This time he really would do it. He would not let himself feel guilty. He would be cold. That had been the problem in the past – trying too hard to be nice. He hated the thought of hurting her. He dreaded watching her blue eyes grow large and wet, her face grow still, her little brow puckering delicately as understanding set in. But most of all he dreaded what she always said.
“But…I thought you loved me.”
How could six little words make him feel so guilty? They were like tiny birds, flying from her mouth to perch on his shoulders and head and peck him. It was always the same: in the silence that followed her watery-trembly plea, they would peck him and peck him and peck him until, desperate, he would say something, anything to stop those pointy little reproofs, anything to stop them from pecking through his face and skull and all the way into his head where they could get at the thoughts he had of leaving her, of breaking up and moving on, thoughts that were lodged deep in the pulsing pink meat of his brain like dark tumors.
They would find those tumors and peck peck peck until they were gone, leaving him dazed and lobotomized and wanting the same things she wanted, wanting marriage and a dull job and two children and a house with a picket fence and a four door car he drove fifty minutes round trip every day in his commute to a slow, mindless, paunchy, middle-aged death.
It didn’t matter what he said, which was always some variation on the same theme: “Jen, honey, I do love you. I’m just not ready for a serious commitment right now.”
It didn’t matter because no matter what he said, what she heard was that he loved her, and that was enough: the tears dried up, the sun came out, and she would take his hand in hers and squeeze while she burbled on about honesty and communication and then make him dinner or rub his back and he would be right back where he started, trapped in her sweet, gentle, eager-to-please, considerate, boring hell.
But this time was going to be different. He would be cold. He would not watch her clear blue eyes become large and wet and pleading. He would not sit close to her or hold her hand as he spoke. He would pretend not to see her lower lip trembling, or the red stain of humiliated pain on her cheeks.
And most of all, he would not say anything to soften the blow; he would not give her a chance to hope. He would steel himself against anything she said. He would let those little guilt-birds peck him all night, if he had to. This time, he would not yield. He would endure their pecky little torture, even if it killed him.
“You must like it,” his friend Craig has said again and again about his relationship with Jen, about his multiple failed attempts to break up with her.
“You must be getting something out of all this repetitive breaking up – power, control, whatever. What a mind fuck for her, though. I can’t believe she doesn’t dump your ass.”
“But I don’t,” Tom has insisted each time. “It’s just that she’s a nice girl and I don’t want to hurt her. I just have to find some kind of middle ground – you know, where I can end things but not hurt her too badly.”
“How noble,” Craig mocked him. “But is she the one you’re really trying so hard no to hurt?”
“Well – you. Maybe you’re afraid of getting hurt, so you’re opting out first.”
“That’s bullshit, man.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. Who did the breaking up with Karen? You, right? And what about Serena – also you. Marianne – also you. I’m telling you, bud. It’s a pattern. He who will not learn from history is bound to repeat it.”
“Paula broke up with me.”
“The first time. Then you got back together for what, six months? And as I recall, you did the breaking up the second time. I still remember showing up at your apartment with that fucking rented U-Haul, trying to catch everything that Paula was throwing.”
Well, it didn’t matter if Craig was right or not. The point now – the relevant point, the only point – was that Jen was not right for him. He knew it, she knew it – or would know it – and it was time to end it. Period.
The phone rang; he checked his watch. She’d just be leaving work right now, and was calling to tell him. He sighed and answered.
“Hi, it’s me. I’m just leaving work.”
“Can I pick up anything at the store for you?”
“Uh, no. I’ve got everything I need. ”
“Ok. Hey guess what – oh! I can’t believe it, that guy almost hit me. Anyway, I was saying…”
“Hey Jen, is it still raining?”
“No, it stopped. Anyway, I was saying – ”
“Hey Jen, you’re breaking up. I can’t really hear you. I’ll talk to you when you get here, OK?”
“OK. Love you.”
He winced and didn’t answer – he had the claim of bad connection on his side.
He hated automatic endearments – the whole mindless way people in relationships had of talking to each other. Love you, she said every time she left him or hung up the phone – even if she was just going to the store, or to pick up dry cleaning. Sometimes it was all he could do not to holler “Why? For what?” Because he was good relationship material?
