The phone is huge, as if seen through a zoom lens. It’s the color of Silly Putty, and I like the pattern the numbers make on the dialpad beneath the handset cradle. It’s unclear why there are no numbers on the 1 key. Following a familiar trail, I dial what I’m pretty sure is the same pattern I've dialed before, 4s and 6s and 8s, and sure enough a polite voice answers.
I never learned her name. She sounded lonely, but I may have been projecting. The chats weren’t long, as I really didn’t have much to offer, seeing as I was only eight. I never told my mother about these phone calls, because I knew it was an odd thing to do.
Rewind one hour.
The bus drops me off down the street from the white, three-story building where we live. I poke my tongue in the space where my tooth once was, and set off for home. No stranger approaches, and I remember not to talk to any, though I probably wouldn’t have heard one over the slisk of my purple snowsuit. I climb the stairs to the third floor and let myself in. I’m careful with the key, because if I'm locked out, I'm locked out. We don’t know our neighbors.
She’s at work. I call her at Montgomery Ward, where she’s managing two departments, to tell her I made it home safe. I lay out a paper towel and fix myself a sandwich—Wonder bread with Kraft American cheese and Hellmann’s real mayonnaise. We’ve recently graduated to name brands from the food we used to get each week from the church basement down the street. Sometimes we even have bologna, and when we do, I peel the stringy side off of it.
Post-sandwich, in the hour or so before my babysitter arrives, I pull out the bottom drawer of my dresser and organize my comics. My parents bought the dresser in a fire sale in Atlanta when they were still married, before we moved to Maine. Or maybe I sing along to the Beatles, torn between wanting Paul to be my dad and wanting him to need me when I’m 64. Or maybe I count Barbie’s shoes. Or force doll clothes on the kitten while he’s still too small to defend himself.
The random phone-calling is for special.
Before I know it, my babysitter’s there, and we watch the Beverly Hillbillies embarrass themselves while we work on her gum-wrapper and pop-top chains. She agrees Paul's the cutest Beatle, but then pulls the rug out from under me by telling me the Beatles broke up years ago. This upsets me enormously. If she has homework, she lets me brush her hair while she works. She tells me what must be impossible, that she irons her long, blonde hair on an ironing board.
My mother comes home and the babysitter leaves. We’ll eat beans and franks, or maybe American chop suey and a salad. She asks me to wash the lettuce, which I think is very strange. Halfway through the meal, I learn that because I used Ivory Liquid, I’ve wasted a lot of her hard-earned money. We’ll fold laundry during commercials for “Little House on the Prairie,” and afterwards she asks what the moral of the story was. I have no idea, and eventually I’m crying so hard over my Jell-O that I can’t even make anything up.
Lights out. I try to fall asleep to the hum of the fan in my room, but I can’t take my eyes off the orange glow leaking under my bedroom door from the living room. I’m convinced it’s a fire, a very slow fire that burns in our living room each night. I listen for tell-tale crackles and remember that, when the time comes, I should feel the wood of the door and not touch the metal handle. I know which window is best for escaping, and I know where the rope ladder is for doing so. Despite all this knowledge, I’m rigid with fear. Then the light goes out.
Now I’m in the ocean, the same ocean that’s on my mother’s paperback book, Jaws. I wonder what I'll die from, drowning or the shark. And if it’s the shark, will I be swallowed whole and live like Jonah in an air pocket? Or will I be chewed up? And if I’m chewed up, what will it feel like and how much blood will there be? Then I’ll wonder what it feels like to die of natural causes. I’ll hold my breath, then let the air seep out ‘til it hurts, then keep myself from inhaling as long as possible.
Then the ants come. I’m in the desert, and the fire ants are climbing all over me, stinging or biting or whatever it is fire ants do to people who are tied to cartoon logs, and I know three things for sure: 1) that I am sweating, 2) that I'll most certainly die this very night, and 3) that death by fire ants will surely be the longest, most painful of all my possible eight-year-old deaths. When I finally fall asleep, I’m too tired to have nightmares.
In the morning, I lie about how well I slept, put on my glasses, eat my oatmeal, brush my teeth, and dress for school. I try to sneak a few small rips into my lace anklets. I want her to notice the holes and buy me more grown-up socks, but instead she just buys more frilly ones. Some days I get to wear my Brownie outfit, my beanie on top of my fuzzed-out, week-old braids that I insist on wearing to further my waking fantasy of living in a one-room house on a Kansas prairie. Anywhere but here, in this apartment with the green shag rug, the gold curtains, and the velour floral sofa.
This was the apartment where I learned she wouldn’t be marrying her boyfriend after all because he wanted to send me to a private school and she couldn’t bear that. This was the apartment where I learned that sharing how fun it was to call my dad's new wife “Mommy” was quite possibly the worst thing I could ever say to my mother. This was the apartment where she told me where babies came from, a story she clearly had rehearsed in advance, and which left me with an inability to ever look at a hot dog the same way again.
The last time I picked up the phone and dialed my secret friend, I either pressed the wrong numbers, or she wasn’t home, because no one answered. I was calling to tell her we were moving. This apartment was the fifth or so I'd lived in so far. There would be eight more before I graduated high school, ten years later.
i'm a white writer. in new york. original, no? i've been blogging since october 2002. this blog picks up in october 2008, when i moved from DC to NY...(and then I moved to Maine in 2012)