Contest Winner - 1st Place
Diana Spechler is the author of the novels Who by Fire and Skinny. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Glimmer Train Stories, The Southern Review, The Paris Review Daily, Esquire, GQ, Brevity, and elsewhere. She teaches writing in New York City and for Stanford University’s Online Writers’ Studio. Learn more at www.dianaspechler.com.
How to Love a Telemarketer
Be lonely. Be lonely as only an eighteen-year-old in a college dorm can be. At night, watch circles of girls eat pizza on the floor. Watch girls in tank tops and underpants shave their legs together at the sinks. Watch those girls join sororities for which you lack sufficient hygiene and social skills. Shave your legs alone. Bleed as though you’re lying on a Civil War battlefield. Cry and call your mom. “Ouch,” tell her.
Let go of your fantasy: You will not be best friends with your roommate. Your braces-wearing roommate from the Colorado-Utah border does not need friends because she has a twenty-three-year-old boyfriend who visits her in his UPS uniform. She burns so much incense, you experience life with her through a cloud. She blasts Enigma, the least enigmatic band of the 1990s: Love. Devotion. Feeling. Emotion.
Answer the phone in your dorm room one afternoon when you have nothing to do. Any afternoon, really. The telemarketer wants to sell you a long-distance plan. Tell yourself his deep voice is sexy. Later, tell everyone who will listen, “His voice was so sexy, I bought his long-distance plan.” But you’re too young to understand what sexy really means. You’re a virgin, despite all the hand jobs. You can’t even manage a tampon. You’re still that girl who gets her period in her pants. You’re still that girl who thinks Birkenstocks give her a certain je ne sais quoi.
Keep him on the phone. You don’t know how lucky you are—you’re among the last teenage girls who get to twist the cord around their finger. Pelt the telemarketer with personal questions. Wonder if you’ll grow up to be a professional interviewer like Ricki Lake.
Wrench from the telemarketer an amazing coincidence: The name of his hometown in Oregon matches the name of the town in Texas to which your family just moved from Boston. You have heard, though you forget where, that nothing is a coincidence. Say, “Weird.” (Say that a lot, in various contexts, to suggest your deep insight into the world’s weirdness and your subsequent separateness from it.)
Invite him over.
Now get nervous. He is a stranger. What if he’s armed? What if he’s thirty or has a tear tattoo? Put on your denim overalls. Take them off. Put them back on. Put on your Birkenstocks. Wonder when they’ll finally mold to your feet. Admire your reflection. You look very casual. You look like a girl who goes out with so many of her telemarketers, she can’t keep them straight.
Leave your door propped open. Scribble a few hearts on the white board so he’ll think friends write you messages. Watch him appear on the threshold, fill the space with his football player body, his amber eyes, his dimples that suck the air from the room. Offer him a root beer from your mini fridge.
“I’m good,” he says.
“I know,” you say stupidly.
Together, walk all over campus. Every now and then, his knuckles brush yours. Walk past the stone lions outside the dorm; normally they vomit a steady stream of water, but tonight they practice self-restraint. Walk past the library with the engraved quotation: “Who knows only his own generation remains always a child.” The sentence is missing “He”—“He who knows.” You’re too young to understand how silly that omission is, how removing a word is like screaming it.
Count the number of times the telemarketer says, “my ex-girlfriend.” Campus is beautiful. It’s so beautiful, it’s not to be believed. You can see the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, even at night. You’ve never quite registered all the beauty before—in Boulder, in Colorado, in the universe.
(That’s also like screaming it.)
When the telemarketer shows you the Taurus tattoo on his back, tell him, “I always date Tauruses.” When he smiles, long to marry the b’jesus out of him although you’re barely a legal adult and he’s a stranger who’s not even a Jew.
“You’re funny,” he tells you, bumping your shoulder with his.
