“You’re new to this, aren’t you?” says he.
I swallow. I say: “You are in fact my very first call, sir.”
“Ever, sir.” Because how can you connect if you lie? Then, hurriedly: “Sir, I could switch you to somebody else if you’d like, sir.”
“You’ll do,” he says, and I hear: “It doesn’t really matter.” His mind’s made up. I swipe some glisten off my forehead.
“I am here, sir,” I say.
“Enough already with this ‘sir’ business.”
“Sorry.” And I nearly say “sir” again.
“I don’t see much point,” he says.
What’s going down on the other end? Is this dude holding a gun to his own head? Is there a stock of opioids and bottle of bourbon on the coffee table? Has he built his do-it-yourself gallows, wrapping a rope around the big branch on the big tree in the big backyard? Or corded a sweating pipe in some dank basement?
I think: “I am not here to save the day. I am not God. I am here to connect. It’s about connection.” That’s one of the first things they teach you about preventing suicide.
I say: “I understand.”
“What’s your name?”
“Fred,” sort of stumbles out. His name is certainly not Fred.
“People, they surprise you with how resilient they are, um, Fred.”
“Good for people.”
“Mom’s a single parent,” I hurry on. “A tough life and then she turns forty-five and boom!—heart attack.”
Mom and me, we were arguing, like we always do, in the kitchen, facing off at arm’s length, and she says “you’ll be my death,” like she always does, and suddenly I nearly was. She leans over like she’s taking a bow and I think “What’s this shit?” But it’s no act, and she grabs a chair and they both—Mom and the chair—tumble onto floor.
Her breaths sounding like a windup to a sneeze that’s never delivered and her face turning blue. Scared. Them eyes looking up at me and she wheezes the words out: “I really do love you, baby girl. And I know you love me too.” I barely remember calling 911 and stepping up after they glide the gurney into the ambulance. And then the ride and suddenly my chest hurts, and I fight for breath. The medic lady sets me down and I see Mom with the oxygen mask over her nose watching all this, the eyes getting even wider, as if that was possible.
“Don’t worry, ma’am,” the medic says to her. “Your daughter’s only having a panic attack.”
“Only” my ass. Love the way medical people tell you that you’re only having this or only having that.
Strange thing, though, about that ride. You know those adrenaline stories? Where the mommy lifts a car with one arm to save her babykins? Maybe something like that happened because by the time we pull up in front of the ER entrance, Mom’s not doing good, she’s doing great. Her concern for me held back the dark. It’s like she had a nap and might have slept on the wrong side. No more pain in the chest and arm. No more sweating or dizziness.
“Your baseline vitals are amazing, ma’am,” the medic tells her. “Pulse, breathing, blood pressure . . .” Woman shakes her head, pulls Mom’s mask up a bit.
“How do you feel, ma’am?”
“Hell of a lot better.”
“I’m more worried about your daughter than I am about you now,” the medic says. And I guess that’s a joke but, in fact, I am indeed feeling better too.
“Take me home?” Mom asks, like a little girl but she knows that they’re going to put her through the whole battery. No getting out of that at this stage.
So this guy on the suicide prevention hotline is so wrapped in his own pain that he doesn’t bother to ask “How’s your mother doing, now?” but I tell him anyway.
I say: “These days, it’s like it never happened. Thanks to drugs and diet. Doctor says she’s good for another forty.”
“Good for Mom,” the guy says.
Shit, we’re still arguing, Mom and me, or at least doing the dosey-doe. Mothers and daughters: What can I say? I do listen to some of her advice. That’s why I am here at the suicide prevention center. I was a psych/philosophy major, magna cum laude. But that don’t mean shit in the real world. Mom talks me into volunteering, not only because it might look good on my resume but because helping others saves you, she says. I don’t ask what I need saving from because that would just start another fight, but here I am. Over the edge of my cubicle I see a window and the orange glaze from that moon seems to rattle it.
It’s not just a full moon, mind, but a super moon. I almost got into an accident on Kelly Drive because I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It filled the sky and fired up the Schuylkill River.
And for a moment on that stretch of straightway, I become that moon swallowing the night. I was the moon, I tell you. Someone’s horn snapped me back to Earth, North America, the United States, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and Kelly Drive.
The supervisor actually called me today for one final tune-up and she mentions that moon.
“There is no scientific evidence that the moon affects people,” she said. “None. But people believe it does. That’s the problem.”
“I always thought it did something,” I say.
It sure in hell affected me on Kelly Drive.
“Never underestimate the placebo effect,” she says. “And remember: just connect.”
I ask the guy: “Did you eat dinner?”
“What?” Impatience. Need to work on them segues.
“What did you have for dinner? Tonight? Fred?” Still there?
“You’re reading off some script.” A bit disgusted.
