Ylenia had a TV, but no cable. On nights when she could no longer endure lying supine, impelling herself toward sleep, this was where she turned: late-late-night cable-less television, with its panoply of hour-long chopping and grating infomercials laden with generic camaraderie and astonishment; one-nine-hundred numbers that showcased young women reclining on beds and sofas against backdrops of wood-burning fireplaces—girls who were “so lonely” and “just waiting” for you to call; advertisements for exercise equipment with dramatic before-and-after photos, interspersed with footage of scantily clad personal-trainer-looking actors who slowly and unsweatily worked the equipment. The common denominator among all the cable-less programming at this hour was its creepy and insulting falseness—there was no depth to the excitement or longing, there were no mistakes and nothing personal was revealed. Everything from the feigned “confessions” of the actors to their softly-lit artificial living room and kitchen backdrops emitted a vague sense of desolation, like the old Nintendo driving-game landscapes that repeated forever with no evidence of a living world. But there was a haven, a foil to this fictitiousness in the night: the public access channel, where unpaid regular New Yorkers could reserve a slot of time and be on the air. This station, with its authentic vulnerabilities, egos, quirks, obsessions and flaws, served a steady dose of people, real people.
One night, turning to this channel, Ylenia saw an ashen, transgendered woman sitting by herself at a rectangular fold-up table whose purpose, Ylenia guessed, was to add an air of professionalism to the segment. The woman told the invisible viewers at home that she was HIV positive and living with AIDS, and that she took countless medications to alleviate the symptoms of not only her autoimmune deficiency, but also her clinical depression and her bipolar disorder (the italics representing Ylenia’s reaction to these facts and not their delivery, which was not at all tragic or self-pitying, but just really far away). Ylenia could see that the woman had also at some point suffered from a severe chemical substance abuse problem. Overall, she reminded Ylenia of Eeyore, but a far more viscerally tragic Eeyore, one that was striving, through the despondent and disillusioned fog from which it could not untether itself, to be of some kind of deeper service to strangers.
There were eight million people in New York City, but at that silent hour Ylenia felt like she was the only one tuned in. Feel free to call, for anything, the woman said, you can ask me about anything, any problems you have. I want to help. This is the number. You can call right now, and I’ll help you. The woman turned to some apathetic off-camera figure and asked if there had been any calls. There hadn’t. She repeated the number and told people they shouldn’t be embarrassed or afraid, that they could call in with any problems and she would give them advice. This was followed by more no-calling; a shifting-in-the-chair kind of quiet.
Ylenia, sitting on her living room floor, was murmuring call, someone just call in, please, but the silence only distended, and the reality of twenty more unfilled minutes began to take shape. The woman’s entirely conspicuous interior battle was unfolding in her face: her incessant anticipation of failure, the accumulated haunt of berating voices, her wobbling and doomed resistance. From somewhere offstage she was prompted to fill the dead air, and so she repeated again all the things she’d already said, but in fragments now, and in a different order, the words growing increasingly desperate and cloudy. In Ylenia’s chest, a slow drill spiraled deeper and deeper. What had this woman thought would happen before she’d come? When she’d requested this public slot of time? When she’d arranged her sparse hair before appearing on the air? As the camera guy had counted down to show-time, how had she imagined it would be? Suddenly, Ylenia found herself dialing the number, instantly hearing the double ring of the telephone, once in her ear and once on the television. The woman answered on-air.
“Okay. We have a caller. Hello?”
“…Hi.” Ylenia’s heart was racing.
“Hello, is someone there?”
“Hi, yes—I’m watching your program, and I, saw that you’re giving advice, and, I don’t really have anything to ask about now, but, I just think it’s great that you’re…doing this.” Ylenia had no plan. She hadn’t thought through what would happen after she’d dialed. She’d just banked on the fact that simply calling in, simply breaking the deafening silence and isolation would help this woman somehow.
“You can ask me anything, any question, any problem. I can give you advice,” she insisted.
“Oh, yeah, thank you, I actually…don’t have—” she stopped herself from saying any problems, “anything to ask about right this second, but I’ll definitely be calling back. I’m glad to know, that you’re here, so, I’ll definitely be calling back.” She was trying to sound positive, grateful. But the woman’s barely perceptible flickers of animation had already begun to re-cloud.
“Okay, thanks so much,” Ylenia said as warmly as possible. She hung up the phone. Had that helped anything? Had she made anything better for the woman? On the screen the woman looked exactly as sad as she did when no one was calling. After another five seconds of torturous silence, Ylenia turned off the TV. The experience had filled her with a strange adrenaline. She sat on the couch until her heart rate slowed, then returned to bed, listening to the whisper of her pulse against the pillow.
 On it Ylenia had seen: 1. An interview of a wrinkly, reclusive old woman who’d once, in passing, met Frank Sinatra and had—in her version—nearly convinced him to sing a song she’d written. Since then, the sum total of her life had revolved around that single exchange, that solitary Almost. For the entire interview, which was elderly-rhythmed and pause-filled, she managed to speak strictly about Ol’ Blue Eyes and that single fateful exchange that constituted the foundation of all her subsequent routines, conversations, and fantasies (and which led her to cover the walls of her apartment with hundreds of photographs of him, which she’d cut out of newspapers and magazines), and that, one got the impression, Sinatra himself would have had trouble recalling if you’d asked him about it just a month or two afterward; 2. A group of four or five adults, ranging vastly in age, possibly members of a weekly community theater class, performing prop-less, costume-less plays in which it was frequently unclear who was who and what exactly was going on. The performers had all the markers of terrible acting: unnatural and inaudible delivery of speech, zero subtlety, a lot of standing around in the same place without moving any part of their bodies, and each one pretending, with great exasperation, that mistakes were the fault of everyone but themselves. 3. A recurring program hosted by a man who went around to strip clubs, bars, house parties, and even public parades, where he would hit on women and try to coax them to share their nude body parts with the viewers at home. These videos were juxtaposed with homemade footage of people having sex (men with women, women with women, but never men with men), and the whole thing was interspersed, by way of decades-old video graphics (i.e. pictures spiraling in slow motion toward the screen), with photographs of the host standing naked and dripping wet in the shower showcasing his own erect penis.
Shabnam Piryaei’s novel “Forward” was published with MUSEUM Books. You can order the book and learn more about the story here.