When I call into A Thousand Ways (Part One): A Phone Call by 600 Highwaymen, I know I have four more days until I next see someone whom I know in-person. I’m lonely, stuck in the muddled state of mind where I miss people, yet dread the effort of actually reaching out to someone.
I’ve heard that this piece is a facilitated conversation between strangers over the phone. I feel apprehensive.
I dial a conference call number, type in my passcode incorrectly. Try the backup number. Misdial the passcode again. Return to the original number, growing nervous about accidentally standing up my blind phone date, and eventually I enter the passcode correctly.
We’re doing great. This is not a part of the show.
I’m welcomed into a waiting room by a robotic, feminine voice. She sounds pleasant, patient—I imagine her as a Melissa, a Bethany, a Tatiana. Then, a human voice enters the call.
Robot Voice gives us instructions: one of us humans will be A and one of us will be B. We have to sort that out ourselves. We should also find a quiet place to sit. So far, so good. I sit down on a pillow on my bed. I have been assigned the role of B. Who is my A? Over the next hour, I find out and I don’t.
The prompts start simply. We are asked to describe our rooms, how we are sitting. The prompts get silly. We go back and forth, naming the yellow-colored items we can see around us. I run out of yellow items quickly and scurry to grab a t-shirt of the Brazilian national soccer team to keep up my end of the bargain.
Then, the questions begin. Was A born before 1981? Has A been to Spain? To the Philippines? Slowly, more intimate inquiries are peppered into the mix. What are five words that describe how A was as a child? What was something that A really wanted back then?
I normally consider myself to be a strong audience participant. Yes, I’m that guy who’s willing to go up on stage and moo when prompted or shout out that an improv troupe should perform a scene at a Starbucks in Siberia. These prompts, however, push me. They are delivered calmly. They aren’t insistent, and yet, I find myself reacting against this unearned openness so early in our call. I’m aware that, if A is being asked to share, the spotlight will turn my way soon enough. Soon it does. Was I alive when A was born? (No.) Do I know how to change a tire? (No.) Would I be good in an emergency? (Yes.) Why? (I make lists of action steps in an emergency.) I debate how much to share.
The missteps in our conversation interest me most. Where are we pushed too far? When does the automated vulnerability fail? Early on, A is asked to say the name of someone they love and they find the question too personal to answer. When I’m prompted by Robot Voice to repeat the name of A’s loved one back to them, well, I have no name to say. Later on, when I’m asked to recall a text that I have memorized, I recite one verse of “Monster” by Kanye West before bowing out in shame.
The intimacy is too much and not enough. Are we actually feeling our pulses in sync with one another? Am I really describing my first kiss to a stranger? We are, and I am.
There are nervous chuckles galore. Robot Voice guides us through simple movements, counting backwards from five as we trace the bridges of our noses, the lengths of our forearms. We are told to imagine we’re on a roadtrip through the desert and that our car has broken down on the side of the highway. We’ll remember this and laugh, someday.
This is ridiculous— me, making believe that I’m in the desert with A, going along with cookie cutter prompts designed to open us up on this ersatz speed date.
I want to see A’s face. I wonder if we would be friends in real life.
I describe my favorite picture of myself as a child, walking with my now-deceased grandfather, a silver-haired Romanian immigrant, who leans over to grab my tiny one-year-old hand as we walk away from the camera into the distance.
A and I name children we knew in elementary school. We swap memories we’ll never forget. I’m moved by A’s vulnerability with me, A’s silliness, both of us increasingly allowing ourselves to go where Robot Voice takes us.
We count imaginary stars together and visualize one another in the rooms we are in. A pictures me with a book by the window; I envision A on my couch with a mug of hot chocolate. “I wish,” they say.
The end approaches. What is something we’ll remember about our partner? A repeats the name I said of someone I love. I find myself stumbling—there’s so much and so little to hold onto from our conversation. I repeat a detail A thought someone wouldn’t notice about a person they admired: a special curl in their smile.
Only I get it wrong. I say the smile belonged to A’s teacher. It’s their therapist. I’m embarrassed. I remember A has hazel eyes, A owns a house, a car. A told me about their mother. Knows how to sew. Why didn’t I mention that instead?
I know the details will fade quickly. I wouldn’t recognize A on the street. I don’t even know their name. We’re strangers. We were, and we still are. But A kept me company for an hour. Trusted someone new. Listened when I needed someone to listen.
Did we get through to one another?
We are instructed to say goodbye to one another. We do.
I sit in my living room awhile with the lights turned off.
I’m just as alone as when I started the call. Or am I?