I laugh, and then stifle it, and then get angry about stifling it.
Just be yourself!
“They do train us,” I say. “They tell us to make a connection.”
“Sounds like a job interview. Or a dating site. Do you date?”
“These days I just chill with my girls.”
“No boyfriend in the picture.”
“I am taking a break from guys.”
Where is this going? Creepsville?
A phlegm-muffled chuckle. “I’m sort of taking a break, too.”
“Yeah, love can toss you,” I say. People destroy themselves over love all the time, or what they think is love. Kid committed suicide my freshman year.
“How old are you . . .”
“Okay, you are Brenda. How old?”
“Two-ah-wenty-four.” Dragging it out. I hear: So this child’s my last hope? Goodbye, world. I bite my fingernail.
I ask: “And you, Fred?”
“What a coincidence, I am twenty-four too.”
I laugh. He’s flashing some humor. Lame humor, but any kind of humor is okay, I suppose.
He says: “For dinner I had Swanson. Actually, two Swansons.”
“Chicken and . . . chicken. Two types of chicken. Figure I’ll eat what’s in the fridge before they turn the electric off. Before I turn myself off . . .”
I say quickly: “Me and my boyfriend, we just this week broke up.”
“Wish I knew.”
Fred’s starting to annoy me. Is that part of connecting?
“What do you do for a living, Fred?”
“Mostly, I drink, but I haven’t figured a way to make a living from of it yet.”
“Do you know a way I can make money from drinking, Brenda? Sure could use some money.”
He’s losing his house. Next mailing address, his car, if repo man didn’t already get it. Definitely lost his significant other. If he’s got kids, they want nothing to do with him. So, lost the kids, too.
There’s probably been interventions, and rehabs. He’s tried AA more than once. What can I say to him that he’s not already heard?
Not here to save the day. Not God. Connect.
“Are you by a window by any chance, Fred? You just need to check out that moon.”
“I need too?
“Yeah, Fred. That’s an order. Super moons don’t come around but . . .”
Actually, I don’t know.
“November twenty-five, two thousand and thirty,” Fred says.
“That’s the next one?”
“Not the next one, but that’s the next one’s going to be this close to Earth again. Tonight is the closest a super moon ever comes to us.”
Two full sentences. Good.
“I didn’t know that,” I say.
“There’s a lot you don’t know, Brenda.”
Goading. Do I take the challenge or let it be? Easy. He’s zeroed in on my weak spot; alkies do that. I am proud to be an old soul.
“I always discover new things, Fred.”
“What did you discover today?”
“What you just said. About super moons. November twenty-five, two thousand and thirty. I am making a mental note.”
“A mental note’s not worth the paper it’s written on.”
More lame humor. Something creaks at another cubicle and I wonder if there’s critters about and while I shiver, Fred mumbles.
“Did you just say victory, Fred?”
Maybe he chuckles again, or maybe he’s breathing loud, or maybe he just downed a shot that bites back. Whatever, it’s a sad sound.
“Aren’t you supposed to be listening, Brenda?”
“I’m sorry. I thought you said . . .”
“My name is Victor. My parents loved Casablanca. It’s a movie. They named me after Victor Laszlo. He’s a character.”
“My boyfriend and me, we saw that movie, Fred!”
“Victor! Sorry.” Damn! “But we saw it. We took a film course together and that professor mentions it and we say, well, it’s some old shit, but let’s try.”
“Right.” Keep reminding me, why don’t you?
“You miss him.”
Yes, and I am trying to move on but it’s difficult. This isn’t helping but, okay, connection.
“It’s hard to build a relationship that lasts these days, Victor.” That doesn’t exactly roll, either, but I think there’s at least a chance it’s his real name.
I wonder when his wife left him, and which number wife it was.
“All these dating apps and sites,” I say. “It actually makes it harder.”
“Too much noise,” Victor says.
“Choices. Options. Noise. Too much. Is that why the boyfriend quit, Brenda? Kidnapped by kinder?”
I don’t want to get into it, but did I happen to mention that it’s the connection that matters?
“Oh, I guess, you could put it that way.”
You could put it a lot of ways. At first Matthew ghosted, but he does that. I thought he’d get real again in a few days, like always. We were never a committed couple, but taking steps, so I thought. Yeah, right, taking steps. Moonwalking steps, because we never do get there. Get near it, get to the side of it, get around it. But we never actually get to it. He starts showing up late; and not by a little. We’re talking an hour, an hour and a half. No call, no apologies, and no explanation that sits well.
Mom says, “I raised you better than to take that shit. I wouldn’t treat someone I don’t much like that way.”
Mom could do nothing but stare at the TV after she finally kicked Dad out. Didn’t matter what was on, she wasn’t really watching. It was my sixth birthday when it happened, when he drank the birthday present money. So no blowing out candles for me, because he drank the cake money, too.
