Home > Girl on the Line(3)

Girl on the Line(3)
Author: Faith Gardner

“Journey will be our youngest volunteer ever,” Davina tells the three of us as we sit in the folding chairs, and I can see why: two of the other volunteers are clearly retirees, older women named Willa and Francie. They’re adorable. They both dyed their hair a faint blue over the white and apparently do everything together the way I hope Marisol and I will when we’re granny-aged. But I feel a sea of life experience and lack thereof between us, and when Davina gets up to use the restroom right before we begin, instead of engaging them in conversation, I scroll on my phone. We’re still waiting for our fourth volunteer. A part of me hopes they don’t show, and I can bow out of this wild plan with no responsibility whatsoever. But then the door bangs open and a girl blazes in, guitar slung on her back and lipstick so red it seems neon, an explosion of kinky ginger hair and a nose ring and a startling smattering of freckles on her light brown skin to match. Willa and Francie go quiet, watching her.

“Sorry!” the girl says, dropping her enormous bag and guitar at her feet. She looks around the room with a grimace. “What can I say? I like to make an entrance.”

This girl carries the sun in her hair. I wish I glowed like her. As if she senses my envy, she meets my gaze and smiles.

“Nice jellies,” she says, pointing to my glittery, see-through shoes.

“Nice leopard-print flats.”

“Gracias. I’m Etta,” she says.

“Journey,” I tell her.

“Don’t stop believin’,” she belts out with pop star pizzazz.

“Never heard that one before,” I say.

“Seriously?!”

“No.”

We giggle. Etta introduces herself to Willa and Francie. “I am in love with your hair!” she almost yells. Then they giggle. Etta has that effect on people, apparently. She’s like human laughing gas.

When Davina comes back in, she hands the four of us brick-heavy binders and begins by walking us through the chapter list and outlining what we’re going to learn, all the sections with their laminated pages on everything from mental illness to bullying to eating disorders. She explains how hotline shifts work. It’s like a teacher going through a syllabus. Then she turns to us and asks what made us want to come here and volunteer. She asks me first, smiling, waiting for my answer. The silence seems to deepen as everyone listens. Davina asked me this same question in the interview. I wasn’t expecting to have to share my answer with Etta and Willa and Francie, too. But I repeat the same story.

“I have a friend who recently tried to kill herself,” I say. “I, uh . . . I just want to be able to help her if she ever needs it again. And people like her.”

“Willa and I got sick of the soup kitchen,” Francie says. “You wouldn’t believe the drama that goes on there.”

“Politics,” Willa says, shaking her head.

“Yes, that’s the word. Politics. We’re just little old ladies who want to help people.”

“You two are the cutest,” Etta says. “I can’t even handle it.”

Willa and Francie giggle.

“And you, Etta?” Davina asks. “What about you?”

“I, um . . . well.” She twists her hair. “I guess it’s because I feel like I suck at helping people. I’m no good at it. And I—I’m afraid to. I want to be better. But honestly, I don’t even know if I can. Okay, that probably makes no sense.” She emits a tiny scream. “I’m so nervous right now!”

She doesn’t seem nervous. She seems ebullient.

“You’re doing just fine, dear!” Willa says.

“Well, whatever your reason, I’m so happy you’re here,” Davina says. “I promise the experiences will be intense and frightening and sometimes heartbreaking, but they are also incredibly rewarding.”

“More rewarding than handing out rolls at the soup kitchen, I hope,” Francie says.

“Only one roll per person, Francie!” Willa says, mock yelling.

“Oh, yes, how could I forget.”

The two women giggle at some inside joke.

“You two,” Davina says. “Do I have to separate you?”

More laughter. Davina lets the room get quiet before putting her hand on the binder in her lap.

“Let’s open up to page two,” Davina says.

We begin the work. It’s not easy work. It’s not work that really has right answers all the time, besides some rules that are spelled out up front. We walk through a scripted call where Davina role-plays and acts out possible scenarios, and then discusses our responses with us.

After this first day of training is over, Willa and Francie go follow Davina for a tour of the back garden. Etta and I stand up and with our bags.

“That was so intense,” Etta says.

“It was.”

“Do you think you’re going to go through the full training?”

“Aren’t you?”

“Sure. It’s just . . . a lot of hours.” She slings her guitar on her back. “But then again, Willa and Francie are here, and they’re my favorite people I’ve ever met in my life.”

I smile.

“Do you think they’re a couple?” she asks. “That would make me love them even more. I hope when I’m their age I’m as cute as them with a cute little wife who dyes her hair blue with me.”

Wow. A girl who is into girls. Took me two years of high school before I met anyone at school who was openly queer.

I think I love it here.

The next day, the second day of training, I come back and it’s just Davina, Willa, and Francie.

“Etta wasn’t able to commit to the time the training requires, unfortunately,” Davina says. “But we’ll carry on without her.”

I’m kind of shocked at my disappointment. Etta was so intriguing. We could have been friends. And the next weekend, I come in and it’s just Davina and another empty chair.

“Willa and Francie decided to go back to the soup kitchen,” Davina says.

“Geez, people are dropping like flies,” I say, taking my seat.

“I hope you’re not thinking of leaving, too?” she asks.

“No way,” I tell her. “Unlike my last boyfriend, I’m committed.”

She laughs.

I like Davina. She has a kind, helpful air about her not unlike my therapist, Wolf—a tendency to lean in and listen and allow for thoughtful pauses after I speak. Good thing I like her, too, because this training is fifty hours. FIVE OH HOURS over two weeks. I learn about empathy and transference and validation and mirroring until my brain is bleeding. Bonus: some of this stuff will come in handy, like active listening skills—definitely plan to whip those out during excruciating conversations with my parents. I can’t even imagine what this is like for Davina, who has worked here for years and led dozens of these trainings. The feedback she gives doesn’t feel like criticism, but like she’s simply offering another perspective. Most of what we discuss are hypothetical scenarios, page-long scripts with made-up people struggling with suicidal thoughts or abusive partners or financial stresses. If I learn anything from the binder and its endless hypothetical scenarios, it’s that there are so many ways to suffer. And, as Davina points out, the binder can be useful—“a toolbox” to refer to—but most people and situations don’t fit neatly in one page or one section.

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