word: Anne. For her, I’m sure she was rethinking the fact that she had just revealed the darkest depths of her life to a complete stranger.  And despite the accommodation of some mutual experiences that I had constructed, I’m sure Anne was feeling a little raw and a little revealed.  I immediately went to the bathroom of the Exchange and masturbated, ignoring the ringing phones two times while I was in there.

Lying in bed that night I had a hard-on that would not stop, no matter what I did or how often I did it.  Thinking of Ann alone in her crowded apartment…light years from home and anyone with any real memory of who she is, sitting on a couch of dusty memories was a prologue to tragedy and I knew it.  And I was so masterful in the way I secured a contact the next day.  She’s got no one but me to trust.  I couldn’t sleep.  Reaching under my bed, I pulled out a blue spiral notebook in which I have pasted some of my favorite writings.  I thought some reading might make me drowsy.

Dear Martha,

I love you.  You shouldn’t think of this as your fault.  You have been an angel-an angel of light in the shadow that has come to darken my existence.  I can no longer see the crispness of the day.  My veil of shame clouds me…bringing dissolution to the purity of everything I touch – some things so small and clean, unlike me.  I’m not like that.  I have poisoned the babies forever and must be punished.  The garage is my gas chamber and you have found me punished and suffering in hell.

Wilson – 38, Banker/Child Molester

Though his widow found the car running in the garage, this slob’s fat body was found nearly eighty feet away – in the kitchen.  Apparently in an effort to comfortably ease from one life to the next, he’d removed his shoes.  After several minutes in the garage, Wilson the child molester had decided maybe a snack was in order – a last meal of sort.  What is with fat people and food?  After padding through the foyer of the hillside home he shared with his wife and four girls, his socky feet hit the marble of the kitchen floor, sending him careening in several different directions.  One direction, unfortunately, was the direction his head took towards the island cutting board.  On clean impact between his left temple and the corner and it was over.  His magnificent plan to lie guilt-bound in the urban sarcophagus that was his luxury town car had failed, though his overriding mission had not.  Dead on the kitchen floor was the way his wife and youngest daughter had found him.  Despite the car being on, his death wasn’t ruled a suicide until weeks later when the note was found in the oldest daughter’s jewelry box. Reportedly, she was saving it for her next therapy session.

I fell asleep with the light on and my notebook on my chest, only to awake less than an hour later, wrestling the same preoccupations.  Finally, I embraced the futility of what I was attempting and rolled out of bed and into my desk.  Clicking the desk light on, I reviewed my notes and realized that I had much more to work with than I had previously realized.

Anne

Fat

No Kids

No Friends

Family is Unavailable (Younger sister has new baby)

No Job

Husband Bob=Cheat

My list of notes looked like an equation.  I realized quickly that I had more going for me that I had initially known.  Somewhere inside me, a slight click resonated, as if I could hear, see and feel my plan crystallize, right at that moment.  I didn’t know how, I didn’t know why and it didn’t really matter.  Today I built trust.  Tomorrow I would begin my work.

I woke up late this morning, exhausted from a night of racing thoughts and bouts of dealing with my preoccupied penis.  Though I wasn’t at risk for being late to work, I made the trek to the Exchange somewhat hurriedly.

Opening the front door, my heart immediately sank.  I had planned to be on shift alone – that’s what the schedule said.  Fat Emily was finishing her shift, so she should of been leaving.  But Antoinette was there too.  She tends to do that from time to time.

Antoinette Sartre is the supervisor of The Exchange.  An appropriate symmetry I think, considering her French namesake was publicly beheaded, and rumored to have picked up her decapitated head and walked to Notre Dame, where she finally collapsed, head in hand.  She trained me when I started two months ago.  She’s not a very warm person.  Her personality is a cool slab of marble.  Her exterior calluses are so stern and thick…I make her as a lesbian.  She’s actually a real therapist and quite good on the phones.  Unlike Emily, Antoinette doesn’t seem to get too much psychological mileage out of her assumed role of lighting a darkened passage way for someone weak and standing in a corner of blackness.  She’s goal directed, to the point and always moving the person towards their next step.  I’m sure that’s how she fucks.

