A red light blinked obnoxiously at me as I pulled my headphones down over my head. The tinny echo of the studio was muted for a brief moment and I stretched out my arm, letting my finger hover over the little red light.
I pushed it.
“Hi there, caller.” My own voice was fed back to me through the headphones. When I first started this gig, I’d been thrown off by it. Everyone hated the sound of their own voice. Add that to the crippling anxiety that used to grip me before I was live on the air, and there you have it, a perfect recipe for disaster and epic word fumbles. Luckily for me, my producers thought I was too charming to give up on. “You know how this shtick works. Let’s start with your name and the reason you’re calling, and I’ll do my best to help heal your heart.” The words tumbled out of me in the same chipper cadence they always did as I pressed my earphones closer to my head.
“Nessa? Is it really you?” A long girly sigh filled my ears.
“The one and only.” Literally. One and only.
A bit of guilt tugged at me. No, maybe not guilt, but rather something a little harder to pinpoint than that. It was a new feeling I hadn’t experienced before, but over the last couple of weeks, I’d begun to feel a little bit like a fraud. Some diligent nightly internet scrolling with a glass of wine and a sandalwood candle burning close by suggested I was suffering from a very common professional ailment: Imposter Syndrome.
“Hi. Wow. I can’t believe I got through to you. Um. Okay. Here goes.” There was a breathy pause on the other end as my caller organized her thoughts.
I was used to this. Callers never really expected to get through to me. In the beginning, years ago? Sure. But now the lines were flooded with calls every night and she knew just how lucky she was to be on the air with yours truly.
She cleared her throat. “My name is Margaret. I’ve been trying to get through to you for weeks.”
Another pause filled the line between us. I realized it was my turn to speak. “Tell me what you’re experiencing in your relationship, Margaret.” I added a softness to my voice that I’d been practicing for years and wondered if my callers ever felt like I was too rehearsed. I definitely felt that way sometimes. Add that to my Imposter Syndrome and I was a walking, talking fraudster.
Margaret let out a defeated sigh. “My boyfriend doesn’t want to get married. He has commitment phobia.”
I wondered dimly if Margaret would want my advice if she knew the reason for my Imposter Syndrome. I was an obscenely popular romance guru whose own romantic life was nonexistent. My vagina had not been touched by something other than my aqua-colored vibrator.
“It’s an illness many suffer from.” I leaned forward and crossed my arms on the desk. I tried to ignore the half dozen steadily blinking red lights that were all cries for help from desperate callers. This same call had come in over and over. “How long have you guys been together?”
“About twelve years.”
Twelve years! Holy baskets of balls.
“That’s great.” It wasn’t. Twelve years and no promise of there being something more on the horizon? Yikes.
I caught Doug’s bemused expression through the thick-paned glass in front of me. My manager lifted an eyebrow, smirked, and ran his fingers through his graying hair. I’d worked with him long enough to know he was thinking the exact same thing as me: it’s time to bounce, Margaret.
“I guess.” There was a distinct hint of sadness in Margaret’s voice. She’d clearly had years of practice and had skills in disguising her disappointment, but as a professional who saw this kind of thing all the time, I had an attuned ear to relationship blues.
“I assume you’ve talked to your man about the benefits of being married?” I put on my black-framed, Lisa Loeb glasses. A calmness settled over me as I completely fell into the disposition of my radio personality, Nessa Night.
Doug’s shoulders bobbed up and down with laughter on the other side of the glass. I flipped him off. No one understood my quirks in the studio. “I have, but he blows me off every time. There’s always something suddenly super important he has to do when the topic of marriage comes up. Like tightening a leaky sink or helping his buddy who just got a flat tire. It’s so frustrating. All my girlfriends say I’m wasting my time, but how can I walk away from something I’ve invested twelve years into? We have a life together. I mean, I’ve half-raised the guy.”
I licked my lips. “So are you calling for me to tell you that your friends are wrong, or that they’re right?”
“I don’t know. I mean, they care about me. I know they’re not trying to ruin my relationship. They’re… they’re trying to save me from it.”
“It sounds like you have good friends.”
“Margaret, I think you know what you need to do. This is about you. Not about him. You have to put yourself first and decide what you want out of life. Will you be happy five years from now if you’re in the same spot and not married? Or will this breed resentment? Will this impact other aspects of your life, such as children?”
Margaret sniffled. “I think it’s over. It has been for a long time.”
“I think so too. And I think you knew what you wanted to do before you even called me. It’s time to dump his ass.” Sometimes, when I knew a caller was ready to hear it, the truth could be as sharp as a punch to the gut. And Margaret certainly needed to hear it.
Lying every night to my callers had been getting harder and harder these past few weeks and months, but helping someone like Margaret made it a little more bittersweet. Sure, I still felt like an imposter talking to her about leaving a man she used to love when I’d never known what that felt like, but someone had to do the dirty work.
