Just Say No
Paul C. Taylor
I’m here to answer questions about men’s urinals, not about heroin addiction. That’s what I should have said. I should have said that, and put a ‘sir’ at the end, and then cut the call off, or referred it to my supervisor. And then I should have gone back to wait for the next blinking light on my screen to ask about replacement flushometers for our discontinued wall-hung models.
I could say the guy sounded really desperate and I couldn’t just do nothing, but that would make me seem like a better person than I am. Or I could say what Marla says, though not the way she says it. A girl like you, she says, by which she means me, with problems like yours, by which she means Ray, needs someone to talk to, by which she means someone other than her. Whatever it was, this guy called up and my screen blinked and I answered and I stayed on the line.
“I’m a heroin addict and I need help,” he said.
“Sir, this is the information line for Sani-Fresh Sanitation Systems,” I said.
“Oh,” he said, and then went quiet for a while. I could hear ghostly voices as other calls bled into my line. “What’s that? “We make those little round deodorizers that go in men’s urinals. We make other things too, but that’s our biggest seller.”
“Men’s urinals,” he said, then coughed. “Men’s urinals. Are there women’s urinals?”
“Yes,” I said, “but they haven’t really caught on outside Malaysia.”
“In the industry we call them urinal cakes.” I’m the only one here who would say ‘in the industry.’ Most of my colleagues (they wouldn’t say that, either) are telemarketers, hired ears willing to work phones for anyone. But I started at Sani-Fresh in a summer internship program for sanitary engineering majors, and just stayed on after.
Anyway, I learned a lot during my internship. For example, I learned a way to respond when people say ‘sanitary engineering’ is just a euphemism for ‘janitor,’ like Ray often did after he moved in with me. My supervisor told me to ask what these people do for a living, and then make some simplistic comparison right back. So I tried one last time to explain to Ray that SE is an actual field, populated at the professional level mostly by environmental engineers, along with other kinds of engineers and a few people with specialized degrees like the one I’m working on. Then, when that didn’t work, I tried my supervisor’s way. I said, Does graphic design mean just doodling, and he shut right up.
“So,” the caller said, “how’d you end up working in a place like that?”
“It was my major,” I said. I should have said that SE is my major, instead of was, since I plan to go back to school as soon as I can. I was supposed to go back for my fifth year once the internship was over, but I couldn’t because of family issues. My dad, being my dad, sent rubber checks for his and my mom’s part of my college expenses, and I found out too late to come up with the money before they canceled my enrollment. This is what I mean by family issues, and this is why I prefer not to think much about my parents. Anyway, I couldn’t afford to go back to school, and I wasn’t qualified to move from my internship into an entry-level salaried position, at Sani-Fresh or anywhere else. So I took an hourly job in the customer service office, just to get some money coming in. Ray moved in with me at about the same time. I thought he was going to help with the rent.
“How’d you end up with that kind of major,” the caller said.
“Who knows how they end up with anything? It was a good major. Lots of required courses, so I didn’t have to worry about electives.” This is what I always tell people, no matter how well I know them. It’s true enough.
“Electives,” he said, like he was trying to connect the word to something. Then he got quiet again. I was in no hurry to take another call (these lines stay busier than you would think: there are lots of urinals in the U.S.), so I put my chin in my hand and waited. We use headsets to talk, so with my free hand I drew spirals on the little yellow pad by the phone.
For some of my colleagues a customer going silent would be a problem. Most of the people doing phone work get into it because it seems to require no skill, or no skill they don’t already have, since we all grow up talking on the phone. But it’s not that easy. You have to learn how to deal with the unexpected, how to keep going when the world presents itself to you in ways you’re not prepared for. Before Sani-Fresh I worked for three years in the call center for BigCorp, which is where I met Marla, and I learned a thing or two about the unexpected. The problem there was usually people yelling, not going silent, but still. So I can do silence, but the guy didn’t say anything for a good twenty seconds, which is forever on the phone. I thought maybe he’d passed out.
“Are you still there, sir,” I said.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, like we were having an everyday conversation. “I’m here.”
“Should I call someone for you sir?”
“No, I like talking to you.” He said this slowly, like he was really relaxed. He said the next thing more quickly, like he was trying to talk to someone on the other side of a closing door. “That’s okay, isn’t it? Is it okay if I keep talking to you? I’m a heroin addict and I need help,” he said again.
I thought, (a) if I stay on the phone with him I don’t have to take any more real calls, and (b) if it doesn’t bother him to talk about his habit, it doesn’t bother me to listen.
“I guess,” I said. He got quiet again, so I said, “Why did you call this number? Where’d you get the number from if you didn’t know what it was?”