I didn’t know why she was here today though it’s not unusual for her to show up unannounced.  Whether it’s to keep us on our toes or get some of the work done that she’s got to do as the director – I don’t know.  Doesn’t make any difference really.  All I knew was that it was going to be a hell of a lot harder to talk to Anne with anyone else in that office.  Both of their eyes swung to me as I stepped inside.  Something was up.  But it’s a suicide hotline – something is always up.

“Hello,” I said, fishing a coat hanger into the shoulders of my jacket.

“Hi…Max,” Antoinette said quizzically.  “How’s it going?”

“Not bad, not bad.”  I stepped over to the two of them.  “What’s up?”

“Er…Emily was just…she’s had a tough shift.  We were just debriefing.”

I didn’t believe it.  But I also didn’t care.  I knew Emily enough to know that whatever her crisis de jour was, I wanted no part of it.  I’d made the mistake too many times of asking her about her day or – God help us – asking her about her life.  Anyway, I was deflated at the sight of the two of them and quickly began thinking over whether or not I should give Anne my home number and continue our intervention that night.

“Sorry to hear that,” I managed.  I put a caring hand on Emily’s squishy shoulder, “You ok?”

She pulled away from me immediately. “Yes…yes I’m fine.”  Shooting a look at Antoinette she echoed, “I just had a tough shift.”

Whatever.  If there was ever a person who’s misery I wanted no part of – it was Emily.  I went to the kitchen for coffee, calling over my shoulder “Well go home and get some rest!”

By the time I got back out to my post, I was elated to find that they were both gone and I was alone.  My eyes immediately shot to the clock on the wall.  I still had fifteen minutes before my appointment with Anne.  Things were looking up.  I sat down to prepare.

Three minutes before two, the phone rang.  I figured it was Anne, and that our clocks were just slightly out of synch.  It wasn’t.

“Helpline,” I said, maybe a little too happily.  “How can I help you?”

“I want to kill myself,” a small voice said.  I shook my head, both disgusted and slightly angry.

“Excuse me?”

The voice cleared its throat to bolster a little confidence.  “I uh…I want to kill myself.”

Ok male, pre-pubescent, probably thirteen years old.  I thought about all the hurdles that were being put in front of me today.  First Antoinette and Emily, now this.  I rubbed my eyes and shot a look at the clock.  The fucking challenges I face.

Two and a half minutes until Anne.

“You’re thirteen, right?”

Silence.  “What?”

“Your age,” I said irritably.  “How old are you?”

Another beat of silence.

Two minutes.

“Thirteen.”

“Ok, that’s what I said.  Answer me when I’m talking to you and you know the answer, ok?  Now what’s the problem here – and be quick.”

Minute and a half.  I was somewhat nervous.

“I uh…my girlfriend…”

“Ok stop,” I commanded, my eyes glued to the clock.  “What’s your name?”

“Soloman,” he said weakly.

Soloman?” I chuckled.  “Your name is Soloman?”  Like the kid didn’t have enough to contend with in the world, his parents named him Soloman.  “Look Sol, let me just drive a little bit here so we can get where we need to go, ok?”

“What?”

“You don’t have a girlfriend, let’s be honest. You don’t have to lie to me – I’m a stranger.”

“I…”

“Now, you’re thirteen, and thirteen is tough for everyone.  On top of that, you’ve got outdated parents that you can’t seem to relate with, and all the guys at school that you think you want to be like, well they get girls.  Meanwhile, you can’t even get a wet dream.  You’re an only child, right?”

“Huh?”

One minute.  I felt my breathing accelerate.

“Brothers and sisters Soloman.  You don’t have any, right?”

“I have a brother.”

“Ok whatever.  You’re clearly not getting much out of that relationship or you wouldn’t be calling me.  Let’s pretend he doesn’t exist.  So there’s everyone at school, playing sports, getting A’s, humping and bumping with girls and then there’s Soloman, sitting on the bleachers wishing you had a brother, wishing that your voice would change, squeezing that tube of zit cream in your pocket while you think about the braces that your parents can’t afford, am I right?”

