Your cheek brushes against the soft ear covering of your headset. You put it on. It’s early Sunday morning, and there are hardly any calls. You sit in ready for thirty, forty minutes without interruptions. Clench your teeth out of boredom. Spin around in your chair. Clean the dust off the keyboard.
You should be lucky. Happy, even. You’re getting paid to eat donut holes and sit in a chair for seven hours. Sometimes you bring a book to read, or your notebook to write in because you’re the only poet in this entire place. But it’s a lie to yourself. To feel productive.
You pluck another white hair from your head. From the hallway, your mom tells you she found her first white hair at 24. You’re 25 and still live with your mom. When she was 25, your mom was married to your father (before he left), no student debt, and a stable job. You’re 25, very single, and working a dead-end job that barely pays enough to cover your bills, and not enough to move out. You feel like a failure, and this does wonders for your self-esteem.
One time, you poured a little bit of rum in your large Dr. Pepper cup from Biscuitville. You felt like you needed a quick buzz before work. You then felt so angry at yourself for ruining that much rum that you tossed the entire large drink in the trash. You were not buzzed by the time you went to work.
You were in Italy once, studying the ceilings of cathedrals and chapels, chin lifted so your eyes could absorb those divine golds and blues. You can still hear the eternal space of St. Peter’s Basilica; feel the ecstatic light of Bernini’s Saint Theresa. In the Sistine Chapel, you used a compact mirror to look up at the ceilings from below. All the paintings were bigger than you, and greater than what you could ever amount to.
The painters and sculptors are dead now, but you’re still living on years after that trip, years after you decided fuck art history! How you want to believe that cathedral dust remains in your lungs, that some of their brilliance remains even a particle inside you.
You’ve mastered the art of illuminated bullshit. Your phone voice is very charming, professional, always chirping. With the added bonus of compartmentalizing every emotion, you’ve learned to tolerate customers who call in cursing you out over something pointless in the long run, because we’re all going to die and none of this will matter. The $400 pair of Italian wool pants Susan from Connecticut purchased will outlive her and end up in some desolate landfill-turned-neighborhood.
The customers follow you even after you clock out, drive home, and grab a beer from the metal fridge. You remember the names of the worst ones. You look them up on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. You know their credit card information, their email, their street addresses. You have so much power when behind the computer screen, yet so little at home. If this is what being God is like, no wonder he quit.
Can you imagine yourself back when you were six years old, drawing your square-bodied portrait with a headset and a frown? You grow up as a teenager and young adult watching movies like Office Space, shows like Parks & Recreation, The Office. Sure, you have the same worlds of bureaucracy and the damn productivity reports, but this is real. You laugh anyway. Laugh at their domino-falling realities, the paper cutouts of coworkers and supervisors.
No one tells you how you will begin to drink alcohol more frequently. How you will throw up in the work bathroom after being harassed by a male customer for days. Just ignore him, your supervisor says as you listen to the multiple voicemail messages and threatening emails.
Often times you come home after a particularly bullshit day of work, and you post in online forums dedicated to those who also work in call centers. You bitch about the mandatory staff parties, ineffective leadership, and the customers. All of them. The racists, the whiny ones with a Brooklyn accent. The men with pinching voices, the girls with Daddy’s credit card. Always the ones who want free stuff for no reason other than because you happened to answer the phone with a hello.
The isolation is inescapable. The voices in your head aren’t the muses. Your working life a monastic cell, like the one you visited all those summers ago in Italy except less holy and with more germs. How you’re always tired of looking up toward some unseen oculus.
Hannah Cohen lives in Virginia, and is a MFA candidate at Queens University of Charlotte. She is a contributing editor for Platypus Press. Recent and forthcoming publications include Severine, Noble/Gas Qtrly, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and others. Follow her on Twitter @hcohenpoet.
Image: Photograph by Brian Michael Barbeito, a Canadian writer and photographer.