End of Shift

Only thirty-two minutes were left on his shift when the telephone rang, interrupting the sounds coming from the kitchen. In his seven months as a volunteer, this had only happened once before; the memory of that conversation, going on and on long after the end of his shift, came back to him like a bad omen. It wasn’t even his shift tonight; he was filling in for someone who got sick. Maybe now, like the man with the hoarse voice who’d called earlier, the person on the other end of the line had built up a relationship of dependency and sympathy with the absent volunteer (although it was against house rules) and would find an excuse to hang up quickly when learning somebody else was on duty. He hadn’t tried to keep the caller on the line.

“Good evening, this is CRELL.”

Silence. The sound of deep breathing from someone mustering courage deflated his hopes. People who’d called before rarely hesitated this way; most likely, it was a “virgin” calling. He repeated the prescribed greeting, although he knew that “respecting silence” was one of the qualities expected of volunteers.

“Uhh... hmm... good evening,” someone said at last, in a voice a little older than a girl and a little younger than a woman. 

This was what his colleagues called “the phase,” putting their hand to their ear and imitating a duck’s beak opening and closing, a gesture of impatience that the center’s coordinators would criticize if they ever found out about it.

“Hello, who am I speaking with?” 

She said her name. “Ann. Hi. I’m sorry, but I never called your place before... Actually, I’m not even sure exactly what you guys do...”

Had the caller been trained to recognize emotions lurking behind words, she would have been suspicious of the professorial monotone he used to describe the Center for Renewing the Love of Life, explaining that it was a humanitarian organization, without political or religious affiliations, created in the 1960s as a program of emotional support to prevent suicide, and which, after only seven years of operating, had been officially recognized by the Department of Health as a public service organization. She would have also noted the special emphasis he added to the word “suicide,” as if alerting her that this was the main focus of the group so she wouldn’t stay on the line chatting about hopeless schoolgirl crushes, maybe preventing another caller from getting through, someone who might be leaning on the edge of despair, with a gun barrel to his head and his finger on the trigger. Lost in this daydream, he chuckled at the hypothetical scenario: an introspective man, who never managed to express what he felt because everybody seemed too busy to pay attention to him, decides to kill himself. Before doing so, he tells himself he’ll give the world one last chance and calls CRELL. The line’s busy.

“What’re you laughing at?”

He glanced out of the booth to see if anyone had noticed his lapse. Fortunately, a sudden noise from somewhere interrupted his growing laughter. Through instinct born of habit, he emptied his mind of everything except the three-word formula discussed in the volunteer manual: listen, understand, accept.

“Oh, nothing. I’m sorry. You were saying...?”

“Actually, you were the one talking,” she countered, without letting him respond. “Well... very nice, the work you guys do. I don’t wanna say where I found your number, ‘cause, well, it’s complicated...”

“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”

“Oh, that’s good. So, I’m sort of embarrassed to talk about why I called... I mean, it’s nothing serious like suicide or something... I dunno, it’s serious to me, you know? It’s, like, making me feel real bad...”

(Listen, understand, accept...)

No, she hadn’t noticed the emphasis on “suicide.” 

“Yes?”

“So... you’re gonna find this really weird... it’s just that today was my birthday... and...”

He sat up straighter, as if preparing to let his empathy for this unknown caller be stirred. This anticipation kept him from saying the usual (“Happy birthday”) and spurred him to make a mistake that was common among novice volunteers: completing other people’s sentences.

“... and nobody remembered it?”

“That’s not it!” came the immediate response, followed by a shaky laugh. 

He realized his mistake and quickly returned to his passive role.

“There, you see, that’s why I said it’s gonna sound weird. I called because, actually, nobody forgot my birthday.” 

(Listen, understand, accept...)

“So you’re disappointed because nobody forgot your birthday.”

“Not exactly ‘disappointed.’ It’s more like... I dunno, it even seems crazy to me... I think that, deep down, I hoped that a few people would forget, you know? No, not deep down; actually, right on the surface, ‘cause I even changed the date of birth on my profile in all the social networks around a month ago, to confuse people I thought would only remember that way, being reminded of it. I didn’t talk about it with my friends either, like dropping hints about what presents I’d like, that kind of thing,” she said, snickering a bit. “Would you believe – ?! – I even made sure not to wish happy birthday to people I care about, hoping they’d take revenge by ‘forgetting’ about mine.”

(Listen, understand, accept...)

Another loud noise from the kitchen. Then a sound, like a soft meow, of shoes rubbing across the linoleum floor.

“And none of this worked?”

“None of it. Not that I thought everybody would forget... but at least a few would be so distracted, I thought, they wouldn’t consider the date as anything more than another page of the calendar to throw away at the end of work. Nope. It didn't go unnoticed by anyone. I got all these sweet phone calls, even from people I’d had a falling-out with. Presents, flowers, kisses, birthday cards, e-mails...”

(Listen, accept...)

There were definitely more people at the center than usual for this hour. He thought that, if he’d wished the caller happy birthday when she first told him what day it was, she might have been as hopeless as the suicidal man in his daydream.

“Come to think of it, it was dumb of me to think it would’ve been different. The same thing happens every year, so there wasn’t any reason for me to think it would change now... except that, this year, I tried to arrange everything like I told you to come out different. I really wanted to believe this awful feeling I have was like the let-down you get when you’ve worked really hard on a project that doesn’t come out like you planned... but I couldn’t! You know, it seems like I’ve been center stage my whole life, surrounded by people who care about me, about my happiness, about my comfort, about whether I have a pebble in my shoe hurting me...”