“I…”

“So you’re sad.  You’re home after a day of being called four-eyes or whatever genre appropriate cuts apply.  Both your parents work so you’re there alone.  You’re sick of feeling bad but you don’t have anyone to talk to so you call me with this fantasy about a girlfriend, which may or may not exist at some point in your life.  That about it?”

“No…I”

Do not interrupt Soloman.  Listening – there’s a skill you should be learning at your age.  So now that it’s all on the table, I’m sure you feel better.  Let me further say that everything you’re feeling is normal.  You should hit a growth spurt in the next year or so.  Girls always go for the assholes when they are younger.  Fuck those guys and fuck those girls.  You’re in a better spot than any of them right now.  You’ll see in a few years when their lives have turned to shit.  Ok little buddy.  Take care and don’t feel guilty about whacking off at your age…totally normal.”

I terminated Soloman just as the second line rang.  My hand crashed down on the receiver.

“Helpline.  How can…”

Her sobs broke through immediately. “Sean?  Is that you?”

I glanced around, even though I knew I was alone.  “Anne?  It’s me.”  She was heaving.  “Anne I can’t understand you when you are crying.  Can you stop crying for me?”

Her voice started coughing up words in staccato chunks “It-is-a-man,” she blithered.  “My-husband-is-fucking-a-man.”  She slipped away into hysterics while I silently gloated and fought for control of this surprising and pleasant turn of events.

“Anne…I need you to calm down,” I tried.  “Can you calm down and tell me what happened?”

“MY HUSBAND IS FUCKING A MAN YOU GOD DAMNED IDIOT!  CAN’T YOU UNDERSTAND THAT?!”

“I understand that you are very upset,” I said delicately.  “It sounds like you have some new information.  I would like to hear it.  Anne, I am here to help you.  Remember that.”

For a moment, she seemed to slip deeper into fits of sobs.  “Oh I know that,” she chugged.

I let her cry.  She’d been punctual with her call and she wasn’t hanging up.  I figured we’d get there sooner or later.  Besides, it gave me time to think about what she was actually saying.  I rapidly wondered how she’d found out, what she’d seen, heard, etc…   A call rang through while I was waiting for the storm to calm inside of Anne.  I only vaguely heard the ring.

After several minutes of waiting, Anne broke the silence.  “I felt better after we talked yesterday,” she said.  “When Bob got home, I was able to cook, eat and clean and get ready for bed.  I felt alright.  Bob went to bed before I did.  I couldn’t sleep.”

You too? I thought.

“I tossed and turned.  I guess at around 2:30, I finally got up.”  For a moment, I thought I had lost her again.  She’d teared up, so I knew we were getting to the good stuff, and I just waited, giving her the space she needed, though I could hardly contain myself.  She went on.  “He wasn’t in bed.  He wasn’t in our apartment.  I left all the lights off and looked out the window,” she cried.

I cleared my throat, “Um…yeah?” I was getting a little anxious.  I shifted in my seat.

“There was a car parked in our driveway.  We’re on the second floor so I could see through the windshield.”  The heaves were back.  She’d lost it again.

“Yeah, yeah, what did you see?” I insisted.  “Come on Anne, you’ve got to tell me what…” I swallowed, “…what you saw.  What was it?”

Finally, she burst.  “Bob’s head was in his lap.  My husband was going down on another man!” she blurted between gasps of air.

I leaned back in my chair…way back…stretching and smiling from ear to ear, pumping a victory fist in the air.  The rise in my pants was so swollen that I was uncomfortable, but I feared that Anne was too volatile for me to risk a trip to the john.  I fanned my fingers through the air and leaned down…way down, so that my chin was nearly touching the desk…feeling sublime and suddenly very carpe diem.

“Anne.  Tell me what you are thinking,” I nudged, after her breathing had become somewhat regulated.  She didn’t answer.  “Anne, talk to me.  Let’s figure this out together,” I went on.

After maybe a minute, she responded, and her solemn tone told me that we were indeed, close to our final destination.

“I don’t know what to do.  I don’t know what I can do.”

Now, more than ever, it was critical that I use every beat of silence, every inch of canvas.  So I waited, longer than necessary, to let Anne know, and remind myself, that this was a rare circumstance and needed to be treated with surgical gloves.  When I believed that we had both become entombed by the veracity of what was unfolding, I went on.