And the whole cell phone thing drove him nuts. Jenny called him all the time, it didn’t matter that she didn’t have a question, much less anything to say. She called him at the store, in line at the bank, walking her dog. If he didn’t answer, she left a message – It’s me, I’m at the store, I’m at the bank, I’m walking the dog. Reaching out, she called it when he questioned her. I’m just reaching out to you, that’s all.
Buy you never say anything, he wanted to shout. But didn’t – why bother?
The phone rang again.
“It’s me. I had to stop by the mall on my way. I should be there in twenty minutes. Shit, it’s raining again.”
Without taking a breath she launched into a story about the sales clerk at the department store. He listened, knowing she didn’t require a response. What a relief it would be to not have to listen to her remote minute-by-minute accounting of what she was doing, seeing, feeling, hearing, thinking.
“Wait ‘til you see what I got you. It’s…oh shit.” Her voice was suddenly muffled, far and wee. He waited.
“Sorry, I dropped the phone. Anyway, wait til you see what I got you, you’ll go nuts. You’re really going to-”
“Hey Jen, why don’t we talk when you get here?”
“Oh. Is there something you want to talk about?” Her voice was bright with expectation. His heart sank. Tomorrow was another ‘anniversary’, as she called it – they had been dating eight months.
“Well, yeah. But it can wait ‘til you get here.”
“You sound so serious.” The reception on her cell phone was usually dicey, but tonight it was so clear he could hear everything – her sharp intake of breath, the faint treble of incipient emotion in her voice.
“I am – it is. I mean, well….. just talk when we get here.”
For a change there was silence on her end. He thought he could hear the distant, whispery hum of the wet road deep in the background. When she spoke her voice was high-pitched with artificial cheer.
“Do you….do you still love me?” He could hear that she was suppressing tears and he put a hand to his eyes. Can’t fall for that, he told himself.
“Listen, Jen, let’s just talk when you get here. OK?”
“OK, Tom.” “It’s just that…uh oh.”
At first he didn’t realize that the line had gone dead. – he just thought she’d dropped the phone again. But after a few seconds the hum in his ear stopped – her phone had dropped its connection. He shrugged, thumbed his handset off, opened a bottle of wine and settled on the couch to wait.
When the knocking woke him three hours later he was confused – he had no idea where he was. The apartment was pitch dark. It was the tiny red eye on the CD player that gave him his bearings – he had fallen asleep sitting in the living room waiting for Jenny.
What time was it? It had been light when she had called. He looked automatically at the LED display on the VCR, though it has never read anything but 12:00. He jumped up and groped his way to the kitchen. The microwave gleamed whitely in the dark, it’s clock read 12:45.
Where was she?
The red light on his answering machine was flashing. She must have called and left a message while he slept. He moved toward it, and that was when the soft knock came again, startling him. “Jen?” he called, and groped his way to the door.
“Where have you been?” The porch light was off, and she was only a dark outline on the night-shaded step.
“There was an accident.” Her voice was soft as a sigh.
“Oh God, Jen. Are you alright?” He reached for her, but she walked slowly past him.
“Yes. The police were there. They helped me.” She smelled of cold and the wet, earthy smell of rain – a smell that always reminded him, faintly, of worms. He followed her into the living room. She sat on the couch and set a small bag down on the floor next to her. He hesitated, then took a chair opposite her.
“Is your car OK?”
“Yes.” The lamp was on the table next to her, but she made no move to turn it on. In the dark living room she was only a dim outline, backlit by the ambient glow of the fluorescent light above the stove in the kitchen behind her. Still, he could see well enough to see her face was unmarked, and that she sat up straight without any sign of pain.
“Did it…did it happen when you were on the phone with me?”
“Yes.” Her voice was soft, as if she were embarrassed to make this admission.
“Oh, Jen. You have to be more careful. But your car’s OK?”
“Was….was anyone hurt?”
She nodded slowly.
