Sometimes Arthur’s job is surprisingly easy.
He’s not a particularly talkative person by nature. Quiet and shy are words frequently used to describe him, and there is some truth to that, but the deeper truth is that he finds most people to be incredibly dull. An even deeper truth than this is that he secretly fears he’s incredibly dull, that he has nothing novel or interesting to say for himself. He often finds himself wondering, when forced to speak to someone for longer than ten minutes at a time, if that person is quietly contemplating suicide in order to escape the conversation.
Talking to strangers on the telephone all night is not exactly his idea of a dream profession, and when he first started working at the hotline he’d been skeptical, to say the least. His main reasons for taking the job were the hours (he's never been a "morning person"), the promise that when there were no calls he’d be allowed to do whatever he wanted, and the fact that he was about to get kicked out of his apartment and needed money in a hurry. He didn’t expect to last very long and he certainly didn’t expect to enjoy it.
Five years later, he’s still there.
None of the operators have any sort of medical or psychological training, so Cobb’s made the whole process pretty much idiot-proof. There’s a set list of questions and a very clever software program on everyone’s computer for entering the caller’s responses and providing possible solutions. Most of the time the root of the problem is revealed within the first five minutes of the call. Most of the time, it’s something really simple- turn up the AC, buy a white noise machine, stop letting the dog sleep on your feet- but sometimes it takes a little longer. Sometimes you have to listen for the things the caller isn’t telling you, and Arthur’s actually really good at that part. He’s got a great ear for background noise, for vocal inflections, for noticing when people are uncomfortable or contradicting themselves in some way. Arthur is always receiving commendations for the intricacy and attention to detail in his caller profiles.
When all else fails, Arthur will just ask them to talk. He’ll say, “Tell me why you think you’re having trouble,” and usually this will unleash a torrent of information, a virtual cascade of neurosis, and by the time they’re done and Arthur’s recommended a doctor or a sleep clinic, the person has talked themselves to exhaustion. Half the time they wind up falling asleep on the phone with him.
It’s not terribly demanding and most nights he thinks he’s got a really sweet deal here. In a single shift he’ll get, on average, five or six calls at about ten minutes a pop- an hour of work when he’s getting paid for eight, and no one cares if he spends the rest of his time writing or drawing or surfing the internet. Most nights are painless, but sometimes, once in awhile, he’ll think that maybe his mother was right. Maybe a BA in English really was a waste of time. Maybe he should sign up for some accounting classes at the community college or take the civil servant’s exam. Is this really the pathway to any kind of lasting, successful career?
These sorts of thoughts occur to him on nights when it’s too quiet, when he’s alone and there’s no callers and he’s got writer’s block and all he can do is sit and ponder the uselessness of his existence, and they also occur to him when he has difficult callers. Callers who cause problems, who insist on going off script, refuse to answer questions, take the conversation completely out of Arthur’s control.
Eames is a difficult caller right from the start, from that very first night.
"I can't sleep," he growls at Arthur, sounding angry and vaguely accusatory and like he's just inhaled three packs of Marlboro Reds.
"Okay," Arthur says. "Can I have your name, please?"
"What do you need that for?"
"It doesn't have to be your real name," Arthur assures him. Plenty of people have given him obvious (and usually ridiculous) aliases. Unless Mike Huckabee, Renee Russo and Bea Arthur are actually insomniacs. And, in Bea's case, still alive. "I just need something to start your file."
"You're starting a file on me?"
"It's completely private, I assure you."
"Eames, then," he grunts. "Call me Eames."
Arthur opens a new file and in the notes field types the words "English, smoker, paranoid."
"Okay, Eames," he says. "Can you please describe your sleeping area?"
"My what?" Eames asks. "It's a fuckin' bed, mate."
"Okay..." Arthur says, and adds the word "belligerent" to the notes. "But, is it cool in your bedroom? Do you have the air on?"
"Of course I've got the air on. It's a hundred bloody degrees outside."
"It's cool, it's dark, it's quiet," Eames says. "I haven't had any caffeine and I'm not a complete imbecile. I can't sleep because I haven't had a drink in three weeks. I need some pills or something."
"I… think you may have called the wrong number," Arthur says, and starts checking off boxes about substance abuse problems.
"Sleep disorder hotline, yeah?" Eames asks.
"Yeah, but, I'm not a doctor. I can't get you pills. And even if I could, I wouldn't write a script based on a phone call," Arthur says. He glances briefly over the wall of his cubicle, rolling his eyes at Ariadne who gives him a sympathetic look.
Eames huffs, as though this were the most unreasonable thing he’s ever heard of. “Well then what’re you here for?” he asks.
“Um, to talk? Give advice... ”
“Yes,” Arthur says. “It helps sometimes. Rather than swallowing it all down with pills.”
“Awfully judgmental for a helpline operator, aren’t you?”
“Look,” Arthur sighs. “Why don’t you try telling me what’s on your mind?”
“The fact that I can’t sleep,” Eames says. “Is it true that you’ll die? I mean, how long does that take?”
"You're not gonna die," Arthur says. Unless I reach through the phone and strangle you. "How long has it been since you've slept?"
"Have you been lying down and closing your eyes?"
"No, I've been standing on my head," Eames says and Arthur types "sarcastic, annoying!" in the notes field. "I know how sleep works."
"Okay, well, then you've probably been getting a little bit of sleep. You're probably just not aware you've been dozing off."
"You think so, hm?" Eames asks. "What if you're wrong?"
"You still won't die," Arthur assures him. "Listen, you mentioned drinking. Do you have a problem with alcohol?"
Eames is silent for a moment. Arthur's not sure if he's considering the question or if he's just angry to have been asked. Finally he mutters, "I s'pose you could say that."
"Would you say that?" Arthur asks.
"People have said that," Eames tells him quietly, almost under his breath.
"And you're actively trying to quit?"
"That's what I said, isn't it?"
"Well, no, not exactly," Arthur says. "I don't want to assume anything that's not true."
Eames doesn't respond to that at all, so Arthur continues.
"You might want to consider talking to a substance abuse counselor," he says. "If you're not already, I mean. I have some recommendations if--"
"This is a bloody waste of time," Eames says, and abruptly hangs up on him.
"What the fuck," Arthur says, tossing his headset on the desk.
"What was that?" Ariadne asks.
"Some crazy Englishman," Arthur says. "Asshole."
He heads outside for a well earned cigarette break, and tries to wipe the entire encounter from his mind. He hates being made to feel like he's bad at his job, hates being made to feel like he's bad at anything, but it's not like it matters. It's not like Eames is ever going to call back.
By the next night, he's forgotten about it. Mostly. That is until Eames, inexplicably, calls back and asks for Arthur.
It's the same time as the first call, around 2 a.m., and it's a slow, rainy night. Arthur's pretty close to falling asleep at his desk when Ariadne buzzes his line.
"I think I've got your crazy Englishman again," she tells him. "He won't talk to me. He said 'I'll only speak to Aahhthurr'."
"What? Are you sure?"
"Yeah, do you want me to tell him you died?"
"No, no, it's... put him through."
Arthur takes a deep breath and re-opens Eames' file.
"Sleep disorder hotline, this is Arthur sp--"
"I need to talk to you!" Eames interrupts, before Arthur can finish his sentence.
"Okay..." Arthur says, carefully. "Are you having trouble sleeping?"
"Yes, obviously," Eames says. "Whatever you did last night, it worked. Do it again."
"I didn't do anything. You hung up on me," Arthur reminds him.
"There must have been something," Eames insists. "Maybe something subliminal?"
"Uh, no. Maybe you were just tired."
"Maybe it's your voice," Eames says. Which is slightly flattering, but highly unlikely. "Maybe you should talk to me, Arthur. Tell me- I don't know, tell me about your day."
Arthur has absolutely nothing to say about his day. He woke up at 3 p.m., had a grilled cheese sandwich, called his mother and watched four episodes of Project Runway. Then he came to work. Could be just the trick for putting someone to sleep, actually, but it's not really how this is supposed to work.
"Why don't you tell me about your day," Arthur suggests.
“My day was horrible,” Eames says morosely. “I’m trying not to think of it.”
“Just tell me one thing that annoyed you.”
Eames sighs and Arthur hears a sudden tapping sound beginning in the background, like a pen on a cardboard box. It’s the first ambient noise he’s noticed with Eames and he tries to figure out what it might be.
“I’m blocked,” Eames finally says, after a minute or two of tapping and sighing.
“Creatively,” Eames adds, and Arthur types the word “artist” into his profile. Suddenly, things are starting to make sense.
“Ah,” Arthur says. “A lot like sleeping, isn’t it? The harder you try, the further away it gets.”
“Yes, yes precisely!” Eames says excitedly, and Arthur feels a weird sense of accomplishment for having finally, apparently, said the right thing to this guy. “And they both used to come naturally when I was a drunk.”
“Because your inhibitions were down,” Arthur says. “But that was artificial. Now you have to learn to function without a crutch.”
“What if I can’t?” Eames asks. “What if I’ve no real talent? What if I’m a fraud?”
“Alcohol doesn’t create talent,” Arthur says. More sighing. More tapping.
“Do you have a notebook?” Arthur asks.
“I have several.”
“Take one into a poorly lit room and just jot down everything that’s in your head,” Arthur suggests. It’s a method he’s tried himself, though he’s usually wound up shredding the evidence once he was finished. It does wonders for unblocking a clogged up brain. Pot also tends to help, and he’s done some of his very best writing while imbibing various forms of hallucinogens, but he’s not about to recommend alternative drugs to an alcoholic.
