I started calling lonely people on Craigslist because I needed the money and they needed a friend. Most of them had specific requests: They asked me to pretend to be the people they missed or wanted to be. One woman, who took long pauses and always sounded weary and could only call at 2 a.m., asked if I could work in her dream job in her dream city in her dream home —and tell her how much I hated it. One caller asked me to live where there was sun. I told her I owned a cherry farm in California. Every morning I would walk through the neat rows of trees, fresh with the sheen of spring green. I told her I picked off the fruit bruised by the heat, and rolled them in the palm of my hand until they were clean from the dust, and held them in my mouth, letting the flesh melt on my tongue until the pits were a marble, stained-red and smooth all over.
Sometimes, I served as surrogates for the women in their lives. (This request was mostly made by men.) A single father asked if I could pretend to be his estranged daughter, a 30-year-old woman with two grandchildren he had never met. Every time, I told him that they were healthy and smart and getting into harmless trouble as kids do as if I could see them in front of me — pasting stickers onto window glass, cutting off wisps of their own hair with safety scissors. Every time, he breathed the same sigh of relief, the stream of air sounding like a storm against the speaker, making me flinch with its sudden contact.
Some —very few—asked me to be myself. But falling into these other faces was like falling into a dreamful sleep. It was so easy I did it even for those rare few who wanted me to tell the truth. It surprised me how easily I could rattle off the names of my fake brothers and sisters. I knew all their allergies, their quirks, the color of the walls of our childhood home: Iris painted her bedroom blue because it reminded her of a clear, sunny day; Andrew was a talented tennis player until he tore his left shoulder. My stories were never secondhand.
I told all the details to a routine caller, a man in his late 20s with a voice that was soft and musical. He clung to my words like I was a priest. Every call was a torrent—a list of the ways he couldn’t live with himself. It was everything small (losing track of important birthdays) and bigger (all the times he betrayed his girlfriend, all the times he made a mistake at work and blamed someone else). I’m such a screwup, I’m such a screwup, I’m such a screwup, he said.
I was there to comfort him. He told me to tell him he wasn’t a bad person and I complied easily. His voice was a constant quiver—like he was on the verge of tears. I spoke gently around him, scared I might pop the bubble and he would never be able to talk again.
But he did it himself. On our twelfth call—or thirteenth, I can’t remember—he confessed to me. I’m not who I say I am. I’m—. I—. He kept stuttering over the last syllable before going silent. I knew he was waiting for me to ask the question. I could hear his breathing, crooked, choked, wrapped in a thin film of phone static.
Don’t you want to know? Who I actually am?
The answer must have been gnawing at him, so deep and shameful, that he needed me to excavate whatever was below the surface. He started sobbing into the phone. I imagined his mouth opening and closing to reveal a plunging pit, its depths dark and undecipherable.
I told him it was alright, and I meant it. I didn’t tell him this, but I couldn’t remember who he said he was. He made his introduction so many calls ago (and I had so many calls) that I had forgotten it.
But he kept crying, his sobs mounting in momentum until it reached its apex, a guttural gasp with a shudder that reverberated through the white noise of the phone. It seemed to surprise him because he went silent, save for a slight quiet whimper—the physical aftershock of the cavity he had unearthed. He hung up without saying goodbye.
I moved on to my next call. She was an elderly woman named Julia.
Julia’s calls always veered between lucid and nonsensical. She loved long, vining conversations, hewing at obscure details. She told me I was like her granddaughter. I shared little about myself, but she said I sounded sweet.
This time, she wanted to talk about the ocean. She said she lived by the coast, and asked if I did too. I said yes, answering honestly for once. She said she loved the beach, loved what the salt water and air did for her lungs. The best part was seeing the ocean at night, because that was when the pale cerulean deepened into indigo, a vast, inky expanse. The waves slamming against each other with no consequence, reshaping themselves tirelessly. It was humbling to stand at the water’s edge. It would be thrilling to sink into its abyss. Don’t worry, she said laughing. I’m not depressed. I believed her because I knew exactly what she meant. How it felt to be close to so much power. How it felt to see the line of the horizon blur, so all that existed was the blue-black nothing. How it feels to sink into the scorch of the ocean’s static, letting the sound eat you whole.