“Anne, do you trust me?”

“You’re the only person I do trust.”

I leaned back in my chair again.  “I’ll need you to listen a bit.  Use that trust and come along for a short journey if you don’t mind.”

“What do you mean?”

“Think back with me, back to high school.  Do you remember it?  Was high school a good time for you?”

“I hated high school,” she said.

“That’s right, you did,” I said, taking extra effort to lower and stabilize the rhythm and tone in my voice. “A jubilant time for a lot of people, but not for Anne.  Why not?”

Her nasal passages had to be completely swollen and blocked because she sounded as if she was swallowing the end of every word.

“I was…I didn’t fit in to all the cliques and clubs.  I hated high school.”

“It was a long time ago.”

“Twelve years,” she said quickly.

“Twelve years.  You’ve counted them all.  And since then?”

“Since then…what?”

“Since then has it been easier or more difficult to penetrate those social wombs, to get into those circles and live where the grass truly is green…  Are things easier now, or is it as difficult now as when you were in high school and people didn’t like Anne, made fun of her?”

I could sense that Anne was confused – and that was good.  She wasn’t sure where I was going but that didn’t matter.  I only needed her comfortable enough to continue to allow me let me lead the way.

She answered slowly.  “It’s still hard.  When Bob and I fell in love, I stopped working.  It was so much harder to meet people.”

“Anne, lets say when you and Bob met.  Is that ok?  I think we’ve established that Bob is a homosexual and picked you because he needed a relationship that wouldn’t require anything of him, but would lend credibility to the disguise he was wearing.  Let’s not live behind the curtain of fantasy any longer.  It hasn’t helped you so far.”

“We were in love,” she said.   Feeble.   She was only trying to convince herself.

“Ok,” I said, acquiescing to her request for momentary space.  “You and Bob met, and what?”

“And…we just…I just…I didn’t hang around a lot of people.  I wanted children…we wanted children.”

“That’s what he told you,” I corrected.  This time, she began to ease the right of way, allowing me in to dust off some of the truths that had lied dormant for years.

“Yeah…yes.  That’s what he told me,” she said lightly.  “My parents didn’t like Bob from the start.  They didn’t come to the wedding and I didn’t talk to them much for several years after that.”

“And Bob was your only boyfriend, the only man that had ever paid any attention to you.”

She waited a beat before responding.

“Yes.”  Her resistance was fading.  She slipped again into a short cry.  It seemed that she was nearing the bottom of her well, because it only lasted for a few seconds, then we sat in silence.

“I feel hopeless Sean,” she said, rather matter-of-factly.  “I feel like nothing has ever worked out for me, and things have never gotten better – only worse.”

You know, on an objective level, I agreed with her – for a moment.  A lot of times people make choices that lead them exactly to where they are, and they scratch their heads trying to figure out how they got there.  With Anne, for whatever reason, at an early age she’d stepped down the path stamped No Return On This Investment. She’d dealt with normal peer pressure and, rather than process it healthily, she’d become desensitized, eventually incorporating her numbness into a lifestyle – an obvious byproduct of her parent’s emotional absence.  She turned to food for comfort, ballooning up to a size where all of her past problems became mainstays, and her emotional discontent with herself became compounded and fixture.  Along the way, a troubled man with his own parental strangleholds had crossed her path…seeking shelter from his own environment and personal demons.  To him, being married made him straight and normal and to her, it made her safe…made her belong.  When the façade that was propping her up blew down, the icy gales of her past came ripping back in force.  It wasn’t hard to map out her course, and I momentarily felt bad for her.  Momentarily.

“Anne,” I said, biting back my breath, “I know what you are saying…and I think you are right.”

She sat quietly for a moment before asking, “Right about what?”

Three beats.

“Right about things not getting better.  Right about not having anywhere to turn, anywhere to go.  Anne, I agree with you.”  I went on ever so gingerly.  “Sometimes life scares you up a tree.  And climbing down, if you climb down, you see that things weren’t quite how you’d left them…maybe not quite how you’d like them to be.  Strong people push on, and that’s what you tried to do.  You pushed on, and tried to make the best out of not being able to measure up to your family, not being equal with your peers or acceptable to the opposite sex and not being able to find a place for yourself in the professional world.  The spheres of life that are important to you Anne are those that are important universally…and it is also those that you have been a one-hundred percent failure. You’ve been living your life on hopes and dreams…and now…there aren’t any left.”