“What do you do, Arthur?” Eames asks, in a calmer, kinder tone of voice than he’s used thus far.
“I do this,” Arthur says.
“No, I mean... you live in New York City, don’t you? You work at a sleep disorder hotline and keep a stream of consciousness notebook. There must be something.”
“Is it music? Writing?” he asks. “Not the theater…”
“What’s wrong with the theater?” Arthur asks.
“Nothing, but you don’t seem like the type,” Eames says. “Your reluctance to tell me is evidence enough of that.”
Arthur smiles at that in spite of himself. The truth is, strangely enough, he’d like to tell Eames about his writing. He doesn’t talk about it very often, particularly with strangers, but he feels like it might improve his rapport with Eames. Two struggling artists, commiserating in the night…
But the fact is, he’s not allowed. They’re not supposed to share personal information with the callers, mostly for security reasons. It’s one of Cobb’s strictest rules.
“What happens when you try to create?” Arthur asks him instead.
“Nothing happens,” Eames says. “I sit, I stare, I kick something. Sometimes I’ll start to panic. What if I can’t ever do it again?”
“So, what if you can’t?” Arthur asks. “Will you die?”
“It’s entirely possible,” Eames says. Arthur adds “drama queen” to his notes.
“Let’s experiment with the idea that you won’t,” Arthur suggests.
“I’m telling you that you won’t,” Arthur says. He’s kind of winging it at this point, following his instincts.
“Okay, great!” Eames says, sarcastically. “Thanks for the pep talk.”
“It’s not supposed to be a pep talk,” Arthur tells him. “I’m telling you, you’re not gonna create anything ever again, so don’t worry about it. Just go to sleep.”
“This is... odd,” Eames says.
“Goodnight, Mr. Eames,” Arthur says, and disconnects the call.
He’s slightly surprised and, weirdly, a little disappointed when he doesn’t hear from Eames the following night. It’s a good sign when someone stops calling, and Arthur usually takes it as a sort of validation that he’s done a good job, but this time, for some reason, Arthur wants to hear it from Eames himself. He wants to know how he’s doing- if he’s sleeping, if he’s creating, if Arthur’s little experiment worked or if it was a crock of shit.
For most of the night he’s less attentive than usual to the people he speaks with, always wondering in the back of his mind if the next call will be from Eames.
Arthur never thinks about his callers when he’s not speaking to them. He was advised not to. It was part of his training. “They’re not your patients,” Cobb had told him. “You’re not responsible for their well being. Don’t bring them home with you.” They’re not supposed to get personally involved, and Arthur never has. He’s not about to start now. He’s just... curious.
Eames is still on his mind the next night, but when 2 a.m. comes and goes he figures that’s probably it. Arthur’s never going to hear from him again. He's packing up to go home when the call finally comes.
"Arthur! Thank goodness you're there," Eames says.
"Not for long," Arthur says. "My shift's about to end. It's almost dawn, you know... "
"Yes, yes, I am aware. Can you talk to me for a few minutes? I just need a few minutes."
He sounds desperate, almost strung out, his voice even rougher than usual and tinged with hysteria. Arthur hears the unidentified sound from the other night, clicking away in the background.
"Just a few, huh?" Arthur asks. "You know this isn't a sex line." He's not sure what makes him say that. He feels himself flushing once the words are out of his mouth.
Eames seems unaffected. "I wrote a song today," he announces. Arthur's already begun to shut down his computer and doesn't feel like rebooting to open Eames' file, so he just jots "musician" onto a blank page in his notebook.
“Your rude and discouraging comments seem to have inspired me,” Eames says.
“Oh, well I--”
“Would you like to hear it?” Eames asks.
“Um,” says Arthur.
“It hasn’t got any lyrics yet, it’s just a melody.”
“Um,” says Arthur again. The thing is, he would like to hear it. He’s tired and he wants to go home and he’s pretty sure this has nothing to do with insomnia and may even be vaguely inappropriate, but he does want to hear it. It’s just that he’s been down this road before. Arthur has musical friends and Arthur is not known for his tact and this conversation always always ends badly. It’s gotten to the point where he feels a sense of claustrophobic panic whenever someone shows up to a party carrying a guitar case.
“You’re afraid it’s going to be terrible, aren’t you,” Eames says. “It’s all right, you can tell me if it is.”
“No, no, it’s- go ahead,” Arthur says, bracing himself to hear something terrible.
Eames puts him on speakerphone and the ambient clicking stops. It occurs to Arthur suddenly that it must be a metronome. An old-fashioned, mechanical one, judging by the decibel. He knew it was familiar- an irritating memory from childhood piano lessons- and it is, in fact, quickly replaced by piano music. Arthur's so relieved that Eames is not strumming on a fucking guitar that it takes him a minute to actually focus on what he’s hearing.
It’s kind melancholy; Arthur might even call it haunting, but it’s 4:30 in the morning and there’s thunder rumbling outside and he’s all alone in the call center, so it’s possible the Sesame Street theme song might sound “haunting” to him at this particular moment in time.
It’s a relatively simple tune, but obviously crafted with skill. It’s good, surprisingly so, but when Eames gets back on the line Arthur finds he is lacking the vocabulary to express just how good it was. For as snobby as he is about music, he’s not very good at talking about it. Unless it sucks.
“That was nice,” he says.
“Nice?” Eames asks, sounding utterly horrified. Arthur winces at his own stupidity. If someone called his writing “nice” he’d probably stab them in the eye.
“It’s good,” he says quickly. “Really good, I liked it.”
“Well, it’ll be different when it’s finished,” Eames says, defensively. Arthur isn’t sure how to stop offending Eames about his musical talents, so he tries to veer the subject back to the reason for this phone call.
“Did you sleep last night?” he asks.
Eames sighs. “A bit,” he says.
“How did you feel when you woke up?”
“Mmm... I can’t tell you that,” Eames says. “Since it’s not a sex line.”
Arthur starts flushing again and tries to will his mind out of conjuring a mental image of what Eames is probably talking about. Not that he even knows what Eames looks like-- not that he wants to know...
"So, um, I take it you haven't been able to fall asleep tonight," Arthur says. "Are you feeling more relaxed now that you've played the piano?"
"Not really," Eames says.
"It doesn't calm you down at all?"
"It does, typically, but... I've had a bit of cocaine."
"A bit of-- Are you serious?"
"Yes, well," Eames says, and starts up the horrible metronome again. Click-clack click-clack, it's enough to drive anyone insane and Arthur doesn't know what he's supposed to say at this point. He's never had a caller stupid enough to have such an irritating sound in their vicinity when they're trying to sleep, let alone attempt to self medicate for alcohol withdrawal and insomnia with fucking cocaine.
"You know what, Mr. Eames, I really don't know if I'm qualified to help you," Arthur says. "I'm not sure if lack of sleep is truly at the root of your problems. You should probably see a doctor."
"I've already got a doctor," Eames says. "Look, I don't do it very often. I was at this terrible party, you see, and I had to be sociable and witty and interesting."
"You had to be?"
"Yes," Eames insists. "Listen, I"m not asking you to be my addiction counselor."
"And I'm saying I think that's exactly what you need!" He doesn't just think it, he knows it. It’s what he suggested in the first place. This is more than Arthur can handle.
Eames is quiet for a minute; all Arthur can hear is that awful clicking and he imagines Eames (tall, dark hair maybe?) staring at the wand as it ticks back and forth, like a cat looking into a fish tank.
In his notebook, Arthur scribbles the words "pianist, metronome, lacks proper coping mechanisms."
"Do you want me to stop calling?" Eames finally asks.
No, Arthur thinks. I actually don't.
"I want you to feel better,” he says. “I'm just not sure what I can do for you.”
"You've already done it," Eames tells him. "You've helped me sleep and you've helped me write a song."
"I just need someone to talk to," Eames mutters, sounding sad and embarrassed, and making Arthur feel like the biggest shit in the world. Which, he totally shouldn’t- it’s not like he’s trying to get rid of Eames or something. It’s not like Eames should be taking this as a personal insult. Arthur’s just trying to help.
He clears his throat and asks, “What about a psychiatrist?”
“I’ve got one of those, too,” Eames snaps. “I need to talk to someone that doesn’t know me.”
“Well... the more we talk, the more I’ll know you,” Arthur says. “Then what will you do?”
Eames is quiet again for a little while, but then, to Arthur’s surprise, he chuckles. “That’s a good question, Arthur," he says. "I s’pose we’ll find out, won’t we.”
“Yeah, I suppose we will,” Arthur says with a sigh, tired of arguing. “Do you think you can sleep now?” he asks. They’ve been talking for a pretty long time, definitely longer than the few minutes Eames requested. It’s getting light outside- a grey, murky light, but bright enough to signal that it’s day, and way past time for Arthur to go home. It’s still raining and he’s probably already missed his train.
“I doubt it, but it’s worth a shot,” Eames says.
“Just try,” Arthur says. “Lay down. And turn off that fucking metronome.”
“It’s very soothing,” Eames insists. “I like to let it wind down.”
“Turn it off,” Arthur says again. “It’s the worst.”
He disconnects before Eames can protest any further and heads out into the dismal morning, feeling oddly cheerful.
Arthur has a small group of regulars at the hotline, mostly elderly women who tend to call once or twice a month with recurring bouts of sleeplessness. Usually they’ll give Arthur a brief update on the antics of their grandchildren, talk for awhile about their memories of the good old days, and eventually nod off on the phone with him. Women of a certain age (that age being 70-plus) seem to find Arthur pleasant and soothing on the telephone. Or maybe it’s just that he remembers their names. Whatever the reason, they always ask for him.
