Telephones | Patricia Cronin
The summer I would finally be sprung from college, Paul Sullivan and his three roommates lived next door to the tiny house where I lived alone. In August, I would head out to the real world, but in the meantime, I worked waiting tables and took one last creative writing course. The window in my "study"—actually the small bedroom without a closet where I wrote on my old Smith Corona typewriter—was right across from Paul's dining room window.
I spent many late nights at that typewriter.
And early mornings before my waitressing shift at 10:30.
Paul said I worked too much, so we rigged a string between the two windows with a bell attached at either end. We'd "call" each other out for a drink—a mildly more sophisticated version than standing on his front porch howling "Oh Paulllly!" And for something so simple, it seemed foolish to actually use the telephone.
Late at night, with Emerson or Dickinson swimming through my head, I imagined him watching me from the dark of his dining room window. I was sure a few times I saw the faint swish of a cigarette ash as I wrote bad poetry on my typewriter. The poems I submitted to magazines were typed using cartridges that produced green and blue inks. I didn't know any better.
A few of the poems were accepted anyway. Maybe the editors didn't know any better either.
I still have copies of poems in blue ink. They are well preserved, beautiful in that crisp color. Painful to read.
I'm pretty sure I'll always keep them.
Paul and I would drink twenty-five cent beers at the bar where I worked. Often, too, the drinks were free. An occupational hazard: free beer, shots of Wild Turkey, bar games. Throwing up in parking lots, into paper bags, socks. We knew what real fun was. I could drink and still run six miles. I could run three in a pair of pumps. We had alley races: barefoot competitions through gravel, garbage, and broken glass. Loser had to come over and make breakfast. We swapped keys.
I wouldn't let Paul kiss me. I was afraid: the string, the bell, that connection. Life was sweet so long as the string did its only job of stretching across the gangway for availability, an invitation. I'd worry, while sitting at my desk, that the string would lengthen and tie me up. I feared I'd be held prisoner in my desk chair with my blue-ink poems and the typewriter that sounded like heavy machinery you're not supposed to operate after drinking doses of cold medicine.
Real fun was hard to have while having a real boyfriend.
Real fun couldn't exist in the context of someone wanting you so badly, so much, that a thin string connected your lives. Like fishing line that is too strong to break with your teeth, your hands. It knots up superbly well, and when pulled taut can turn into a tightrope. And that's what I walked, a tightrope. The bell would ring and up I'd jump from the chair, not even putting on my shoes. We'd walk the four blocks into town. The walk home though, was heavy with desire: inching, climbing, bridging the already too-close proximity.
I learned to unflirt with Paul. I worked more nights at the bar, was home less, for a while wrote less. I took to sleeping in, avoiding my desk and the blue and green inks, the random thoughts that wished to be poems, even very bad ones. I'd hide out in my bedroom with the lights off and window open, wanting to lose myself in the frail wind that blew upward through the trees. Paul would pull on the string, a faint tinkling on the other side of my closed bedroom door. I did not answer. My line was busy. After nine or so, I'd hear Paul and his roommates walk by on their way into town. I cried for both of us.
That same summer my sister lived off-campus, too, but she refused to buy a phone for the three-month stretch of summer school. This meant our mother was always calling me. I finally got so pissed off I went to the local Ben Franklin dimestore and bought a plastic, pink princess phone and fastened it to her kitchen wall with duct tape. I also hammered a note next to it that read "CALL MOM!" When Sally moved out at the end of the term, the tape pulled out a chunk of wall that cost $80 of her security deposit. "Good," I thought, "she sicced Mom on me all summer. She should pay that eighty bucks!"
Life then was the grown up version of waiting for the ice cream truck. You had all day to loll and lounge for something special to happen. An event meant to trigger a craving, a summer longing. You had no particular flavor of the day. All of them were so sweet and right there, pulling up to your curb with a swift, sweet jingle of the bell right outside your door, or inside the closet-less bedroom you called your study.
I lost track of Paul Sullivan three or four lifetimes ago. And the only reason I remember this story is that I've been waiting all day in an empty real estate office for someone to fix the company's telephones. I pick up the handset and there's no dial tone. I haven't heard them ring in hours. There's no one to talk to, so I talk to myself and in that conversation recalled the primitive, non-fiber optic communication beckoning me to some nobler purpose. "No man is an island," Paul would say, a little drunk from our night on the town. His long arm casually draped across my shoulder, his shirt damp with sweat. Paul wanted to rescue me from my solitary self, my midnight hours over an old, loud typewriter, anguished thoughts spelling themselves out on the page one sad, blue letter at a time. And in the churning waters of his swirling expectancy, I barely survived. But beached and breathing I broke free and with dense regret watched Paul float further and further away.
I convince myself, as I pick up the dead telephone wanting to dial my husband's work number, that Paul washed up on some other shore in the arms of more appreciative, receptive girl. Who knows, maybe he even rigged another bell-and-string phone to her house, her heart, where she'd always answer, always knew to be home at the right time.