“I guess I’m just calling because my fat girlfriend disgusts me. The way her jowls move; every time she shoves more food in her mouth I feel like losing it. I can’t stand it when she touches me…my toes curl and I feel like jumping out of my skin. I… I… I just can’t take it. I fantasize about other women all the time but I know that I can’t ever leave. She stayed with me through the chemo. It’s partially my fault that she’s so fucking fat. There was nothing for her to do but eat and take care of me. She stayed when I was bald and couldn’t make it to the toilet by myself to puke. She cleaned my puke. I know I have to stay but if she touches me one more time, I’m going to fucking snap.”
Donna King clutched the sanguine phone to her ear until she heard the dead signal of the dial tone, announcing her dismissal. She had served her purpose, silently listened to the confession like it was a prayer, absorbing the guilt of the corresponding party so they can better sleep at night, while Donna stores the information in the dark recesses of her brain along with all the other calls she received. Given the calls Donna received every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, from 5:00pm to 8:00pm for the last ten months, she figured that Chicago had to be the saddest city on the planet, the call center Donna currently sat in being the nucleus of despair. Donna put the phone down on the receiver, valentine red in a sea of stale coffee, everything in office bloodless and the shade of liver. Two days after New Years Eve, January 2, 1995, Donna decided she would volunteer at a counseling hotline as a means to get out of her own head and to do some good in the world; to give herself a purpose. She graduated five years ago with a degree in English literature but so far had only put it to use by being a clerk at a small, but enthusiastic book store. She looked up at the stark black and white page-a-day calendar that hung up just above her desk. The days seemed to melt into each other without consequence. The phone rang, snapping her out of her reverie.
“Hello, Cook County counseling hot line, how can I help you this evening?” Donna said in a furry, soft tone.
“Hi, I just wanted to call and say my psychopath neighbor punched my other neighbor in the face and its all my fault. I had been using the psychopath’s laundry detergent and he figured Fred, my other neighbor was the culprit. He just lost his shit, so when Fred denied it, he punched him the face, causing a great deal of cosmetic damage. I don’t want to tell the psychopath, for the chance of him pummeling my ass or sticking me with Fred’s dental bill, but I just wanted to get it off my chest. Thank you.”
Donna gently placed the phone of the receiver. She had been trained extensively for weeks on dealing with crisis situations that may arise on the hotline, but it seemed people only used to the hotline as a sort of emotional dump, safely and anonymously confessing their sins and misdeeds without jeopardizing themselves. They rarely required Donna’s input, rather, just took comfort in the knowledge that someone was on the end listening and absolving them of their sins. In some ways, Donna felt as though she was actually helping them, allowing them to fess up so they can turn over a new leaf and start anew. Other times she just felt like she was an emotional dump, rarely using the protocols taught to her in case of an emergency. Nobody was interested in what she had to say, she was there to listen, and that was her job. She wasn’t so much working at a counseling hotline so much as she was working at a sort of apology hotline, listening to callers vomit up every terrible thing they had ever done and how they felt about it. It shocked her how often people didn’t even feel sorry at all, they just wanted to admit their crime to a stranger so they wouldn’t be responsible for housing the information anymore. People were truly awful and she was reminded of this three times a week.
“Hello, Cook County counseling hot line, how can I help you this evening?”
“Yeah, I only enjoy sex when I punch my girlfriend in the legs and I know she only lets me do it because she’s insecure and I know I only make it worse. I don’t want to stop though. I guess that’s all.”
Shaking, Donna hung up the phone, an acidic feeling corroding the inside of her gut. Her head was pounding; she didn’t think she deal with any more calls tonight. She looked up at the industrial black and white clock, twenty minutes to eight. Fuck it, she thought. She leaned back in her chair, looking at the two other people that occupied the call center, at the far end of the office, each wrapped up in their own call. The call center was located in the basement of a commercial building downtown, the normal whir and buzz that filled the building during normal office hours had died out three hours ago.
Donna needed something to blunt the edge of despair that was creeping up her spine or to drown out the impending existential crisis she was far too old to have. Still listlessly looking around, Donna looked over to the next desk over, usually occupied by Shirley, a 65 year old diabetic; Donna thought of Shirley’s tiny face, the giant glasses and how they magnified her tiny little eyes, further distorted by a ton of mascara and the powder that embalmed her face. How terrible it was to be a woman and to age, to not only watch your beauty fade, but to slowly decompose while being forced to live underneath the scrutinizing microscope society placed on women. Donna kept staring at the space that hung suspended over Shirley’s desk until her vision blurred over a small yellow and gold package on the right corner of her desk. She snapped herself back to attention and snatched the package off the desk and sat back in her chair, cradling her prize. It package was pristine and oblong in her hands, still wrapped in cellophane. She traced the emerald cursive writing that adorned the top of the package, “Whitman’s Sampler.” Looking around, she removed the cellophane and the top box of the package. Three rows of tiny little chocolate planets presented themselves to her. Some round, some oval, others dark. Annoyed there wasn’t a map to keep her clear away from the coconut and dark chocolate, she chose the least threatening looking of the bunch, silently praying, hoping it was caramel. She popped the chocolate into her mouth and lovingly bit down; thrilled and then immediately horrified picking up the top of the box to reexamine the horror she had just subjected herself to. Sugar Free Chocolate.