Though she wasn’t crying, I could hear her breathing escalate.  She was listening, ever so intently.

“Anne I am the end of the line.  I am everyone’s last line of defense, their last resort, last shelter.  You called me because you have nowhere else to turn.  And in the last twenty-four hours, we’ve shared a special place.  I feel like I understand you, understand what it is you’ve been going through.”

Now it was time to dig.

“The rest of the world has been reducing you Anne.  This isn’t your fault.  Before your sister, you were the favorite daughter – you’re not now.  Before you gained all your weight – you were normal, like the rest of the kids – it’s been a long time since that was true.  Your husband prefers another man’s cock in his body over you.  Your chances at motherhood and being a wife have evaporated into dust.  I can’t imagine how you’ll ever feel like a woman again.  Your sister knows what it’s like.  She’s got a new baby, a loving husband – things you’ll never have.  Your plan, your entire design to marry someone who would keep you safe…to raise a daughter just like you, but without all the darkness…with giggles and friends…a future and a mother who loves her unconditionally…it’s all come crashing down.  There’s no hope for it now.  But there are options.”

“Options?”

“Yes,” I said cautiously.  “You can foil this unfair adventure book that’s been pre-written for you by an uncaring God Anne.”  Gentle. “Move to the next stage, someplace new where you can be celebrated, where you can be happy and appreciated.  You can push away now dear.”

She was listening, now breathlessly.

“I called because I was afraid I would kill myself…and now you are telling me that I am as miserable as I have always thought I am…just like everyone else thought of me?  I can’t believe I’m hearing this…” she tapered off.  “I can’t…believe…”

In my head I could see her eyes darting wildly from the walls to memories to her mirror to the phone.

“People are so afraid of unliving because it is the unliving that they believe controls them, and controls all of us.  That’s never been proven.  We control our destiny Anne.  We can lock ourselves up…and we can liberate our souls.  Taking control of yourself is the one thing you still have the opportunity to do…right.”

“I…have…the…chance. I can make it right.  I can…I can…”  She slipped into the quiet.  I wrung my hands together.

And then something happened.  There we were…on a thin branch two hundred miles above the earth…my open hand reaching out to Anne, coaxing her towards me on a ledge of safety…and her moving towards me slowly…slowly…The crackling of the bough sounding like an audience ready to rupture through the silence that had, again, immobilized our discussion and was gushing around us.  The cluttered concerns inside Anne’s head had been indexed and I could sense that she was ready to close her eyes, open her arms wide, roll her head back and allow the bough to break.  And then, through my headset, across the copper phone-line and the city, into Anne’s dismal apartment that she shared with Bob, the homosexual, I heard the following in the background:

“Emily, I need to use the phone.”

At the same time, my head rose and my eyes shot open as a current sparked at the base of my spine and then exploded upward like a detonating rocket.  Instead of silence, there was ringing and both “Anne” and I sucked in a breath and held it.  I slammed my hand down on the receiver and terminated the call. All I could hear was my uneven breathing and the ringing…it wasn’t going away.  A ball of nerves in my stomach began to turn revolutions and expand like a bristly puffer fish, in time ripping at the interior walls of my insides.  The phone rang.  My eyes shot to it.  I was completely still, moving only to swallow.  It rang, and it rang.  And I sat paralyzed, wondering if I’d really just heard what I thought I had…and if so, marveling at the implications.

Within seconds I gathered up my bag and was a block away from the Exchange.  I’d called another operator to come in and cover for me, but didn’t hang around to wait, couldn’t think straight.  I needed to be out of that building immediately.

Emily.

But although I was wondering the obvious and a cold sweat had broken an was creeping over me, my concerns didn’t eclipse the fact that I needed more information to discern whether or not I should be genuinely alarmed.  “Anne’s” home number rested in the front right pocket of my jeans.

