“Hey, what’s wrong?” I said. This is how I always answered the phone, especially when a call came in that I was not expecting, or from a person from whom I didn’t expect to hear, or at least not on that day at that time in that moment.
A ringtone is a mosquito in my ear; an irritant that I want to squash but can’t quite get. Like the mosquito, it leaves a bite so itchy it will not be forgotten. The insect and the ringtone usually go away on their own. And thank goodness they do; my sweaty fingertips can’t keep my skin safe from the egregious bloodsucking or my phone safe from falls and fumbly fingers.
My phone’s savior was a green plastic case with black smudges. It hugged my phone so tight that I wondered sometimes how it toed the line between a snug embrace and a smashing of the screen into a thousand splinters. I imagined how the shards of glass would feel dancing on my sweaty palms as I tried to answer a call. Poking, stabbing, smearing in blood. It would be a curse bestowed both upon me and my electronic companion.
But that never happens.
The phone rings, the phone survives. The phone falls off a table, the phone survives. The phone gets knocked onto the cement of our neighborhood sidewalk and kicked into the curb by my unknowing foot, and the phone survives.
I bought the case to keep my device safe. After spending hundreds of dollars on the phone, my frugal sense doesn’t want to have to purchase another one for years.
Yet nothing protects me this way.
My phone should always be in the same pocket of my purse. It is a pocket meant for something the size of a deck of cards but narrower. Like a flask. Or a twin-pack of peanut butter cups. Just small enough to hold it, but not too large to lose its grip. The stitched fabric keeps it from becoming the smooshed remains of a nutty hydrogenated oil.
Despite my careful placement, I cannot always find my phone. It is especially difficult to locate when it rings.
“Hey, what’s wrong?” is how I answered the phone the day my husband called when his car battery died.
Don’t answer it like that, I told myself.
My mind and my tongue have a strange relationship built on speed. Ringing leads to rapid heartbeat leads to damp, fumbling hands, leads to dropping the phone, leads to a missed call.
Despite the route to get there, the idea of missing a call is actually enticing. It’s like the avoidance of a mosquito swarm. Yet, a missed call provides no actual relief. I hold my breath during the seconds between the last ringtone and the chirpy chime of the voicemail notification.
Will there be a voicemail? What if he’s in too much trouble to talk? Then why would he be calling? Maybe this was his last chance at getting help? Help for what? Maybe his car flipped over while driving down a two-lane highway in the country at night–a highway covered in a thin icy film that just showered down in piercing trickles on the windshield, like glass trying to break glass.
He’s not even out driving on the country roads.
But he could be. He might be.
And I missed his call.
My chest burned. My heart pumped faster, knocking the rib cage that tried to hold it. Tried to protect it from rupturing out of my torso and into my sweaty palm. My lungs screamed for help. I heard their pleas. I released the air just as the gleeful ding of my phone alerted me to the message.
It was always this way for me. I never liked making phone calls. I loathed the idea of talking to someone without seeing them, their face, their lips. Especially their lips. I watch mouths; I take in the crooked angles of teeth, the slight cracks in the skin, the flapping of a tongue and how much of the mouth cavity is filled by it. It is the movement all people make as they communicate. Without this vision, I feared my hearing would fail me.
And what did the person look like? If it was a stranger to me, I instantly formed a mental image of how the person should look based on their voice. I can’t not do it. A woman with a shrill voice is blonde, petite, with elfish ears. A man’s tenor tones conjures a picture of a large body, either black or white (but not Asian?) wearing overalls full of belly. A quiet, alto range might be a man or a woman. Those were the worst.
Short hair, long hair, curly hair, straight.
Short or tall in height? Probably average.
I couldn’t cope.
But receiving calls from people I knew was never quite as bad. Until the one phone call I got in college from my then fiance. He had just made the drive to Madison, WI to visit for the weekend before returning to his university in Indiana.
“Laura?” My heart fluttered just seeing his name pop up on the screen.
We were dating for nearly a year-and-a-half when he had proposed. He had taken me into the mountains of Virginia near his hometown and knelt in the snow. It was a day filled with chilled beauty. Like his blue eyes, the air was icy but clear. Nature didn’t mince words when the wind blew the leaves into the fresh layer of white around our fallen log-turned-into-bench. Jason hadn’t minced words when he knew he wanted to marry me.
Perhaps this phone call, one between two young kids who were coming down from a weekend high of nonstop time together, was made in excitement as he dreamed of talking to me again, even though it had only been a few hours since we said our goodbyes. Or maybe he missed me so much he couldn’t wait to get home. Either way, it wasn’t time for him to call. He had just left my home and should still be in the middle of the seven hour drive to Bloomington.