He cleared his throat. “I saw a, I was in a… I was using the –”
“You were urinating,” I said.
“Yeah, I was, yeah.” More quiet, and this time I left it alone. “That’s a funny word, isn’t it? Urinate.”
“You were using the facilities,” I said. “And then?”
“Oh, there was a plastic… this little plastic –”
“Screen,” I said. This is a poly-blend mesh grating that covers the fluid reservoir – where the urinal cake goes – so that it’s easier to clean out extraneous debris like cigarettes and gum. When the caller mentioned this I thought of what Ray said when Marla told him I worked at Sani-Fresh and what they do. He told us how guys chase things around in urinals, taking aim at cigarette butts and so on. Like Luke Skywalker, he had the nerve to say, in the first Star Wars, or the fourth one, or whatever, when he has to shoot a laser beam into that little hole to blow up the Death Star. He put his hands on his waist and swiveled his hips, and made movie-laser sounds through pursed lips. This is not the sort of behavior that makes Marla describe Ray as a problem.
“Yeah,” the caller said, “a screen. This one had a phone number on it.” He paused, breathed. “Well, first there was a message. It said to just say no to drugs. Then there was a number. I called it and got you.”
This explanation made me feel better about deciding to stay on the phone. Suddenly this cry for help had become a business call. I made a mental note to tell my supervisor that someone needed to do something.
“Sometimes we put minimal contact information on our products,” I said. “Not on the cakes, since there’s really no room. But there’s room on the screens. I didn’t know we had public service announcements.”
“This one had one. I didn’t look at any of the others. I just looked at that one. Because I, you know, had to. It didn’t say it wasn’t the number for addiction services.”
“I’m sorry about that.”
“It should say something. It was unclear. Ambiguous.”
“I’ll pass that message on to quality control, sir,” I said. I actually wrote this down next to the spirals on my yellow pad, announcing each word so the caller wouldn’t think I was blowing him off. “Avoid … ambiguity… on … urinal … screen.” I included this phrase in the email to my supervisor.
“What do I do now,” he said.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “I think the first step is to admit that you’re an addict.”
“But I already told you that.”
“Yes, but I think you’re supposed to do it a certain way. You’re supposed to say my name is such and such and I’m an addict.”
“Okay. My name is Bill, and I’m an addict.” This announcement seemed to loosen him up some, and he launched into the story of how he got hooked. Apparently his girlfriend Sherri brought some heroin home one time and told him that while she didn’t expect him to take any, he should at least be open-minded about what she liked. Soon she made it part of their sex life and by the time she left three months later he hardly noticed – until he lost his job and the drugs ran out. When he got to this point I must have made a noise, because he went what? And I guess then I said something about how his story reminded me of what Ray did, because he went, who’s Ray?
“We’re living together,” I said.
“What does Ray do,” he said, and I laughed and said, “Don’t ask so many questions. You’re the one who called for help.” He laughed too, which made me feel like I’d done him some good.
“Sounds like you needed someone to talk to.” This is what my friend Marla said when I told her about the call. “Shit, with Ray, who wouldn’t?” She didn’t say why talking to her didn’t count.
When things started going poorly with Ray I felt like I was supposed to be talking about it to someone. Marla used to date Ray, so she knows how he is. I would go over to her place when she had time before her dates. She had dates pretty much every day, but she also had time pretty much every day, because she was a real night owl. When I got there on the day of Bill’s first call she made tea, and we sat on her couch and drank it while she said the things about Ray that I couldn’t quite bring myself to say. Like I said, she knows how he is.
Marla left BigCorp the same time I did, last summer. I went to my internship, and she started keeping the books for Sims and Son Construction, where she still works, and where she met Ray.
Ray works construction during rough times, which is most of the time now. But if you ask him what he does he’ll say graphic design. He says this even though I’ve never known him to do anything but construction, and even though he doesn’t really look for jobs doing anything else. He doesn’t even look for construction work now. He just sits around. Maybe that’s how graphic designers look for work, but I doubt it. It’s certainly not the way to get construction work. After a while I started to get on him about the rent or about how he was sitting so much the couch was losing its shape, and he’d puff himself up and go to where they pick day laborers. Neither of us enjoyed playing our parts in that ritual, so after a while we gave it up.
Anyway, Ray met Marla before he started just sitting around. To hear her tell it, she was on a bad one, whatever she means by that, and wanted to go home with someone and picked him. “He’s cute enough,” she concedes, “but I shouldn’t have let it turn into anything.” Marla has a foul mouth, so I wasn’t surprised at what she said next. “Cute is a fuck,” she said, “not a boyfriend.”
