A young woman is crying on a voicemail recording. “You left and I didn’t say goodbye. I’m so sorry,” she says, sniffling, barely composed. “You should still be here. You. Should. Still. Be. Here.” A plaintive piano composition plays under her words, the pain in her voice visceral. “You died from pneumonia not your cancer. You’re supposed to be here.” Then, her tone changes. “You left me without ever saying goodbye. And for that I’m bitter as hell. So screw you.”
“I would say: Jesus Christ I wish you were gay,” a second voice comes in. “I wish you were gay, and I wish you could see how perfect we would’ve been together. I wish you thought I was as amazing as I think you are… But most of all I wish we hadn’t drifted away from each other. I wish we hadn’t stopped being friends after college, because I love you, but you’re not her anymore. You’re a different person. And I miss you.”
The messages come in the second episode of The One Who Got Away, the just launched participatory podcast from English artist and designer Oliver Blank. The idea behind it is simple: We all have someone who got away, whether it’s a lost love, a deceased family member, a friend we’ve had a falling out with. What would you say to that person, if you had one more chance?
Blank remembers the first time the question occurred to him. The wall, he said, was all that was left standing. It was a few years after Katrina had devastated New Orleans, but it wasn’t uncommon to find abandoned ruins in the Bywater neighborhood near where he was living at the time. Written across the wall in an elegant white graffiti script were the words “What would you say to the one that got away?” The contrast of the artfully composed expression and the decay of the building stuck with him. “It was like someone stood there and really made an effort to make it beautiful,” he said.
“I was feeling like the custodian of these messages of loss.”
In 2012, Blank was collaborating on a project with artist Candy Chang called Before I Die, in which people wrote the one thing they absolutely needed to do on chalkboards that they would assemble from kits provided by the artists. At the same time, he had undertaken a number of participatory art pieces himself. One commonality among much of his work, he said, was his fascination with telephones. In one, Music for Forgotten Places, he’d compose music for abandoned buildings in cities around the country, then leave a note for people who came across them with a number to call in and listen while standing there. A second, Waiting, set up a phone number outside spaces like abandoned shopping malls, with signs that instructed them to call into another number, a never-ending loop of infinite hold muzak.
“I really love working with telephones because you get the whole experience before the call even starts,” he said. “People think: Am I going to call it? I usually don’t call anyone anymore. You dial the number, there’s anticipation, you hear it ringing, then there’s the intimacy of pressing the object to your face and hearing music or a voice in your ear. It’s got all of this intimacy and emotion and yet it’s still quite solitary. You can do it in public and have this intimate emotional experience.”
In 2014, he was approached by The Art Assignment, the PBS Digital program — hosted by Sarah Urist Green and her husband John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars — in which viewers are given an artistic project to complete on their own. Did he have any ideas for prompts, they asked. Looking back through his notebook, Blank came across something he’d scribbled down about the graffiti. What if they set up a voicemail line in which people could call in and lay themselves bare anonymously? Green loved it, but Blank wasn’t sure how it would work. He expected only a handful of calls, thinking he’d make a nice little piece of sound art out of it and then move on from there. But with a big boost from Green, who shared the number to his millions of followers on Twitter, a deluge was summoned.
Blank’s first idea for using the material was to set up a never-ending radio station, in which the calls, now numbering in the thousands, would play successively over and over. At the time, the technical logistics eluded him. Then, finally, he came to the idea of a podcast, but following through on that proved a heavy task as well.
“It took four years for me to get it together,” he said. “In that time I went through so much: divorce, depression, a couple of different jobs. Every time I was checking in on the phone number to hear the calls coming in, I’m seeing these calls line up and... the weight of them. I was feeling like the custodian of these messages of loss. It’s really heavy stuff. I’d listen to an hour of calls and get super sad and withdraw from the project. It took me four years before I finally said I have to do this before this becomes the most self-referential project ever.”
The calls themselves might range from ten seconds — a mercifully short one in the first episode has a woman simply repeating “Why? Why? Why did you leave me?” over and over — to lengthy ones in which people hang up, think of something else to say, then call back in with more.
“When you left I was relieved,” a voice says, conflicted. “I miss you. That feels wrong because you treated me like shit. I miss you, but I hope to god I never see you again.”
At first, perhaps owing to Green’s audience, many of them tended to be from younger women and teenagers sharing stories of high school love, or of being torn away from friends when their families moved and they were forced to change schools. Over time the demographics broadened, with callers into their 50s and 60s sharing their perspective on decades of regret.
Some are off the cuff and raw; others, Blank said, you can tell that people took the time to write out. That was something he didn’t like at first, but the subtle emotional shifts in those cases eventually won him over. A caller might begin composed and determined, then suddenly lurch into territory that was likely unexpected to even themselves.
“I miss you, but I hope to God I never see you again.”
In a call Blank received the other day, which he shared with me, a young woman begins speaking casually, in the tone any of us might use checking in with a sibling we haven’t spoken to in a week or two. She tells someone named James she’d been reminded of him when she found some things in the bathroom with his name on it. She has an old picture she keeps above her bed, she says. She’s 15 in the photo; James is 8.
Before long, she begins to cry. “I just want to say I love you and I’m sorry for not being there for most of your childhood,” she says. “I’m really sorry you only lived with our family for 11 months.”
“That gets to something,” Blank said of the call. “It’s really difficult for people to share, it’s difficult to listen to, but that point where we get to something underneath. Why is this person really on your mind? That tipping point of release of emotion where someone begins to recognize this is really what was going on with me. I don't think she called with that initial sentiment in mind.”
Not all the calls are completely harrowing. A recurring theme is about pets who’ve gone missing, he said. Another motif are calls tinged by loss, but coming from a better place of acceptance — usually from older women. “There’s this kind of warm knowing where the person has reached the point where they have come to terms with the one who got away. It’s a different kind of call entirely. You feel comforted. They’re setting it out: ‘I feel like I lost something, yes I loved you, and yet I’m at a point in my life where I placed that loss into the tapestry of my life and I’m at peace with it'.” Older men, on the other hand, are often remorseful and sound more broken, he said.
Sometimes a person might be speaking to themselves. I am my own one who got away. There was a turning point in their life where they might have taken a big leap — moved across the country, taken a new job opportunity that scared them, gone back to school — but for whatever reason they couldn’t bring themselves to do it. I don’t know if I made the right decisions in life, they say. I was scared of what might happen. Of what I might learn about myself.
“That’s one of the most difficult ones: feeling disconnected from yourself, like your life got away from you,” Blank said.
If it all sounds hopelessly bleak, it often is. But there’s a beneficial side, both for the callers and for listeners. While some calls are imbued with the hope that their one who got away might hear the message, others sound as if they’ve finally unloaded something heavy they’ve been carrying for however long. “I believe it’s cathartic,” Blank said. “I think you can hear that, an emotional narrative arc in some of the calls. A kind of letting go. They said the thing they really needed to say. They finally let it out.”
To get to that moment of release, there’s a particular contour in a call that Blank finds especially emotionally resonant. After starting by addressing the one who got away in the third person, something shifts, and they begin speaking to them directly, as if they were there on the line themselves.
“I think that’s the magical thing that happens. People forget that they’re on a phone line and they’re speaking to silence. They feel like they have a direct connection to that person. The things they have to release, they really do come out in the call.”