Emilee Prado’s fiction appears in Hobart, Orca, Your Impossible Voice, Vautrin and elsewhere. Her essays are featured in CRAFT or forthcoming in various anthologies. She also writes about film.
HOLD THE LINE
I once tried to research my surname—which is Awd—but I wasn’t able to pin down its heritage. I’ve always felt I am the only member of the family suited to the name, but with both of my parents gone now, I doubt I will foment an extensive investigation into my genetic history. Better to forget where my body came from and focus on going forward inside it.
I have a birthmark, a patch of lighter skin shaped like a handprint. It covers part of my forehead and reaches down over my right eye, onto my left cheek. I think the birthmark makes me look like I was picked up from somewhere and dropped into this life. “It isn’t what makes me odd,” I will say, enjoying the pun. “What makes me odd is my unconventional relationship with time.”
When I’m alone, time floats, marches, drags, races or disappears right along with whatever it is that I’m doing. But time always goes straight and forward and I stay in the present. The problem for other people is that when I am around them, sometimes our timelines get out of sync. For example, I’ll find myself at the end of a conversation while whomever I’m talking with is still in the middle. Or I’ll end up accidentally tromping over the tail end of their sentences because there’s some kind of lag. This happens more when I’m face-to-face than when I’m on the phone. It happens more with people I know than with strangers, which works out well for me because my job is at The Connection.
Right now—my now—it’s a Friday. I’m in the present and no longer on-call. I hear a tap on my apartment door. My brother Owen let me know he’d be by, so I shout that the door is unlocked. First growing up together then losing our parents—no wait, reverse those—gave me and Owen an intertwined understanding of each other. It’s been a while since our timelines have gone out of sync.
Owen comes in. At first, he doesn’t see me because I am on the floor in the corner behind the table. I’m eating from a bag of pretzels.
“Olivia?” he calls. “Liv?”
“What the hell?” Owen looks under the table. He’s holding a dress.
“That is—wow, you are shimmery,” I say to the dress. I’m not fond of such eye-catching fabric, but I’ll wear it tomorrow because Celeste chose it for the bridesmaids. In response to Owen’s question and his lingering expression, I nod my head to the right to indicate the two people sitting on the courtyard bench just outside my open window.
Owen looks at the backs of their heads then looks at me. His prickly cactus eyebrows are at opposing altitudes.
“I didn’t want to bother them, by—you know—crunching away during their conversation,” I say and I shake the pretzel bag.
“Do you always hide when someone sits there?” Owen hangs the dress over the back of the chair.
“I’ve never seen someone sit there before and I’m not hiding; I’m being polite.”
“You’re being weird.”
“It’s not a big apartment.” I shrug. “I could sit on the sofa right by the window or at the table not far from the window, or I could go eat pretzels on my bed. Get crumbs on the pillow. That bench is the only bench in the courtyard, so if someone wants to sit outside, they have to sit there. It’s not like I would ask them to go away.”
Owen shakes his head.
I feel my heart speed up and our timelines must have diverged because Owen is saying something else when I interrupt with, “Besides, weird just means that something appears or feels out of place in a given scenario, which means you are actually the weird one at the moment. I was here and they were there; nothing was out of place. One and one and a separate two. But you made a three, and three divided by two leaves a remainder, so now it’s weird.”
There’s a little tap at the window. Owen looks over and I crane to peer above the edge of the table.
“Sorry to eavesdrop. We’re new over in 4A. We tried to move the bench, but it’s bolted down. It is a strange place to put a bench, right? Do you think we could ask the property manager to move it?”
“That’s a great idea,” says Owen.
I’ve just put a pretzel in my mouth, so I stick up a hand and give them a wave. I finish chewing, roll the bag shut, stand up. By then the two heads in the window are gone.
Owen gives me a furrowed look. Now, his eyebrows are derision and pity colliding. I dial up my smile so Owen will back off with the oppressive expressions. From somewhere in a different era, I hear myself ask about the wedding. Owen grows excited as he tells me again how Celeste filled the reception menu with her family’s favorite food from their home city; how he chose the set-list for the DJ. Then he tells me again about the two-week honeymoon trek they’re going to take in the mountains.
I smile and Owen’s words drift by. I am present now in the last time I saw Owen looking at me with derision and pity. It was when I tried to snuff out my light, but it came back on like a trick candle. Haha. Gotcha. I can laugh about it, but Owen will never see it that way. When he looks at me with concern, I keep his timeline moving forward. I can laugh about it now because attempting suicide turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. It led me to understanding my relationship with time. It also led me to work at The Connection.
