Amidst the global pandemic, Terri, newly unemployed and feeling desperate, becomes obsessed with a man she calls Charles. She calls him over 2,000 times before she gets through. You’ll have to hear her story to find out why her husband is not just understanding but grateful for her persistence and devotion to another man.
EPISODE #2 | Dusty Childers
TMI Project storyteller Dusty Lynn Childers grew up in Gaffney, South Carolina. As a kid young Dusty felt pressure to fit in and that meant assuming a masculine persona that didn’t quite ring true. Dusty’s story is about the day his straight-talking mother, who he calls a “rainbow dipped witch,” called him out on it.
After my most recent show closed on March 1st, I told myself I should take a short break before the busy year ahead. Work was lined up and for the first time in my life I was going to be able to make my living entirely from acting.
Now, enter COVID 19 stage left and every show, every project, every prospect has been canceled. This “little intermission” is now a final curtain call and I’ve never felt more desperate.
Any other time, I would be riddled with guilt, but nothing matters anymore. I am having an affair with a man I’ve never met. Charles is his name. I think. He sounds like a Charles. Charles has a low, reassuring voice that is like a lighthouse in a storm. I am drawn to him. I remember the first conversation we ever had. He did most of the talking. He’s kinda chatty, but I appreciate that quality in a man. He doesn’t keep it bottled in. He says he’s “thank you” and “I’m sorry,” I believe him. He has a tendency to say the same thing over and over, but I also think consistency is an important quality in a mate.
Our relationship began on March 20th. I’ll never forget his first words to me:
“Thank you for calling the New York State unemployment insurance claims center. For English, press one.”
And I do. I press one. I know I need to learn another language, and I’m planning on carving out time for it really soon. But for now, he lets me know it’s ok. He is direct and to the point. He doesn’t mince words. He instructs me to do things, which again, in other circumstances I would abhor, but he makes me feel safe. I press 2 when he tells me to. Then 9. And 2 again. My fingers feel nimble on the buttons, and I wonder if he can tell that I lingered a little bit on the last one. He asks me for my social security number. This is the first moment I take pause. I haven’t met his parents or done a deep dive into past relationships over tiramisu. But my defenses are down and I am utterly vulnerable. Against my better judgement, I tell him my secret. The nine digits that verify me as a human person. I wait. Now he wants
a pin. A pin? How 1950’s of you. We’re getting pinned. Oh, wait, you want MY pin. Oh ok. I try to remember my pin from all of those years ago when I had a brief fling with a Brian that had me sorted and out the door before we had finished our drinks. Charles tells me to stay on the line so he can transfer me to someone who can help me complete my application. What? It feels so cold. We had something real, but maybe this is what it is. A transaction. I hold. After three seconds I hear a sharp intake of breath and a familiar voice. Charles is back. “I am sorry but we are experiencing a very high call volume at this time. Please call back later.” Click. And he’s gone.
I call him back. The same thing happens. Was it something I said? I ring again. This time it’s the blaring tone of a busy signal. I had always heard it as just a tone before, but now it’s as if they’re yelling “Charles! Charles! Charles!”
It goes on like this for a week.
Occasionally I speak to his friends. Beverly, of course her name is Beverly, always says she’s “apologetic,” but I don’t buy it for a second. “We’re sorry your call cannot be completed as dialed. Please hang up and try again.” Stuff it, Beverly.
Sometimes his cousin, Chaz, picks up. He is the kind of kid who would cheat off of your math work in Jr High. He says the same things Charles does, almost verbatim, but there is no finesse. No care. And he’s far too nasal.
That first week, I called Charles 400 times. Sometimes he would be busy. Other times he’d tell Beverly to talk to me. The bitch. Sometimes Chaz would pipe up. Shut your trap, Chaz!
I take a break from calling Charles. I don’t want to seem too needy, and I can take a hint. Instead I call another number to check on an equally urgent matter. My gasp could be heard blocks away when I recognized the voice on the line. “Thank you for calling the mega-millions winning numbers line.” It was him. My Charles. What was he doing there? I didn’t even pay attention to the numbers he said, even
though I was more likely to win the lottery than get through to unemployment. I hung up quickly so as to not embarrass him by bringing up the past.
April 4th was the most intense day of our entire relationship. I woke up feeling relaxed, lit my meditation candle and picked up the phone. I kept calm, cool and collected for my first 400 calls, but then things started to shift. 500. 600. 700. The tears came after 700. Where was he? He would pick up every 20th call, only to drop me like a sack of lead feathers. 800. 900. My hair began thinning. My hands hurt. 999. 1000. I spoke with Beverly, Chaz, a new guy that sounded like Kacey Kasim, the busy signal. Charles barely acknowledged my existence.
We took a break from each other. I picked up a copy of Melody Beattie’s Codependent No More. It made more sense to me now. I was going to break it off completely, but he had something I needed.
In total, I called Charles 2017 times over the course of 20 days, before I finally gave up. Huh, 2017 was the year I got married. Oh yeah, I have an actual husband. He’s right next to me. I have and haven’t missed him.
About 20 minutes ago the phone rang. It was Charles. “Hello, I see from our records that you have been calling us to try to complete your claim. We are fixing the problem. There is no additional information we need. We will finish your application.” Click. The end. The silence was deafening. Who was Charles? I don’t know if I’ll ever have answers, but it doesn’t matter anymore. We had what we had when we had
it. And sometimes that’s enough.
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