“Jason? Is that you? Why are you calling? Are you home already?”
“No, Laura, I was in an accident….” His voice faded behind the choked tears. It was winter, he had been driving on a country highway in the middle of rural Indiana, and hit a patch of ice. A street sign in the median died that night, as did his car. Jason walked away with only his confidence bruised. I sat by idly in a pool of panic. He came out of the incident okay. But he almost did not. And sometimes, while his physical body was present and intact, I’m not certain my mind came out the other side so smoothly.
The fluttering in my heart turned to a twisting of my gut. The folds of my stomach tensed so hard it created a knot that would rival that of one I would tie on the top of a trash bag as I cleaned up poop from my dog. It was a knot to keep the stink out. Or in. It was a knot that didn’t know how to untie itself. With my trembling fingers and panicking mind, I didn’t know how to either.
So when I saw Jason’s name show up again many years later, just after he had dropped our daughter off at preschool and before he could have made it to work, I felt the familiar pang. I felt the knot tighten. It happened occasionally over the course of our 15 year marriage, but times like this brought out the worst of my worst-case scenarios.
Why is he calling now? Oh my god, what happened? We just had some freezing rain outside this morning, did he slide off of the road? With my daughter in the backseat? Are they ok? I don’t hear crying. Or screaming.
Calm down, Laura. Breathe.
“My car won’t start,” he said.
This was not the worst news. It was not as bad as when he totaled his car in the middle-of-nowhere Indiana. It still grabbed hold of both sides of my stomach and gave an extra tug.
“Are you at Evelyn’s school?” I asked. I willed my voice to be calm. I heard it as calm. I hoped he did too.
“Yeah, but I don’t know what’s wrong. It keeps making this noise,” he said. A dying trill flapped in the background.
“Yeah, I hear that. I think it’s your battery,” I said.
Good. This is calm. Right?
“I’ll come to you and maybe we could jump your car,” I said. “Did you call our insurance roadside assistance yet?”
“No. I don’t know what to do, I can’t leave my car here in the parking lot, and I’m afraid someone will park in front of me and block access to the hood of my car.” His voice teetered on the edge of panic. He was typically the one who was calm. He was the logical thinker. He was a mathematician by trade afterall.
I still couldn’t quite catch my breath. But I tried to inhale deeply anyway.
“I just came up the stairs to my office,” I explained. I didn’t know if that was all that winded me. But it felt good to blame something.
“If I were you, this is what I’d do: call the insurance people and see how long it would take to get someone out there. In the meantime, I’ll be on my way. If we can’t jump your car, at least you’ll have the call in for help,” I said.
“Yeah, ok.” His voice shrunk in defeat.
My words were protecting my mind from going crazy in speculative thoughts. It covered my imagination with a warm hug, measured tone, and a focus other than panic. It swatted away the annoying emotions that threatened to overtake my own version of logic. I pulled on my coat, swung my ladened work bag on my shoulder, and shut my office door not even 10 minutes since I arrived.
I had this.
When I got to the lot, the space in front of his car was empty. I pulled right in. We dug around looking for the jumper cables: behind my seats, in my trunk, and my heart pleaded to rev up the pounding to one akin of a sprinter. By the time I popped my hood open, Jason victoriously held the cables up in his gloved hands.
My heartbeat relented a bit.
“Look this up on your phone, see what we need to do so we don’t get hurt,” I said. I jumped his car once before we were first married. It was back when he drove a 1998 Dodge Neon that we bought very used. It had been sitting idle in the middle of Baltimore City. It was nighttime, in winter, and flurries under the streetlights were the only movement I saw as I pulled along the curbside. Our youth must have blinded us to the potentially distressing situation of sitting in a dead car in the middle of the murder capital of the US.
Now we faced an elementary school in small-town Ohio. Panic should be lower.
Which cable goes to which part of the battery? Do I start my car first or does he start his? How long do we leave it running? Do we have to turn off the engines before removing the clamps? Will we get electrocuted?
We will get electrocuted.
Red cable hooked to the positive side. Black to the negative. I started my car. He started his. The purring engine was magic in the air, as if the batteries shot off electrical impulses that sparkled into the sky.
We did it! I thought.
I backed away from my car, eyeing the cables. Hands in the air like a convict caught on the lam, I wanted to be very aware of where all my body parts were and what they were touching. The exhaust filled my nostrils as we waited the five minutes the internet site told us to wait.
I still made him take the clamps off.
Even then, with his car working long enough to make it to the battery shop, the worries didn’t stop.
Will he get the right battery? Will he make it to school? It’s only a small town, and he only has to go a short way, but should I leave him here? What if he needs me again?
I forced a deep breath.
He could always call.