Owen ends with “Right?”
I come back to Owen’s present and say, “Definitely.”
At the door Owen says, “See you tomorrow, Sis.”
I hug him and tell him I’m so happy my big brother is getting married.
For some time now, I have been too concerned with moving forward to idle at ruminative things like social gatherings. I’m dizzied and overwhelmed when I arrive at the wedding, but my it’s so good to see yous are heartfelt as I greet distant family members and acquaintances. From somewhere in the future, I am pleased to remember how much laughter and joy surrounded us here.
At the reception, after the buffet is cleared, the DJ begins, which makes most people take up dancing. At one of the back tables, Celeste collapses in the chair next to me. Even Celeste’s sea-foam-textured dress seems to sigh in exhaustion and relief. We watch as Owen swings his elbows and knees, towering amid a gaggle of children all doughy with youth.
“I’m so happy you sectioned off this little corner. I needed a place to hide out.” Celeste is still breathless.
I smile and take a sip from my beer. The two of us talk often enough for me not to know what to say. There’s nothing to catch up on and any further words of congratulations would be redundant. My timeline starts to slip, but I think of a question: “So have you guys decided what to do about the last name?” They had gracefully sidestepped it during the ceremony.
Celeste laughs, not because what I asked was funny, but because that’s where her spirit is. “We’re still on the fence so we’re putting off the paperwork until after the honeymoon. Celeste and Owen Awd-Wood? Celeste and Owen Wood-Awd? Owen did suggest Wawd, which is tempting.”
We both laugh now.
Four people stagger up to Celeste, giving the impression they’ve brought most of the bartender’s stock inside them. One scolds the bride for sitting alone at her own wedding, taking both of Celeste’s hands. As they guide her back to the dance floor, she leans back over her shoulder with a quick, “Catch you later, Liv.”
Owen spots me surveying the room and beckons me out. Feelings of obligation shuffle my feet toward him. We bob and waver to the beat. I do my best chameleon while the DJ sends out sound waves that vibrate my teeth. Owen and Celeste are beckoned by someone else for yet another photo. The movements and conversation of the four who’d towed Celeste away from my table grow more viscous and loud.
“Is it a burn?” one says into another’s ear, but over the music.
“It’s called vitiligo. My cousin has it,” someone else replies.
They shush one another, glancing at me.
I shrug and cup a hand to the side of my mouth and tell them, “It’s a birthmark.”
They look embarrassed. I move a little closer and tell them why I’m fond of it. “It isn’t what makes me odd. What makes me odd is my unconventional relationship with time.”
There’s uncomfortable laughter. Plastic smiles. They nod and say things like, “That’s cool.”
I extend my hand and introduce myself as Olivia, Owen’s sister.
The four introduce themselves in turn and one explains that they’re friends of Celeste’s, from university. They turn back into their group and after a few more minutes of bobbing there next to them, I slip away.
I have to squeeze past the group twice, once to retrieve a new beer and again to return to my table. As I go by the second time I hear, “Owen said she’s a hermit, like, way too weird and reclusive to even go outside.”
A wedding. A reminder of isolation for those who attend alone. What I’ve overheard is inaccurate, countered most obviously by my presence here. It wouldn’t be bizarre or offensive, coming from an acquaintance. But from Owen? He wouldn’t? He didn’t? Did he? Owen knows I go jogging on the canal trails almost every day, that I frequent the library, that I go out just to buy single items—like a bag of pretzels.
I abandon the new beer on the table next to my empty bottle. Because the event hall is rented until eleven p.m., and it’s ten forty-five, I doubt anyone would think it socially improper of me to leave. I hug Owen and Celeste goodbye, hurried along as others wait to do the same. Crossing the crowded parking lot, I look up at the sky and feel like a time traveling tide rising in contradiction to the moon.
I wave to the taxi driver as he pulls away from my apartment. From the walkway, I notice the bench has been freed from its former place. It’s backed up to the hedges and faces out into the parking lot now. Are they all—all of them—pulling away from me? A few tears spill down my cheeks and drip onto the shimmery dress. I let the salty water soak in, but at my door I turn the key and decide to blame the beer for this swell of emotion. I know better than to think connection is reliant on proximity. I know better than to think what the woman at the wedding said about me is connected to me at all.
Once in my pajamas, I collapse face-first onto my bed, grateful to be surrounded by breathable fabrics once again. When I wake to the alarm in the morning, the bedroom light is still on.
