“You’ve reached the emotional labor hotline. Amelia speaking. May I get a name, please?”
“Hello, John. How are you today?”
Next to Amelia, Stacy’s nails click-click-clacked on the keyboard as the girl typed with her long, sharpened manicure. Stacy’s headset was buzzing, but she didn’t seem to register whatever the man on the other end was saying, her face glazed over. When she noticed Amelia watching, she glanced over and winked.
“I’m so sorry to hear that,” Amelia said. While listening to Stacy’s typing, she missed what John said—was it that his girlfriend dumped him? A beloved dog had died? People at work were too mean to him?
“Thank you,” John sniffled, the sound crackly over the phone. “It’s been tough, but I’ve been managing okay. I just… I just have no one to speak to. I never thought I’d call this number, but…”
Most men said this when they called. Some played it off as an accident—“my finger slipped”—but most went in with a studied superiority. I never thought I’d be that guy. I never thought I’d have no one in my life to vent to. Can you believe it? Me calling this number?
“Of course. But that’s what we’re here for,” Amelia cooed.
“Thank you. I just miss her so much.”
Ah, Amelia thought. Dumped by his girlfriend or divorced by his wife.
“Tell me about her.”
So he did. They were on the call for one hour, ten minutes, and thirteen seconds, according to the clock on Amelia’s computer, which started the timer as soon as she said her own name into the phone. They met in college, they dated for two years. When she wanted to move in together, he got cold feet, even though they’d already adopted a dog. This led to one fight, two fights, three fights. And then it was easier to count times they didn’t fight. She ended it two days ago, and John said he was relieved at first. And then, this morning he found a coffee cup with her initials on it and tossed it in a fit of rage. It had cut his hand so badly he had to go to urgent care and get stitches.
Oh, and she also took the dog.
“Which is why I’m calling,” he said.
“Oh my gosh, that’s awful,” Amelia said, drawing out the last word like a bow. And then, the arrow: “You poor guy.”
John sniffed. “I know. Thanks for listening to me.”
“Oh, any time. How about I give you my direct number, in case you want to talk again?”
“Wow, really? Uh, that would be great. I loved speaking with you.”
Amelia and Stacy exchanged knowing looks. For first-time callers, a direct number was always proffered. It was a way of making the man feel special, like he had direct access to a girl at any time, just so he could vent his issues. Like the girlfriend or wife that had just left him. “Of course. Are you ready?”
They were always ready. She offered her number and then ended the call, a sense of relief rushing through her, until the line rang again.
Amelia began working at the emotional labor hotline just after graduating college. It was easy money. Growing up as a young woman meant she had been conditioned by society to listen for hours on end to other people’s problems. And best of all, no one was really looking for advice, or for her to say anything profound. She could say “hmph” and “ahhh” and make little chirpy noises, as if she were a bird in Cinderella’s hair, listening to how cruel her stepmother was. But Cinderella would never complain, Amelia knew. It was Cinderella who was probably listening to the prince go on and on about his distant father.
She had been in the job for a year and now she had it down to a science. She knew which men wanted a syrupy-sweet voice. When to sound like a baby. When to take on a huskier tone. When to let out a squeal. She began to see these men not as men, but as disembodied voices that she was trying to please with everything in her arsenal, like weak gods asking for tribute.
And when she went home, or out for drinks with Stacy, she would feel all of her empathy and emotions drain out of her. The gods had reaped them all, swallowed them like whole horses and cows, and disappeared, until the next time they demanded to be fed.
Stacy’s nails were always long and always blood red and always curled around her wine glass in the most pleasing way. With Stacy, Amelia didn’t have to listen. Usually they just sat together in a booth, both on their phones, both drinking the same type of wine, as a substitute for talking. Occasionally they would say something like: “Did you see what Princess Kate was wearing?” or “Did you hear about Andrea’s divorce?”
But as Stacy slid into the booth across from Amelia, she could see just how upset her friend was, and when she curled her fingers around her glass, they turned white with effort. “I’m shaking,” Stacy said. She looked down at her empty glass, as if she could fill it with moscato via telepathy.
“This guy. He called and…” Stacy shook her head, as if shaking away her thoughts. “I can’t tell you. It’s too much.”
Amelia’s mouth crushed into a line. “That bad?”
“So bad. Just awful,” Stacy replied. “And he just kept going on and on. It was too much.” She was shaking even as the waitress poured from their chosen bottle of wine.
Amelia felt her heart flutter. Even though she didn’t want to, she asked: “Are you sure you don’t want to tell me?”
“You wouldn’t mind?”
