The phone rings. We answer. "Hello?" we say, and we say this hopefully, hoping beyond hope that this is the call we've been waiting for all our lives. "Oh," we say. "No. We are not at all interested in your product. Frankly, we are disappointed in the nature of your call." We hang up.
We take our dinner out of the freezer. We are not at all interested in our dinner, but we must eat it nonetheless.
The phone rings. We answer. "Fine, thank you," we say, "and you?" We listen. We put our dinner in the microwave, set the timer, place dish, cutlery, and paper napkin on our galley kitchen counter. "No," we say. "We rent an efficiency apartment and, as such, haven't the authority to authorize the sort of installation you wish to install."
The microwave beeps. We are not at all interested in our dinner, and yet we spoon it onto our dish, stand at our galley kitchen counter and fork food into our mouth. We are not especially pleased with our dinner, but we are presently watching our weight--at present, we meant to say--and we understand that weight watching requires the regular intake of calorically-monitored meals, especially pleasing or not. We chew. We swallow.
The phone rings.
We eye the phone warily. We are beginning to perceive a pattern here. We have perceived patterns in the past, and we have adjusted our behavior accordingly to fit the parameters of each pattern we've seen. We could let our answering machine answer, but we've grown to distrust our normally sober voice's cheery simulacrum, which rarely persuades callers to leave messages. We wouldn't want to miss our call if this is in fact the call we've been waiting for all our lives. We understand there is that chance, however slim. We have perceived patterns, but we find ourselves splashing through the shallow puddle of hope that wells in our heart. We answer.
"Hello?" we say, and we say this hopefully, hoping beyond hope that this is indeed our call, the call we've been waiting for, the call that will change our lives in indescribably delicious ways.
We are bound to be disappointed.
We fear parties, but our project manager has invited us by e-mail memo, and so we must go. We especially fear living rooms at parties, the established groups of smugly winking colleagues, each in his or her proper section. We avoid the cross-hierarchical banter, the carefully-circulated innuendo, the cycled and recycled brainstorms and discoveries, the strategic drainage of bracing cocktails. Ice cubes ring. Voices rise and fall. A new hire unaccountably barks with laughter, and her fellows step back, reconfigure alliances. We edge our way past the dining room buffet. Our colleagues glance up from plates piled with hummus and pita wedges, dilled broccoli florets and flayed shrimp. "Oh," they say, looking at a spot on the wall just behind us. "Hi, there."
"Eat up!" our project manager cries, slapping backs and squeezing shoulders. He glances our way, slips his free hand into his pocket. He sips from the glass in his other hand. "Have something, why don't you," he says. We select an olive from a platter, arrange a spot in our cheek for it, and smile, mandible cringing sourly all the way to our ear. Our project manager opens his mouth, closes it. "Plenty more," he says, turning away. "Plenty for everyone."
We know something of this world. We know there is never plenty for everyone.
We visit the bathroom, where, business finished, we make a secret show of running water in the sink, moistening fingertips, drying them daintily on the apparently unused guest towel. We don't make a habit of lathering our hands at other people's homes. We don't care to get started. We consider ourselves in the mirror, wishing we could grow accustomed to our reflection, but we never seem to. We always appear somewhat surprised in mirrors.
There is a knock at the door. "Somebody die in there or what?" a nasal alto sings.
We open the door. A young woman squeezes past us, heels tapping a pigeon-toed flamenco on ceramic tile. "Hold this," she giggles, handing us a long-stemmed glass of wine. "Not to be rude, but I'm doing the tinkle dance here." She rushes to the toilet, already hiking hem of black shift to hips of white pantyhose. "Close the door?" she says. "I won't be long."
We stand in the hallway, wine in hand. We sniff it: Pouilly-Fuisse. Our doctors have advised against alcohol.
The toilet flushes; the faucet runs at length: the door opens. The young woman sighs, smoothes her boxy dress across her hips. We do not know her. New hire, perhaps, or unmet spouse of unknown colleague. She smiles at us in a way that reminds us of one of our own ex-spouses. The same tauntingly innocent eyes scrutinizing us with judicious glee. The same large-boned figure burdened by blunt sexuality. She is young enough to be the eldest daughter of that particular ex-spouse, though our brief union bore no fruit.
None of our unions has ever proven fruitful.
"Thanks," she says, taking her glass, fingers brushing ours on its stem. "You work here?"
"Here?" we say.
"Not here. With these people, I mean."
"Yes," we say, "though we work alone."
"A loner," she says, eyes glittering. "What do you do?"
"We crunch entities."
"Royal we or plural?"
"Catchy," she says, tugging at the bunched bodice of her polyester frock. "You're staring at my dress. You find it incredibly ugly."