Ariadne refers to the women as “Arthur’s Biddies” and in the months following that rainy night, Eames officially joins their ranks. Except instead of once or twice a month, Eames calls two or three times a week- sometimes more than that- and instead of grandchildren and nostalgia, Eames talks about music and literature and movies and how much he hates everyone he knows. Sometimes he’ll play songs for Arthur on the piano. Sometimes they’ll talk for a couple of minutes, and sometimes Eames will stay on the line for as long as an hour.
Arthur stops typing things into his online profile and instead keeps a notebook of Eamesian observations. Eames stops playing with that stupid metronome, so Arthur thinks he's at least accomplished something. After a few weeks, he starts to feel like they’re... not friends, exactly, but familiar. He starts to feel like he knows Eames, and what he doesn’t know he starts to fill in with his imagination. When they talk, he pictures Eames in a cluttered studio apartment- just enough room for a bed and a piano and dozens of bookshelves lining the walls. He imagines a shitty day job that Eames never talks about, Starbucks or Barnes and Noble, and weekend gigs at coffee houses and dive bars. He starts to imagine a life and he starts to imagine a face. It’s a face with a lot of character, somewhat lined with worry and the evidence of too many sleepless nights, but handsome nonetheless. With a voice like that, it’s nearly impossible for Arthur to imagine an ugly face.
Eames asks a lot of questions about Arthur’s life, most of which Arthur ignores or deflects, but one night, when Cobb’s office door is closed and Ariadne’s listening to her iPod, Eames says, “Are you ever going to tell me what it is you do?” and Arthur decides to answer.
“I’m a writer,” he says. “I write... stuff. Fiction.”
He holds his breath and waits for the inevitable: “Have you been published?” Arthur alternates between canned responses to this demoralizing question, depending on who’s asking him. To people like his mother and his aunt, Arthur will say, “Not yet, but I’ve got a few bites.” To people he’s hoping to have sex with, he’ll say “It’s all about the process for me.” With people he actually trusts, Arthur will simply hold his head in his hands and moan pitifully.
He’s not sure where Eames fits into this collection. He doesn’t have an answer prepared for nosy, alcoholic insomniacs who play the piano. He has to admit, the uncertainty is a little exciting.
“Aha, I knew it,” Eames says. “What’re you working on?”
“It’s all ab-- oh, um,” Arthur stutters, realizing abruptly that Eames has actually asked him something else. Something unexpected. “I’m working on a novel right now, actually.”
“Right now” is technically “for the last seven years” but Eames doesn’t need to know that.
“A novel, really, how interesting. What’s it about?”
Arthur hates this question almost as much as the publishing one. Almost.
“It’s about social issues,” he says, hoping he doesn’t sound like the pretentious fuck he sometimes (frequently) suspects himself to be.
“Social... issues?” Eames asks, sounding confused. “That sounds like non-fiction.”
“Well, I mean, there are themes. Racial injustice, for instance.”
“But, what’s it about?” Eames places such profound emphasis on the word “about” that Arthur starts to feel a sense of discomfort bordering on panic. What if he doesn’t really know what it’s about? What if it’s not about anything?
“Well, it’s um-- it’s about a couple. An interracial couple in the 1960’s. It’s historical. But I’m trying to apply it to current--”
“So it’s about love,” Eames interjects. It’s not a question.
“Well, no,” Arthur says. “Not really, I mean... it’s not a romance.”
“What’s wrong with a romance?”
“Nothing, I guess. It’s just-- it’s not. I’m not a very romantic person.”
“Nonsense,” says Eames. “Every artist is a romantic.”
“Well, that’s a ridiculously romantic notion, Mister Eames.”
“You see?” Eames asks. “It’s true. We’re either hopelessly idealistic romantics or bitter, disillusioned ones.”
“Yes, I see...” Arthur says with a sigh. “And which one are you?”
“Hm, a little bit of both, I would imagine,” Eames says.
Which one am I? Arthur wonders. Not that he believes this absurd theory, but he’s curious what Eames would say, were he to ask. This is starting to feel dangerously close to flirting though, so he doesn’t.
“Will you read to me?” Eames asks.
“Will I-- what?”
“Haven’t you got it with you?”
“I don’t understand, you want me to read you my novel?”
“Well, not all of it,” he says. “Just a passage or two.”
Arthur does have it with him, of course he does, but the thought of reading it aloud- the thought of reading any of his writing aloud to anyone- ties his stomach up in knots. He barely made it through his creative writing seminars in college thanks to that special horror.
“I shouldn’t,” Arthur says.
“Why not?” Eames asks. “It’s only me, the crazy man on the telephone...”
“It’s not what I’m here for.”
“Maybe it’ll help me sleep. Like a bed time story.”
Arthur’s pretty sure his writing is dull enough to put anyone to sleep, so maybe that’s not such a terrible idea. He realizes then that it’s the first time during this entire conversation either of them have mentioned the word sleep at all. He glances over the wall of his cubicle and notices Ariadne’s not listening to music anymore. In fact, she seems to be listening to him.
“Speaking of sleep...” Arthur says, sinking a little lower in his chair to escape Ariadne’s curious gaze.
“My time’s run out already?”
“Well, no, there’s no time limit or anything.”
“Yes, but you always hang up on me after an hour or so,” Eames says, with a melodramatic air of bereavement.
“I do have other callers,” Arthur reminds him. “I can’t talk to you all night long. I’ll get fired.”
An instant message from Ariadne pops up on Arthur’s computer. “Crazy Englishman?” it says. Then, “phone sex?”
“Good night then, Arthur,” Eames says, as Arthur is typing “NO. Get a life,” in reply to Ariadne.
“Good night, Mister Eames,” he says, quietly.
Later, working on his novel, Arthur thinks of Eames and tries to write something he wouldn’t be too embarrassed to share.
Halloween is one of the busiest nights of the year at the Sleep Disorder Hotline, rivaled only by Christmas Eve and daylight savings. Arthur’s got enough seniority that he usually doesn’t have to work holidays, but he always winds up on the schedule for Halloween. Cobb seems to think he’s particularly adept at talking people out of their irrational fears of ghosts, goblins and ghouls.
Arthur’s not a disbeliever, per se. He’s perfectly willing to accept the existence of paranormal entities in the world. There’s a fair amount of scientific evidence, and Arthur’s had a few experiences in his life that he’s been unable to explain in any other way- the persistent thumping sound in the closets at his grandparents’ house on Long Island, the doors that opened and closed on their own in his first apartment in Brooklyn- but he refuses to be cow-towed into fear of the unknown by Hollywood movies and the candy-costume-pumpkin industrial complex. Halloween is just like any other night, there’s nothing in the dark that isn’t there when you turn on the lights, and so on. He’s good at dispensing these pearls of logic and healthy skepticism, and he’s not easily frightened. It’s usually pretty easy for him to calm any panicked callers who think there’s a boogie man in the closet.
Naturally, Eames turns out to be the exception.
Arthur’s on the phone with a young woman who’s been traumatized by the latest Paranormal Activity film when his hold button lights up. Arthur figures right away that it’s probably Eames- most people aren’t willing to be put on hold for him- and when he picks up ten minutes later and hears light snoring coming across the line, he’s completely sure of it.
“I’m cutting the line in five seconds,” he says.
Eames makes a confused, grunting sound, like he’s jerked himself awake.
“Go back to sleep,” Arthur tells him.
“Hm? No! No, wait,” Eames says, suddenly frantic. “Don’t hang up, please!”
“It doesn’t sound as though you require my services right now, Mister Eames.”
“Busy night, eh?” Eames asks.
“Yes, it is,” Arthur replies. “And since you don’t seem to be having any trouble falling asleep--”
“I don’t want to fall asleep,” Eames says. “I need you to keep me awake.”
“I realize this is a bit unorthodox.”
“It’s ridiculous,” Arthur says flatly, rubbing his eyes.
“Look, it’s almost dawn, isn’t it? Just talk with me till it’s light.”
“I can’t--” Arthur breaks off into a sigh. There’s a lot of things he can’t do, but above all else he can’t seem to bring himself to hang up on Eames, so there’s really no point in trying to explain why he should. Instead, he asks, “Why don’t you want to sleep?”
“My dreams,” says Eames. “Nightmares.”
Eames has made reference to nightmares before, but he hasn’t wanted to share any details or descriptions with Arthur. Arthur digs out his designated Eames notebook, just in case this time is different.
“What are they about?” he asks. “Are you ready to tell me?”
“D’’you believe in ghosts, Arthur?”
Arthur sighs. He’s getting a little tired of Eames veering wildly off topic every time they start poking at the roots of his difficulties.
“I believe that there are unexplained phenomena in the world that people may experience as ghosts,” Arthur says.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“Are you afraid of ghosts, Mister Eames?”
It seems wildly incongruous to Arthur, to the image he’s begun to build in his mind of the sort of person Eames must be. But you never really know.
“I’ve got one.” Eames announces this in the same bland tone one might use to claim ownership of a pet cat, or a Hyundai.
“What do you mean? Your place is haunted?”
“No, not my place,” Eames says. “Me.”
Well, maybe we’re getting someplace after all, Arthur thinks.
“You’re being haunted?” he asks. “By what?”
“By a ghost. Aren’t you listening?”