“No.” She would, but she knew she had to listen. Stacy was doing the “be a beggar,” a move men on the emotional labor hotline often pulled, where they would deflect and deflect and deflect when it came to their problems, until the girl on the other end begged to hear it. Needed to hear it. And then finally, they would unload.
Stacy took a deep breath, pausing while the waitress filled her glass. When the server was gone, Stacy launched into it. “Oh my god, this guy. He ran over his wife’s cat. On purpose! Said it was getting too much attention.”
“What the hell?”
“I knooow,” Stacy said, drawing out the last word. “It was disgusting. I wanted to hang up, but like, you know we can’t,”
“Hmph,” Amelia said, taking on the tone she used for her calls.
“He said she loved it more than him and he had to get rid of it. And he was looking for sympathy! For me to say he was right.”
“What did you do?”
Stacy sighed. “What do you think? I said he was right. And you know what’s messed up? I believed it.”
“Ahhh,” Amelia replied, another weapon in the arsenal.
“I believed it. While he was talking, I believed everything he said. Isn’t that sick? That I empathized with him?” Stacy took a sip of her wine. “I don’t think I should do this anymore. It’s so messed up. Like, it’s affecting the way I see things. The way I talk. When I talk to Mark, I don’t even listen. I’m just like ‘uh-huh,’ ‘yeah,” ‘oh my gosh.’ It’s so bad. I just can’t bear the thought of listening to another man.”
“It’s hard after listening to other people all day.”
“It’s exhausting.” Stacy leaned against the booth, her eyes closed. “I’m gonna be quiet now. Is that okay?”
“Of course,” Amelia said, and pulled out her phone, scrolling and scrolling, reading about the duchesses, watching puppy videos, laughing at memes, but still thinking of the purposely-run-over cat.
Dawes, Amelia’s boyfriend, was laying on the bed next to her, neither of them speaking. Her phone was out again, her chin tilted down so now there were two of them.
“How was work?” Dawes asked after a while, the paperback he was reading resting on his chest.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
She hesitated. She knew he wanted her to ask, so she relented: “How was work for you?”
Dawes sighed. “I’m sure you don’t want to hear about it.”
“No. Of course I do.”
“It was awful. So, basically, I did all the work for this project. Like 95 percent of it. And then today, they were handing out kudos to people—not just kudos, like, actual plaques. Like we were kids getting good citizenship awards.”
Amelia made a noise like “hmph.”
“Yeah. Right? And they mentioned this project and they didn’t give me the plaque. They gave it to the project manager. Isn’t that stupid? I’m the one that did the project. It isn’t even a job duty. And I don’t even get a shoutout?”
“Did you want a plaque?”
Amelia returned to one of her old standbys: “That’s so frustrating.”
He continued on like this, repeating the same situation with slightly different information each time. Amelia repeated herself, too. Hmph. Huh. Hm. Oh? What? That’s crazy. That’s frustrating. It was like she was no longer in control of what she was saying, like the words were just a part of the air she was discarding. In her hand, her phone, still lit, was draining its own battery.
Stacy quit the next day. She did not give a two weeks notice and said only a mumbled apology as she cleared off her desk of all personal effects. They had all of her calls route to Amelia.
Amelia had to juggle two at a time: the man who lost out on a promotion versus the man whose wife came out as a lesbian. The man who described his wife as a nagging banshee versus the man whose beloved aunt just died and left him nothing in the will. Sometimes she would lose the thread of the conversation, sometimes she’d say the wrong thing to the wrong person.
And yet, the men didn’t seem to care. It was quite enough for them to know a human woman was on the other end of the call, sitting in a dumpy office building, listening to them vent, rant, and wail. As long as someone could proclaim, “Oh my god,” when he described his wife flinging all of his clothes out the second-floor window, it was fine if she accidentally said his aunt just died in a house fire caused by Christmas lights.
That day, she skipped her two government-mandated breaks. She skipped lunch. She talked until her mouth was sore and her lips were snappy and dry. Finally, the day ended, and Amelia began the long walk home.
As she walked, her phone lit up. It was her mom. She answered “hello” and immediately her mom sprang into conversation, the thread of which Amelia could barely follow. It had something to do with her older sister and a birthday invitation that was not handed out to a cousin. Amelia was so tired and dehydrated that she could only resort to her old bag of tricks: “Is that right?”
“Why would she do that?”
