Every morning for more than three years, I woke up with the fear that someone would call me out as a fraud. The same scenario ran through my mind: A woman stops me on the street, grabs my arm and starts calling me a crook, a fake, phony and heartless rogue. Actually, there are so many words to describe what I did for a living that they used to echo in my mind all the way to work. But as soon as I sat down at my desk and picked up my phone, the bad words suddenly stopped. My voice changed; I held myself differently; I had a different look in my eyes. I felt like a brand new person. Because every time I sat at my desk, I turned into “Ella,” the successful phone-psychic, ready to offer her services.
* * *
I was born and raised rich. My childhood in a ten-bedroom mansion complete with a 1,500- square-foot garden was every kid’s dream. I skied in Switzerland, dined in Paris, went shopping in Milan, and my seventeenth birthday present was a high-priced sports car. I was an unpopular Paris Hilton with brains — you could say I was Nicky Hilton. I was studying to become an actress. I had a fascinating life waiting for me.
But one day my father had an uneasy board of directors waiting for him, and his business skills were overshadowed by his partners’ dark schemes. Goodbye acting, goodbye Switzerland, goodbye innocence. The sunny mansion was replaced by a dark apartment, my parents’ happiness was replaced by a divorce, and my successful father was replaced by a middle-aged man with nothing but the potential to start over.
I, Estela, was soon replaced by Ella.
People get crafty when they lose money. Since I was nothing but an ex-rich girl — basically, I was now nothing, period — I had to come up with a career. So I used my acting skills.
* * *
At 27 years old I was shy and polite with a soft character people couldn’t help but love — at least, that’s what they told me. I walked with my head down; I said “Sorry” when I accidentally stepped on a stranger, and, most of the times, I ended sentences with “please,” regardless of the punctuation mark I employed — I will take the donut, please. May I have a bus ticket, please? Fuck you, please!
The alter ego I created in order to punch the ugly face of poverty, Ella, was nothing like me. I had to get tougher, more confident, and, since all I knew was how to ask my maids for help, I had to create her character to adapt to my life’s new reality.
I embraced Ella. She became my personal Mr. Hyde, giving me the courage to keep going and, eventually, stand on my feet. In my mind, I imagined Ella as a tall, strong, 38-year-old woman with big, curly hair and an alluring sparkle in her eyes. She was everything I wasn’t.
When I saw a job ad asking for phone workers who “could help people overcome their problems through the amazing way of spirituality,” as a passionate pragmatist, I knew, and still know, nothing about this approach to facing real-life problems.
However, my acting skills left me with an amazing ability to persuade people. I needed the money, so why not try it out?
I got an interview.
“Your voice is sooooo what we are looking for right now,” my 50-year-old, plastic boss told me. The truth was that, even though Ella and I were the same person, the voice I used while acting as her was much deeper and sexier. To be honest, I still use her voice when I want to amaze someone over the phone.
I never believed in fortune telling, but I had a job and played along. On a typical workday I woke up at six a.m., ate breakfast, put on my baggy clothes and hit the road by eight. My shift started at nine, so I had plenty of time to enjoy a refreshing walk to work. On my way, I was Estela. At work, I turned into Ella. I picked up the phone and, without any actual tarot cards lying in front of me, read my caller’s destiny. Now that I am thinking about it, I don’t know if the office even provided us with tarot cards.
“I’m Ella. How can I help you?” I would always say using my deep, mysterious voice.
Help. It’s important to let your callers feel like you are the only person in the world who can help.
“I think my husband is cheating on me,” the voice would say most of the time.
“Let’s see how I can help you, honey,” I replied. “I’m going to need your help too. Focus on your issue, and I will start shuffling the deck.” At that point, I was usually playing my way through the next Candy Crush level. Over time, I became both a profitable professional and a Candy Crush killer champion.
When I first got the job, I was paid $0.10 per minute while the company I worked for got $2 for every desperate minute from every desperate caller. After six months, I got a raise to $0.50, plus a bonus for every 60 minutes I held a caller on the line.
I was a rich fraud. I cared; Ella didn’t.
Most of the time, I just went over the same words, but there were some phone calls that even Ella, my alter ego, could not handle. Those were the calls that put Ella into a deeper sleep and woke Estela up more and more.
* * *
Fiona was not normal. In her twenties she got married to a wealthy businessman and gave birth to a lovely little boy. In her forties she became a mother-in-law. In her fifties she became her unborn grandson’s aspiring killer. All because of a dream she had in which her son’s child was the Devil’s personification. Of course, I received a call.
Callers to phone psychics often believe fortune-tellers can provide their clients with all the hocus pocus they might need in order to achieve their goals. Nonsense. They can’t even tell the future, let alone cast spells.