Marla feels this way because Ray (a) cheated on her with several women he met through Marla, including me, (b) gave her crabs, which he did not get from me, and (c) stole $460.21 from her, which he could not get from me, though he tried. These are not the kinds of problems I had with Ray.
After Marla dumped him he and I made our relationship public, as if we’d just started going out. Marla was so glad to be rid of him, and so glad I was seeing someone, that she didn’t even object. She just warned me to keep a close eye on him. He got kicked out of his apartment soon after that, and since I needed help with rent, I let him move in.
Sometimes I felt a little bad about having gone behind Marla’s back, especially since she’s been so good to me. When it was going on, when he was sneaking away to be with me and when I was lying to her about what I’d done the previous night, I was able to justify it because I knew she and Ray wouldn’t last. She’s too much for him, too outgoing, too pretty, too demanding; a relationship between them must have been like a conversation with everyone talking at once. That’s why he cheated on her: he needed someone who wouldn’t compete with him like that. I didn’t, and that’s why he never cheated on me. Then again, maybe if he’d cheated he wouldn’t have started with the pornography.
So there I was with Marla, sitting on the couch with our tea. I was pretty glum, like usual, so she kept saying things like “That Ray was a waste of his daddy’s sperm” to try to help. Marla says things like that, and keeps saying them, even when I don’t laugh. Between sips of tea she talked about guys she was going to hook me up with, sensible guys who’d treat me right, “Not like that blood clot,” she said, meaning Ray. Then she remembered where we’d started the conversation, and asked, “Do you think this guy’ll call again?”
Bill called the next day to thank me for listening.
“Five times a charm,” he said, sounding pleased. “I mean, I had to call back five times until you answered. Can you tell them I’m sorry? I mean, the people I hung up on.”
“Sure,” I lied. I could hear a lot of noise in the background, dishes clinking and men talking. I didn’t ask him where he was. We just started talking about nothing, the way normal people do, and pretty soon he told me he was at a rehab facility. Then he asked about my problems with Ray.
When I told him that Ray wanted me to watch dirty videos and look at dirty magazines with him, he couldn’t see the connection to Sherri’s drugs. I told him it wasn’t really about looking at pictures but about using them, and how after a while Ray couldn’t do anything in bed without them. He had to leave a magazine, sometimes more than one, open on the pillow next to my head, or propped up on the milk crate that we used for a nightstand. That bothered me, but since I knew I was no Marla in the bedroom I figured I could give him that much.
But then he started with the dirty movies. They’re not dirty, he’d say. Sex is natural, he’d say. And I’d say, Peeing is natural too, but I don’t want to watch anyone do it. And he’d say, Some people do, as if that was going to get me to do what he wanted. I think he thought this was the sort of open communication everyone says relationships are supposed to have.
“But how is that like Sherri’s drugs?” Bill asked.
“Porn,” Marla said, almost like she was trying to remember what the word meant. This was the day after Bill’s second call. She had made what she called milkshakes, what other people call floats, since she was too lazy to mash up the ice cream properly. She spooned a lump into her mouth. “I can’t believe he went there.”
“And movies,” I added. “I wish he had tried that shit with me,” she said. “I’d a sent his ass right home.” I wondered why he didn’t try it with Marla. She’s the filthy one, by her own admission. She’s the one who calls herself a “nasty bitch” and says things like “you fuck cute.”
“Then again,” she said. “What were the pictures of? I mean, what were the people doing?”
I didn’t want to answer this, so I lied and told her they were doing all kinds of things. Sometimes oral sex, sometimes other things. But really it was always women performing oral sex on men. I lied because Marla had already told me, many times in vulgar detail how she felt about this subject.
The way I remember what she said, with all the nasty talk to one side, it was about power and control. She could inflict injury or give pleasure. Most important, she could manipulate. She could get a man to do things he wouldn’t otherwise do, for her or to her, just by doing something that required practically nothing from her, all things considered. She liked this phrase. All things considered, she’d say, it’s a pretty sweet deal.
Marla and I see things very differently. For me it’s about the mess, and the smell, and trying not to choke, and what do you do with your teeth. And it’s about the fact that I work for a company that makes urinal accessories, which means that I spend every day thinking about what men do with themselves when they’re not having sex.
“You don’t have to do it,” he’d say. “I don’t want to pressure you to do anything. But if you watch other people do it maybe you’ll get used to the idea.”
“He said that,” Bill asked. “No pressure?” This was during his third call, which began after he’d hung up on Jean, Sunita, Bob, and Sunita again. I hadn’t had time before to explain the connection between Ray’s porn and Sherri’s drugs, so I gave him some of the details.