“Oh. Oh, wow. That’s terrible. Really? Shit. No wonder you’re so shook up. God. Well I’m glad you’re ok.” He shook his head. “You and that phone.”
She nodded again, and he felt a rush of guilt remembering their conversation just before the accident.
“Anyway, I’m glad you weren’t hurt. You were lucky. Can I get you something – tea? Hot chocolate?” But she only shook her head and fingered the handle of the small bag at her feet.
He noticed but said nothing – he knew it contained an ‘anniversary’ gift and felt uncomfortable. And there was something in her posture made him uneasy- she sat so erect and yet so still, as if she were waiting for something. She just sat there, fingering the handle of the bag and watching him – expectantly, he thought. Then he realized – of course she was waiting for something. That last call she made – he’d hinted to her about what was to come – knew what he was going to do. But should be, after she had been in an accident?
He looked at her sitting there so quietly and docile and felt a small flare of anger. She sure wasn’t making it any easier, was she? That decided him. There would never bee a good time. And anyway, the groundwork had been laid. She clearly expected it – he might as well just get it over with.
He took a deep breath. “Jen, I think you know what I want to say.”
She sat quietly, watching him. He plunged on.
“I’ve been trying to find a way to say this to you for awhile. I – I’m not ready for a serious commitment right now, Jen. I…Well, I want to end our relationship.”
He held his breath and braced himself for the soft blow of her tears, the plaintive little flock of words that would attack his will and beat him into first into a guilty equivocation and finally a retraction.
But she only bowed her head in acquiescence. For a wonder, she didn’t say a word.
“I’m sorry Jen. It’s not you, it’s me.”
Still she said nothing. He was surprised and dismayed at the need he felt to talk, to justify himself and reassure her. Not that she had indicated she wanted to hear either. He was suddenly confused, and not at all cold.
What is this, he wondered. Reverse psychology?
He slid out of his chair and next to her on the couch. “Are you going to be ok?” he asked her. He took her hand in his and squeezed it, but she didn’t squeeze back. Her hand was cold and rain damp.
“Jen, you’re freezing! Are you sure you’re all right?”
“Yes,” came the faint reply. She seemed to list slightly away from him, as if she were too tired to sit up. He felt swept by a sudden tenderness for her, a feeling he hadn’t had since the beginning of their relationship, back when her gentle timidity had seemed so ideally feminine and sexy rather than simply passive and boring.
He stroked her hair near her forehead and she swayed toward him as easily as a flower with a broken stem.
“You must be exhausted. Do you want to sleep here tonight? I’ll take the couch.” he added hastily. She nodded and he felt the faint chill movement of her lips against his neck, the puff of cool breath that was her whispered Yes. He felt suddenly warmer.
What is this, he wondered, but he thought he knew. It had happened to him once before, at the end of a serious relationship. Break-up sex, a friend of his had called it. A last flaring of tenderness and lust before the light went out forever.
He rose, his arm protectively around her. “Let’s get you to bed,” he whispered. They walked slowly through the darkened apartment to his bedroom.
He sat her gently on the bed. He left the lamp off, unwilling to break the strange mood of peace and regret and lingering love that lay between them. Moonlight lay in a wide stripe across his bed. She lifted the covers and simply climbed in, fully dressed.
He stood at the side of the bed, uncertain now. Her quiet acceptance of his resolve had unnerved him; he no longer felt sure what he wanted, or why.
He sat on the bed and took her icy hand. “Do you want me to stay with you tonight, Jen?” he asked softly. She nodded, and in the silvery light he thought her eyes gleamed with tears. But for a wonder, she said nothing.
He undressed quickly, and slipped in beside her. “Don’t you want to get undressed?” he asked her. She made a movement that he thought could only be acquiescence.
In the moonlight her normally pale skin was as flawless as alabaster. Shadows painted the corners of the rooms and pooled in the hollows of her cheeks and eyes, making all that was feminine about her – lips and thighs, breasts and belly – seem to glow in white relief.
He lay next to her, at first cautious that his erection not touch her, but she was unresisting, and when he entered her she did not tense up as she normally did, but instead lay pliant and accepting. When he came, one hand grasping her hair, the other a smooth buttock, he again felt the fall of her cool kiss on his neck. His skin prickled the delicious length of his spine and he drifted to sleep in a confusing tumult of emotion.