(Listen, accept...)

“And this made me feel, like, incredibly jealous of walk-on actors. You know, those players who’re always there just beyond the spotlight, who learn not to expect any reaction from anybody, but who, in return, aren’t expected to show any reaction to anybody else. Kinda like gratitude. But that’s not exactly it either... I dunno. It’s like they enjoy a sort of liberty that I never had. The other day, I was reading about some prisoner who committed suicide because no one ever visited him in jail. I got the impression that even this guy was freer than me...”

(Listen...)

Without meaning to, his hand was curling up into a fist. She didn’t give him a moment extra beyond the bare minimum for reassuring her in a monotone that he was still listening.

“That’s why I tried to be forgotten. That’s why I felt this need to be left in second, third, last place. But not just at any old time; I wanted this forgetting to happen at exactly the moment that was supposed to be so important to me emotionally. At a moment of such enormous importance that people would feel incredibly guilty later on for not remembering it. I wanted it that way because, the more love I was supposed to be getting, the more I’d enjoy my freedom in having escaped it. Or maybe I just wanted to know, for once in my life, what it was like to grieve over a lack of affection...”

In some recess of his rote memory, he kept on repeating the three-word formula from the volunteer manual, but he only managed to carry out the first one―and even at that, only partially, since he was not paying attention to what the unknown caller was saying at the moment, but only to the impact her earlier words had on his inner feelings. He simply could not understand why someone would complain about being loved. He could not put himself in the place of a person who envied the suffering of others, who yearned for unhappiness or saw in it some vestige of freedom. He could not accept that the excess of affection would represent a problem. He couldn’t help seeing such an attitude as pathetic evidence that certain human beings will always want what they don’t have, even when this “not having” involves emptiness. A sense of empathy, usually so apt to fill him up, gave way to its opposite, making him furious that this was not a normal conversation. It made him want to interrupt the unknown caller’s monologue and pour out his vision of things. He could let her know that tomorrow (or, rather, today, since it was now past midnight) was his birthday and that nobody he knew had shown the slightest sign of having remembered what the date meant to him. They wouldn’t have noticed even if he’d worn a T-shirt emblazoned with the words, “Tomorrow is my birthday.” He could tell her that living this way made him so unhappy that he’d become a CRELL volunteer, for no other reason than to put his own distress in perspective, comparing it to the overwhelming despair of those who sought the help of the center. It was like someone who routinely visits a cemetery to feel superior to those buried all around him, just because he’s still breathing. He could tell the caller that he’d never, ever uncover the emotions she claimed she felt so intensely, even if he spent his entire life trying to dig them up. And that, if she were now finished with her oh-so-touching story, would she please give him permission to hang up and go home to cry himself to sleep, grieving the lack of affection on his birthday, not to mention all the other 364 days of the year.

But, he reminded himself, this wasn’t an ordinary conversation; it was a support relationship. The person who called didn’t have to stick to any protocol, but the one who answered had a lot to follow. He had to stay put in his booth, hearing without listening, perceiving without understanding, agreeing without accepting, for what seemed like an interminable stretch of time as the unknown caller’s monologue went on and on.

And then a few clues to the mystery around him began to emerge. Over his shoulder, he saw the volunteer he was substituting for disappear through a door; he heard another loud noise, followed by an energetic “Sssshhhh!”; someone said patiently, “He’ll hang up soon,” and a can of soda let loose a fizzy hiss as it was opened; then he understood what was going on. He realized what those noises were during his whole shift, the comings and goings in and out of the kitchen, the unusual number of people in the center. He realized that his colleagues at CRELL, both volunteers and administrators, had spent the day buying balloons and sodas, making appetizers, brownies, and a birthday cake, inhaling and exhaling deeply to blow up balloons (and occasionally bursting them). He realized why they’d called him up at the last minute, asking him to substitute for the volunteer who worked the evening shift from nine to midnight. He understood that they’d been busy all week getting everything ready, so that, when he hung up the phone, grabbed his backpack, and turned on the light in the front room to leave, he’d be greeted with shouts of “Surprise!,” then hugged and kissed and congratulated by all his colleagues―who, from now on, would feel the right to be considered true friends. That was when, sitting there with his ear stuck to the receiver, he finally managed to fulfill the most difficult part of a volunteer’s mission: for the first time since he’d joined the center, he listened, understood, and accepted everything someone was telling him. For the first time in seven months, he could completely empathize with the caller, because, deep down, like her, he adored being forgotten. Something indescribable pained him about suddenly losing his long-term solitude, like a rescued castaway who harbors a secret wish to return to the island of his shipwreck. The burden of being remembered, being loved, being considered significant by others was more crushing than the world’s indifference. When the unknown caller burst into tears, he silently wept too.

FELIPE HOLLOWAY was born in 1989 and has been writing since he was seventeen. He didn't finish college and stopped signing up for courses after taking more classes than he can remember.  These days he works in a bookstore, a job that he believes to be just as dangerous for a bibliophile as that of a winemaker is for an alcoholic.  

He's in a “serious relationship” with what he considers to be his first novel. According to him, the novella he published on commission shouldn't count because he hopes any future biographers who might be out there reading this won't go around saying he made his debut with that. Still, now and again he cheats on his novel by spending time on a short story. “She understands,” he ponders. “Otherwise, she would’ve left me long ago.”

About his writing process, he says: “I try to write when those post-brainstorm hangovers―the kind when you reassess a piece you wrote at dawn and that seemed just fine, invariably coming to the conclusion that no, it really wasn’t―allow me to squeeze something through the sieve.”


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