By the time I reached my apartment I was furious.  I turned the key and kicked the base of the front door, sending it flying open.  Without closing it, I ripped Anne’s number out of my pocket and crashed into the chair in front of my computer.  Typing the ten digits into InfoSeek brought back the following information: LeAnne Warschaven.  The address – a street side apartment in the Tenderloin District.  I calmed a bit.  LeAnne.  Who the fuck is that?  It dawned on me that I didn’t know Emily’s last name, and that Anne could, in fact, be short for LeAnne.  I thought about it further.  I didn’t even know Emily’s real name.  To be sure that I had misfired, I rifled through my desk for a copy of last months schedule…finally finding it folded up and crumpled.  But after straightening it out on the desk, my eyes shot directly to Wednesdays, the shift I had shared with Emily last month.  Next to M. Tobias was the name E. Warschaven.  My stomach singed.

Instantaneously I exploded into a fit of rage.  Who the fuck was LeAnne?  Emily’s sister?  Mother?  Who the fuck did Emily think she was?!  A more glaring question:  Who the fuck did Emily think I was???  I slammed my foot into the desk, toppling it over, sending my computer crashing to the floor while flinging the door shut and cracking the window when it banged against the jam.  I was boiling beneath my skin at the thought of my purpose and my life being tested and persuaded by the chunky phone-sex operator who fell in love with a no-face sex-fiend from Wonderbread.  Reels of pictures pinned me to the floor and began to cycle on the backs of my eyes…Fred jacking off…Emily eating and eating…Bob shoving his cock into Marvin’s mouth while Anne threw up out the window and onto the windshield below…Emily laughing at me. My body compacted into a small ball on the floor while I threw my arms around my head and begged them all to go away.  Screaming gargoyles with black bodies and icy blue eyes appeared, hissing and laughing at me while smashing through developing pictures that were growing on the walls…pictures of memories I burned long ago.  Suddenly, they were inside my head and I was congested with incinerating thoughts and sinister recollections that had become unbound and were running wild.  My father arrived and began citing scripture as I ran riotously over the furniture, destroying everything until the ringing and screaming faded into his words, which themselves finally bled into to a solitary requiem.  Breathlessly, I pushed my sweat-soaked hair back and climbed amidst the pile of defeated demons.  After binding the memories that had broken free and crippling the gargoyles that were still flailing on the ground, I did the only thing that could make this horrible situation right – I sat back and quietly planned for the death of Emily.  A deep sleep pushed me onto the couch and into dreams of rivers full of blood, with fishermen who were pulling their lines out of the crimson streams with beating hearts on the hooks, writhing and bending as they slapped against the ground.

Exhausted as I was, the piercing ring of my telephone caused me to sit upright in the dark, hours later.  I had no intention on answering it, and so, in a dreamlike trance, I sat in the dark and listened as my answering machine took over, begging the caller to state their business, leave a number, all that.  It was Emily.

“Hey, this is Anne you dumb mother fucker. Ha! So now you know.  Now you know that I’m on to you, you sick fuck!  Well congratulations Mr. Too Smart For Everyone Else…Mr. Puppet Master and FUCK YOU!  I have the letter you wrote Marvin, Max.  And I taped our entire conversation yesterday and today!  I am ONTO you!!  And now, so is everyone else!!  You’ve got some fucking nerve picking on people you PATHETIC FUCK!  You are sad…so sad.  Ha!  Do you really think that no one knows you jack-off like five times a shift in the bathroom at the Exchange?  You killed a wonderful man Max.  And now you’re going to pay.”

As the tape rewound, I sat back in the darkness and allowed my head to swim.  The privacy of my relationships with Anne and Fred/Marvin had been violated, infiltrated by a pudgy, white trash, phone sex operator.  That she had the nerve to cross both professional and personal boundaries incensed me.

Emily wasn’t able to see the broader depiction of what I was accomplishing because she was a part of it.  Nevertheless, I had to deal with the fact that my mission was no longer secure, and that Emily had plans of exposing her rendition of my motives to other people.