I told myself my lack of experience made me the perfect person for this role. I wasn’t biased. I didn’t have baggage that clouded my judgment. I had nothing.
Margaret let out a shaky laugh to disguise her pain. “I think you’re right, Nessa. He likes his freedom too much to settle down into the life I’ve always wanted. I should’ve thrown the towel in the minute he brought up the whole pineapple thing.” This last sentence was a mumbled afterthought, but it caught my attention.
“Pineapple thing?” I sat up straight and smiled back at Doug. Never a dull moment in this gig.
Her sighs were becoming the preface to her next words. “In our neighborhood—”
“Where are you guys located in general?” My Mountain Dew was within reach and still cold. The donuts that were left out for me before every show—a variety of white icing and rainbow sprinkles or chocolate-dipped—were long gone. I eyed the crumbs on the plate as I tilted my head back and sipped my Mountain Dew.
“It’s a real bougie neighborhood. Wealthy older people mostly.” I could almost feel Margaret shrug as she spoke. “My boyfriend makes a lot of money in construction and he knew I always wanted the gated community life.”
“Keep going.” I twisted the cap back on my soda. At least Margaret had the house of her dreams. I had Pinterest boards full of inspiration for my ideal home, bright and airy, a grand fireplace, a high-ceilinged dining room. I was a glutton for luxury as much as I was for donuts.
“Well, there’s this deal in the neighborhood where the swinger-club members put a pineapple on their porch or in their yard. It’s kind of a calling card.”
“Are you guys swingers?” I asked with a monotone voice. No need to make her feel something she wasn’t already feeling.
“No! Heavens no.” She let out a shaky laugh.
I took a long swig of my drink. “Is your boyfriend a swinger?”
“No. Yes.” Margaret groaned in dramatic exasperation. I flashed a smile at Doug, who was shaking his head with mirth. We both knew our listeners were enjoying the hell out this segment as they drove home from their night shifts or sat at their kitchen tables. “I don’t know. It feels like he’s trying to tell me that he’s interested in trying it out—and by ‘it’ I mean other women. He brings home pineapple stuff all the time, being silly about it, but it’s not funny. It’s—I don’t know. It kind of spoils whatever confidence you might have left. Which, I might add, isn’t much when the man you’ve been with for a dozen years doesn’t want to marry you.”
My heart ached for her. No one should have to suffer through that kind of uncertainty in a relationship. Love should make things better, not worse. I had to help her, and I had to do it quickly. She was struggling over there, and for a brief second, I was grateful that there wasn’t a man in my life to make me feel so unworthy.
“Here’s what I would do, Margaret. Bring up the swingers club. Ask him if he’s interested in getting involved. Hold him to answering it. He’s a big boy. The least he can do is offer you an honest yes or no. If he says yes and you’re as appalled as you seem to be about it, then kick his ass out or leave yourself. Otherwise, drop your keys in the bowl and enjoy.”
I could almost feel Doug’s snort from the other room. Being a staunch rule follower, he wouldn’t understand the fun of a little promiscuity if it kicked him in the crack of his ass.
“He’s going to say he wants to try it. And I don’t. I’m a stand by your man kinda gal.”
“Then let him go. It’s time to find out the truth and accept and enjoy it or move on. You’re both on different pages. And it’s perfectly normal for two people to grow apart. There is no shame in it. What would be a shame is continuing to force something that no longer serves either of you. Call me and report back, yeah?”
“Okay. Thanks, Nessa.”
“Anytime, Margaret.” I dropped the call and hit one of the ten angry red buttons blinking on my console. A girl like me never got a break to collect her thoughts. I had to keep the callers happy and my time with Margaret had already run a little long.
I fell back into my ritual greeting to start the next call. “Hi there, caller. What’s your name, and how can I hope to heal your heart today?”
The clock said I had ten minutes to go on my shift and the night would be over. Or beginning. A romance novel, a glass of wine, and a hot bath were calling my name. It was the exact thing I needed after a day like today.
I wasn’t sure why, but I was even more aware of how unsettled I was about giving this advice. For the first time in a long time, I’d begun to wonder if I was the right person for this. What if my advice was leading people astray? What if I was breaking up couples who were meant to be, simply because I didn’t know what it meant to be in love with someone?
“Woohoo! Nessa Night!”
I winced at the loud holler in my ear. It was a nasally masculine voice with a thick country accent. “Well, well. Sounds like you’re having a good night tonight, caller. What’s your name?”
“Darrel. I’m from Alabama, darlin’. We always have good nights.”
“I was born in Alabama. Good place to call home.” I smiled as Doug shook his head. He was a Tennessee boy through and through. Nowhere else would do.
“Heck yeah. Shoulda known you were a country girl, Nessa. Hey! When you gonna show us your pretty face? I’ve been listenin’ to you giving folks advice for years, and you sound real fine.”