He awoke later – impossible to say if it were fifteen minutes or three hours – and watched her sleep for awhile, wondering if it was the moonlight, the impending separation, or some quality in Jenny herself that made her seem so suddenly beautiful, so like a delicately carved marble angel with her light-washed breasts and night-painted eyes and lips.
She looked so peaceful, so receptive…he was suddenly filled with doubt. Was he being hasty? If only it was always the way it had been tonight. Was that possible?
Almost without thinking he put his lips close to the dark-and-light spiraled shell of her ear and spoke in a whisper so soft even he could barely hear it.
“I love you Jen. Maybe you’re right and I’m wrong…maybe we could have it all. Marriage, babies. Just not right now. If you could just give me a little time….”
He pulled away, lips grazing her temple, and lay back down on the moonlight-painted bed. He pulled the down comforter higher (it was unusually chilly for this time of year – the rain, he supposed) and as his body warmed in the cocoon of covers and he drifted slowly back to sleep, he felt her small chilly hand creep into his and squeeze. His eyes opened wide on the squeeze, the temperature of his heart dipping a few degrees toward the temperature of her hand.
“I’ll wait.” Her whisper was even softer than his; the whisper of a whisper.
Oh no, oh shit he thought, but it was too late and anyway his mind was already fleeing back into dark, uncomplicated sleep, the room’s shadows beckoning him to follow. Troubled, he went.
In the morning she was gone, and he felt guiltily relieved. It had been stupid to have sex with her. Now he would have to start the whole dance again: call her, meet her (this time in a public place), tell her the same thing in a dozen different ways – it’s not you it’s me, some guy will be lucky to get you, I’ll probably regret this but – until her tears tapered into a sharp point of anger and she slammed out of whatever establishment they were in, probably that damn coffee house that gave her the moral superiority that Starbucks couldn’t, leaving him to mope perversely into his latte or chai tea or triple soy mocha latte frappa fuckit.
He was toasting a bagel while staring indecisively at the stove – did it seem too, well, celebratory to make pancakes? – and getting angry with her for dictating his breakfast even after he’d broken up with her (and he had, he insisted to himself, he finally had, break-up sex notwithstanding) when there came a knock on the door.
It was her. She’d claim she left her earrings and go into the bedroom and then stay until he would be forced to follow her and ‘discover’ her weeping, pressing her face dramatically into the sheets balled up in her hands. Then he would comfort her and she would allow herself to be comforted and then she would put a brave watery smile on and offer to make him breakfast and unable to stand the silent pleading of her red-laced eyes he would let her and with every clank of pots and clink of silver he would feel himself slipping slowly and inexorably backward into the relationship, fingers digging deep channels of desperation in the dirt as he slid right to the edge of the precipice.
She would serve him and watch him eat with that proprietary smile and he would smile lamely back and drop, vanishing without a sound or a trace.
All of that would have surely happened if it had been her, but it wasn’t.
“Thomas O’Brien?” The cops on his porch stood in sharp blue relief against the early pearl of morning.
“Yes?” He looked from one to the other – one was a thickly built man with a dark mustached, the other a blonde woman of about thirty. Their unexpected presence, their un-Jenness, their specificity – gold buttoned uniforms, creaking leather belts, unsmiling faces and sharply peaked caps – made him feel as if he’d slipped sideways into a television show.
“May we come in?”
Tom nodded and stepped back to let them pass. Outside a battered-looking station wagon prowled slowly down the street, the tubed and bagged daily papers flying from it’s dark interior onto front yards. The car passed beneath the streetlight nearest his house and briefly illuminated the pale, round, stubble-darkened face of the driver. Tom frowned. What time was it? Jen was not a notably early riser; when he’d woken to find her gone, he’d simply assumed it was late morning.
He followed the cops into his living room, tugging self-consciously at his boxers
“Um, mind if I put some clothes on?”
“Go right ahead, Mr. O’Brien.” The mustached cop made a solicitous gesture. The woman smiled sympathetically at him.