"It's my father's fault. When I was a girl, he bought me incredibly ugly clothes to keep the boys away. Didn't work. Only made me want to get naked at every opportunity. As you can see, though, I never developed a sense of fashion. Are you on Prozac by any chance?"
"No," we say.
"Have you considered it?"
"We have considered and tried all types of pharmaceuticals, but we've found the ballyhooed benefits to be contraindicated by the concomitant ennui."
"I hear you," she says. "You should try BuSpar. Prozac kept me up all night. Zoloft made me wish I were depressed again. I won't even mention the Xanax problem. But I'm happy with the BuSpar. Way happy. They should put it in the drinking water, like fluoride." She winks, thumbs us in the ribs, titters fetchingly. "What sort of entities did you say you crunch?"
"The generally more abstract or abstruse ones."
"Phonemes, morphemes, allomorphs, et al."
"Ciphers, gnoses, n-dimensional deconstruction of zero-element values."
"The devil's in the details, I'm guessing." She leans forward, rests elbows on our shoulders, wine glass suspended by dainty fingers in our peripheral vision, her face close to ours. "Are you here alone?"
"We are generally everywhere alone."
"Lucky for me," she says, trailing turquoise nails over the skin of our scalp. "I crave mystery. It turns me on. Care to come to my place? You don't know me. I don't work here. I'm the neighbor. There's always a neighbor at these kinds of parties."
"We'd only disappoint you, as we have countless others."
"Best come-on line I've heard all night. Wait." She touches a finger to our lips. "Don't say no. Think about it. If not now, some other time." She selects a felt-tip from our pocket protector, scribbles a number on the palm of our hand. "Call me," she says.
We stare at our hand, each digit displaying its own unique value. "We need to use the facilities again," we say.
"I like that in a man," the neighbor murmurs, and, giving our hand a parting, promissory squeeze, she returns down the hallway to the party.
We go back into the bathroom, close and lock the door, run scalding water in the sink, and, despite ourselves, work up a formidable lather. The neighbor's number washes clean. We lather again. Our reflection stares at us.
The appearance of surprise is the only thing that seems to surprise us anymore.
Our computer monitor chimes. We save and send our work, save and send it again. We've learned not to trust the prevailing technology. We pack our briefcase and exit our cubicle. It is after hours. We generally try to arrive and depart before and after hours. We negotiate a maze of phosphorescent cubicles, corridors mapped by limbic memory.
"Whoah!" our project manager gasps, rounding a corner. "You spooked me!" He steps back, brushes his shirtfront. "Working late again?"
"Don't overdo it," he says. "Mustn't neglect your family. After all, what's more important?"
"We have no family."
"Oh. Well. Good. That you're not neglecting anyone. Um. Generic, isn't it? I remember asking already."
"We really must be going."
"Good. My point exactly. Good job on that last project, by the way. Good work all around. How's the current project?"
"Good. Well. Um. New project coming up next week, you probably got the memo."
"This one scares me a little, I don't mind telling you. Ontological Warranty Division ordered it, so it's your standard redundant tautologics, but it's not as pointless as I'd like it to be. It's actually for a guidance system." He shudders. "I hate guidance systems. I'm comfortable managing a completely pointless project purely for love of the process, but as soon as your project involves a destination, well, then it's got a point, doesn't it. And if your project has a point, even a teensy one, your results are under scrutiny. You miss the point, all of a sudden they're talking about restructuring your career objectives. That's what happened to the last job on my resume. I missed the point. Whole department missed the point. Never even knew there was a point." He chuckles ruefully. "Not to say we have anything to worry about here, of course. There's always another project, ninety-nine-point-nine percent of them completely pointless. Still. I worry. I have to worry. Comes with the position. Power worries. Not for you to worry. Not your job. I'll do all the worrying."
"We're not worried."
"You look like a worrier, is why I mentioned it in the first place. Probably because of the hair thing. I know you told me awhile ago." He scratches his head. "Chemo, is it?"
"Male pattern gone amuck."
"You don't say. Eyebrows too?"
"Perfectly harmless if rather anomalous reaction to stress, the doctors say."
"Then you are a worrier."
"We used to worry about going bald," we say. "Not anymore."
"I worry about everything," our project manager says. "That's my job. I heard the other day that somebody discovered neutrinos have mass. One day they don't, next day they do. Go figure. Infinitesimally eensy-weensy-beensy mass, but mass is mass. This is the kind of news that keeps me up at night. What next?" He raises a hand as if to touch us but apparently reconsiders. "By the way," he says, "who was that cute number I saw you with at the party?"
"Your neighbor," we say.