After your walk, let him hug you outside your dorm. Vanish into his vastness. You’ve never been held by muscles before. Your high school boyfriend weighed one hundred forty pounds. Make out with the telemarketer and see sparks like the time you crunched Wint-O-Green LifeSavers in a dark closet. Run inside and up four flights as fast as you can. In the hallway, find your neighbor with the long blond ponytail, a girl you hardly know. Tell her, “I’m so in love. I just kissed this guy. I’m so in love.”
She is kind and hugs you and jumps up and down while shrieking, eeee.
Be a girl whose boyfriend has to dial dozens of numbers a day, but calls her two to three times a week because he wants to. Be the only person in the world whose telemarketer doesn’t call enough. Don’t tell the telemarketer that you use the word “boyfriend.” Do spread fun facts about telemarketers: There are business-to-business telemarketers and business-to-consumer telemarketers; the latter are more intimate. Tell people, “It takes a lot of charisma to turn a guarded stranger into a customer.”
Enjoy this bit of your life. You’re at that age when you’re convinced by whichever opinion you voice. You’re no longer so lonely that you try on every article of your own clothing to kill an evening. Boulder is always sunny; it boasts more sunny days than California. You love your poetry class. The professor looks like a poetry professor—his eyes twinkle, as if everything is funny because he’s wise—and he reads your work aloud. You make the friends you’ll have forever—three guys at the end of the hall, one of whom has a perfect glass bong flecked with colorful swirls. Get high always and daydream about the telemarketer.
On the days he doesn’t call, wither like a neglected plant. Stay silent, curled on the Salvation Army couch with your new friends. Take sullen bong hits. When he calls, feel watered back to life. On days when you know you’ll see him that night, smile so much, you’ll need Burt’s Bees lip balm, and pay people compliments that land in a unique way because you mean them. You mean them. You have enough love in your heart for all the world.
You are starting to gather intel: There was some muddying of things, a girl he loved fiercely who left him, a father who died while he watched, a dropping out of college in Oregon, a getaway to Colorado. He never sits down to tell you the whole story; he feeds you tiny pellets, plant snacks.
Practice telemarketer telepathy: Sit across from him on your bed and with as much force as you can muster, send the message I love you from your brain into his so he’ll boomerang it back to you. Remind yourself that telepathy takes time.
When you get your first look at his apartment, feel unable to stop touching him. His kitchen is so cute. His Pulp Fiction poster is so cool. Your hands want to feel the shapes of his face. You don’t have to be a virgin anymore, right? Eventually, everyone leaves their virginity behind, the way you left your Barbies, your childhood home with your dog buried in the yard, your family when you moved to Colorado; the way the telemarketer left Oregon, left his past with its jagged edges. Maybe together, you’ll leave behind every person, place, and thing like a trail of discarded clothes.
In his bedroom, note the framed photographs all over his walls—the telemarketer and a girl drinking from a coconut, the telemarketer in a tuxedo with the same girl in a prom dress, the telemarketer and the girl laughing, buried up to their necks in sand. Look closely at the girl. She’s you—dark hair, something similar in your smiles. But understand that she is prettier. Understand that she is much prettier. Understand that she has the body of Janet Jackson. Understand that losing your virginity to the telemarketer will mean sleeping with a guy to whom you are a low-rent Janet Jackson impersonator.
“Come here,” he says.
In his arms, you would give him anything. Let him unfasten your overalls. His torso swells with muscle. He wraps your hair tight around his hand and looks back and forth between your eyes. Now you know what sexy really means. But his penis stays slumped over like someone sad.
“It’s not you,” he says.
The sound you will forever associate with the telemarketer’s weeks of silence is the garbage truck that rolls up outside your dorm each morning. At 6 a.m., it lifts the dumpster off the ground, pouring trash into its mouth like a cartoon monster who eats handfuls of people. Then it slams the dumpster down so hard, you feel the vibrations in your bed. It is the worst sound you’ve ever heard. You can’t believe that you’re supposed to endure this soundtrack to your heartache.