Alcohol tangles my timeline and although I finished only one beer, I feel the voltage of the aftereffects. I drag myself to the shower so my day can begin. I have a split shift at The Connection, which is typical because calls can be draining. I’ll work from eight to twelve in the morning and eight to twelve at night. I dawdle more than usual, so it’s leftover peanut butter curry for breakfast.
With my bowl between me and my laptop, I sign into the online software that directs phone calls to my headset and texts to my screen. At eight, I move my bowl to the sink and return to switch my status from unavailable to active.
It’s a busy shift, though not too emotionally onerous, all things considered. After lunch, I fall asleep while reading. It’s not until late in the night that I pick up for someone who needs every millimeter of my immediate timeline.
Because The Connection is a general crisis hotline, I receive a variety of calls. Sometimes it’s someone getting bullied at school or feeling overwhelmed at work. Domestic violence calls are common and difficult for everyone involved. Of course, I realize my own exertion only afterward, when I’ve hung up knowing the caller is safe, or has accepted the contact information for a shelter, or—the worst—after they’ve scolded themselves for being dramatic and chosen to end the call. But it’s not a domestic violence call I receive tonight.
I ask the caller if they are in a safe location.
The caller tells me that they are in their home, but they are so alone.
I ask if there is anyone who they can call or text and ask to sit with them for a while.
The caller says they don’t want their significant other to know they are having these thoughts; they are too ashamed. They say if they had anyone else to call, they wouldn’t be calling this number.
I say I’m required to ask whether there are firearms in the house.
They tell me no and that they don’t like guns. They tell me again how they are so alone. They tell me they want to do it, but would feel so bad for their significant other who’d be the one to find them.
The Connection, like most crisis hotlines, has a strict script volunteers must to adhere to and rigorous guidelines for us trained counselors. I understand why, but what I understand more is that sometimes sticking to linearity is what breaks the connection. The guidelines say I should now provide the contact information of mental healthcare professionals from my list and encourage the caller to make an appointment. I will do this, but not yet. The caller is not ready.
The caller says their colleagues invited them out for drinks last night, but the caller turned them down to be alone. The caller regrets being alone but would have also regretted the other decision.
I say: “It’s okay to be alone, you know? Do you think maybe you feel bad about being alone because we’re taught unsubstantiated nonsense like there’s something wrong with being alone?”
The caller thinks for a moment. They say it’s true that sometimes they enjoy being alone, but they do not like feeling lonely.
I ask them if they could explain what they mean by lonely.
At first, they say pointless, then reroute and say maybe it’s not that. They say that this kind of hollowness is a nameless physical feeling, in their body: they can’t think of another word for the feeling besides this feeling. At the same time, however, they feel nothing. And—at the same time too—they want to escape into nothing to escape the feeling of nothing. They say: Does that make sense? Is that weird?
“Sure, it’s weird but also not.”
They don’t say anything for a minute, so I ask what they were doing when they last felt some sort of positive or uplifting feeling.
The caller says they can’t think of anything.
The Connection workers aren’t allowed to share anything personal so that callers can maintain the feeling of anonymity, but I think it’s vague enough to say: “I was looking out my window the other day and I saw this dandelion tuft spit off its seeds. I’m sure it must have been the wind, but it looked like the thing was just sitting in the grass, then sneezed. It made me laugh. Isn’t that stupid?”
The caller agrees that it’s stupid, but they laugh too. The caller says they like to watch a particularly beautiful cat that sleeps in the neighbor’s window. The caller sounds as if they are trying not to cry.
I ask the caller if they have an onion in the house.
The caller hesitates then says yes.
I say sometimes peeling an onion is a good excuse for tears; it’s not really crying, is it? “Just take it apart with your hands, layer by layer.”
The caller puts me on speaker phone, and I can hear the crackling outer skin of an onion and more sniffling. The caller laughs at what they are doing.
I ask if I can provide them with some hypotheticals.
“What kind of hypotheticals?”
I give them a few. Some are banal or dumb, some funny, some bizarre. I ask:
What if you got a cat?
What if you used that onion in a dish you’ve never made before?
If you had a third arm, where would it be attached?
What if you could time travel?
We go back and forth until we are in sync. Once we’ve deescalated their urgency, we’ll start to talk about a long-term plan for the caller’s timeline. But for now, we’ll talk for as long as we need to, all the while holding onto each end of the same line, together, in the same moment.