Yesterday I was sitting quite peacefully with my pen on the manila paper, doodling a rather-inspired seagull to the side of some heavily crossed-out paragraphs, when someone who was talking on a phone I hadn’t answered stepped towards me.
Hold on, here she is, the person said, holding the phone out to me.
That’s the worst kind of treachery, is what I thought. Followed by: what I wouldn’t give for a phone bolted to the wall. Give it a butter yellow or baby blue cord that stretches only so far—but never out of the room. Give it a round dial and let each number on it spin back in slow-motion, so when you change your mind about calling you have plenty of time to hang up. I would run away from one of these too; but at least it couldn’t travel after me. It couldn’t hunt me down, in hassling rings, from my own pocket. Or in the hand of someone striding towards me who has no idea why a disembodied voice—with its unpredictable pauses, demands, and staccato rushes of talk—would be something to avoid.
My sons and I were recently watching Charlie and The Chocolate Factory for something like the sixteenth time.
Me: I wish Gene Wilder would call me. Like, once a day. Every evening at six or something.
Older son: But didn’t he die?
Me: Yes, but I’ve wished that for a long time. Since before he died.
Older son: He’s not really Willy Wonka, you know.
Me: It’s his voice. It’s slow and dreamy and…it listens. Can voices listen? Anyway, his voice cares about things. It’s not a voice that would rattle off small talk.
Younger son: Mama, are you completely forgetting? You HATE the phone!
Me: Well maybe I wouldn’t! If Gene Wilder were calling me on it.
My mom’s college roommate had been talking on the phone during a lightning storm, and she was thrown clear across the room. This has nothing to do with my own telephone aversion, and can’t even be used practically as a fake excuse for not answering a phone (now that you can find the weather anywhere in seconds flat on the world wide web). But it still sounds impressive, all these years later. As a child I used to wonder about that roommate and even though I suspected otherwise—for it was not normal, to hate telephones—I liked to think she acted deaf like me when the telephone rang. And that even on sunny days, when the phone was silent, she still stepped around it in excessively wide circles.
Once a very young, smart, cute, self-made near-millionaire took a liking to me on his holiday. Heaven knows why. Perhaps he saw how far I swam into the bay and mistook me for ambitious. He was stunning; clearly deep but optimistic, packed with stories but mostly curious. On his second morning in the village he made friends with some gruff fishermen who took him out to their secret spots, and that evening he made friends with the restaurant owner, who asked him to sing and play guitar for the dinner crowds. It was easy to see how—even though the boy had suffered a poor and sketchy upbringing—he had risen straight to the top of his profession. Several beautiful local girls watching him at the cafe wanted to carry his babies; it seemed they might have tried impregnating themselves with the very mic he used, if there was a chance it would ensure his return to them. I watched once as the gorgeous waitress in the plum lipstick set down his soda with a circle of plum-coloured lip marks around the rim of his glass.
We were just friends. He would invite me over to his oceanside palapa to dissect things and people and ourselves while seagulls wheeled and plummeted into the sea. And he spent one whole day teaching me his top secret techniques for memorizing absolutely anything, which I can’t reveal here. Aside from the secrecy aspect, I only vaguely remember them. We took breaks to swim and when we got hungry he fixed us peanut butter and pineapple jam sandwiches, which tasted better for the salt we dripped onto the bread. We were hungry together often, because our brains fired when we talked.
Then one afternoon he stood on the sand in pants, holding his shoes, and a boat was arriving to take him away. He handed me a slip of paper with a number on it and asked if I would call him when—if—I ever returned to the land of phones.
Uh no, I said. I don’t do telephones.
He looked at me carefully.
All those holes! I said.
Well, he said, I’m going to want to know more about that.
The boat that was arriving to take him away had been a small and silent blip at the horizon. But now it rose dark and spindly off the water, humming. We both turned to face it.
Maybe I just need a mechanical lesson, I said. Because I do doubt sometimes, that what I say into all the little holes can travel through the wires and emerge absolutely intact into all the little holes at your ear.
I could give that lesson, he said. He smiled at me. But it might have to be over the phone.
We did write to each other for awhile. In his fifth or sixth letter he provided his phone number again, and enclosed a sheet of stickers. Quick fix for now: slap one over all those holes, he instructed. They were circle stickers in various colours—the kind of stickers used for pricing garage sales. He had drawn variations of happy faces onto each one.
They were—and consider the magnitude of this—emojis! Long before the concept was born. A whole sheet of cutting-edge icons, meant for original phone screens (their receivers), and invented decades early to assuage my crazy telephone aversion. And do you think I called him, even once? He was what you’d call a keeper, that boy. Which is a funny word to say about someone you threw away.