Go ahead. Call the telemarketer’s home phone. Why not? Didn’t this whole thing begin because he called you? This isn’t the 1950s. You can call a boy. Call him. Again. Call him again. Call him again and again and again and again and again and again and again. In a year, the first time you see a Caller ID box, remember these days and feel briefly faint. Call him. Call him. Call him. Call. Him.
You have felt a version of this pain before—three years ago, because of the boy from photography class who kept guitar picks in his pockets: You dropped acid together on a golf course and fell in love with him under the stars. Days later, he fell in love with your best friend. Holding hands, they said, “We would never do anything to hurt you.”
And another version, another time—when a boy you thought would always love you talked on and on about a girl named Hannah. “But she’s so ugly,” he made sure to add, and you understood that you’d lost him to her.
You know this panic, this hollowing of the chest, this nausea. You all know it—information tucked into X chromosomes, passed through generations of women since the dawn of time like an instinct for danger. You will know it again when you lose your virginity in a fraternity house and then lose the fraternity boy, and again when Mike, the one you’ll love best, plucks you like a tick from a sweater. And again when Peter—the glass bong owner, the one with whom you sometimes pass hours just sitting and staying quiet together—chooses opiates (over you?) and disappears for most of a decade. You will know the feeling at twenty-seven when an ex gets engaged. And again at thirty when a man says he tried; he tried to love you, but couldn’t.
That time, you’ll think, something has been cut out of me that I’ll never get back. The thought will pass in a fit of melodrama, but you’re right: You won’t get it back. You won’t notice its departure until it’s a balloon speck in the sky.
Have a real conversation with your roommate. Sit on your respective beds, barefoot and cross-legged. She’s run out of incense. You’re playing your own music, Sublime, Bradley’s love song to the girl who sells oranges by the freeway. You’re not the only one, she tells him, but you’re the best, Bradley.
Your roommate says she’s going to have sex with her boyfriend.
Think of him, his UPS uniform, how he always looks ready to deliver. “I thought you’d been having sex with him for years.”
“No, but when I brush my teeth, I always brush my tongue, and one day, I realized I’d lost my gag reflex. So I can deep-throat. So that’s kept him happy.”
Add “gag reflex” to your mental list of things that wouldn’t hurt to lose.
Add “deep-throating” to your mental list of things that make men happy.
When he finally calls you back, run to his apartment as fast as you can. Say, “I missed you,” when he opens the door. Throw your arms around him. His hooded sweatshirt is the softest thing your cheek has ever touched.
He tells you he saw a therapist about his uncooperative penis. “It’s anxiety,” he says. “That’s all. I was worried it was me.”
Sit on his bed. Note that he stays standing. Note that his muscular arms stay knotted across his chest.
“Now when I want to get hard, I imagine floating in a pool. On a raft.”
Ask, “Inflatable or wooden?” and dip your toe in his laughter before you remember that he’s dumping you.
“It works,” he says.
Of course, all of this will wind up behind you—this moment, Sublime, your hymen, your colorado.edu email address, the Birkenstocks that will never get comfortable, your eighteen-year-old skin, your waitressing aprons, people who, as your heart is being broken in the telemarketer’s bedroom, are such givens, so permanent, you don’t even have to think of them; you know they’ll always be there, like deep water when you dive.
“I’m sorry,” he says, “about how things went.”
Have the ex-girlfriend pictures multiplied? She’s everywhere. She’s laughing at you. Or maybe she’s smiling, saying, “I am the other kind of woman, the kind who knows how to leave.” Telling you, “Stand up, be strong.” Telling you, “Please. You’re eight-fuckin’-teen.”
At the door, the telemarketer hugs you and says goodbye, and you say goodbye to the telemarketer, whose great love replaced him and vanished, whose father died without warning him. Day after day, he gets hung up on. Hello, I’m calling because. Hello, I’m wondering if. I want to tell you about. I won’t take much of your time. I just want to tell you about.
Later, feel happy for that boy you knew who got to say goodbye.