9 January, 2017
When the phone rang, Connie froze as if she’d been caught, her arm elbow deep in a family size bag of Skinny Pop. No one ever called Connie, and as she stared at the offending device she wondered, ironically, what type of person still called a landline. She ignored the jangling until it ceased and understood that this was a sign from whatever god was in charge to finally, two years after her mother’s death, get rid of the hard plastic touchtone with its clunky handset as her mother would certainly not be calling from where she was now. Just as Connie flipped the popcorn bag upside-down, yanking one side into a crease she would use to funnel the crumbs into her mouth, the phone rang again. Maybe it was her mother, calling from beyond the grave to remind Connie yet again that she needed to lose 20 pounds, that men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses, that Connie would die alone and unhappy.
When she leaned over the small table to unplug the plastic mouth of the cable from the wall jack, the telephone burst to life once more, screaming into her ear. She stared at it. Maybe something was really wrong. Mr. Bevel at the office always emailed if he had a problem or a question, but perhaps the building had burned down, the company had been sold, she was being let go. Connie reached for the receiver with a trembling hand and lifted it from its cradle with greasy fingers.
“Hello?” Her voice was a whisper, dust choked from lack of use.
“Who is this?”
“Edie, please don’t hang up. Please. Just listen. I’m really, really sorry. You know you mean everything to me. You have to forgive me.”
Connie’s heart thumped in her chest. She had never been apologized to by anyone, let alone by a contrite man.
“Why should I?” she ventured.
“I’m sorry. I will never do anything that stupid again.”
Connie did not recognize the voice but she heard the desperation, and it excited her. So this is what love did to you.
“Do what again?”
“You sound funny. Are you all right?”
“How would you sound if you’d been crying for hours?”
“Oh, Edie, please let me come over. I need to see you.”
“Not until you tell me exactly what you did. Everything.”
The ensuing silence produced a small panic in Connie; clearly Edie already knew what he had done.
“I want to put this behind us.”
“I can’t put it behind me until I know everything. All I know is…but I’m sure there’s more to the story.”
“There isn’t, Edie. It happened just once. At her apartment. I was drunk. It was stupid. I don’t even like her.”
Connie was speechless. Was this a teenager? A gigolo? A divorcee?
“I don’t believe you.”
“That it happened only once or that I don’t like her?”
“Please, let me come over so we can talk.”
“I’m too upset to talk.”
“I know you’re hurt. I promised not to bother you at work and I haven’t, but when you changed your number. Well, I freaked out. That’s when I knew I loved you. People don’t always arrive at love at the same time.”
“So you had to sleep with a bimbo to realize you love me?”
“No, forget about her. Please. I guess once I lost you—”
“How did you get my new number?”
“Promise you won’t be mad.”
“I’m not promising anything.”
“Josh. Last night at the bar. He was drunk and I was pathetic and he took pity on me. He agrees that we belong together.”
Connie wondered who Josh was, how drunk he must have been to convey the wrong number, what would happen when she was found out, though it didn’t matter. She would be getting rid of the phone, the evidence, anyway.
“I’m glad you’re feeling good enough to go out to the bar while I’ve been home crying myself a headache.”
“No, no, Josh felt sorry for me and took me out to get my mind off things. I had a terrible time. Until he gave me your number.”
“Why did you wait until tonight to call me?”
Silence. Connie wondered if she’d given herself away this time. Perhaps he worked the afternoon shift at a hospital and was just getting off, though that would not explain his ability to go out the night before. Maybe he was a freeloader who had relied on Edie’s money and was just waking up now.
“The damn project. But it’s almost done. Dave’ll be taking over next week.”
“You certainly found time to spend with…her.”
“I told you it was bad judgment. I was tired, drunk, stupid. And you were mad at me.”
“So it was my fault?”
“That’s not what I’m saying. Not at all. What I’m saying is that Janie is irrelevant here. She doesn’t matter to me. We don’t even speak anymore.”
Connie was now indignant on Edie’s behalf. Janie? The name alone made her furious. She thought of her mother then, eternally riding the spectrum from annoyed to incensed, and worked to channel her rancor.
“Well,” she said sarcastically, “that’s a relief. What about next time you’re tired, drunk and stupid, a combination you seem to have mastered? What then?”
“I love you, Edie. I don’t want to have a life without you in it.”
“Prove you love me.”
“I’m trying, but you won’t let me. Look what happened when I waited outside your building. I won’t do that again.” He chuckled.
“You think this is funny?”
“If you call almost being arrested funny, then I guess so.” There was a pause, after which the pleading voice on the opposite end of the line said, “I know how upset you are. Changing your number, calling the police, threatening a restraining order. I get it.”