“Sugar Free?! What the fuck, Shirley…” Donna breathed to herself.
The sudden ring made Donna jump out of her chair. She looked at the clock, motherfucker, she still had ten minutes left.
“Hello, Cook County counseling hot line, what is it that you want?” Donna said, her voice flat with a slight secretarial inflection.
“Hi, my name is Samuel, and I don’t really give a shit, but I’m bulimic and I puke in the water used to wash the dishes in the kitchen at work. Sure, the dishes get put into a steam cleaner afterward, but it’s mostly out of laziness and it helps alleviate the bitter thoughts that build up over my shift. Everyone that comes into the restaurant is a disgusting pig. At this point, it’s almost become sort of a challenge not to get caught.”
“When I was sixteen, I found an envelope of $600 cash. I took half of it to buy weed, but the guy ran off with it. When my grandma realized it was gone, I blamed grandpa’s gambling habit and everyone bought it. They’re both dead now and I would apologize if I could, but man, could you imagine if I had got all that weed?”
“I’m not looking for support but I love it when disasters happen. War, hurricanes, tornadoes. All of it, I can sit and watch it unfold on the news for hours. Hundreds of people dead. It’s my favorite form of entertainment and I don’t regret any of it.”
“Hi…I’d been volunteering for a meals on wheels program and every week this lady is so mean to me. Always cursing about the food as if it’s my fault. As if I made the food. I’m just bringing it to her. Last week she called me a ‘fucking prick’ because they kept putting creamed corn in her order when she requested otherwise. Who talks like that? She’s like 80 years old and the most foul-mouthed piece of work I have ever met. Anyway, it was all really starting to get to me. It was getting to the point where I was getting stomachaches and shaking on the drive to her house, anticipating her abuse. Finally, I just snapped and wanted to find a way to get even with her. So when I was dropping off her food last night, I saw her prosthetic leg in the umbrella stand, by her front door. I don’t know why the hell she keeps it there, but I took it on my way out and threw it out my car window while I was driving home. Part of me feels bad but another part of me hopes she rots in hell.”
“ARE YOU KIDDING ME? WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU? YOU STOLE A PERSON’S LIMB. THEIR FUCKING LEG! DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME? I THINK YOU SHOULD RETRACE YOUR STEPS, FIND THE FUCKING LEG AND SHOVE IT UP YOUR DEMENTED ASS. IM SICK OF YOU CALLERS AND ALL OF YOUR SHIT. YOU ASSHOLES ARE PRECICELY EVERYTHING THAT IS WRONG IN THIS WORLD.”
Shaking, Donna placed the phone gently on the receiver, as if it was a grenade waiting to go off. Furtively, she looked around. Everyone had left. The clock announced 8:30pm. The phone kept ringing, and like an automaton, she couldn’t refuse the calls. Just mechanically answering each call until she got jammed up and broke down. She can probably never come back here. Fuck it. She knew the shame would come fast and hot later in the night, when she was brushing her teeth and getting ready for bed, but for now she felt like her whole body had been numbed with Novocain. She wondered if her legs would work when she stood up or if maybe the adrenaline currently coursing through her veins made her limbs boneless and made of gelatin. She deserved it maybe. I suppose that is what you get when you tell someone to shove a prosthetic limb up their ass. The irony of the situation was not lost on Donna as it occurred to her that this was the type of offence she could confess to the hotline. Ha. Ha. Ha. She thought. Then she started laughing for real as she stood up and put on her black pea coat. The Whitman’s Sampler box fell off her lap and chocolates fell like big fat raindrops to the ground. Sorry Shirley.
Up on the main floor, Donna found the public restroom located in the lobby and walked to the sink. Washing her hands, she held her hands still underneath the scalding hot water being emitted from the faucet. She looked at herself in the mirror, startled by her reflection. She was surprised by her youthful appearance, almost expecting to see someone older. Underneath the neon lighting in the bathroom, her pale skin looked like a glass of sour milk, which sharply contrasted from her inky black hair. Her eyes, green, almost made her look pretty but she looked tired. There was something wrong with her appearance but she didn’t know what. The skin of her hands was starting to prune in the heat of the water and she removed them, fascinated by the transformation. Someday, her hands are going to really look like this and there is nothing she can do about it. She started to think about Shirley and her sad, tiny little wrinkled hands picking up the chocolates off the floor by her desk. A black wave of sadness passed over Donna and she sort of felt like crying. Drying off her hands, she left the bathroom without looking at herself in the mirror again, terrified of what she would see.
Outside, the crescent moon shone a diaphanous light through the black skeletal tree limbs that lined the street. It was several blocks to get to her apartment, but she didn’t mind the walk. The chill in the air caught in her lungs and purged her of the terrible thoughts threatening to overtake her. Once she made it to her street, she hopped right in her car. A beat up white Neon the gleamed underneath streetlights like a giant ghost. Once inside, she turned off her street, scanning the radio waves for until she found a talk show, the disembodied voices, the occasional ads with their falsely cheerful jingles making her feel a little less lonely.