“Yeah,” I said. “No pressure.” Then I told him about how even after I said I wasn’t comfortable Ray kept bringing it up. After a while I would just look at him or roll my eyes, and so he just started using the stuff right in front of me. I’d come home from work and he’d be there on the couch, pants down past his hips, doing his business. Maybe I was supposed to be turned on by all this. But I would just ask him to sit on a towel or take a shower, one or the other, if he was going to pull his pants down like that. And then I’d go into the kitchen and fix something to eat.
“That is kinda like what Sherri did, I guess,” Bill said.
“Did you ever just say no?” This was what Bill said when we got to the Ray segment of our fourth conversation. “I mean, really, straight out, say no? That’s what you have to do with men,” he said. “I mean, if you don’t flat out say ‘No, I don’t want to sleep with you’ or whatever, we’ll think there’s still hope.” I didn’t ask him if he thought saying no to Sherri would’ve made things turn out differently for him.
A couple of days later I came home to find Ray on the couch again, sweatpants around his ankles, towels safe in the pantry.
“Oh good,” I said. “Now I’ll have something to talk about at work tomorrow.” Ray is vain, so he pretty much had to say what he said next.
“You talk about me at work? Our problems are my business,” he said. I tried not to notice that he was going limp.
“They’re my business too, and I wanted to talk about them.”
“Then you should talk to me.”
“I can’t talk to you when you’re doing that,” I said. “And you’re always doing that.” I took off my coat and hung it in the closet by the door.
“Who do you talk to?” Ray said. I started towards the kitchen and he pulled his pants up and followed. I took the bread out of the cupboard. I got the mayonnaise and ham from the fridge. I got a plate and a knife out of the dish rack.
“Thanks for washing the dishes,” I said.
“Who do you talk to?” he said again, and stood in the doorway while I made my sandwich. Between bites I told him about Bill. I told him how we compared our failed relationships and our partners’ odious habits. I told him about our fifth conversation, the one Bill and I had just finished.
“If things are as bad as they seem,” Bill had said, “why are you still with him?” I didn’t tell Bill that every so often, when Ray had really had it with me, he would ask if I wanted him to leave. I’ll just go, he’d say, I really mean it. You won’t have me to laugh at anymore. But like Marla says, he is cute, like a skinny version of that singer, you’d know the one I mean if you saw him. And I’m not Marla. She can go from man to man, dropping one when the next one isn’t even on the horizon yet, and somehow never getting mixed up with losers like the ones I get mixed up with, except Ray. And she doesn’t need friends so much, because she’s always with her latest man. So when Ray would start up about leaving I would say, No, I don’t want that, and he’d say, Well you better straighten up, then, and we’d usually have sex.
“Do you love him,” Bill said.
“Get real,” I said.
“Then why... I mean, is there a good side to this guy that I’m missing?”
I told Ray about this conversation and then I ate the last piece of my sandwich. After staring at me for a minute, he went into the bedroom. He returned with untied yellow work boots and a grey hoodie added to his sweatpants and t-shirt ensemble, and with a duffel bag that he hadn’t really had time to fill slung over his shoulder. “I’ve had it,” he said. “You don’t know why you’re with me? Then you don’t have to be.”
I turned back to the sink and washed the plate and knife I’d used.
“This is it,” he said. “I’m going,” he said. He moved to the front door, stomping either to keep his boots from falling off or to let me know how he felt about all this. “This is it,” he said, shouting as if he had traveled six miles instead of six steps. I turned and looked at him, and he stopped declaring himself and left.
I turned over the cushions on my couch. I closed the dirty video he had been watching on my laptop, and then closed the laptop.
The day after Ray left, I went to work just long enough to get Bill’s call. I gave him my home number, told him to call me in thirty minutes, then claimed I was sick and left. Marla says I’m stupid, he could be a psycho, after all he was, or is, an addict, at which point she got distracted by her own curiosities.
“I wonder if all addictions are like being an alcoholic,” she said. “You know, once an addict always an addict. Or is that just for drunks? Is he an addict or was he?” Then she started talking about sex addicts, and wondering if she was one. But before that, when she was calling me stupid, she was making pretty good sense. Bill could get my address from my phone number, and I don’t really know him. But he called me totally by accident, and out of a pure intention to correct his problem. We clicked when we talked. All five times. Maybe I’m crazy, but he just doesn’t seem dangerous.
Bill and I talk almost every day now. He says he’s kicked his habit, and he says the only fix he needs is talking to me. It’s corny, but it’s nice to hear. He sounds much better than he did that first time, and he’s gone back to work. He calls me from there on his breaks sometimes, and it shows up on the caller ID. He keeps asking if we can meet, and I can’t just do nothing.