“It’s my brother,” Eames says, and Arthur’s heart sinks a little. He writes “dead brother” into his notebook, but it feels wrong somehow. He crosses it out and starts doodling nervously instead.
“I- I’m sorry,” Arthur says. “Was he--”
“He was my twin. Identical. He died when we were sixteen.” Eames is still speaking with nonchalance, but there’s a strain underneath it. Arthur doesn’t say anything; everything he can think of seems horribly inappropriate. “Car wreck,” Eames continues. “He’d just gotten his license. It was-- happened in an instant, you know. Poof.”
Arthur doesn’t know. He doesn’t know at all. He’s an only child, so he can’t even begin to imagine it- the bond between twins, and then that kind of loss. What does that do to a person?
“And you- you’ve seen his ghost?” Arthur’s voice sounds hoarse to his own ears, like he’s been crying or shouting.
“Many times,” Eames says. “Though never directly. It’s always out of the corner of my eye, in the distance, in the mirror occasionally.”
That last one, quite frankly, freaks Arthur right the fuck out. The thought of looking in the mirror and seeing another person, a ghostly visage lurking behind you, is frightening enough on its own. Arthur can’t even think about the Bloody Mary story without breaking into a cold sweat. But to imagine that figure behind you as a twin, wearing your own face...
“Are you sure you weren’t hallucinating?” Arthur asks, perhaps a bit indelicately. It’s possible that he was- more than possible, it’s likely. The man has a history of substance abuse and, probably, some deep emotional problems.
Arthur would really like to believe that he was hallucinating.
“I’ve seen him stone cold sober.”
“Okay, but... well, have you spoken to anyone about this?”
“Who’d believe me?” Eames asks. You’re telling me, Arthur thinks. What makes you think I’ll believe you?
“I mean the psychological aspect of it,” Arthur says. “It must be emotional.”
“An emotional hallucination?”
“No, I mean, it must be hard on you.”
“I know what a psychiatrist would tell me,” Eames says with a huff. “That it’s a delusional manifestation of my guilt over surviving him.”
Arthur thinks that sounds like a pretty good diagnosis.
“What do you think of that?” he asks.
“I think it’s bullocks,” Eames says, emphatically. “Yes, there is guilt, but I’m not a bloody lunatic. He’s real.”
“Do you see him in your dreams as well?”
If Eames is having nightmares about this, it’s pretty understandable that he might confuse that with reality on occasion. Arthur’s been fooled by some particularly vivid dreams himself.
“Sometimes I do, but it’s different.”
“In my dreams, he’s... angry.”
“Angry with you?” Arthur asks.
“Angry that I’m living the life he was supposed to have.”
“Is that what you think?”
Eames is quiet for a long time, thinking it over. Arthur looks down at his notebook, where he’s been absently doodling, and realizes he’s been drawing a face. It’s a good drawing, better than he usually does, and he wasn’t even paying attention. It looks like an actual person, though nobody Arthur’s ever seen before.
It’s Eames, he thinks. Or his twin.
He feels a chill go through him, rips the page from the notebook and crumples it up to toss in the trash. He looks around the call center, hoping to be comforted by familiar surroundings, but everything has suddenly taken on the surreal, slightly menacing vibe of a nightmare.
“He was the good one,” Eames finally says. “Brilliant and talented. He was a prodigy. Everybody loved him.”
Arthur thinks back to one of their first conversations, Eames worrying that he was some sort of fraud, unable to function without alcohol. It makes sense now, that he’d feel whatever success he’s found in life has been undeserved.
“You’re good, too,” Arthur tells him. “I mean, what the fuck? This isn’t a soap opera. There’s no good twin-evil twin. You’re just people.”
“No, no buts,” Arthur insists. Unless Eames murdered his brother, this guilt and self-loathing is totally unjustified. “Look, I’m sure your brother would want you to have a happy life. If he is haunting you, it’s probably because you’re keeping him here.”
“What? Me? D’you think that’s possible?”
Arthur does think it’s possible. He thinks that ghosts, if they do exist, depend largely on the living humans around them to provide them with the energy needed to stay on this plane. There are two problems with voicing this theory, though. One, it makes him sound like a flake. Two, he’s supposed to be talking Eames down from his fears, not escalating them.
“I just mean, you probably don’t have to be afraid of him.”
“Oh, I’m not,” Eames says.
“Isn’t this why you’re afraid to go to sleep?”
“Oh, goodness, no.” Eames chuckles. “I’m used to all this. Just caught the end of Nightmare on Elm Street, that’s all. Gave me a fright.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Arthur asks. “Why the-- why did you just tell me all of that?”
“I thought it was topical,” Eames says.
Arthur scrubs his face harshly with the palm of his hand.
“Freddy Krueger isn’t real, Mister Eames. Go to sleep.”
Arthur realizes a couple of things in the days following this conversation. First of all, the idea of a grown man being frightened by Nightmare on Elm Street is completely ludicrous. It seems likely that Eames wasn’t actually scared of anything at all on Halloween, and neither was he having difficulty falling asleep (considering the fact that he was snoring when Arthur picked up the phone). It seems to Arthur that Eames probably called just because he felt like it. Because he felt like talking to Arthur and, in particular, telling Arthur that story. That extremely personal, painful story.
Rather than being annoyed by this, as Arthur probably would be with anyone else wasting his time at work in this fashion, he finds the thought actually pleases him. It excites him in a way he hasn’t felt since high school when, in a brief delusional fit, he allowed himself to believe that the quarterback of his school’s notoriously bad football team might be gay and might actually return Arthur’s lusty feelings. While Arthur has been accused of being a hipster dufus and an intellectual snob pretty much since birth, it’s true that his sexual tastes tend to go a little primal sometimes. At any rate, the football player wasn’t gay, and he certainly wasn’t interested in Arthur, but that was a fun couple of months playing pretend.
Eames is no quarterback. He’s a sensitive, struggling artist, and that certainly appeals to Arthur’s mind, the part of him that’s being actively engaged by this whole bizarre situation. Arthur threw away his creepy Halloween drawing, but he hasn’t forgotten it, and now he has a face (a beautiful face) to put with the voice in his imagination. Who knows if it’s anything close to Eames’ actual face. Probably not. Arthur doesn’t really want to find out.
Eames may think Arthur is a closet romantic, but he’s wrong. Arthur is a realist, and there’s no way this is going to turn into a real relationship. It’s against the rules, for one thing. For another, a face to face meeting would almost certainly prove disappointing in some way. But none of this stops Arthur from feeling a tiny thrill go through him the next time he hears Eames’ voice, low and intimate, randomly reciting verse at him on an unseasonably snowy night in early November.
Song lyrics, Arthur figures, but it could also be poetry. It’s kind of bleak, something about ghosts and dreams other things that Arthur can’t really concentrate on because he’s so captivated with the passion and intensity of Eames recitation.
Once Eames is finished, he pauses, waiting for Arthur’s reaction.
“That’s um, really introspective. Is it Emily Bronte?” Arthur asks.
“Emily-- no, it’s not Emily Bronte. It’s me. It’s Eames.”
“It reminds me of that poem by her. What is it called...”
“The Horrors of Sleep,” Eames answers, with a tone of dismayed realization. “Balls. It’s too derivative, isn’t it?”
“No, no not at all,” Arthur insists. “It’s just kinda obtuse to-- What is that noise? Are you doing your dishes or something?”
“I’m having a bath,” Eames says. And that just conjures up all sorts of images that Arthur doesn’t need to be thinking about. Who makes phone calls from the bathtub?
“This is weird.” Arthur laughs. “But hot baths are on my list of suggestions.”
“Suggestions for what?” Eames asks.
“Uh, for insomnia...?”
“Oh, yes, that. So did you think it was too introspective?”
Arthur usually finds blatant fishing for compliments extremely irritating, but in Eames’ case he is reluctantly charmed. In fact, he writes the phrase “reluctantly charmed” into the Eames notebook the moment the words occur to him because they so perfectly encapsulate his entire situation.
“There’s no such thing as too introspective,” he replies.
“I wrote it the other night,” Eames tells him. “After you hung up on me. I thought you might be interested.”
“Thanks for that, by the way,” Eames says, sincerely.
“For hanging up on you?”
“No, for listening.”
Arthur almost says it’s my job, but it’s actually not and they both know it.
Instead he tells Eames, “I guess you’ve sort of become like a guilty pleasure TV show. I can’t stop watching.”
“I’m deeply touched by this,” Eames says, and Arthur believes it.
“Have you seen him?” Arthur asks.
“No, not recently. It doesn’t happen terribly often.”
“And how have you been sleeping?”
“Very well,” Eames answers, jovially.
“So... why are you calling tonight?”
“Um, to tell you those song lyrics I suppose,” Eames says.
This is the part where Arthur is supposed to tell him to stop. Eames can’t keep calling like this and preventing Arthur from talking with people who may actually need his help. Someone’s going to notice eventually, and they’ll start asking questions and Arthur will be forced to pass Eames along to one of the referral doctors or to Cobb himself.
Instead of all that, Arthur simply says, “I liked them.”
He scribbles “I was right” into his notebook, and he smiles.
Arthur takes a week long vacation for Thanksgiving so that he can visit his mother in Florida. She retired two years ago and moved to a terrifying 55+ community that feels, to Arthur, a little bit like a prison and a little bit like a zombie movie. He spends most of the week in the uncomfortably immaculate guest room, pondering his own mortality.
His first night back at work, he finds a series of emails from Ariadne, one each for every night he was gone, except for Thanksgiving itself.