In his bedroom the digital clock glowed in the ambient light seeping from under the shade: 6:41. He glanced instinctively at the bed; the side he had slept on was rumpled, the covers bunched and the pillow folded into a shape like a small letter n. Jen’s side was cool and unruffled, except for – maybe – the smallest indentation where her body and head had lain. He stared at that for a moment, wondering. Had she slept over? Or had she gotten up and left as soon as he fell asleep? He knew from experience that was a Jen-like thing to do; she’d insist later that she simply hadn’t been able to sleep, then punish him with silence and random tears for not following her, stopping her, asking her what was wrong.
He bent close and examined the sheet and pillow, then remembered the cops. What was he doing in here inspecting the bed like it was some kind of Shroud of Turin? There were cops here, it wasn’t’ even seven in the morning, and he didn’t know what it meant but the hollowed-out cave of ice that had suddenly replaced his stomach told him it couldn’t be good. He hurriedly slid his jeans on and went out to the living room. The cops were standing awkwardly in front of his couch, their hats in their hands.
They got right to the point.
“Do you know a Miss Jennifer Tallingsworth?” The woman had a steady gaze Tom found disconcerting. Her thick hair was mashed a bit by her hat, but still quite pretty, Tom thought. It gleamed yellowly in the dim morning gloom of the living room.
Tom nodded. “She’s my girlfriend.” I mean, was my girlfriend – he nearly said it aloud, but didn’t – something he would later be very grateful for.
“I’m afraid we have some bad news for you, Mr. O’Brien. Perhaps you’d better sit down.” The woman gestured at a chair and sat opposite him on the couch, unconsciously replicating last night’s break-up tableau with Jen.
“Your girlfriend’s car was found this morning off Highway 47. It looks like she lost control in the rain, skidded down the embankment and hit a tree.” She paused and looked at the mustached cop sitting next to her. He nodded and sat forward, hands clasped between his knees.
“A passing motorist called the accident in about two hours ago. I’m sorry Mr. O’Brien, but she didn’t make it. She laid in that car all night and lost way too much blood. They couldn’t do anything for her.”
Tom didn’t hear anything after the word ‘dead’. The cops lips kept moving – first one, then the other – and Tom watched to be polite, but he didn’t even try to listen. They finally stopped and looked at him, waiting, with identical expressions of watchful sympathy.
“But, that can’t be. I just saw her.” Tom said. The woman nodded fingered the brim of her hat, as if she’d expected him to say something like this, as if people claimed all the time that they’d talked and had sex with and slept with a dead person.
“I know it’s a shock, Mr. O’Brien. And I’m sorry to ask this at such a time but…we’re going to need you to come down and identify the body. Not right now,” she added hastily. “Later will be fine. You have some coffee, make some calls, do what you need to do.”
Both cops rose. The mustached one handed him a card. “When you’re ready, just give me a call at that number and we’ll meet you there.”
“When…when did it happen?” Tom asked.
“Some time last night. Near as we can tell. There wasn’t much traffic. With the dark and the rain – no one saw her go off the road. We’re sorry for your loss, Mr. O’Brien. You just call when you’re ready.”
The blonde nodded, the mustached one touched the brim of his hat. They left Tom sitting in his living room, which was brightening by swift degrees, the light pushing insistently under the shutters of his big picture window.
Jen had loved that window, with its old-fashioned mullioned panes. She had rhapsodized about what she had called the ‘period details’ of the house – the crown moldings and coffered ceilings and six-paneled doors – so much so that he sometimes wondered if he bought the house in self-defense, just to shut her up.
How could Jen be dead? He shook his head slowly. It couldn’t be true. They had it wrong – of course they did. Jen had been here last night, all night. Or, at least part of the night. They had the wrong woman.
A knock at the door. When Tom opened it the blonde cop was there, once again hatted and official-looking.
“We found this on the seat next to her,” she handed him a small, handled shopping bag – the same one Jen had brought in and set on the floor last night.
The cop shrugged. “Maybe it was for you.”
Tom took the bag without looking into it. “What if it’s not?”
