The crackle of her rabbiting breath over the phone. “Hello,” I say, like always. “Hello? Is anybody there?”
“I’m not sure.” Her speech fraying at the hem. Her words leaking from a badly-sealed balloon. I try to guess which woes she needs me to uproot, if any: drugged-out late-night teenage moon-drunk frantic homeless suicide, or spam call? “I’m not really sure,” she says again.
“Can you tell me why you’re calling?”
“I stopped buying strawberries.”
Prank call or wrong number, I think. Either way, I’ll listen until the sound stops. “Could you repeat that?”
She telIs me how her strawberries used to rot uneaten. She loved them once, until they began to taste like empty air. Then they were only an unwelcome reminder of past pleasure. In the end, it was not difficult for her to give them up. I don’t buy strawberries myself, but in my fridge three heads of Romaine lettuce liquify, and saltine crumbs congregate beneath the H key of my laptop. Hearten, hinder, hand, help, hotline – words I can’t begin to shape. “Can you tell me more about what’s upsetting you?”
“Well, it also wasn’t supposed to snow more than an inch last night.” She sniffs and swallows. Her dry throat clicks. “But the forecast’s always wrong. If I’m late again, I’ll be fired, and the ceiling of my bedroom leaks.”
“It sounds like you’re in the middle of a frustrating situation.” As a response, it’s less than helpful – but despite my training, I still can’t extend my hand without the risk of pushing someone closer to the edge. It’s safest to stand apart, I’ve been taught, motionless as a mirror. There’s no comfort in this kind of safety.
Nevertheless, she continues. Her plant is dying, her window broken. “I used to think things might get better, so I stuck around. But the whole world’s burning, so what do I have to hope for?” On a dark winter afternoon last year, she tried to slip, like the sun, beneath the earth. No, she adds, she doesn’t have a plan, but the autumn nights are bleak again and getting longer. She says all this while huddled in the haven of my ear. Her misery seeps beneath the surface.
My words aren’t scripted, but they might as well be. I don’t say: I want to confiscate your misery and turn it into time. I don’t say: I once intended to drive my car off of the side of a bridge, but I missed my exit, and then I was too tired to try again. I also crawled all the way to the station but couldn’t board Death’s train without a ticket. I also asked a stranger why I should keep my own life – but now duty hooks me on the other side of the phone line, as useless to each jumper as a bottom-feeding fish. Before I started volunteering at the hotline, I thought it was my calling, but I don’t think that anymore.
I’m the first to offer a goodnight when our time runs out. I only want to save each call from ending, but there are two more phone numbers already ticking in the queue. Frantic-homeless-baffled? Prank-suicide-spam? I’m losing faith. “I’ll be here on Saturday nights, but call in anytime. Please call. Call about anything you need to say.”
“Goodnight,” her voice repeats. “Thank you for listening.”
My voice has been the last sound heard in human lives, and I have no doubt each word I say is haunted. Before she goes, she says, “at least now I’ll be sure one person knew.”
Lee Johns is an undergraduate student at Yale University. Their work has been published or is forthcoming in Anti-Heroin Chic, The Agapanthus Collective, Body Without Organs, and more.