- Crazy Englishman called for you tonight. Wanted me to let you know.
- He called again. You know his voice is kind of sexy.
- Seriously, he won’t stop calling. Is something going on??
- I think you may have a stalker.
- He gave me his number this time: 212-866-5700. Don’t tell Cobb I left it for you.
- Finally told him you were on vacation. Probably not a great idea if he is stalking you. Sorry about that ^_^
Thankfully, she’s off the night he comes back, so he doesn’t have to worry about the way he’s smiling, reading these messages. He’s pretty sure she’d have a million questions for him, too, and he’s not prepared to answer questions about this.
In retrospect, he probably should’ve told Eames he was going on vacation, rules or no rules, but he can’t deny that it’s nice to come back to this. To know that he was missed.
He stares at that phone number for a long time, deliberating over what (if anything) should be done with it. There’s only one other operator working tonight, a new kid who probably wouldn’t notice if Arthur made a personal phone call. But making that call would put this very firmly into the realm of the personal, and Arthur’s not sure if he’s ready to make that statement just yet. Plus, if Eames really has been calling every night, he’s bound to call tonight as well. It would probably be smarter just to wait.
In the end, in spite of his uncertainty over whether it’s a cell number or a land line, Arthur decides to send Eames a text. It’s brief (back at work if you need me- Arthur) and, Arthur thinks, terribly clever. Not only will it get Eames to call, it’s also a sort of covert way of giving Eames his own cell number without having to blatantly tell it to him. This way he can keep it, or not. Use it, or don’t.
He pretty much expects Eames to call the hotline immediately upon receiving his text, but he winds up waiting over two hours, struggling with his own neurosis and, eventually, growing slightly worried. What if Eames had been calling so much because there was something wrong? What if he’s fallen off the wagon or wound up in the hospital?
When the call finally comes, Eames has to shout at Arthur to be heard over the background noise. People and music. Party sounds. Arthur is irrationally annoyed.
“Are you all right?” he asks, snippy. “Where the hell are you?”
“Yes, yes I’m fine,” Eames says. “I was glad to get your message.”
“Well, the messages you left sounded pretty urgent. Like you were in some kind of dire situation or something.”
“Were you concerned?” Eames asks, a little bit smugly, in Arthur’s humble opinion.
“Of course,” Arthur says. “I’m concerned about all of my callers.” It’s not a completely blatant lie, but it’s not exactly the truth either.
The party noise begins to fade away as they talk, replaced by the sounds of distant cars and Eames lighting and smoking a cigarette.
“Where did you go?” Eames asks.
“It’s where people from the tri-state area go to die,” Arthur says. “I was visiting my mom.”
“Ah. That reminds me, I’ve been meaning to ask, where are you from originally? You’ve got a lovely accent.”
“Lovely... ?” No one’s ever referred to Arthur’s accent as “lovely” before. No one. “It’s- I’m from New Jersey.”
“Fascinating,” Eames says. Arthur’s pretty sure no one in the world has ever said that about New Jersey. “So how long have you lived in New York?”
“Um, since college. I went to Eugene Lang.”
“Really, how interesting. Are you a communist?”
Strangely, this is not the first time Arthur’s been asked that question.
Eames says, “I once slept with a boy who went there. He was a communist. Said most of the students were.”
Arthur doesn’t really hear much after “I once slept with a boy.”
“I uh- no,” he says. “No, I’m a libertarian socialist.”
“What? That doesn’t even make sense.”
“Yes it does. I’ll send you my manifesto someday.”
Eames barks out a laugh. “I’d like that.”
“So, seriously, are you okay?” Arthur asks. “Are you at a party?”
“I was. Making my way home now.”
“Are you sober?”
“Despairingly so,” Eames says, with a melodramatic sigh.
“And how have you been sleeping?”
“Not great,” he says.. “It really does help, talking with you.”
“Well, I’m glad, but--”
“You’re afraid you’ve become another addiction, aren’t you?”
Arthur hadn’t realized it until he heard it put that way, but yes, that’s pretty much exactly what he’s afraid of. It’s flattering and exciting in all kinds of ways, the fact that Eames needs him this way, but he doesn’t want to become another substitute for booze and drugs. He doesn’t want Eames to become unable to function without their conversations.
“I’m always ‘on’, you know?” Eames continues. “Always performing. But not with you. I can be myself with you. It’s very calming.”
“Is that because I don’t know you?”
“Not just that,” Eames says. He clears his throat, pauses. “I like talking to you, Arthur. I just- I like you.”
“Oh, um... I-I like that too,” Arthur stammers, stupidly. “I mean, talking. And you. Um.”
“It’s a lovely night,” Eames comments randomly. “Have you been outside?”
“Well, I was outside before I came inside.”
“Arthur, that is very nearly profound,” Eames says. “Listen, I’ve gotta go. I’m almost home and I need to get some sleep.”
“Think you’ll be able to?”
“Yes, I think I’ll be just fine. Goodnight, Arthur.”
Arthur’s not exactly sure what just happened on that phone call. He feels breathless, like he’s had the wind knocked out of him. It’s made him dizzy and confused and, whatever it was, he wants it to happen again. Soon.
Eames doesn’t call him again for a week and a half.
Arthur’s not sure if he’s being tested somehow, if Eames is waiting to see if Arthur will call himself now that he’s got the number. Or if maybe it’s a kind of payback for the week Arthur went away without telling him. Or maybe it’s something less Machiavellian and more mundane. Maybe Eames is suddenly really busy. Or maybe he’s just gotten tired of talking to Arthur. Maybe he’s bored of the whole thing.
What Arthur absolutely does not expect is for Eames to call him on his cellphone, in the middle of the afternoon on his day off, when he’s sitting on his couch in a bathrobe, smoking pot and eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But that’s exactly what happens.
He’s so utterly unprepared to talk to Eames, thrown and nearly panicked when he sees the incoming call, he considers letting it go to voicemail. But that would be silly, wouldn’t it? This is what he wanted, isn’t it?
After a few rings, he answers with “Did you forget the hotline number?”
“Well, hello to you too,” Eames replies dryly. Then, more tentatively, “Is this all right? I figured... well, I don’t want to bother you.”
“No!” Arthur insists, quickly. “No, no, that’s not what I- I just mean, uh, I’m not dressed.” Fuck, he’s really stoned. “Are you- is everything okay?” he asks. “You haven’t called in awhile.”
“I’ve been traveling,” Eames says. “Strange time zones and all that. Did you just say you were naked?”
“No, that’s not- I’m in a bathrobe. It’s my day off. I’m just...”
Vulnerable, he realizes. That’s how he feels. Exposed somehow, without his dress pants and his tie and his headset and a computer with instructions to tell him what he’s supposed to be saying. He’s just Arthur now. Arthur on the couch with potato chip crumbs stuck to the front of his robe.
“Are you sure this is all right?” Eames asks him again.
“Yeah, it’s fine. You said you were traveling?”
“Road trip,” Eames says. “With the band. I’m actually in Portland right now.”
“You’re in a band?” Arthur can’t believe Eames has never mentioned this before.
“Yes, I- yes.” He sounds weirdly uncomfortable with the topic. Maybe it’s a really sucky band.
“So, hey, do people ever ask you to do that song?”
“Woh-oh, I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien,” Arthur sings. He actually sings. He is really fucking stoned.
“Englishman in New York,” Eames says. “Might be a little on the nose for me, but that was pretty good.”
“It was terrible,” Arthur laughs. “I’m really high right now, sorry.”
After all of Arthur’s “Just say no” lectures, he figures this may seem a little odd. He really hopes he hasn’t been coming across as an uptight nag all this time.
“It’s my day off,” he says. “And pot’s not the same as cocaine or alcohol.”
“I realize that,” Eames says.
“Nobody ever died from pot,” Arthur continues. And then, for some unknown reason, he decides to launch into his “legalize it” rant, telling Eames a bunch of stuff he surely already knows about why it was made illegal in the first place, how much money the government could save if it was legal, how much they’d be able to collect in taxes. He talks for a long time, and Eames just listens.
“Who’s benefiting?” he finds himself asking, rhetorically. “It’s the corporations! Big pharma. Tobacco companies! And the people that run prisons.”
“Is this part of your manifesto?” Eames asks, bemusedly.
“Yeah, I- sorry, it just pisses me off.”
“No, it’s all right,” Eames says. “You’re rather adorable when you’re full of righteous indignation.”
Arthur has no idea what to say to that. It’s pretty condescending, but it makes his insides feel all fluttery just the same.
“The world is just so evil,” Arthur muses. “I think that’s why I like working at night. You feel like you’re not really a party to regular world bullshit.”
“How long have you worked at that hotline?”
“Mmmmaybe about five years.” Arthur still can’t believe it’s been that long. Where is his life going?
“First job out of college?” Eames asks him.
“No, I was an editorial assistant at Random House for a couple of years.”
“It sucked,” Arthur says. “Everything was about marketing and demographics and profit. Nobody cared if the books were shitty.”
“So you quit?”
“Yeah, well... no.” That’s what he usually tells people, that he quit in a fit of moralistic outrage, for his art, but it’s not the truth. “They were downsizing. Guess I wasn’t a vital member of the team.”
“That’s unfortunate. But you like the hotline job, yeah?”
“It’s okay,” Arthur says. “I like being able to help people. And the fact that they let me write when it’s slow.”
“You must meet some interesting people.”
None as interesting as you, Arthur thinks.
“Not really meet,” he says. “Talk to, I guess, yeah.”