She cleared her throat. “We’ll never know. But you were her boyfriend – of all people I’m sure she’d want you to have it. Go ahead, Mr. O’Brien. Keep it to remember her by.” She turned to leave.
“You’re sure..you’re sure it happened last night?” The bag hung from his fingers like a dead weight; whatever was in it was small and heavy.
The cop touched his shoulder. “Mr. O’Brien, she had a lot if internal injuries – she died pretty quick. I don’t think she suffered.”
“But…she laid there all night? You’re sure?”
The cop nodded. “Yes. I’m sorry, Mr. O’Brien. But don’t blame yourself. I don’t think anyone could have saved her, not even if they’d been there. It was an accident. Don’t torture yourself.”
He went back to the bedroom, but the story there was still the same; messed up on his side, smooth and untroubled on hers. There was no way to tell for sure if anyone had slept on her side of the bed.
Nine thirty. He’d been asleep at nine thirty…he’d fallen asleep waiting for her, right after talking to her on that damn cell phone she couldn’t live without. She’d dropped it, he remembered. Or lost the connection. Something like that. Then she’d come in around one, and they’d talked…..
But why was he standing here speculating? All he had to do was call her. She’d answer, he’d say Thank God you’re all right, then…..He tried to stop the next thought but it came anyway, as unstoppable as rain. He hated himself for it but was powerless to stop it: Then, of course, they’d be back together. Jen would see her chance and take it, and he’d be back to Square One….he’d be behind Square One, actually, all ground he’d gained would be lost.
He shook his head. This was no time to be thinking like that. The thing to do now was to call her, make sure she was OK. When she answered, he’d simply tell her what happened – that the cops had a case of mistaken identity, tell her that he was glad she was all right and that he wished her well, and hang up.
She didn’t answer.
So what, he told himself. It didn’t’ change anything. She was probably there, hiding under the covers, listening to him leaving a message, waiting for him to call again and again so that when he was finally frantic she’d have him right where she wanted him. Then and only then would she finally answer and make him feel first better, then worse, then the guilt would set in and by the end of the week he’d be lucky not to be engaged.
They have the wrong woman, he told himself. He didn’t need Jen to answer the phone to prove it, either. He could just go down to the morgue. No, that’s not her. Case closed. A thought hit him, making him smile: then he wouldn’t have to call her again, would he?
Feeling more cheerful, he called the cop for the address and made arrangements to meet them there – it was in the next town, five exits from his own off Highway 47. He drove his Volvo slowly, part of him clinging steadfastly to the idea that they had the wrong woman, it couldn’t be Jen, couldn’t be – he’d seen her, talked with her, slept with her, all of it well after nine, and she had been fine. More than fine, he thought with a quick rush of heat at the memory of her pliancy, her glowing ivory skin.
They definitely had the wrong woman. He felt a complicated relief at this, a relief he didn’t examine too closely. Of course he was glad she was alive…it had been horrible, those first few moments, thinking she was dead.
Just ahead, before his exit, there was a road blockage of some sort. Tim slowed down, his Volvo creeping at nearly walking speed past two tow trucks and a fire truck. Men stood about on the wet, sandy shoulder of the road, looking down toward the woods below. As he drove by, Tom could just glimpse the huddled wreck at the base of a tree, marked off with yellow police tape. A red car, impossible to tell the make and model, wrapped as it was around the trunk of the tree.
No way anyone survived that, Tom thought. They must have already taken the people away. He paused mid-thought, his foot lifting off the accelerator.
Jen had a red car.
He shrugged. Doesn’t mean a thing, he told himself. You saw her, remember that. You saw her.
Tom was alone with the man – doctor? Cop? Tom didn’t know – in the white coat. They stood in front of a row of handled metal drawers. Behind him was a mirror; behind that, the cops from this morning watched as the man in the white coat tugged at one of the handles. A stainless steel drawer slid easily on it’s rails; the sheeted figure was small.
Tom felt his hands grow cold.
The man in the white coat lifted the sheet daintily by it’s corners and peeled it slowly downward, revealing the dark hair, shallow brow, wide nose, full red lips and dimpled chin of…Jen.