"Really?" He tugs meditatively at his ear lobe. "Can't place her." He laughs, turns to walk away. "If I didn't know better, I'd say my memory's shot."
The phone rings. The microwave beeps. We are beginning to perceive a pattern.
"Hello?" we say, and we say this as hopefully as we are able. "No," we say, "we are not at all interested. We were just preparing to eat our dinner. Our dinner does not especially please us, but we must eat it nonetheless. No," we say, "there is perhaps no better time to call. The past is impossible, the future unproven, and the present gone even as we speak."
The phone beeps.
"Excuse us for a moment momentarily." We press flash.
"It's me," our project manager's neighbor breathes. "Do you even know my name?"
"I don't know yours either. Your boss gave me your number, but he couldn't remember your name."
"We have a caller waiting on Call Waiting."
"Call me back. Do you still have my number?"
"Men," she sighs, and she gives us her number again. "Call me right back. Promise."
We promise. We press flash again. "Please don't ever call us again," we say, and we hang up. We call our project manager's neighbor back.
"Psychic Hotline," she answers. "Now I know your name. Caller I.D. I'd be lost without it. So," she drawls coyly, "is this your real name or a fake phonebook name?"
"How marvelously ordinary. The perfect alias, a name that couldn't attract attention if it tried. You know," she whispers, "I can't stop thinking of you. I know where you live. Why don't I come over?"
"We don't take visitors."
"Then you come here."
"We're waiting for a call."
"Let your machine take it."
"It's not that kind of call."
"What kind is it?"
"We're not certain. We've been expecting this call all our lives it seems to us, but the exact nature of the call still eludes us, as does the call itself."
"Could you be more, you know . . . specific?"
We hesitate. "All right," we say, finally. "It happened late one night so long ago that it almost feels as though it happened to some other person. We were sleeping, dreaming a dream whose outcome we were convinced was somehow crucial to our well-being, when suddenly the phone rang. We reached for the bedside phone, said, 'Hello?' and waited. There was no response, but in that brief interval of waiting, we felt a great yawning maw of power opening up through the phone line. We felt a sudden rush of pure joy such as we had never experienced before, and we waited breathlessly for whoever or whatever was on the other end to speak. We felt clearly that whatever message we were about to hear would change our lives in indescribably delicious ways we can't begin to imagine."
"What happened then?"
We grimace, embarrassed. "In our excitement, we accidentally fumbled and dropped the receiver, disconnecting ourselves."
"And you've been waiting for a call-back ever since?"
"What other reason is there for picking up the phone?"
"Communication, for one."
"Ninety-nine-point-nine percent unnecessary."
"It's what we're doing now."
"In a manner of speaking."
"What does your therapist say about this? I'm assuming you're seeing one."
"Several," we say. "And they all say about what you'd expect."
"Vultures," she says scornfully. "I'm touching myself, you know."
"I'm touching myself while you talk to me. I'm lying naked on my bed, touching myself, you know, down there. It's the latest thing. Vox pop copulatus. There's a thriving Ma and Pa telecommunications industry devoted to it."
"So we've been led to believe. Books making excessive use of quotation marks are documenting the phenomenon. Pulses are rising over board-room speaker phones."
"Your voice excites me," she says. "There's a certain timbre to it that moistens my innermost recesses of desire. Wow. Saying that excites me even more. Does it excite you? Would you like to touch yourself, too?"
"We don't touch ourselves anymore," we say, "except in an unavoidably incidental or clinical manner."
"Good. I don't like men who touch themselves while I talk to them. I like men to pay attention to what I'm saying, not yank their pesky crankies. Do you like women who touch themselves while you talk to them?"
"We have no strong feelings on the subject."
"Not good enough," she says, voice husky. "Tell me."
In times past, we acquiesce to tell her, we have enjoyed several women who touched themselves while we talked to them and/or while they talked to us. One of our ex-spouses liked to touch herself while she spoke to us in Spanish. We never learned Spanish. We know a little French, enough to get by, but not enough to touch oneself to. Another of our ex-spouses enjoyed touching herself whether we talked to her or not. We were forever entering one room or another of the house to discover her splayed dumbstruck on whatever surface had apparently presented itself as most convenient when the urge struck, busily touching herself, unaware of our very presence. "But we never held it against her," we hasten to add. "The divorce had more to do with her spending than her touching."
"Oh!" she says. "Nnnnnnnn!"
"I just came." She sighs dreamily. "The key to good sex is forgetting who you think you are for one brief warbling moment." Her voice catches. "But how can something so completely transmogrifying make me feel so utterly myself when it's over?"
"That's been our experience as well."
"Did you come too?"
"Hardly. We don't do that anymore."
"Not at all?"
"Our penis rises, our penis sets. It's all the same to us."
