I’m a very good listener, and that’s about the only thing I’m good at. So when it came time to decide what the hell I was going to do for a career, I settled on therapist. Problem was, I couldn’t give advice worth a good god damn. I could listen to people’s problems, sure, but I sure as hell didn’t have any solutions for them.
But you know, one thing I learned from my years of soaking in information from people is that everyone else in the world prefers talking to listening. They’re also great at giving advice and terrible at taking it. The process of giving advice creates an equilibrium for people, like they’re figuring things out for themselves by saying the words. That, and they feel satisfaction for “doing me a favour” by giving me “helpful advice.” So I got an idea.
Instead of a call-in help line, I’d start a call-in line where people give me advice. Doesn’t matter what that advice is. Whatever tips and tricks and “life hacks” they know of, they just dump it all on me for a modest by-the-minute rate.
Sounds like a stupid idea, right? My friends thought so too. But now, it’s my primary means of income. And it’s decent income.
In fact, I met my girlfriend through the advice line. Yeah, maybe it’s unethical, but I never did get licensed as a psychiatrist. Technically, there are no official ethics to speak of. I just happened to meet some women who appreciated a guy who could really listen.
Most of them got jealous easily, though. All those calls from anonymous women, giving me advice on anything, from cooking to sex. A lot about sex. It seemed they wanted to get the word out about the proper way to satisfy them, but weren’t comfortable actually communicating with their partners. It was kind of sad, actually. But anyway, potential girlfriends didn’t like having to “share” me. Not Jillian, though. She was one of the rare breed who could speak and listen. So she wasn’t upset that I was listening to those other than her.
The one thing about the job is that there are no off hours. I get calls in the middle of the night, I had to get hands-free calling in my car, and now, even while I’m at the lake on vacation, my phone is buzzringing away.
“Help Wanted Help Line,” I rehearsed into the phone. “How can you help me today?”
“You think you’re wise, taking in all this advice,” said the other end. A woman. She sounded familiar. I looked at Jillian, who was tanning herself next to me, the sun glistening off her browning skin.
“But I’m not?” I said. I grew skilled at leading conversations towards getting advice. The trick was to keep them talking, and not have the focus on me. Really, the line was so people could work out their own problems by using me as a sounding board. Often, I rarely needed to speak at all.
“No, you’re not. You can listen, but you don’t change. You like to think you have some gift, that everyone else just wants their turn to speak, but you’re the only one who would rather listen. The truth is, you’re depressed. Anxious. Apathetic. Nobody else matters, and it’s easier to be passive than active when nothing is important. You’re sleepwalking through your life, Allen. Letting it bounce off you. You’re not really taking it in. You’re rubber, and the world is glue.”
“Are you okay, Allen?” Jillian asked. I realized I was shaking. My call-in info didn’t include my name.
“Do you have some advice for me?” I asked, trying to keep my voice even. Normally I’d never hurry to wrap up a call, but this one… it wasn’t like the rest. And just as I finished asking, I realized I wasn’t trying to wrap up the conversation after all. No.
“The one time you actually want advice,” said the voice. “Fine. I’ll give it to you. You need to put some holes in yourself, Allen. Not all the way through, though. Just partway. Enough to let things in. Enough to soak up life. Because you’re either a sponge or a stone. And there’s only one way to know which.”
She hung up.
“Allen?” said Jillian.
I handed her my phone, and got up out of the patio chair. The sand was hot against my feet, against that barrier of flesh. And when I dove into the lake, I felt like ice. But I had to know. Sponge or stone. I swam and swam, with Jillian screaming my name. I heard her. She was muffled by the water in my ears, but I heard her.
Today’s three random prompt categories were, “One useless skill that defines your identity,” “Call-in advice line,” and, “The lake.”
This one wound up being a lot more haunting than I’d anticipated…