“I don’t get it…”
The conversation was an ouroboros, and when finally the tail of it had been swallowed, Amelia’s mom hung up. Amelia had been waiting outside for the conversation to finish so as not to disturb Dawes. Already it was dark and chilly, pinpricks running up and down her arms as she stepped into the warm apartment building. Dawes was busy working on an article so Amelia began to cook. When she finished, they ate wordlessly, Dawes still on his computer and Amelia planted in front of the television, watching reality T.V.
When that was done, she washed all of the dishes, filthy water accidentally splattering onto her new shirt. She climbed into the shower, the water like white noise, and tried to have her own thoughts, reflect on her own memories. But all through the shower it was the same: she thought of the calls, her mother’s and the men’s, on a loop like very short playlist, and there was no time for any other song.
The next day was slower, but not by much. Amelia was able to take her first break. When she returned, a call was already waiting for her, the light blinking red.
“You’ve reached the emotional labor hotline. Amelia speaking. Can I get a name, please?”
“Hello, Derek. How may I help you today?”
There was silence on the other end, although Amelia could hear him shuffling around. Still, she asked: “Hello? Are you there?”
“I’m here. I don’t even know why I’m calling.”
“This is so stupid. Why am I calling some stranger?”
Amelia cleared her throat. It would be one of those calls, and already she felt her pulse quicken. “Why don’t you start off by telling me how your day is going so far?”
“Like crap. Like every other day.”
“Okay. And why is that?”
“Jeez. Should I list all of my problems?”
Amelia had to bite her tongue to prevent herself from replying, “That is why I’m paid.”
Derek continued: “I just got fired. I have no girlfriend. I’m still stuck at home living with my parents. I have no money, no savings. A useless degree. And the only person I can think to speak to is some random stranger.”
“That all sounds awful.”
“You think?” he sniped back.
“Tell me more about it.”
“I just did.”
Amelia opened her mouth, then closed it like a fish. “I…”
“How come you work for this place?”
Amelia shook her head, as if he could see her. “I don’t—”
“Don’t answer that, actually. I’m paying to talk about myself.”
Amelia’s eyes rounded. “Right. Anyways, that all sounds very difficult.”
Amelia chewed on the inside of her cheek, racking her brain for something to say. They were silent for several minutes until she pulled out a little-used sheet from her desk drawer, back from when she first started. It was a list of canned phrases they gave them back when the girls were first training. But as she scanned the list, she realized she had memorized them all by heart, that her tongue had its own muscle memory and knew all of this already, and there was nothing new to say.
“Are you there?” Derek asked, breaking her reverie.
“Yes,” Amelia said, still unable to say anything else. “I’m sorry to hear about all of that. That’s all so terrible.”
Derek mumbled something that Amelia couldn’t hear.
“I’m hanging up now,” he replied.
“Wait!” Amelia exclaimed, surprising herself. Her heart was beating rapidly.
“I…. well, do you want my number?”
“Your number? No, not really. Are you made to give it out or something?”
Amelia swallowed. “Yes.”
The line went dead. Another call was waiting. As she answered, a little bubble popped up that let her know Derek was writing a review of her. As the man on the other end talked to her about accidentally running over his child’s dog, Derek’s review popped up:
“I know I shouldn’t expect much from women who probably didn’t even graduate high school, but Amelia A. was singularly useless at her job. Do you guys do any training? Maybe next time you should employ people who actually speak English. What an absolutely useless service. Zero stars.”
Amelia knew she would have trouble sleeping that night, which is why she entered the pharmacy in search of melatonin. The line for the checkout was long, which would usually deter her, but she got in it anyways behind a woman with a crying baby and in front of a man who would not stop coughing without covering his mouth.
The line moved at a snail’s pace, and she turned back to the conversation with Derek often.
Finally, it was her turn. She placed the melatonin down on the counter and the cashier asked if she had a store card.
The cashier nodded. He looked at her and asked, “How’s your day going?” Her stuff sat on the counter, he hadn’t yet moved to scan it.
Amelia smiled in return. If they lived in a world where that question necessitated truth, she would be screaming in the middle of the pharmacy, throwing stale candy by the counter all over the place. But it did not necessitate truth, so instead she replied: “Fine. How about yours?”
The cashier shifted as he typed something into the register. He let out a sigh and began to pick up her items, scanning them slowly, looking all over for the barcodes. Then he said: “To be honest with you, it hasn’t been great. It’s been a rough day.”
Amelia felt her heart begin to beat quickly again, her pulse begin to race. Through gritted teeth, Amelia said in reply, “Oh no. That’s terrible. Why don’t you tell me about it?”
So he did and she listened.
Ashley Burnett's work has previously appeared on The Toast, Wyvern Lit, Necessary Fiction, and Split Lip Magazine, with more forthcoming.