The lemon tree outside my bedroom window bursts with canary yellow jewels. I sit in my room, phone camera in hand, observing energetic exchanges between the citrus blossoms and the hummingbirds. Two birds dart and hover next to a branch before dipping into a generous flower bud. Together they weave intricate processes that give life and keep peace. I record a few moments and snap photos until the wings of a distant helicopter compete for space in my ears. I am reminded of last night when I heard them spying on the city overhead. I was cursing my luck, walking away from a taco truck in defeat because I couldn’t find my wallet.
I open a window inside my phone and type the words lost debit card customer service. I erase the word lost and replace it with stolen. Stolen seems more urgent than I can be forgetful and often shove things into loose pockets. I am nervous to call a stranger and ask for help, so I make myself as comfortable as possible before dialing the number. I get into bed, squirm out of my jeans and toss them on the ground. I sip warm tea. I turn off my music so as not to miss a cue. Trying to reach an actual person on a customer service line is like wandering around a funhouse with numbered doors where all ways lead you back to center.
The phone rings twice and I enter into a pre-recorded greeting.
“…Tell us why you’re calling today!”
I imagine something on the other end of the line that is almost alive. Something with blood and veins mixed with programmed parts. Maybe just a head but no body. Maybe just a body with a mechanical head. The voice sounds pretty much alive, but I’ve learned to treat it differently, which is to know better.
“StO-lEN CAR-d.” My syllables are brash and stripped of emotion. This is the best way for a robot to grasp its wired hands around human lips.
“Oh-kay. I understand you are calling about a problem with your card. Let me transfer you to a customer service agent who can provide you with our award-winning, quality assurance!”
There is a pause and a few beeps followed by a single ring. The sound of a flute slowly reveals itself, playing a familiar introduction—the theme song to the movie Titanic.
Every night in my dreams, I see you, I feel you….
The robot interrupts the lyrics to let me know I am appreciated. “Thank you for continuing to hold. We are experiencing a high volume of calls at this time. We value your patience and will be with you shortly.” If robots are programmed with behavior, this one is stuck on exhilarated, like a contestant at a beauty pageant with Vaseline on her teeth, forcing a permanent smile as she talks to a crowd.
The flute begins again from the beginning and the pre-recorded message interrupts at the same moment as before, over and over again. I cover my face with a pillow, alternating the speaker phone on and off, irritated and anxious, wondering how long this will last.
“Your approximate wait time is twenty-one minutes.”
I’ve got enough time to take a shower. I carry a portable speaker into the bathroom and attach it to my digital companion. I do not want to lose my floating place in line. I step into the water and steam rises around me. Why haven’t I thought of this before? I am finally relaxed. Indulgent scents of amber and sandalwood suds are piling on top of my head. I close my eyes and see hummingbirds carrying credit cards in their beaks, dropping them into flowers and emerging with tiny flutes.
Suddenly the music cuts out. I hear static, a dial tone, shuffling, then a new voice. I detect it as human. I sense their humanity in the moist crackles of a cleared throat that sound like they didn’t get enough sleep last night. When they say, “Hello my name is Anthony, thank you for holding,” I can tell that they are a parent who tries very hard. I hear this truth resting next to a sandwich digesting in their stomach. I am grateful to the robots for handing me over to the humans.
I nudge open the shower door, look at my phone balancing on the toilet seat, and sit cross-legged while warm water falls down the length of my back. I am offering the last four digits of my social security number. I am verifying the first letter of my last pet’s middle name. I am forgetting my high school mascot so instead I give the name of my second least favorite Backstreet Boy. I wonder if Anthony can hear the water and soap running along the crack of my ass. We’ve only known each other for three-and-a-half minutes and yet, I’ve given him so much.
“Your new debit card will arrive in 7-10 business days,” he says.
I ask for it sooner. I wink but he is unable see it. He says he cannot get it to me any faster. He says he is sorry. I tell him it doesn’t matter. I’m out of cash, have been sneaking bread that’s not mine, eating the heels, hoping my roommate doesn’t miss it.
He asks if there is anything else he can do for me at this time. I tell him that maybe if he lives close by, we can get together in two or three days. He can just bring me my card himself. We can meet at a diner that serves key lime pie, or whichever is his favorite. I will pay, of course.
He laughs a little bit. Not a genuine laugh but a genuine gesture all the same. I tell him I hate his company, the one he works for. Again, he apologizes but this time it sounds rehearsed, scripted like a robot’s, and I don’t believe him.
I ask to be placed on hold for a minute, or two while he reconsiders his decision and once more, he refuses. I wonder if I am being selfish. Why is he being so selfish? He asks if I am a satisfied customer. I am crying. He asks if I will comply to a survey about the quality of my experience with him on the phone. It’s too soon. I can’t offer feedback, now, not after the way we’ve just treated each other. I hang up the phone without giving an answer. I feel terrible. I want to call him back. I want us both to apologize.
I move to the toilet seat, shivering in my towel, and dial the 800 number one more time. The robot recognizes me quickly this time. When asked to reveal why I am calling, I plead my case.
“Transfer me to Anthony!”
The robot doesn’t understand. I listen to a list of options, none of which lead me to him. I decide to short circuit the computer’s logic by repeating his name.
“Anthony…Anthony…human…human…talk to Anthony!”
“I’m sorry we’re having trouble!”
I’ve been as patient as possible. I’m sure Anthony wants to help me, but he’s probably being watched. If only I knew where he worked I could get someone to drive me out there and help him escape. I would enter the lobby of the corporate office, and, when greeted by the receptionist with a mechanical head, I would pretend not to know what it means when it says hello. I’m out of options.
“Mother FUCK! I WANT TO TALK TO A HUMAN!”
I hear footsteps approaching. My roommate asks through the door if I’m okay. I want to tell her that I wasn’t screaming at Anthony, I was screaming at the machine.
There’s a pause and a few beeping sounds.
“You have reached the maximum number of errors. Your account has been locked for 24 hours. Please call again during normal business hours to reach one of our customer service representatives. Thank you. Goodbye.”