For a few weeks, he’d call and they’d fight and then she’d hang up and cry. Then, I had this dream one night. I heard my father’s voice, the violence and whiskey rolling around. Spitting out them nice words: “whore,” “bitch,” “skank,” “cunt,” interspersed with the weasel words “baby,” “darling,” and, my favorite, “rainmaker.” And in this dream I floated over Mom and she’s holding the phone in one hand and her forehead in the other and then, I actually become Mom. I am listening to my father’s words and the rantings of that lowlife and I am crying. It gets stranger still. I become my father in mid-rant and I stop the words because there was enough of me in these joined souls to pull it off. One crazy-ass dream.
Years later, I ask Mom: “Why did the calls stop?”
“Restraining order,” she says.
“Can I see?”
Now, Victor says: “No.”
I say, “No what, Victor?”
“Just no,” Victor says.
“Tomorrow morning and things will look different to you, Victor. Promise.”
Just hold on, man!
“What’s the point. I am going to die. You are going to die. All things must pass. What difference does it make when?”
“I know what you’re going through, Victor.”
Actually, I think I am starting to. I mean I feel suddenly so weighed down, beaten and helpless. So ready to quit. I am tired, tired, I tell you. He’s right: What’s the point?
Battle through this! Time for a Hail Mary pass!
“I am hopeful about finding someone,” I say quickly, because dead-man-walking might go mute. “There’s a sea of guys out there. A sea of women, too, Victor.”
“Roger Ailes,” he says.
Click, click, click, click, goes my mind. I pull it out.
“That Fox News guy?”
“Spent all his life building his reputation then it’s torn to shit and he dies. His name’s in the newspaper and on TV and his family, his children, his grandchildren, even, have to see that shit. He willed himself dead, I know it. He wanted out.”
I’m thinking, “Where there’s smoke . . .”
“A tragedy all around,” I say. Especially for the women that creep laid his hands on or talked dirty to. Hello!
“All I am saying is that there are two sides to a story,” Victor says.
“Definitely.” But I’m thinking all these dudes getting caught and about time. I used to like Matt Lauer, but really? A buzzer in his office that automatically locks the door behind beauteous babes? Are there any honorable men left? Any Victor Lazlos out there?
Victor (not Lazlo) now says: “And men and women, well they are different. Flirting is harmless. And those women wanted me, all the so-called victims, they initiated it.”
I don’t know where it comes from or whether it’s anywhere near the right response but I say, “But you’re not in jail, Victor.”
“And it wiped me out financially to stay out of jail. I used to be a mover and shaker, Brenda, believe it or not. Those lying bitches took my fortune, my ex-wife the Queen Bitch took what was left and now here I am, sixty-seven years old and out of options except for maybe dog food.”
“You’re not in jail, Victor.”
He starts weeping and I force myself not to get skeeved, because blatant self-pity always skeeves me. And I don’t get skeeved. In fact, shockingly, I get a bit weepy myself.
Victor says: “Aren’t I in a kind of jail?”
We talk some more. We talk a lot more. We go over the plains and mountains of Victor Not-Lazlo’s pathetic downfall. The story’s been told too often these days.
Somewhere along—and I don’t remember how exactly it comes up—I even recite a bit of poetry to him. Something from Edna St. Vincent Millay:
A man was starving in Capri;
He moved his eyes and looked at me;
I felt his gaze, I heard his moan,
And knew his hunger as my own.
I am one of those who can write a book about every failure in my life. I connect cause and effect all the way back to when I was on the breast. Success? I have no idea, except for the general stuff like working hard and taking chances. For the most part, though, I can’t diagram my successes. Success is something that floats about, something that leaves no trace except a smile.
But here’s the thing: I saved my first life that night. I, Brenda, saved a life. How do I know? Because Victor told me. By the end of two hours he is talking about moving to another part of the country, working as a cook and then going to chef school because secretly, in all the years he’d been climbing the food chain and harassing women and cheating on his wives out of a hunger he never understood, it was real food he’d been interested in. Being a chef had been this corporate big-wig’s dream and now he can finally do it.
“I didn’t expect much when I made this call, Brenda,” he says. “I don’t even know what prompted me.”
“I do: braised leeks with mozzarella and a fried egg.” A favorite in Scottsdale, Arizona, where Victor thinks he’ll wind up.
The super moon wanes on the drive home, like a beach ball resting on the city’s skyline. I am exhausted, worse than if I’d just finished a marathon. And not just because I worked two hours longer than planned. I feel more Victor’s age than my own. Only now is the sadness lifting, but it’s lifting as slowly as the super moon fades.
My cell buzzes. Mom again.
“So?” she texts.
“Interesting night,” I respond.
Yeah, I learned that I can’t do this job. I may wind up killing myself.