“Have you ever... actually met anyone?” Eames asks, and Arthur’s breath catches in his throat as it occurs to him suddenly that this could be heading in that direction. Eames could be leading in to asking, and Arthur thinks he might say yes.
No, screw that, he’d definitely say yes. There’s no way he’d be able to refuse.
“I... no, not- not really. It’s mostly anonymous,” he says.
Please ask, please ask, he thinks, ridiculously.
But Eames doesn’t ask. He just says, “I think my bandmate is having sex next door.”
“The walls in this hotel are too bloody thin. I can hear him.”
“Jealous?” Arthur asks.
“What? No, I don’t fancy him.”
“No, I mean... do you wish you were, you know... having sex?”
Arthur is starting to kind of wish that he was. Even more so when Eames makes a low, almost dirty sound of agreement in his throat and says, “Always.”
“Yeah,” Arthur says, and give his stupidly hardening dick a quick rub with the palm of his hand.
“It’s just gauche to be so loud in a hotel.” Eames sounds almost offended, in a way that strikes Arthur as incredibly English. “No one wants to listen to other people copulating.”
“Yeah, that’s why porn is so unpopular,” Arthur remarks.
“It’s not porn when it’s someone you know,” Eames says. “It’s just peculiar.”
“I s’pose,” Arthur agrees absently.
“I’m gonna go for a walk, maybe get some lunch. Will you do something for me, Arthur?”
Anything, Arthur thinks, and strokes his cock again. Fuck, why is he so goddamn horny all of a sudden?
“Send me some of your writing,” Eames says. It’s that voice, that fucking voice. Ariadne was right- it’s sexy as hell. And it’s talking to him here, in his apartment, and Arthur’s not even wearing underpants.
“I- uh, yeah I can do that I guess.”
“I’ll text you my email. I really want to read it.”
“Okay,” Arthur says. “Yeah, I’ll do that.”
It’s going to be difficult to choose; Arthur’s got thousands of pages of writing on his laptop, and he’s going to have to carefully proofread anything he decides to send, but he can’t really think about it right now. All he can seem to think about is how desperate he is to jerk off.
“I’ll talk to you soon, Arthur,” Eames says.
“Please do,” Arthur says.
He doesn’t even bother going to bed, or even to the bathroom. He just finishes himself off right there on the couch. Eames’ text pops up on his phone right about the exact moment he’s coming all over himself, which seems, somehow, completely appropriate.
After some agonizing deliberation and quite a bit of editing, Arthur winds up sending Eames two scenes from his novel: the opening chapter where his protagonists meet for the first time and, in a move that’s either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid, a sex scene that happens about halfway through. He stares at his email waiting for a reply for approximately forty-eight hours straight.
He never gets a written response- instead he gets a phone call from Eames at the most inconvenient and awkward time imaginable. It’s early in his shift, around 10:30 on a Friday night, and they’ve just been released from an astonishingly dull weekly staff meeting. Cobb is still hanging around, chatting with Ariadne about his upcoming family vacation to the Grand Canyon. For some reason they’ve decided to have this conversation right next to Arthur’s cubicle, which would be irritating on any night, but to have them standing two feet away when he picks up the line and hears Eames practically purring his name is way beyond irritating and into the realm of the unbearable.
“Hello, how can I help you tonight,” Arthur says, because Cobb is standing right there, goddammit.
“I knew you were a romantic,” Eames tells him. His voice is gravelly and tired. He sounds like he’s getting sick. It’s irritatingly hot. “Your writing is gorgeous.”
“Uh huh,” Arthur says. “Go on.” He opens a blank file and starts typing in fake information, just in case Cobb happens to glance at his screen.
“And so modest...” Eames teases, obviously not getting the picture. “I read it on the plane this morning, all in one sitting.”
“Yes, really. It’s fantastic, sincerely. Your characters are so real. Full of pathos. I’d love to read more.”
“Uh huh,” Arthur says again, typing some nonsense about sleep apnea into his file and trying to soak up the praise in spite of everything.
“Are you listening to me?” Eames asks. “You sound distracted.”
“Mmhm,” Arthur hums, noncommittally.
“That was rather naughty of you, sending me such a racy scene,” Eames says. He actually says naughty. Then, lower, “I’ve been thinking about it.”
Thinking about it, oh God.
“I see.” Arthur sneaks a look at Cobb. Still talking, not listening to Arthur as far as he can tell, but that could change really fast.
“We had a show tonight,” Eames continues. “Kept thinking about it on stage. I was hard as a rock.”
Arthur licks his lips a couple of times and darts another glance in Cobb’s direction. “Uh huh,” he croaks.
“This is the first I’ve been alone all day.”
“Um,” Arthur says. “Tell-- tell me about your sleeping area.”
“Sleeping area,” Arthur repeats, loudly. Cobb glances down at him with a moronic grin and gives him a lame little thumbs up.
“I-I’m in bed,” Eames says. “At the hotel. It’s... very warm in here, so I’ve taken off all my clothes.”
Oh God, why? Arthur thinks. Why are you doing this now?
He could’ve started with this yesterday, when Arthur was home alone and would’ve been more than happy to join in, but no. Has to make everything difficult.
He should really hang up the phone, maybe send Eames a text or something, tell him to call back later. But Eames keeps talking.
“I’m still a bit randy,” he says. “Performing always leaves me rather aroused. Not sure if it’s the music, or the energy of the crowd, but there’s something inherently sexual about it, isn’t there?”
“Then with your story in my thoughts... well. The cumulative effect has been quite overwhelming.”
“Ha-have you had any caffeine today?” Arthur asks, meekly.
“No, but I think I’m going to have a wank,” Eames says. “D’you mind?”
All the blood in Arthur’s body seems to rush to his cock in a single instant, and he scoots his chair forward vehemently, hiding his lap more thoroughly under the desk.
“It’ll probably help me sleep...”
“Yeah, uh, that’s fine,” Arthur tells him.
“Good, because I’ve already started.”
Arthur kind of knew that already. If he strains to hear it, the unmistakable sound of hand-on-dick is clearly audible in the background.
“Why-why don’t you tell me about that,” Arthur says, stupidly. So stupid. He is so getting fired.
Eames laughs, low and rumbling. “There’s someone listening to you, isn’t there?”
“You are a naughty boy,” Eames murmurs. Arthur has to bite his lip to keep from whimpering out loud. He bangs out some random words on the keyboard, mostly to keep his hands from wandering under the desk. Herbal Tea. Needs a humidifier.
“You could hang up on me,” Eames points out. “But you won’t, will you. You like this, don’t you. You--” Eames breaks off into a groan and Arthur clenches his fists. Risks another glance at Cobb and Ariadne, still chatting animatedly above him. Fuck, why won’t they go away?
“Talk to me, Arthur,” Eames says.
“I- I can’t exactly--.”
“Doesn’t have to be sexy talk. Just...anything. Just want to hear your voice.”
“Um, okay, uh.” Arthur’s mind is a complete blank. What the hell is he supposed to talk about? He starts clicking through screens on his computer, searching for topics, for something he can read from so that he doesn’t have to think.
He settles on an entry about sleep journals- something he’s recommended to hundreds of people before.
“Uh, have you ever kept a sleep diary?” he asks.
“Mmmm,” Eames replies.
“It- it can be very helpful in pinpointing the source of your difficulties.”
“God, your voice.” Eames moans into his ear. “Makes me so hot.”
Arthur swallows hard. He feels a trail of sweat sliding down the back of his neck, his heart hammering in his chest.
“You should uh, write down everything you do before bed,” Arthur says. “What you eat and drink and watch on TV. And then, uh, what time you go to bed. What happens when you try to sleep.”
Eames moans again, deep and long. The flesh slapping sounds are louder now, and there’s an occasional mattress squeak. If Arthur closes his eyes, he can almost see it- Eames naked and damp with sweat, lying prone on a big hotel bed, thrusting up into his fist. Never before has he wanted to know exactly what Eames looks like so fucking badly.
“Write about, um, how--how you feel. Before bed.”
“Mmm, Arthur,” Eames growls at him. “Gonna come.”
“That-that’s good,” Arthur squeaks, his voice breaking embarrassingly.
“Can’t believe you’re listening to this,” Eames tells him breathlessly. “Dirty, dirty boy...” He gasps sharply, and then moans Arthur’s name again, and Arthur jams his hand under the desk and palms himself helplessly. He’s pretty sure he’s never been this hard, this fucking turned on in his entire life.
Eames starts making loud “ah ah ah” sounds, and Arthur has to stop. He has to stop or he’s going to come in his pants with his fucking boss standing over his desk and that would be the most humiliating job-ender in the history of the world.
He moves his hand off his aching cock and grips his pants’ leg instead. He squeezes his eyes shut, imagining Eames’ big, uncut cock spurting come all over his chest, and he bites his tongue, hard.
“Bloody hell,” Eames pants into his ear. “I really like your voice.”
“Make sure to write down how many hours you sleep each night,” Arthur says. There’s blood in his mouth. If he doesn’t get to the men’s room soon, he’s probably just going to die.
“I’ll be sure to do that,” Eames says. “Thank you, Arthur. This was most helpful.”
“Good luck,” Arthur tells him, and disconnects the call. When he takes off his headset, Cobb taps on the side of his cubicle and gives him yet another thumbs up.
Nice job. Right.