I cleared my throat as heat rose up my chest. The man couldn’t be more mistaken. I thanked my lucky stars for the anonymity of a microphone, as opposed to a camera. “Thanks for the compliment, but my identity is hidden for a reason. Can you imagine how many suitors I’d have if they all knew that it was me giving out romantic advice night after night?”
“I’m one of them, sweetness. How about I just come up to that radio station that you work for and we can get to know each other a little more intimately? I know how to treat a southern girl right, darlin’.”
I caught Doug smirking at me. Classic Doug. He always found the douchebag callers the most amusing, even if it was at my expense. Sometimes, I found them entertaining too, but today was not the day.
“How flattering,” I lied. It was time to move this call along. Mr. Small Town Asshole had wasted enough time. “Now, let me know how I can help you tonight, Mr. Alabama.” The flyer sitting near the edge of my desk caught my attention. My ten-year high-school reunion was in a few months, and I sure as hell wasn’t going.
Then why are you keeping the flyer? Chuck it.
“The name is Darrel, love dove.”
I chuckled, only half hearing him. My attention had been stolen by the glossy and colorful flyer underneath my still empty donut plate. I tugged it free and glared at the bold yellow letters splattered across the top of the flyer, “10 Year Reunion.” I scowled at it, personally offended by the invitation to return to my old stomping grounds. And by stomping grounds, I meant Hell. The event was only a couple of months away and there was one thing I knew for certain about it. I would not be there.
Chunky little Vanessa Hampton was not returning to her old school thicker than when she’d graduated and perpetually single. No. Fucking. Way.
“Where’d you learn all of these pet names, Darrel?” I drawled as I flipped the flyer upside down. “Did you make these up on your own? They’re pretty good.”
He snickered. “Yeah? I can call you all kinds of things if you like, baby.”
“Let’s focus on the reason you’re calling.”
“I’ve got this hot little number that I’m trying to sleep with.”
Of course. How utterly predictable. I licked my forefinger and dabbed it in the plate of donut crumbs before licking them off. The sugar immediately eased my irritation. “Sounds interesting. Keep going.”
“She’s super sexy. Got a real pretty voice. And she’s a radio DJ.”
The other room erupted in what looked like a great bout of laughter. I glared at Doug and my assistant, Lizzy, who had just walked into the room. She was doubled over, clutching her flat stomach that I’d envied since she was hired two years ago, wheezing with laughter. Doug slapped his knee and rocked back in his chair as he threw his head back with roars of laughter. I’d have to smack them when I got done with the show. Asshats.
“Is she single?” I asked, playing dumb.
“Truth be told, I don’t know much about her, but I know one thing.”
“And that is?”
“This woman is mine. She should be with me.”
“And what would your pick-up line be if you were able to get in front of her?” I forced myself to play along. The listeners were intelligent. They knew this guy was razzing me. No need to skip into the web he was clumsily laying.
“I’d look her in her dark blue eyes—”
“Brown.” I grabbed my drink, twisted the top, and drank deeply, wishing like hell it were whiskey. Family favorite. At least the carbonation was still pleasant.
“Right.” He cleared his throat. “I’d look her in her big brown eyes and say, ‘Baby, if I told you that you were hotter than four hells, could I take you home with me tonight?’”
I spit the drink all over the equipment and my screen as a laugh busted out of me. “That’ll only work on the back of a Greyhound bus, Darrel, but thanks for your call, and good luck.” I pressed the button to let Bubba go and leaned into my mic. “I’d love to hear from you on Twitter. If that line would have won Darrel a night with you, tell me who hurt you. Please. Because Good lord, that’d make for some good quality entertainment. Now please, enjoy a word from our sponsors while I clean my Mountain Dew off my equipment.”
After pressing another button to start the three-minute advertisement, I stood and reached for the paper towels. Lizzy came through the door in a hurry and worked to help me clean up everything with a wad of paper towels and a wet rag that smelled of citrus cleaner.
“Good grief. I have no idea how you do this gig.” Lizzy snorted and took the messy paper towels from my hands. She tucked a short strand of nearly black hair behind her ear and nodded at the timer on my screen. “I’d lose it talking to a bozo like that.”
“I love the idea of love.” I shrugged. My voice—my real voice—was deeper than Nessa Night’s, and a little less flirty. The accent was just for the show. It helped me stay Clark Kent while the world searched high and low for Superman.
Or Wonder Woman, as it were?
“More power to you, sister.” She nodded toward the caller board. “Doug said to try and squeeze in one more call. They have a normal-sounding guy on the line. Your usual dude.”
“Mr. No Name?” I smiled as butterflies danced in my stomach. The guy had been calling since the beginning of my show. His voice was deep and rich like German chocolate. Something about it dragged me in deep. It played with me in my dreams and offered promises of pleasure. The itch to get home to my book and a glass of wine was suddenly gone.
“That’s the one.” She winked and turned, walking back out of the studio. Doug gave me a thumbs-up, which I returned with a little less gusto.
Let’s do this thing.