When I was pregnant a stranger informed me (for strangers are always informing pregnant women), that if you hand a toddler girl a toy telephone she will talk on it. But if you hand a toy telephone to a toddler boy he will bang it and crash it around. My sons had a plastic eye-rolling Fisher Price phone and they proved the boy-half of this pronouncement accurate. The toy phone had wheels, too, and they dragged it from room-to-room really roughly, by its cord. God, It was inspiring.
There could be courses for phone dodgers like me. It would chronicle wondrous early transmitting developments leading to Alexander Graham Bell’s invention (“Watson, come here, I want to see you”—now that is one perfect phone call), and outline the inner workings of telephones. It would arm the attendees with facts about the phone, in a sneaky attempt to inspire warm, proud, expertise feelings surrounding it. Guest speakers who love telephones and talk on them approximately every three minutes would arrive and demonstrate how to take a call with energy and affection. And then how to hang up gently, nuzzling the receiver against its base like they are twin treasured pieces. Like they are two sides of the locket that holds a dear voice, They might say.
But largely the course would offer therapeutic tips for better, less nervous regard for ringing telephones. Such as:
1. Set the alarm-clock-like ringer as low as you can with it still being audible. Consider a cell phone (Gasp! The disconnect phone-phobics experience during a call is magnified on a cell) solely for its option of a harp sound or bubbling brook for its ring-tone.
2. Have an object, photograph of, or even hand-written letter from anyone who might call you within your phone’s reach, to take out and hold while you are are talking with him/her. Try to summon your strong feelings for the person, rather than feeling only the panicked desire to hang up.
3. Recline in a dim room while talking. Wrap a blanket over you. Try closing your eyes. Try pretending, as the voice on the other end keeps talking, that you are living back before seat belts were required. You’re stretched out in the very back of a car looking out at the stars and streetlights and telephone wires rushing by, while the grown-ups keep on talking in the front seat.
4. Don’t be afraid to say, from the get-go, I don’t remember if I’ve told you this or not, but my brain tends to shut down when I’m on the phone. So just let me know when I’m supposed to murmur.
5. Remember that phone calls can be funnn! Fun as in, it can feel like you and the other person are taking turns feeding each other spoonfuls of mushy vegetables.
Who am I kidding? What I’d really like to do, if I had this group of phone dodgers gathered in one place, is create a telephone-free zone where we could loudly and freely explore our phone dread together. What exactly is stressful about the telephone, other than the holes and creepy disembodied-voice thing? Is it because someone calling always wants something (If only to, ugh, “catch up”)? Is it because you and the caller are forced to face each other, rather than facing out together, right inside the moment? Is it something about how the phone favours synopsis, and speaking at a faster pace?
And maybe never-discussed desires between the phone dodgers would emerge, such as: I always want to play like a blind person on the phone, and get the other person to describe the scenery. I wish there was a device inside a phone that beeped (only on your end) when you were saying too much or not enough or more of the same thing. I wish there was a phone with a button you could push during your phone call to summon a bit of quality narration from a third source, played into both your ears. Then, when it ended, you two could talk about it.
I was once driving through the hometown of someone I had known, when I was suddenly struck, as though possessed, with a wild urge to hear his voice. So I pulled over to a roadside gas station and—hark!—there was a pay phone, over to one side by the toilets—because yes, it was that necessary. And a local phone book was swinging from a chain below it, its tiny font proclaiming all voices were accessible, with the right code. The whole set-up was genius. Here was a metal box that you could feed little metal circles into and press a sequence of numbered buttons to again enjoy the company of someone. You could pay the box for a chance to say things you hadn’t. It was pure magic—the deeply human kind. And even though the cord was a creepy and resembled the stiff but winding underside of a silver snake, I bowed a little to the pay phone in awe, and in gratitude.
It’s you! He answered. I just broke my leg this morning! It hurt, but he was laughing. I began to laugh too. I’ve been driving so long my clothes got stuck to the seat, I said. Even now when a phone is ringing I would do well to remember this call; which like all other calls took someone to dial, and someone on the other end to actually pick up. I would do well to remember how nothing, not the car doors slammed at the pumps or the semis blowing by on the freeway or the emotionless operator demanding Please. Deposit. Twenty. Five. Cents. could make that a bad call. And how I fed the phone every coin I had, and how I wished I had more. And how when I hung up the receiver my coins fell with a sad, final clunk, and something fell inside me too, and in surprise I claimed it for what it was: an entirely different kind of phone dread.