The phone company used to give phone books away free. People think I'm kidding when I say they delivered thirty big boxes full of phone books to my apartment door. All four hundred of them are stacked in milk crates against my living room wall. I stole the milk crates from work.
I sit on the floor, flip through the pages, and dial. It's important to have a name connected with a voice. Mann, Horace M. Tucker, Sarah P. Even if that isn't their name, I can pretend. So I spend my evenings searching for interesting names in the shadowy light of the aquarium and push buttons on the phone.
There's always a moment of anxiety while it's ringing. I sit with the phone crooked, twisting the cord around my finger, watching my fish swim back and forth, my breath shallow and turning to glass in my throat when I hear a voice…
I think I've heard every possible way a human being can say that word.
It's just a game at first. Any name-connected with a voice-male, female, old, young. Just a voice. I don't need to talk. People just say "hello" a few times and hang up. Sometimes they say "hello" and wait, as if expecting a response.
But I never talk.
And I never, ever hang up first.
Some of them take it on as a contest of wills, but I just like the idea of being connected with someone. Eventually, they all grow tired of waiting and hang up-but I cling to that silence until they do. I like knowing the names, but sometimes I just push random buttons, a sort of connection lottery. Once I called California and tried to imagine the warmth.
I don't tell anyone about it. I know I would just get those strange and steady looks, like the one the UPS guy gave me when he delivered my phone books. I think he thought I was insane. That's okay. Sometimes I think so too.
* * *
I live in a one-bedroom apartment with fish I named after the seven dwarves and four more I named after the Monkees. I wanted to name them after the Beatles, but couldn't, because John and George are dead. I named my first fish Martin, after Martin Luther King Jr. He died. I held a mini-funeral for him and cried when I had to send him into the unknown world of the sewers.
I like funerals. They make me feel. I remember my father's funeral. I didn't cry, but my mother did. In fact, she carried the theatrics so far she collapsed in the funeral home during the service. I know it sounds unfair, but she always found some way to steal my father's spotlight, even when he was dead.
Every time I think of the funeral, I see her blushing as she lifted her wedding dress higher on her slim leg, pretending to be so pure. I stood up in the wedding in a pale pink dress that was also my formal for senior prom. Clyde wore plaid pants and smoked cigars through the whole reception.
Everything with my mother is pretending. She's like an aging, dark-haired Barbie doll. I don't like her much, and I know she doesn't like me, either, so that's okay. She'll never accept my decision to leave college. And she thinks I loved my father more than her. She's right.
My mother…I think she's the one person in the state that I haven't called in the past two-and-a-half years.
* * *
I listen to Bob Dylan in the dark. He makes me think. He teaches me in a rough, monotone voice-a true poet.
I left college because I didn't learn anything. The whole thing reminded me too much of high school. I opted to save my time and their money. Now I listen to Bob Dylan and study the back of his Highway 61 Revisited album.
"The WIPE-OUT GANG buys, owns and runs the Insanity Factory-if you don't know where the Insanity Factory is located you should hereby take two steps to the right, paint your teeth, and go to sleep."
I wonder if he's ever peeked inside the Insanity Factory, or felt that the WIPE-OUT GANG was coming after him at the speed of light, like I have?
* * *
Finding Seth one night is a complete and total accident-just another phone call.
"City Morgue," the voice says. "You kill 'em, we chill 'em."
"What?" The word startles out of me before I can even think. I put a hand over my mouth, staring at Sneezy through the aquarium glass.
"I'm kidding." There's laughter in the voice. "This is Seth." When I don't answer, he asks, "Hello? You still there?"
Of course, I am, but I'm not about to answer. It's the first time in two years that I've said anything over the phone to another human being.
"Sorry, just a joke. Who's this?"
I twist the phone cord around my finger, trying not to breathe.
"Cathy? Is it you?"
I jump when he says my name and a small sound escapes my throat. It takes me a moment to realize he isn't talking to me. He just knows another Cathy, that's all.
"Which one of us do you want?" Seth asks. "Come on, it was just a joke! Who is this?"
I wait for this to end. I know it will-I just have to wait for it.
"Cathy, if it's you…"
I close my eyes, wanting to hang up, but still waiting for him to hang up first.
"Cathy, I mean it! Hello?"
He's getting angry. I hold my breath. He'll hang up soon. They hang up when they get angry. I wait. I never hang up first and I'm not going to start now.