Connie wondered if the guy was a lunatic, a stalker, someone Edie had never loved, but then reconsidered. Edie changed her number after he had hurt her and as a result of feeling jealous. No, Edie had loved him, she decided, though she wondered if Edie had moved on, was now dating a man who sat with her on the torn cushions of the loveseat eating Skinny Pop while watching classic movies, a man who rubbed her feet despite their prominent corns, a man who insisted she wear her glasses while they made love.
“You don’t have to be near me to prove that you love me.”
“Write me a poem.”
“I thought you hated that romantic crap.”
“So now you’re making the rules? Now you know what I need? This is exactly what I’m talking about—”
“Okay, okay, I’ll write you a poem.”
“I want an original poem.”
“Sure. Of course. I will write you a poem tonight. Can I call you when I’m finished?”
“You’re going to finish it in one night? I’m sure that will be one deep and heartfelt poem.”
“My feelings are all on the surface now. I’m in touch with them.”
“It doesn’t have to rhyme.”
But Connie did not want him to hang up. She wasn’t sure yet if she wanted this man and Edie to reunite or to be separated forever, but she saw an opportunity to influence someone’s life and enjoyed the heady feeling it gave her. Perhaps this is what her mother felt when Connie apologized, begged her not to be angry anymore.
“If your feelings are on the surface you can speak them now. In poetry form.”
“Boy,” he said, “you don’t even sound like you anymore.”
“You don’t believe this has taken its toll? After all we meant to each other? I mean, I thought we meant to each other?”
“You know what we had—have—is real. You know that I love you. Now you just have to let me prove it to you. I’ll write you a poem. I’ll take my time and make it perfect. But I need to see you, Edie. I love you. I miss you. I crave you.”
Connie went from feeling protective of Edie to feeling envious. She wondered who Edie was, what she possessed that made a man crave her. “Tell me what you love, what you miss, what you crave.”
“I love your eyebrows, the way you laugh when someone falls, your green lentil curry.” Suddenly Connie wanted to learn to cook. “I miss dancing in the shower and your jasmine perfume, I miss Ken.” Ken? A son? A friend? A ménage à trois? “I crave your supple tongue on my—”
“Well you can keep craving,” Connie interrupted. He had not earned the right to be so familiar with her after what he’d done.
“Meet me at Gould’s.”
“Now?” she said.
She could hear the hope in his voice. Things were moving too quickly. “Things are moving too quickly.”
“Coffee. A quick coffee. That’s all. We don’t even have to talk about this.”
“I guess I can’t blow this off so easily.”
“Edie. We had something good. Something great. I know I have to win back your trust, and I will. I’ll do anything. I love you.”
“All right,” she said. “What’s my favorite candy?”
“Land, air or sea?”
This guy, this guy who asks Land, air or sea? in response to his girlfriend’s favorite animal question seemed to deserve something.
Who was this woman? Connie wanted to know more about her, this person with compelling eyebrows who shared her feelings about sand worms.
“Our song. Remember when we first met, how we spent hours texting these questions, how ridiculous they got?”
And without delay he launched into a wholly discordant rendition of “Auld Lang Syne,” stammering through the opening lyrics, which recommend that old acquaintances be forgot and never brought to mind. “That’s—”
“That was nice.”
“Not really, but thanks. Edie—”
“Here’s what you do. Write me a poem. Call it ‘Edie.’ Include the eyebrows and the curry, the shower dancing and the jasmine What the hell, throw in the tongue.”
“What about Ken? Does he miss me? Can you bring him to the phone?”
Connie realized she was gripping the receiver so tight her hand was sore. “He can’t right now.”
“Well, don’t wake him if he’s sleeping. Or is he in the litter box?”
A cat named Ken? Connie wished she had a friend like Edie and understood why the man on the phone was miserable without her. “Put him in the poem. Put Ken in the poem.”
“This will be too easy. You’re practically writing it for me.”
“I know,” Connie said. “Write the poem, buy some Pop Rocks and bring dinner to my place tomorrow night. Don’t talk about this phone call. If you bring it up I’ll act shocked, pretend it never happened. That’s how we start over. I mean, I will try and start over but I can’t guarantee anything. If I open the door just smile at me, though tears can’t hurt. Push past me if you have to and put the food on the table. Read me the poem, then look into my eyes and ask me questions: my favorite mineral, my favorite continent, my favorite constellation.”
Connie set the receiver gently into its cradle, running her palm down the length of the molded plastic before dipping her finger into the shallow valley of each button, the looped cord gathering beside the boxy relic into tidy pile.