Yesterday, for the first time in months, my landline rang. After being silent for so long, the ring sounded shrill and sinister. Its intrusive tone caused me to feel deeply unsettled. I stared at the phone in trepidation deciding whether to answer it.
I have always hated talking on the phone and resent it whenever it rings. You never know whether it’s good news or bad behind that ring. All you know is that if you answer it some disembodied voice will demand that you drop whatever you’re doing and have a nice, long chat.
I like nice, long chats, but only on my terms. Those terms usually involve meeting in person over cocktails and having the opportunity to illustrate my points by gesticulating wildly with my hands.
I’m vexed by all the new technology that seems to be developed specifically to thwart my desire to avoid uninvited contact. Each time my computer or cell dings at me with an IM or text, I curl into myself in terror. Whether friend or foe, I consider it a hostile gesture, as if an unexpected intruder materialized into my consciousness, aggressively wielding either a datenut bread or a blunt instrument.
My friends know that the best way to reach me is by email, which allows me to read and return messages when I’m good and ready. I rarely check my cell phone, refuse to acknowledge instant anythings, and slam shut my laptop if anyone dares attempt to reach me via Skype or Facetime.
The only reason I have a landline is because my parents demanded it. While they were alive, I considered it the Bat Phone because the only people who had the number were those old bats. When they died, it stopped ringing.
So, imagine my surprise when the phone rang.
If there’s anyone who could figure out how to reach me from the afterlife, it’s my mother. I’m sure she’s got a lot to say about how I’ve been running my life in the two years since she’s died, and a little obstacle like death would not stop her from voicing her fierce objections to the tile I selected for my bathroom remodel or the fact that I’ve let my hair revert to its primitive state of savage curl.
“It’s probably a sales call,” I said to myself as the phone continued to ring. But as I put my hand on the receiver, with the thought of picking it up and clicking it off to end the relentless ringing, the vibrations surged through my body, transporting me to a different landline 25 years before.
Suddenly, I found myself in my parents’ home—my childhood home—where I lived briefly after college. It was a time before the internet and instant connections, when you had to muster the courage to dial a number and hope that the person you were calling was happy to hear your voice. And if you were on the receiving end, as I often was because I was too cowardly to make the first move, you had to wait patiently for the phone to ring. When it finally did, and you heard that voice on the other end, your heart would literally leap with delight.
Did I always hate the phone? Or did I begin to hate it 25 years ago, when it became distressingly clear that when it rang, she wouldn’t be on the other end? Yet, for months (years?), each time the phone rang, I held my breath for a moment hoping that it was her.
Still, as I picked up the phone yesterday, I inhaled deeply and was seized with equal measures of panic and dread. Then I said, “Hello?”