Fiona had heard about my skills as a medium from her best friend. I still remember her: A shy middle-aged woman who called me every Monday morning to provide her with the numbers she should bet on in roulette. As it turned out, my guesses were spot on and Fiona’s best friend kept calling. She was the first person who made me think that I might not be that fake of a psychic after all. In case you’ve been wondering, yes, there have been some times that I thought of myself as a gifted young woman who knew what the future held. By the end of my shift, the feeling always stopped.
“I’m Ella,” I said while picking up. “How can I help you?”
“Is this call being recorded?” Fiona asked. “You may want to tell me the truth because I will read the user guidelines on your company’s website as soon as we hang up.”
“No, it is not. What can I do for you? Any issue you want some help with?”
“As far back as I can remember, my dreams always worked like prophecies. Everything I dream about comes true some months or even some days later. I had a dream that my grandson is the Devil and that he will trigger a global destruction as soon as he comes to life. We have to get rid of that creature,” Fiona said with a stone-cold tone in her voice, like she was telling me she had a dentist appointment on Friday.
No one ever taught me how to deal with psychopathic callers who want to eliminate their own bloodline because of a bad dream. I certainly didn’t want to talk to them either, but I also didn’t want to sit by while she killed someone.
This shock woke me up. When I next spoke into the phone, I was my real self.
“I just opened the cards, Fiona. Yes, your dream was right. I see the Devil card right next to your grandson, but I don’t see them being the same person. Your grandson is a holy fighter who will fight evil to bring peace to the world. He will be the head of a holy army of light who will take down the dark enemy. Fiona, your grandson is an angel.”
I swear I heard her cry. Fiona bought the story and, after filling her up with some extra details, she ended up talking with me for almost two hours. I saved a fetus and got a bonus for that call.
Fiona, on the other hand, died from cancer after her grandson’s first birthday. His name is Angel.
* * *
I was having one of those moody mornings when I wake up feeling like all I want to do is sleep more, call in sick, skip work and have fun watching bad reality television. But I couldn’t afford to not show up, and Ella was hungry for some more callers.
As soon as I sat down at my chair, the phone rang. I picked it up. A woman was crying.
“I lost my baby,” she mumbled, “I lost her while she was playing right next to me at the park. Please find her! My husband is going to kill me!”
I felt my hands getting weak. The phone dropped. What was the right thing to do? I didn’t know. Should I call the police? Was the little girl safe? Am I going to get fired? We were not allowed to call the authorities even if we had official information that the War of Armageddon was just minutes away. So many questions raced through mind. My family history of panic attacks is so big it could fill the pages of a weighty tome. I actually passed out, but it only lasted for ten to fifteen seconds, so nobody noticed. Once more, I had to act quickly. I put her on hold while I called 911 from my cellphone.
I told the lady at the end of the line that I was a psychic working for a hotline and I gave her the agitated mother’s number.
“There is a woman who just called looking for her baby,” I said without even thinking about it. “She is a regular caller and, in her shock, she called me for help instead of calling you. Please, call her in three to five minutes and ask her to give you all the details you may need to find her daughter.” The operator agreed.
I took a deep breath and then went back to the call. This time it was me, Estela. Not Ella.
“Hello again! I’m sorry to have kept you waiting. So, how can I help you?” I asked using my regular, calm voice.
“I lost my daughter. She is five. Please track her down,” she said in despair.
“Let me do a quick read for you since it sounds like an urgent case. It will help us act rapidly,” I said, placing the verb “help” wherever I could. After all, old habits die hard. “Honey, hang up. I see police calling you in a couple of minutes. They will help you find your little girl. My tarot cards sent a ball of energy and your wish will come true.” I hung up.
I don’t know what happened next but I assume that the authorities let that poor woman know about my initiative after they found the little girl playing hide and seek twenty minutes later. I had to let my manager know.
I got fired.
* * *
After my dismissal, I spent most of my days eating food I cooked, playing board games with my roommate, having fun, smiling. The only thing that took a little part of my happiness away was the fact that I hadn’t just quit rather than getting fired.
But would I have left my job if she hadn’t fired me? To be honest, I don’t think so.
Today, I work as a waitress and I earn less than one third of what I got by working as a phony phone-psychic. As some of my ex-colleagues have informed me, there are still callers who want to talk exclusively to me, and my ex-boss keeps telling my replacement that she has some very large shoes to fill. Even though I am not proud of my past job, knowing I was good at it feels quite comforting.
I haven’t heard from Ella. One day, I believe I saw a woman looking exactly like she would, sitting at one of my tables at the restaurant. She looked at me with a sparkle in her eyes, ready to make anyone believe she would take over the world someday and untangle her glorious destiny from her big, black curls. I took her order and, in a deep, sensual voice, she asked for a hot cup of tea.
I peeked to see if she would try reading the leaves after she finished drinking it.
* * *
Aris Apostolopoulos is a freelance writer and journalist living a life of constant travel. He specializes in profiles, reported essays, and he is an expert at writing stories about the way culture and life intersect. His work can be found at ArisApostolopoulos.com.