Thirty minutes later, she was in the outskirts of the city, nearing the suburbs and safe from running into anyone she could potentially know. Blinking lights from the neon signs shone one the street like an oil slick, wet from the rain that must have fallen while she was still in the call center. Wednesday night in the suburbs meant that the streets were largely empty. Everyone was already at home, bathed in the blue light of their television sets, set free from the earlier events of their day. On bad days, usually once or twice a week, Donna often found herself driving out to the suburbs and indulging in the most disgusting food she could find, which usually filled her with a thrill she couldn’t quite articulate. Last week it was Long John Silvers, the oily fish soaking the tissue paper that lined that basket that housed it with grease. The thought of anyone finding out that she ate at Long John Silver’s made her blood ran cold and yet the fact that she secretly ate here satisfied her somehow. Like it was her own dark secret that belonged solely to her. There was a certain stigma attached to eating at a place like Long John Silver’s and she knew her friends and acquaintances would be horrified if they ever found out. Like it eating there altered the kind of person she was. After going there intermittently through out the summer, the woman that took her order in the drive through started to recognize her and remember her order. Horrified, Donna stopped going there for a month before she gave in and began eating there again, but at much less frequent intervals. The thought of someone having that kind of information on her, her disgusting synthetic fish order, made her feel violated. She just wanted to be left alone with her disgusting, fatty food.
Donna pulled into a parking lot, which was sparsely filled with cars. The nimbus green and white sign of The Florentine Food Buffet shone in her face and she felt something close to happiness. She knew that gorging on food until the sadness dissipated couldn’t be healthy but she figured if she wasn’t purging after eating and the grotesque habit hadn’t yet affected her svelte waistline, it couldn’t be that bad. But then she wondered if it would always be enough, often she would go back to feeling like herself, the sadness intermingled with the marrow of her bones. It was a temporary fix but she didn’t know what else to do with herself. Donna smoothed her hair and wiped away the eyeliner that had smudged into the corner of her eye.
The hostess led Donna to her table. Donna has no idea if there was a momentary look of pity that flickered in the hostess’s eyes as she led this pathetic, solitary woman to her table because Donna couldn’t bring herself to make eye contract, instead, opting to look just over the hostess’s shoulder. The golden light that seemed to illuminate the place protected Donna from any negativity that might erode her already shaky self-confidence. After requesting a coke from the waitress, Donna quickly proceeded to the buffet. Rows upon rows of steaming hot food gleamed bright in the dilated pupils of her eyes, as round and large as two tiny little moons. Yellow mountains of macaroni and cheese, slabs of roast beef congealed in white fat, green beans slithered in a pool of ambiguous yellowy liquid while perfectly round dinner rolls sunbathed and sizzled underneath the heat lamps in homogenized rows. Donna kept her breathing even and slow, occasionally breathing steam on the glass barrier that protected the food from the industry of germs that existed in all of us. She was careful not to betray her excitement; she was just here to have dinner like everyone else. Nothing at stake here.
Outside of the buffet in her car, Donna wondered what to do next. She wasn’t quite ready to face herself so she knew she couldn’t go home, not yet. She remember seeing in The Sun Times that there was a midnight showing of Arsenic and Old Lace at The Paragon downtown. She pulled up the sleeve of her coat and looked at her wristwatch, Mickey’s hands indicating that it was a little after 10:30pm. She had plenty of time.
Silver light filled the theater, the black and white screen playing shadows across the faces of the six or so patrons in the theater. Donna once heard someone on television say that people often go to the movies when they’re feeling sad. Just another form of escapism to distract from the everyday maladies of life. She wondered if anyone ever truly lived their life or just spent all of their time running away from it, calling counseling hotlines trying to pawn their guilt on someone else or skulking in the shadows, eating hamburgers until they’re so full they cannot think of anything else. As Mortimer finds the corpse hidden in the window seat and speaks of deadly bad habits on the screen, Donna shifted in her seat and looked at the man at the end of her row, his eyes glued to the screen as his helper dog and wheelchair sat next to his seat. She wondered if there was a helper dog for the emotionally crippled, there to console her whenever she felt unstable. She knew that she couldn’t run forever, the movie would end and the events of her day, of the last several yeas of her life would catch up to her. The contents of her stomach shifted in her stomach, her whirling thoughts creating a sort of marionette on her stomach. Oh no, oh no, oh no, she thought, knowing her buffet dinner was no longer going to be her dark secret if she didn’t move quick. She stood up and made it to the end of her row, before she lurched forward and vomited on the floor. All the ugliness inside of her revealing itself to the paying movie guests, a marzipan paste on the floor. She couldn’t hear the protests of disgust that followed her grotesque offering, the rush of blood that filled her head created static in her ears. She straightened herself up and thought about fleeing, putting this terrible night on a shelf and not thinking about it for a very long time, but she was sick of running. Fuck it, she thought, and went back to her seat. The movie was a nearly an hour in, but for her, the show had just begun.