Arthur is, all things considered, pretty overwhelmingly terrible at non-telephone based relationships. He’s been called everything from an emotional cripple to an overly judgmental prick to (his personal favorite) “too sarcastic to fuck”. He’s pretty sure he’s not any of these things, but he knows how he can come across. He knows that his own shortcomings are only the first in a long list of issues that could derail things with Eames, were they to meet in person, but after listening to Eames jerking himself off, Arthur realizes he no longer cares about any of those issues. They’ve reached a point of no return here, and if they don’t meet now then Arthur’s not sure why they’re even having these conversations anymore.
The next night, he goes to work with a new determination and confidence. He’s going to ask Eames, and Eames is going to say yes. After that, who knows. It’ll be great or it’ll be terrible, but either way, he’s going to take a risk for once in his fucking life.
He’s working a short shift, 2 to 6 a.m., and Ariadne’s packing up to leave when he gets in. New kid called out sick, so he’s going to be alone. He takes it as a sign- tonight is definitely the night.
“Do you ever wonder about the people who call here?” he asks Ariadne as she’s pulling on her coat.
“I dunno, like, what they’re really like,” Arthur says. “Have you ever met anybody?”
Ariadne wrinkles her nose in response. “Are you crazy?”
“It’s just a question...”
“Is this about your Englishman?”
“No, I’m just- I dunno, I’m taking a new brain supplement. It’s making me think about strange stuff.”
“Some guy asked me out once,” she says, wrinkling her nose again. “I think maybe they get a false sense of intimacy or something.”
Arthur nods. False sense of intimacy; maybe that’s right.
“But I guess if you’re sure he’s not a serial killer,” she continues. “It’s up to you if you think it’s worth the risk.”
“Yeah, I- there is no he. Like I said, just--”
“Thinking, right,” she says with a smirk. “Hey, what’re you doing for New Years?” she asks. “Any big plans?”
“Ugh, I hate New Years. Why is there so much pressure to--”
Ariadne holds up her hand. “Please, spare me the “I’m too cool for everything” speech. I won tickets to see Orgonomy at the Beacon Theatre. You wanna go?”
“You won them?”
“On the radio.”
“Is that what you do all night at work? Call up radio contests?”
She laughs and smacks him on the back of the head with her woolen hat. “Shut up, do you wanna go or not?”
“I dunno.... Orgonomy? Really?”
“Oh come on, you don’t like them?”
“I used to, before they were in a frigging Honda commercial. They totally sold out.”
Ariadne rolls her eyes. “You are such a cliche. I’m going home.”
“I’ll think about it!” Arthur calls after her. And he will. It’s not like sitting around his apartment with a bong and cheesefries is a much better option. But it’s possible- not likely, but possible- that he may have a date for New Years, if everything works out the way he’s hoping.
He sends Eames a text (call me at work) quickly, before he loses his nerve. It only takes around twenty minutes for the phone to ring.
“You’re an asshole,” he says, immediately after hello. “My boss was standing right there the whole time you were wacking off.”
“So why didn’t you hang up?” Eames asks, sounding highly amused.
“Because I’m an asshole too.”
Just do it, he thinks. No stalling. The longer he lets the conversation continue without asking, the higher the odds of him wussing out.
“So, I was thinking. Instead of... you know, this, this thing where I might get fired at any moment, why don’t we um, meet up someplace or something?”
Eames is silent for so long that it starts to get uncomfortable. Arthur regrets asking almost immediately.
“I’m... not sure that’s a very good idea,” he finally says. Arthur feels his face getting hot. He wants to kick himself.
“Are you afraid I’m a hideous troll?” he asks.
“No, it’s not--”
“Because I’m pretty good looking,” Arthur says. “I mean, I could send you a picture.”
“I’m sure you’re lovely.”
“Are you a hideous troll?”
“Arthur, it’s not about anyone’s appearance. I’m just...I’m not sure it would be wise.”
“Uh huh, okay,” Arthur says. Fuck, he’s such an idiot.
“I don’t know if we should change things,” Eames tells him.
This changes everything, Arthur wants to scream. Fuck.
“Yeah okay, I get it.”
“Listen, my shift’s about to end,” Arthur lies. “I gotta go.”
“Arthur, it’s not--”
“It’s fine, Eames. Really. It was just a thought.”
“I’ll talk to you later,” Arthur says, and hangs up abruptly with a growing knot in his stomach, feeling like the biggest jackass in the world.
Eames doesn’t call Arthur again after that, but he does send an email a few days later with the subject line “Sorry”. Arthur is tempted to delete it- the last thing he needs to see is some self-loathing, apologetic screed from the jackass who rejected him- but he can’t quite bring himself to delete it either. He leaves it sitting there in his in-box, a kind of monument to his stupidity, waiting for a day when he can read it without throwing his laptop out the window.
Arthur spends the next couple of weeks vacillating wildly between insecure self-pity and absolute, blinding anger. The anger is easier to take, and he channels some of it into writing, finishing off the story about the alcoholic piano player with an ultra violent murder-suicide. By the time New Years’ rolls around, he’s pretty much settled into a morose acceptance. This is what his life has come to, being rejected by some pervy loser who calls help-lines for free phone sex. So be it.
He agrees to go to the stupid concert with Ariadne, mostly so she’ll stop nagging him about his foul mood and anti-social behaviors. Also, obviously, what else has he got to do?
The seats are incredibly good- seventh row, dead center. If Arthur liked the band and wasn’t cripplingly depressed, he’d probably be very excited. Ariadne certainly is. She spends the intermission after the opening act (a terrifying woman with a violin and auto tune) chattering endlessly about how close they’re going to be to Robert Fischer’s “amazing, beautiful ass” and how she might possibly stroke out when he appears. Personally, Arthur doesn’t see the appeal. Robert Fischer’s ass has always seemed rather scrawny and unremarkable to Arthur. He’s certainly talented; Arthur’s pretty sure he plays five or six hundred instruments, and he plays them well, but were he forced to choose, Arthur would take the second half of the duet, the lead singer, Conrad Smith. The fourteen year old girls in the seats next to him seem to agree. Whenever another piece of equipment is moved onto the stage, they’ll clutch hands and shriek “CONRAD” at the top of their lungs.
Along with being the hotter of the two, Conrad Smith is also the more famous and visible member of the band. Arthur’s seen him on late night talk shows, on CNN discussing sickly children in third world nations with Anderson Cooper and Bono, and he made a feature appearance in an indie horror film as the boyfriend of a homicidal maniac. His head wound up in a refrigerator. According to rumors, he’s slept with everyone in the world, from Rihanna to Ashton Kutcher to the entire cast of Gossip Girl.
He looks like a criminal, covered in ugly tattoos and the kind of muscles you might acquire from working at a meat packing plant. When the show finally starts, he jogs out on stage in a bedraggled looking wifebeater, obscenely tight black leather pants, and an assortment of tacky jewelry and Arthur thinks, yeah, I’d hit that.
They’ve got a bunch of extra musicians up there with them- two people on stage can’t do the same work as two people in the studio- and Fischer’s on the piano. They start with their most popular song, the one from the car commercial, and Arthur hates the song, he really does, but there’s something appealing about Conrad’s voice… something undeniably enjoyable about the way he slithers and struts around the stage, pausing occasionally to hump his microphone stand. For a few minutes, Arthur manages to forget about Eames and his loneliness and embarrassment. He lets himself get swept up in the frenzy of the crowd, the sexiness of another man who’s right there in front of him.
When the second song begins, Arthur’s first thought is Conrad stole Eames’ lyrics. His second thought is Eames stole Conrad’s lyrics, because that makes more sense, doesn’t it?
It’s the song from the tub, the one about nightmares and ghosts, the one Eames supposedly wrote on Halloween night after talking to Arthur. He must’ve been reciting the lyrics from the fucking CD jacket or something. Arthur feels himself getting angry all over again. Was anything Eames told him the truth? Was he just getting played the entire time?
But his voice…
“Thank you, New York!” Conrad says, at the end of the song. “It’s great to be home.”
His speaking voice is a little rougher, a little lower than his singing voice and it can’t be, but somehow, it is. Eames.
Arthur tracks back through the talk shows, the guest spot on Anderson Cooper, the head in the fridge, and then all of the phone conversations over the last couple of months. It’s impossible, but also undeniable. How could he not have realized, all this time? It’s the same fucking voice.
The next song is off their first album, the only one that Arthur owns. He’s always liked it, but never really listened to carefully to the lyrics. This time he does. He also watches the flicker of sadness that crosses Conrad’s face when he’s singing, and realizes that it’s about loss. Loss of a friend. Loss of a brother.
Arthur wonders if he’s dreaming. Hallucinating, maybe. Did he take something before they left? He’d been considering it, but he changed his mind… didn’t he?
He tugs Ariadne’s sleeve. When she leans in, he shouts “Am I on drugs right now?”
She gives him a baffled look.
“I think it’s him,” Arthur yells.
Ariadne points to her ear and shrugs. She can’t hear him, which is probably just as well. He doesn’t need a witness to this mental breakdown.
The next song is another new one, or at least one that Arthur’s never heard, and it starts out with the words I was outside before I came inside and Arthur thinks that’s almost profound.
“It’s him!” he yells again, to no one in particular. And no one hears him over the music and the noisy hysteria of three thousand other fans. “He stole that from me!”
The fucking bastard. Rich, famous, leather-pant-wearing, sweaty, sexy, crazy fucking bastard.
Arthur suddenly feels like he might be sick. He’s dizzy, nauseous, and completely overwhelmed.
“Gotta pee,” he tells Ariadne, and gestures pointedly towards his crotch. She shrugs at him again and shakes her head.