The man in the white coat looked at him questioningly.
“It’s her,” Tom muttered. “Jesus, it’s really her.”
He took a step back, and then another. The man in the white coat was talking to him, but Tom couldn’t hear him. He watched his lips move, just to be polite. The man in the white coat gave him some paper work to sign; Tom signed it. And then he was outside in the sun, blinking, belief and unbelief coiled like snakes around the caduceus of his heart.
Jen was dead.
He couldn’t get past the thought; it sat in his brain, blocking all other avenues of thought like one of those monolithic faces on Easter Island, impassive and impassable. He had to have thought something else, of course. He didn’t drive around for eleven hours, and spend two parked outside of her darkened house, thinking only Jen is dead. But if he thought anything else he couldn’t remember it.
He arrived home around ten that night. He poured himself a glass of wine and sat in the living room, not bothering with the light. And now the thoughts that had been hypnotized into silence by the mind-numbing hum of car wheels on wet pavement stepped forward to argue amongst themselves.
But if that were true…what about last night? How could she have been here, if she’d died at ten?
His mind tried to present him with a gruesome image – that of Jen, pale and bloodied, climbing the embankment and plodding slowly down the highway toward his house, where he waited in his darkened living room with the news of their break—up coiled like a snake in his mouth.
He shook his head, clearing the image away. No, no way. The cops had the time wrong, that was all. She didn’t die at ten and lay there all night getting stiff and cold – she died this morning, after leaving here.
This was plausible, and his heart seemed to resume something like a normal rhythm for the first time since the man in the white coat had peeled back the sheet to reveal Jen’s cold, immobile face.
If he concentrated, he could even see it: while he’d slept the uncomplicated, blissed-out sleep of sex, Jen had risen, dressed, and washed up in the bathroom, all the while making enough noise to wake him so they could ‘talk’ (Do you love me? I thought you loved me.). When he hadn’t, she had slammed out of the house and driven home in an emotional state, lost control on the wet pavement….yes. It could have happened that way.
It could have, but it didn’t.
But there was no other logical explanation.
Not logical, no.
But he was getting tired again, and drifted off to sleep.
He dreamt he was sitting at a restaurant with Jen. He was going to break up with her, but wait until dessert – no point in spoiling her meal. And she looked so lovely tonight, her skin so creamy pale and smooth in the candlelight. In his nervousness he was doing all the talking, and for a wonder she wasn’t interrupting or otherwise annoying him.
She simply sat there quietly, her eyes resting on him like two pale, cool blue weights. When he finally started the speech – Look Jen, it’s not you, it’s me – she opened her mouth and he thought for sure the recriminations would start (I thought you loved me) but instead of words she uttered a shrill musical tweeting. Confused, he could only say “What?”
She looked at him beseechingly and emitted the same tweeting sound. That was when he realized that, in this dream anyway, tweeting was her way of crying.
Jen,” he begged her. “Don’t do this.”
But in answer all she did was tweet again.
He woke and took a moment to place himself. His living room. It took a bit longer to identify the reason for the weight on his heart, but after a moment or too he could – Jen was dead. Or was she?
The tweeting came again.
Confused, he snapped on the lamp next to the couch and looked around. Had that sound been in his dream, or his actual living room?
The tweeting came again, answering his question. He swiveled his head left, then right and quickly located the source in mid-tweet: it was coming from the small red handled bag the woman cop had told him to take.
He peered into the bag and saw a box. He pulled the box out and nearly screamed and dropped it when it tweeted in his hands – tweeted and vibrated, as if it were alive.
It was a cell phone, still nestled in it’s Styrofoam forms inside the box. As he stared, the LED display at the top of the small oblong shape glowed into life. A tweet sounded simultaneously. It was ringing – what passed for a ring in cell-phone-land, anyway.
He studied the phone a minute, then pressed a button that read “Send”. He put the pone to his ear and said into the faintly crackling silence:
“Hello? Whos’ there?”
He should have been shocked at what happened next, but he wasn’t. Hadn’t he really been expecting this all along? Ever since Jen had shown up at his apartment hours late, stunned into silence, and cold as a marble tomb?