I don’t know how I discounted the notion that Emily could be developing a relationship with Fred/Marvin outside of the Exchange.  Was it possible that his mass infusions of porno were either induced or punctuated by bouts of late night phone chatter with Emily – the ex 1-900 sex operator?  It was these thoughts that began passing in front of me at the speed of lightening strobes, momentarily dashing the room in white and then leaving me alone again in blackness.  Emily.  Anne.  Emily laughing at me. Marvin.  Fred.  The look I got from Emily and Antoinette today.  Emily laughing at me.

Crying isn’t something I usually do.  Like most normal people, I reserve that sort of behavior for times of true self-exploration and insightful introspection.  But I did slip into a quiet sob, feeling genuinely morose for Marvin, knowing that even though his dreadful life was empty and dismal, God had gone a step further by playing him a truly iniquitous card – involving him with that appalling creature Emily.

And she was appalling.  Everything about her disgusted me…her greasy hair…her raspy breathing…No wonder her husband would rather fuck a man.  No wonder she can’t get a job…  Wait, that’s Anne.  I mean that’s Emily acting as Anne.  I became confused and began to sweat.

After shaking my head out, I took all my clothes off and sat Indian style on the kitchen floor, massaging my skull with the palms of my hands.  FUCK Emily!  I couldn’t believe she saw herself as smarter than me.  She had no idea.  NO idea.  I was again, consumed by tears.  I don’t mind talking about it now – I’ve made my peace.  Part of developing healthy coping mechanisms is acknowledging times when you feel weak and waxy.  To calm myself, I arched my back and pressed my knees to my chest…rocking back and forth on the cool linoleum.  The clock on the microwave read 12:43 am.

4:41 am – I arrived back at my apartment carrying two suitcases that were so heavy I’d had to set them down nearly once a minute while hauling them home from my starting point – the Tenderloin District.  Inside I heaved them onto the kitchen floor, unzipped and unpacked each of them, taking care to appropriately, and methodically, re-wrap and re-pack the contents into my refrigerator, my bathtub, an empty closet that I assume to be intended for linens and finally…the oven, which had been pre-heating at 425 degrees since I’d left, hours earlier.

Depleted, I collapsed on the kitchen table and had my first recognizable thought in nearly five hours.  In less than sixty minutes, the sun would be rising, but Marvin Adams wouldn’t see it.  Neither would Fred, or Anne.  And neither would Emily.  Eventually, groups of concerned families and co-workers will assemble.  Calls will be made, at some point involving the authorities.  No one will know quite where to start, and even as information is gathered, it will be initially unclear as to which piece goes where.  Surely the phone records of the Exchange will be scoured.  Antoinette will see to that.  At Emily’s apartment, they’ll find neither a letter to Fred/Marvin, nor a taped phone conversation from Anne.

Is it what I’d planned?  No.  But a truly healthy person faces change and adversity with an acute sense of self-awareness.  They know who they are and they call upon scenarios from the past from which they’ve built the ability to think abstractly, to face the balance of experience and uncertainty and problem solve.  That’s where I was, and despite a distant whirring that I couldn’t shake out of my head…I knew what I had to do.

My mailman’s name is Mike McGurthy.  As long as I’ve lived in the flat on 11th St., he’s been the one that brings me my mail and retrieves my outgoing letters, but I don’t write many.  On Wednesday, waiting for him, there will be one envelope, neatly addressed to the San Francisco Chronicle.  I didn’t imagine it would make much sense for a few days, or as long as it took one of my neighbors to complain to the city about the smell emanating from my apartment.

There are weaknesses that corrode us all.  That one person may stand immune to the hardships we all face is tentative…if not unlikely.  There will be things said about me… if I’m a psychopath, whatever.  It’s good.  It’s what should be asked initially.

I won’t get into too much about my parents.  They are what they are and so are yours and everyone else’s.  Knocking around all the reasons that my emotional kinetics keep clicking in recurring circles, or how I always look in the toilet before I flush may be interesting, but not necessary here.

So I chum for the weak-spirited…those that are living on the brink…immobilized by sadness so that they are encased in tombs of concrete…three hundred miles beneath the earth’s surface and suffocating.  And so I am guilty of enticing someone onto a bridge of safety, leading them halfway across, and then collapsing it in mid-transport.  What have you done lately?

Max Tobias – 24, Crisis Hotline Operator