"Oh why, why, why must I always fall for pale, limp weirdos?" Her lament ends with a brusque whimper. "Gotta run now. Afterplay's a letdown. Call me," she says. "I'll be waiting."
A freckled clerk at Telecom Outlet bags our purchase. "So I gotta ask," he says. "You got a mouse in your pocket?"
"What's with the we biz? Who's we?"
"That would be 'Who are we?'"
"If you want to get grammatical." He sniffs, brushing a longish lock of carroty hair from his eyes. "No skin off my buns if you tell me or not."
"One of our therapists suggested that we need to relate more closely to humanity."
His eyes inexplicably moisten. "That's pitiful," he says, handing us our package.
Safely back in our efficiency, we phone our phone company, subscribe to its Caller I.D. service, plug in our new monitor.
The phone rings.
We check the monitor. We do not recognize the name or number. Our heart wells. Surely, the call we have been waiting for all our lives will not originate from familiar territory. "Hello?" we say, our voice trembling with possibility.
"I'm touching myself."
"Not now," we say. "We're busy."
She tisks. "Your message has been garbled in transmission," she says. "I'm reading confusion amid great longing. You need me. Admit it."
"We're afraid you don't know us very well."
"What's to know?" she says. "You're a man with a past, preferably a tragic one. You built an empire and watched it crumble. You've loved and lost more times than you can remember, but still you can't stop hoping. Stop me if I'm getting warmer."
We make no response.
"It's true," she says. "I'm the answer to the question posed by your incredibly empty life. Blink once for yes, twice for no. Oh!" she moans. "Nnn nnnnn!"
We hang up.
The phone rings. We check our monitor, choose not to answer. Our answering machine picks up, our own voice unaccountably cheerful. "This is the Psychic Hotline," her message says. "Your problem is you can't stand yourselves. I'm the solution. Call before it's too late."
The phone rings. We check our monitor. We place our dinner in the microwave. The microwave beeps. The phone rings.
We call our project manager after hours, leave a message on his voice mail. "We will dot be id toborrow," we say. "We bust be comig dowd wid a code. We caddot crudge our eddidies. We deed our rest."
Days pass. Our dinner neither pleases nor displeases. We choose not to eat. We check our monitor. Some names and numbers originate from origins we recognize as having been somehow important once upon a time. Our laundry service calls us. Our therapists' and doctors' offices call us. Our project manager calls us, tells us we're terminated in no uncertain terms. Our landlord calls us, notes we're dreadfully overdue. Our power company calls us, tenders final notice.
We choose to answer only those calls which our monitor displays as a string of enigmatic hyphens. Phone solicitations, mostly, and we hang up as soon as they identify themselves as such. Still the phone rings. We check our monitor. We begin to forget what we're checking for. We begin to perceive a pattern. We have adjusted our behavior. We have been waiting all our lives. Our call will tell us something grand and true and fresh and nutritious and indubitably delicious about ourselves, something that will not only presently change our present at present but will retroactively change our past as well, will make our future as clean and sweet and new and improved as puddled honey 'neath a thriving hive of slap-sappy bee-bees.
Happy bees, we suspect we meant to say. We're no longer certain what we think we mean to say. "We feel biserable," we say. "We bust stay hobe again today."
The phone rings. From moonrise to sunset, by day and by night, we hear the insistent music of its trilling tintinnabulation. We no longer recognize names or numbers. We stand at our galley kitchen counter, phone in hand.
"Hello?" we think we mean to say, and we think we mean to say this hopefully, fearfully, convinced that this is indeed our call. "Hello?"
A pair of hands snake up from behind us and cover our eyes. A warm body presses against our back. The phone drops from our limp grasp. "Guess who," she says.
We keep our eyes closed. "How did you get in?"
"I bribed the doorman."
"We have no doorman."
She backs away, and we hear the sound of a zipper unzipping, heavy fabric falling to the floor. "I climbed the fire escape and came in through a window."
"We have no windows."
"Neither healthy nor legal, I'd think." We hear the snap of elastic. "I came to help you."
"Impossible," we say.
"The possibilities are endless, but the truth is you left your door unlocked."
She grips our shoulder, turns us to face her. A pile of incredibly ugly clothing puddles at her feet. She leans forward, hands stroking, squeezing, face upturned, looming close and closer, close enough for us to focus on our reflection in her widening pupils.
"Surprised?" she says, pushing us back against our galley kitchen counter.
She unbuttons our shirt, moves herself against us. We've lost all power. Her lips brush ours. A nervous digit traces a figure eight over and over in the cramped space between us.
"Come on," she purrs. "You knew it was me all along."
* * *
Copyright 1999 AZX LLC