“Hi Tom.” Her voice was both muffled and echoey – the drawer, he supposed.
“Hi Jen” Then, because he didn’t know what else to say (but felt strongly that he should say something): “How are you?”
She was quiet. There was no sound of breathing on the other end…because, of course there wasn’t any breathing on the other end.
“Are you ready yet?” she asked, so softly he almost didn’t hear her.
“What do you mean? “ he asked her. “Ready for what?”
“Marriage,” came her whisper, elusive as a night breeze. He felt the sweat on his forehead turn cold. “Babies….”
“Not yet, Jen,” he told her. “I told you…it’s not you, it’s me.”
“….thought you loved me….”
The line went dead.
It wasn’t until after he brushed his teeth, checked his email and wrote checks for the bills due the next week that it hit him, what had happened. He went to bed and no matter how many covers he pulled over himself – a sheet, a blanket, the comforter, an extra quilt – he shook.
The next morning he had a hard time convincing himself it had really happened. He read the dense little instruction manual that came with the phone, learning it’s features – the call log, which recorded every number he called or that called him. The voice mailbox. Automatic Redial. Amount of contract minutes remaining. He tried them all – and each time was met with a smooth blank electronic silence. There was no record of a call received, or contract minutes used in a conversation.
That same day he visited the store where she’d probably bought the phone – it was the mall just outside of town – and cancelled his contract. He tried to give return the phone, but the Customer Care Representative had shruggingly handed it back.
“Sorry, sir, the customer is responsible for disposal of the phone.”
“You guys don’t recycle these?” he’d asked, to which the Representative had laughed. “They’re made in China. About a dime a dozen. The cell phone companies make their money on the contracts – they practically give the phones away.”
So he had a phone, but no contract. He tossed the phone into his glove box and forgot about it. Still, he wasn’t completely surprised when the next call came.
It was six months after the funeral. He was at lunch with a date when the phone twittered. At first he didn’t answer it – it had only rung that one time, and though he’d never truly forgotten that he had the phone, he had almost forgotten what it could do.
The phone twittered again, and all around their table people absently patted their pockets and opened their purses. With an apologetic look at his date, he excused himself from the table and made his way to the lobby of the restaurant. There he took his place among three other cell phone users, each talking animatedly into dark little oblongs pressed to their ears.
This time, the voice at the other end was harder to understand, the vocal chords having eroded somewhat. The flat echoey quality of the morgue drawer was replaced with the thick, listening silence of a house whose walls and ceiling and floor were made of earth. Despite all of this (and despite the creeping horror that slid up his spine and wrapped itself around the base of his throat and squeezed) he still heard her, still understood her:
“Ah oo eh-ee eh?”
He heard his own voice as if from very far away. “Ready for what, Jen?”
“No, Jen. Not yet.”
“ih oo. Ah ee.”
“Yes Jen. It’s me, not you.”
He waited, but there was no more. He thumbed the phone off and sat in the foyer of the restaurant. Around him the diners continued their conversations…some with actual people, some with their cell phones.
He could see it, then, as clearly as he could see his date swiveling her neat blonde head, looking for him. She was a nice girl.: pretty, accomplished, athletic. They had only been on three dates, but he felt a real connection, something he’d never had with Jen. She could even be the one. He caught her eye and she waved, smiling…but her eyes looked puzzled, ready to be hurt.
She was wondering why he’d answer a call during their date, a date that had been going very well so far. He thought her eyes would look just that way when he took the next call, and the next….maybe they’d be at the movies, or on the beach. Maybe even at a dinner party, or in bed. Maybe even at a birthday party for a child, a son, their second. He could see this…. when he was ready, of course. Given time.
With time, the voice at the other end would become more guttural, more indistinct as decay did its work on the soft tissues of her mouth, tongue and larynx…even, eventually, bone. In time there would be no voice at all, just the susurration of air through teeth, a rhythm of ghost words to which he would always say the same thing.
Maybe, with time, he would even be able to say it without feeling like screaming:
No, it’s not you. It’s me.