He makes his way past the screaming tweens, who look about as demented as he’s feeling.
In the men’s room, some boys are doing cocaine in a stall and talking loudly about how badly they’d like to be molested by Conrad Smith, debating whether or not he had a boner during the first song (he did) and Arthur thinks he might seriously start projectile vomiting all over the place.
He splashes some cold water on his face and hyperventilates for a couple of minutes.
Then he remembers the email.
He digs out his iPhone, and promptly drops it in the sink. His hands are actually shaking.
He takes the stupid thing into a stall and sits, takes a few calming breaths. He starts to read with the voices of the horny guys still echoing around the restroom.
I wanted to apologize for what happened the other day. I hope that you don’t interpret my reluctance as some sort of rejection. The fact is, I would very much like to meet you, but I’m afraid I’m a bit of a coward. It’s incredibly rare for me to find someone I feel truly comfortable with, and I was afraid meeting you in person might change that. Also, my life is somewhat peculiar, and I’m not sure you’d want to be any part of it, if you knew. Now I realize I’ve ruined everything anyway, as is my wont, and I’m truly sorry for that. I miss you, and I’d like to speak with you again about all of this, but I didn’t want to call and put you on the spot. Let me know if you’re still interested.
My life is somewhat peculiar. My life is somewhat peculiar.
“Jesus Christ,” Arthur says out loud, and then starts to laugh. “Yeah, somewhat.”
He sends Eames a text right away. Really enjoying the show, it says. He’s pretty sure Eames won’t see it until the concert is long over, but he needs to do it before he loses his nerve. Before he goes back out there and sees people wetting their pants because they’re in the same 200 foot vicinity as Eames.
Most of the rest of the show passes in a big, confusing blur of disbelief and profound sexual arousal. Eames is incredible on stage, charismatic and beautiful and larger than life. It’s hard for Arthur to reconcile this whole extroverted, in-your-face rock star package with the troubled, thoughtful, wonderfully strange man he’s been talking to, but it’s not impossible. Every so often he’ll catch a glimpse of something, an expression or a gesture, and he’ll know- not just intellectually, but in his heart. It’s really him.
For the encore, just before midnight, he brings down the house with an upbeat, jazzy version of Englishman in New York. Of course he does. For a brief moment, everyone else seems to disappear. It feels like Eames is singing just to him. It feels like he sees Arthur, like he just knows.
Then suddenly it’s midnight and everyone’s cheering and Ariadne’s hugging him. Confetti falls from the ceiling and Eames and Robert Fischer sing Auld Lang Syne.
When it’s all over and people are clearing out, Arthur stops Ariadne in the lobby of the theatre.
“It’s him,” he says. “The Crazy Englishman.”
“Conrad Smith. It’s him. They’re the same person!”
Ariadne laughs. “You wish!”
“I’m totally serious,” Arthur says. “He wrote those lyrics. He stole my line. And I told him to sing Englishman in New York! That was my idea!”
“Oh my God, are you on drugs right now?”
“No! I’m telling you--”
His phone starts vibrating in his pocket, and he takes it out to look, temporarily aborting the conversation.
A text from Eames: How did you know?
Arthur writes back: I didn’t. Just a coincidence.
Eames replies immediately. Go to will call. Tell them you’re Arthur from the hotline.
“Who are you texting?” Ariadne asks, peering over his shoulder.
“Come on, we have to go,” Arthur says. He hooks his arm in hers and starts leading her to the ticket counter.
“What is happening?” she demands. “Seriously are you on drugs?”
“I think we’re going backstage,” he tells her. “Try to be cool,” he says, but he’s pretty sure she doesn’t hear him over the sound of her own shrieking.
When they get to will call there is indeed a pair of backstage passes waiting for “Arthur from the hotline”.
Ariadne asks him about a million more questions as they make their way back there, but his head is too full of the insanity of this situation to really focus on a conversation. He’s finally going to meet Eames. Eames is a rock star. Eames wears leather pants. Eames may or may not have slept with Ashton Kutcher.
Arthur’s never been backstage at a concert before- only at his own high school productions of Guys and Dolls and You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown. It’s everything and nothing like he would’ve imagined. Everywhere he looks there are people, each more attractive and scantily clad than the last. He’s pretty sure that he recognizes some faces, but he’s too distracted to really name them. The music is hip-hop at a thankfully unobtrusive volume. There’s a huge spread of food and booze, and he immediately grabs a beer, hoping it will make him look casual and less awkward.
He spots Robert Fischer right away, sprawled out on a sofa in his ridiculous skinny jeans and skinny tie, surrounded by a gaggle of admirers. He looks bored.
“I have to--” Ariadne starts, then breaks off into a flaily motion and inarticulate “bleagh” sound.
“Go,” Arthur tells her. She gratefully departs, in hopes of becoming a groupie no doubt.
Arthur doesn’t see Eames, so he wanders for awhile and tries to pretend he belongs. He’s always loved the Beacon Theatre and eventually he manages to find a relatively quiet corner where he can admire the incredibly cool architecture.
After a few minutes of what amounts to staring at a corner, Arthur hears a voice behind him, tentative and (possibly) hopeful.
He turns around and his every muscle in his body seems to tighten at once. His skin feels like it’s on fire.
Eames is still wearing the wifebeater and the leather pants, but he’s lost all the jewelry aside from his giant silver belt buckle. A snake, Arthur notices now that he’s close enough. He’s got a snake on top of his crotch. He’s damp with sweat. His biceps are bigger than Arthur’s thighs. His face is… Oh, God, his face.
“Um, that’s me,” Arthur says, with a smile that he can only hope isn’t entirely dorky.
Then Eames smiles too, soft and sweet.
“I was hoping it was,” he says.
I want to rub myself all over you, Arthur thinks.
“Happy New Year, Eames,” he says. “Or…Conrad?”
“Oh, yes, Eames is fine. It’s my middle name. Some people call me that.”
“Friends?” Arthur asks.
“Yes, friends, definitely,” Eames says. He scratches the back of his neck and chuckles a little, looking almost… shy? “This is quite a coincidence, Arthur.”
“Almost like fate,” Arthur says.
I can smell your sweat, he thinks. It smells really fucking good.
“Fate, yes. Maybe so.”
“I really liked the show,” Arthur tells him. “Glad my suggestion worked out.”
“Ah, yes, thank you. It was rather a brilliant idea.”
"Am I what you imagined?" Eames asks.
Not even close. Not even in the same universe. Eames is so much better, so much more than anything his imagination could've conjured. That picture he drew on Halloween was a joke. Arthur can't believe he pictured Eames working at Starbucks.
"I thought you'd be taller," he says, and Eames laughs.
“D’you wanna get out of here?” Eames asks. “I’d really like to go…anywhere else.”
Arthur nods. “Yeah, anywhere else sounds good. Um, my friend though.”
He glances back at Ariadne. She’s somehow managed to shove her way onto the sofa next to Robert Fischer and judging by the looks of it, she’d probably take out his kneecaps if he tried to make her leave right now. Whatever, he’ll text her later.
“Hm?” Eames asks.
“Never mind,” Arthur says. “Let’s go.”
“You might want to pull your coat over your head,” Eames tells him.
Arthur just scoffs at that, but when Eames leads him out a back exit into an alley, there’s a swarm of paparazzi waiting. It’s like a moat of alligators between the exit door and the limo waiting just a few feet away. There’s also a crowd of gawkers, trying to push their way in for an autograph or who knows what. Flashbulbs start going off immediately and Arthur’s nearly blinded.
“This is why,” Eames says, and pulls him by the elbow in the direction of the car.
Scenes like this always look glamorous from the outside, but from the inside they’re just a press of flesh and noise and light. By the time they make it to the limo, Arthur’s nearly in the midst of an anxiety attack.
“Shit, that was horrible!” Arthur exclaims.
“I know,” Eames says. “This is why…”
“No.” Arthur shakes his head, catching his breath. “No, I don’t care. It’s okay.”
“Are you sure?”
Arthur nods. He’s sure.
The limo is pretty sweet. He hasn’t been in a limo since senior prom, and this one’s a hell of a lot nicer. So there’s some good and there’s some bad, but mostly there’s just Eames.
Eames in the tub, reciting song lyrics at him. Eames jerking off to the sound of Arthur’s voice, talking about nothing. Eames and his nightmares and his dead twin and his substance abuse problems. Eames in his leather pants and his motorcycle boots with all his fucking talent.
“It’s worth it,” Arthur says. “It’s totally—I wanna kiss you.”
He just blurts it out, without thinking or second-guessing, and he doesn't feel foolish about it because Eames is smiling that soft, sweet smile at him again. He thinks if he could see that smile every day, he might actually be a happy person instead of a bitter, grouchy asshole.
"I would like that," Eames says. "Very much."
They both lean forward at the same time, bumping noses, and Arthur sort of expects the kiss to be awkward. All his first kisses are awkward, and he doesn't even know Eames- not really. But then again, on another level, he knows Eames better than he's known anyone else he's kissed in his entire life.
And when Eames takes Arthur's face in his hands and kisses him, gentle but insistent, and warm, so warm, it's not awkward at all. It’s like something clicking into place, something he’s been waiting for.
He might not know if Eames really slept with Ashton Kutcher, or what he wears when he’s not on stage, or where he actually lives, and he’s really looking forward to finding out about those things, but he already knows what’s important. He knows what’s in Eames’ heart.
Huh, he thinks. Maybe I am a romantic after all.