“How terrible it is when you say I love you and the person on the other end shouts back ‘What?’
- J.D. Salinger, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters
It was one of those nights that called for bourbon and an intimate phone call. The hotel bar was long and grimy and the best place to fulfill self-loathing. I swirled the liquid in the short glass and considered the last time her and I had spoken. I believe her last words had been precisely:
“Don’t forget to grab laundry detergent, dear.”
And that was precisely two months ago. I don’t know quite what had happened. I had stuffed my hands into my trouser pockets and walked down the street, eyes skipping from light post to light post, meditating on the way the laundry detergent bottle would feel when I rescued it off the grocery’s shelf and whisked it off the to Maytag awaiting in our basement. Next thing I knew I was buying an old Cadillac with the urgency of a heart attack and speeding south.
The stain on the collar of my shirt loomed large and invasive. I thought of the shape of her lips and coffee mug rims and cigarette burns. I fingered the few dimes I had left in my pocket – the ones that would have gone towards clean socks and underwear - and held them hard in my fist. The fellow beside me wore his fedora tilted down over his large pockmarked nose and smoked profusely. I watched him for ten minutes as he continued to pull cigarettes out of his pocket, smoke them half-way, then grind them savagely into his empty glass. I had the sensation that I knew this man, not that I’d met him before but that I knew him in a deeper, more profound way; like we had been Buddhist monks together in the year 1234. Eventually he saw me looking and offered me one. I declined. I felt I’d smoked those cigarettes that he had, and I’d had enough.
The phone mounted on the wall seemed obtrusively mounted, like anyone walking to the restrooms would undoubtedly walk right into it. I staked out my bar stool, set my eyes on the narrow hall, fully expecting to see the next person run into it nose first, blood spilling down the front, black like wine.
It had been the freedom of moving my feet forward at first, like the fantasy of driving a car off a bridge: the exhilaration of the fall. There was no plan, there was no next step. It had been purely instinct all the way through. I worked as a ranch hand for thirty days, long enough for it to feel normal. I wandered around the streets of New Orleans, long enough to get a taste for proper bourbon. I barely spoke; I entertained the thought of never speaking again. Maybe I’d be one of those monks who wore white robes and shaved their heads and kept their eyes downcast. I’d wander through the brick alleyways and study strangers and never say a word in response.
I didn’t know what she thought of it - of me. I’m sure she loathed me. I’m sure she remained at home like the dutiful wife and mother she was, bathing our daughter in soap that smelled of bubble gum. I’m sure she continued to make lunches, just in case I’d sneak in through the door late at night and snatch the paper bag, head to a regular day at work. I’m sure my tie and pale blue shirt were laid on the bed after she’d made it in the morning, as if she expected me to just saunter in with the laundry detergent, nothing out of the ordinary.
I thought of movement as I swirled my glass. I thought of the way smoke wafts above, not below. I braced myself for a bloody nose.
After my second glass the feeling had gone. The feeling of falling, of aimlessly groping had evaporated. I was now just holding an empty glass and wearing a stained shirt.
It happened the way it does on film: the tunnel vision, the frame of black around that damn telephone. Still no one had walked into it. Perhaps I had inaccurately gauged its distance from the wall. The perfectly circular limitation of view was unnerving. Was it the bourbon, was I going blind? Is this what extreme cataracts felt like? I looked away. Blinked. The bartender was looking at the phone too; my spirit-animal chain smoker was fixated on it.
I had to take a piss. I blinked twice and shoved the glass away, groaned, walked away from my stool. Avoiding eye contact with the fucking telephone. Looking down at my rounded brown shoes, I walked forward towards the men’s room, but stopped just in front of the phone. Picking up the receiver, I just wanted to feel the way the rotary dial clickity-clacked. I just wanted to feel something cold in my hands.
I dialed home. Listened to the dial tone, timing my breathing with each pause.
“Hello?” The jingle of a voice I hadn’t heard for two months. A voice asking for white bread and non-homogenized milk.
“Ah, Alice, it’s me. I couldn’t find the detergent you like. I’m coming home now. I love you.”
“I said I love you.”
“What?! I can’t hear you, it’s loud in here.”
She shouted over the loud jazz music in the background.