Summer night, circa 1995. No AC, windows open. Lights off, radio playing endless alternative rock hits from atop a white laminate dresser. Zombie ends, and a familiar voice drifts out from the speakers.
“How’s everybody doing out there tonight? Dave Dubois* here, getting ready to kick off another commercial-free hour right after these messages.”
I pick up the phone and dial.
“Mix 106,” says Dave’s voice on the other end.
“Hey,” I say, careful to speak softly so I don’t wake up my parents in the next room.
His radio voice gives way to his natural one. “Hey, Nikki,” he says back.
When I was about four years old, back in the days when the beautiful faces of missing children looked out from milk cartons next to the cases of beer in our little mustard-colored refrigerator, I got a clock radio in my room. I became an expert in precisely rolling the little analog knob, angling the telescoping metal antenna just right so I could hear the stations from the nearest big city.
Each night I would listen, and eventually fall asleep, to a carefully curated collection of country music from my favorite artists. Back then I loved The Judds, Conway Twitty, and Lorrie Morgan. But my absolute favorite was George Strait. I came to understand my life through his lyrics; I felt a more intimate connection with him than with anyone I knew in real life.
Every Sunday night, the station would broadcast a call-in show where they would interview an artist, play some songs from their album, and take audience questions. The night George came on was positioned to be the greatest night of my life. I looked forward to it all week.
My parents gave me a one-time exception to my 8:30 bedtime, and I sat in my room dialing 727-STAR, again and again, and hoping George would pick up the phone and choose me. My six-year-old heart was crushed when the show ended at 11:00 and still, my call hadn’t been answered.
I failed that time, but it was only the beginning of my infatuation with music, radio, and DJs.
Music put me to sleep at night and woke me up in the morning. As I grew older, the country music I once enjoyed gave way to Bush and Pearl Jam, Green Day, and Smashing Pumpkins. The radio was the only device in my house that got more use than the television.
I’ve lost count of the things I’ve won from calling into radio shows. T-shirts, gift bags, concert tickets, Eve6 (remember them?), and Dave Matthews CDs I still listen to today.
Before school one day, I called into the morning show and won tickets to a hockey game by saying the team’s slogan should be, “They’ve got it all…except for teeth.” In college, while working as a drugstore cashier, I spent an entire shift trying to win Fleetwood Mac tickets, finally making it through just before closing up for the night.
I had all the radio station numbers memorized. I was an expert in saying, “Hi, I’m Nikki. Can I request a song?” I thought they were giving me what I wanted, but in retrospect, my request probably just fit into the rotation the station set for them. Still, every time I heard my voice on the radio, my heart would skip a beat.
But my call to Dave was different. This conversation would never make it onto the air. It was private, just me and him.
Dave was the overnight DJ, on the air from 10:00 until the morning show people showed up at six. I have to imagine he got really bored. Because otherwise, why would he have talked to me?
One night, I picked up the phone and dialed, and when Dave answered, I just started talking. I introduced myself, asked how old he was, and then told him I was a couple of years younger than him, even though he was in his 20s and I was barely a teenager. Everyone around me was constantly telling me how mature I was; this guy would never be the wiser.
Over the next several months, I invented a whole life for myself. I’d already created an entirely new family to keep me company when I was alone in the dark. I made up a group of friends with dubious relationships to the legal system that I bragged about to the kids at school. So telling this guy I was a college student who lived with my (nonexistent) sister wasn’t much of a stretch.
And he would talk. He asked questions, told me about himself, and chatted with me about nothing for hours at a time, pausing only when he had to put on his radio voice and speak on air. He told me he had long, brown hair, his favorite color was purple, and he owned two cars — both white. One was a Firebird, my favorite car at the time.
I told him all about myself, too. But it was all lies.
Dave was probably the closest friend I had at that time, this disembodied voice belonging to a grown man I had never met before — never even seen, in this pre-internet era.
On this night, I am especially excited when he answers the phone.
“What are you up to tomorrow?” I ask. “I’m off work, and my sister is going to be away.” It’s my parents who will be away, of course, but he doesn’t need to know that.
“Oh?” he says. “I don’t have any plans.”
“You wanna come over?” I ask.
Is he excited? Hesitant? I can’t tell. But he says “Sure,” and the rest of our conversation is spent on logistics. I give him directions to my house, and we hang up, and there is nothing left to do but wait.
He said he’d be here around 10 or 11 in the morning, and so I get up early and get dressed in jean shorts and an oversized t-shirt. I try to busy myself reading a book, watching television, writing a poem. But I keep finding myself next to the window, watching the long gravel driveway, waiting to see a glimpse of white through the trees.
What will happen when he gets here? I look older than 13, but definitely not 22.
Will he turn around and leave? Will he get angry? Will he say “screw it” and come in? And once he does, then what? Will he want to kiss me? More? I’m no stranger to sex, and wouldn’t that be a cool story to tell. I’m bursting out of my skin with anticipation.
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I wait for hours. Dave never shows. I never call back to the station, and he makes no effort to reach me, either. But how could he? He never asked for my number.
My embarrassment at his standing me up echoes the feeling I had every time a boy (man) would promise to love me, and then never talk to me again. How could I believe I meant anything to him? I am crushed.
But I will soon forget this story for decades.
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I thought I was so grown back then. I looked older than I was, and I beamed whenever someone mistook me for a high-school student or said how smart and mature I was.
It’s no surprise I was mature. I spent a great deal of time taking care of myself growing up. And my intelligence was the only quality I’d ever been praised or recognized for, so I did everything I could to nurture it. Together, those things came to make up my entire identity, which was awesome — on the outside.
On the inside, I was still an insecure little girl. I was taking grown-up-sized risks, like trying to call some random guy who flashed his number to me at the airport, or sneaking out in the middle of the night to meet up with grown men I’d never met before, or initiating a phone relationship with a local radio DJ and then inviting him to my house in the middle of nowhere while my parents were away.
I didn’t have the radar to be able to recognize what kind of person I was getting involved with, and I didn’t have the capacity for the foresight to appreciate the danger I was putting myself into.
Maybe Dave was a really good guy. Maybe he was smart, not getting involved with a strange girl he’d met over the phone. Maybe he was afraid of me. Who knows. As disappointed as I was that day, though, it was certainly better he never came.
Loneliness and a desperation to be known and heard drove me to pick up the phone and call Dave, just as it had compelled me to dial and redial 727-STAR in an attempt to reach another untouchable grown man years earlier. Reckless and hungry to feel desired and valued, I probably would have done whatever Dave asked.
Looking back, though, on the lengths to which I went in my quest for attention at any cost, I’m fortunate none of them demanded the ultimate price. Those beautiful faces peering out at me from the refrigerator — they weren’t so lucky.
*Name changed to protect this dude, who had no idea who I really was. “Dave,” if you read this, whether you knew it or not, you did the right thing by standing me up. Sorry for the crazy.
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Nikki Kay writes about fiction, poetry, personal essays about parenthood, mental health, and the intersection of the two.
This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.