It was 1982, and I was three years out of college, working as a temporary secretary while doing voice-overs in New York. Feeling adrift and tired of the uncertainty of the voice-over world, I applied for a part-time job transcribing tapes for a psychiatrist who was studying post-traumatic stress disorder. Arriving for my interview, I was struck by the marble lobby of the Upper East Side building, the waiting room lined with books. The interview with Dr. G went well. An older man with silver hair, he was kind if formal, asking me a few questions before outlining the responsibilities of the position.
I had to be discreet. I was not to talk to the patients, who would sit in the waiting room within view of me. My job was to answer the phone, take messages, and transcribe tapes. There was another psychiatrist who shared the office, Dr. M, and while I would see him occasionally, my work would have nothing to do with either him or his patients. It all seemed very manageable, and after going in and out of offices as a temp for so long, the position seemed to offer a quiet haven.
My first afternoon on the job, I sat down at my desk and adjusted my headset. Dr. G had told me the interviews were with Vietnam veterans, but I hadn’t fully considered what that would mean. Now I hesitated, apprehensive, even though I knew the time for hesitation was over. I pressed “play.”
In flat, lifeless voices, the veterans told their stories: friends blown up before their eyes, body parts littering the jungle, sickness and terror far away from home. I sat stunned in my chair, my hands frozen on the keyboard in front of me. I let the tape run for a few minutes, hit the “stop” button, and pressed rewind, forcing myself to type the halting sentences, the half-finished phrases, the words swallowed by silence. Even as I was overwhelmed by what these men had endured, I was distressed that I was trespassing, listening to accounts that were intensely private. These men had not given me permission to hear their stories, but there I was, a witness.
As the days passed, I couldn’t get through a half hour without stopping the machine I was tethered to and removing the headset. When there were no patients in the waiting room, I would pace from one end of the room to the other, stare at the cars going up and down Park Avenue, look blankly at the books on the shelves. Anything to pull myself together before returning to the voices coming through my headset, voices that seemed to be talking to me alone. As Dr. G’s patients passed my desk each afternoon, I wondered whose story I was listening to.
There was one particular man who came every week. He would nod to me as he came in, and I would nod in return. He walked with a limp across the waiting room; he sat down in the same armchair and stared into the middle distance, his face immobile. He never picked up a magazine, never brought anything into the room, never removed his coat. He sat there waiting, as if his body were somewhere else. One day Dr. G came into the room to usher him into his office, and I heard the man speak before the door closed behind them.
Just a few words—but I knew that voice. I had been listening to that voice earlier that day, a deep voice and a reluctant one, as if the very words were painful to utter. I knew that this man had been exposed to Agent Orange. I knew that his son had been born with a birth defect. All this came rushing in on me, and I felt so pained for him that I could barely focus on my work for the rest of the day.
From then on, the work became even more of an ordeal. Upset by the interviews, lonely in that silent, book-lined room, I did something I had been told expressly not to do: I talked to a patient. A girl who seemed no more than nine years-old, who was seeing Dr. M. A girl whose feet didn’t reach the floor when she sat in the upholstered chairs. A girl who seemed—no matter what her troubles might be—untouched by tragedy.
The first exchange was mundane enough. She asked me what I was typing, and it seemed rude not to answer her. I said as little as possible, but the silence had been broken. Over the following weeks, the girl asked me more questions, and I answered them. I asked her a few questions in return. One day she asked me my name.
I knew immediately I had gone too far, but it was too late. I tried in the weeks that followed to pull back, to say nothing. She sat in the waiting room, giving me dirty looks, walking past me stonily as she left the office.
Soon thereafter, I started receiving crank calls at my apartment. At first the person on the other end of the line just hung up on me. But one night the person said something before hanging up, the voice high and flute-like, and I knew instantly that it was the girl from the waiting room.
The next time I saw her, I tried my best to nod to her in my most professional way, but the calls continued. The vets became, by comparison, almost a solace. They kept a polite distance, nodding to me as they walked by my desk. At the end of each afternoon, I would go back to my apartment, bracing myself for the voice I never heard through my headset, the voice on the other end of the phone that began increasingly to fill me with dread.
Finally, embarrassed and ashamed, I told my story first to Dr. G, then to Dr. M. I sat in their inner offices, twisting my hands, no longer a typist, now a patient. They asked me questions, but they said little. For this, I was grateful. I had listened enough in that job. Besides, there wasn’t much for them to say. I knew I had to stop working there.
Not long afterwards, I had a voice-over audition. I had to sound like a can-opener slicing open a can of tuna. I stood in front of the microphone, trying to sound metallic. Trying to sound like a machine designed to grip and puncture, open and abandon—nothing more. But the sound coming out of my mouth was more a sob than anything else.
[Refer: This essay refers to the switchboard operator above.]
Raima Evan is an assistant dean at Bryn Mawr College. Her fiction has been published in Calyx, Philadelphia Stories, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and Women & Performance. Her one-act play was produced at Actors Theatre of Louisville and published in Dramatics Magazine. She lives in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania with her family.
Image by NickolaiKashirin