He got the machine.
He was always getting the machine, never her. Inside the phone
booth it smelled like burnt melted cheese. Or maybe some kind
of weird Vietnamese food from the restaurant across the street.
Or something. This particular pay phone known for its use in neighborhood
drug deals. He didn’t have any more change. If she had answered:
Just happened to be in the area, running errands, you know, thought
hey--why not call and see what’s up. He must be the only
person in the city without a cell phone. One of the last great
stoics left. Or something.
decided that if he got the machine he wouldn’t leave a message.
But now, as the beep approaches (it’s coming, it’s
coming), her recorded voice sounding like an invitation to intimacy,
he’s not so sure. He’s slipping. He’s doubting
himself. He’s considering leaving a message. He’s
considering being very fucking intimate. Spilling it all. Right
here. Right now. It could happen. He can picture himself doing
it. Regretting it. Then crossing the street and climbing up her
building’s fire escape and breaking into her apartment to
erase the tape, destroy the machine. He’d do what was necessary.
He’d kill the answering machine if need be.
Then it happens:
And he flinches.
He does not speak. There’s silence. Which is probably for
the best. The less evidence the better. He hangs up. He doesn’t
leave a message. The moment has passed. Later she’ll get
home and see the light blinking but there’ll be no message,
just the hiss of the tape followed by an enigmatic click. Good.
Give her something to ponder. Make her think. Make her stop and
wonder. Who had called? Relative? Old boyfriend? Coworker? Telemarketer?
But no, she’d guess it was him. After all, he’s coming
to the slowly simmering conclusion that it’s one of those
I’m-into-it-more-than-she-is deals. A familiar enough pattern.
But he’s not ready to retreat yet, because you never know,
there is persistence, there is hope, there is the future, there
is the idea that two people are meant for each other and it just
might be more apparent to one person than the other person even
though it will become clear to said other person soon enough.
When he opens
the door of the booth and is about to step outside the phone rings.
He looks around, like most people do when a pay phone rings and
you’re the closest to it, that lightning-bolt feeling of
guilt and accusation, of the world pointing its finger at you
and signaling you out somehow. What have I done?
Across the street, in front of the Vietnamese restaurant, a rag-ish
man continues his monologue about God and Ronald Reagan and Karl
Marx. It’s been another famously gray city summer day, all
fog and wind and bite, when the sun goes AWOL, says fuck it, you’re
on your own, and people inevitably bring up that Mark Twain quote
which actually wasn’t Mark Twain at all. And it’s
early evening now, the darkness just starting to take root in
no one in the immediate vicinity except him, he closes the door,
settles back inside. The phone is still ringing. He picks up the
Is this being
stop calling me,” a woman’s voice bursts out. “I
know it’s you.”
He realizes that
what he says next is very, very important.
this?” he asks.
damn well,” the woman goes on. “I star sixty-nined
you. Just stop calling me. You know goddamn well. It’s getting
out of hand. It’s getting creepy. I so don’t need
this in my life right now, OK? I’ve got enough shit to deal
with. This isn’t helping any. Please.”
The woman stops,
seems to be out of breath, genuinely distraught. He wants to understand.
He wants to console.
is this?” he insists again, fully prepared to take matters
as far as they need to go.