Of course, up until now, I've never said anything, either.
"Who is this?" he asks again. "Look, Tom's down at Bennett Hall, Steve's out with Jen at the Brown Jug and Will's at the Union. Okay? So if it isn't me you want to talk to, you're out of luck, anyway."
The Brown Jug?
Too many coincidences-here I am, through some weird synchronicity, connected with my past, five hundred miles and half a state away. Now I'm desperate to hang up and break the connection, but the habit is too ingrained. He has to hang up first-and soon.
"Hey, do you need someone to talk to?" His voice turns gentle. "Is this a…a cry for help?" I pull the phone away to stare at it, but I can still hear him. "Hey, I'm here if you need someone…"
"Fuck you!" I'm too indignant to think about not talking anymore. "Who do you think you are? Freud?"
"No. Seth." There's laughter in his voice again. "Who is this?"
"…God." I tell him after a pause, and hang up.
* * *
I don't make any more phone calls that week. But finally I can't help redialing the number again.
"Hello?" It's him. And I can't find my voice. "Hello? Who is this?"
"Me." I clear my throat. "Me…God."
"Oh, it's you!" He laughs.
"Are you busy?"
"That depends. Are you going to talk to me?"
"I have to admit, I'm curious," Seth says. "Who are you? I mean really. Do I know you?"
"You can if you want to."
There's a brief silence and I hear Bob Dylan in the background singing "Lay Lady Lay." Maybe it's a sign.
"Hold on." Faintly: "Hey, Will, can you get out of there, man? I've got a private phone call."
Waiting, I almost hang up, but I don't. Maybe that proves something. I don't know. I'm not Freud.
"Thanks, man," Seth says. I hear a door shut, and Dylan is drowned out. "Okay."
"An old girlfriend of mine."
"Who are you?"
"My name's Cathy, too."
"Do you go to U of M?"
"I used to." I knock on the aquarium glass at Doc, who, with a swish of his tail, sails down to the other end of the tank. "A few million years ago."
"Yeah? You're that old, huh?"
"How old do you think God is?"
He laughs. "Are you a friend of a friend or something? Did I meet you at a party?"
"How did you get my number?"
I tell him the truth. "I just pushed a few buttons and there you were."
"No kidding?" He sounds stunned. "Did you misdial?"
"Huh." He's quiet for a moment. "Well, that's weird!" I contemplate hanging up again. "Congratulations! I think you might be weirder than I am!"
"Believe me, I welcome the competition! There should be more of us weirdoes, you know. We make life interesting."
I laugh. I don't think we've stopped talking since.
* * *
Leaning against a windowpane, watching the rain fall in a pale circle of orange florescent light, I stand with the phone against my ear.
"Cathy, do you believe in God?"
"Sometimes I do."
"I think God was made up so that no one would be afraid of dying."
"You don't believe in God?"
"I don't think so."
"Are you afraid to die?"
"… yes. Kind of."
"Then maybe you're right."
* * *
I'm on the floor in the warmth of a sunbeam, listening to the long, low whistle of a train in the distance.
"When I was little, I thought that the stars were holes that God had cut into the sky so that the sun could shine through at night."
"You had a pretty amazing imagination when you were little, Seth."
"I know. Don't you hate being grown up?"
"I hate pretending I am."
* * *
Curled up next to the refrigerator, I feel protected in the small space as painful subjects and old fears loom and stretch icy fingers in my direction.
"What did you get on your SATs, Cath?"
"You tell me first."
"980, combined. You?"
"Holy shit! That's sixty points shy of a perfect score! No wonder you got a full-paid scholarship here! I don't get it. Why are you wasting your life?"
I snort. "You've been programmed to think that. School isn't living. School's for people who want to be told what to do."
"You know what I think?" His voice is soft. "I think you're afraid."
Tears sting my eyes. "I tried once already. I couldn't be who they wanted me to be."
"You're afraid of getting hurt." His compassion and accuracy make me wince. "But what you're doing isn't living, and it's awfully lonely."
I stiffen, gripping the receiver. "Alone and lonely are two totally different things."
"I know, babe, but you're both."
* * *
I don't make hang-up calls anymore. I haven't since Seth, anyway, and that's eight months.
"Easter Break," Seth says first thing. "Can I come see you?"
He sounds so nonchalant, but my heart leaps. How do I say no?
"Where will you stay?"
"Well…" He laughs. "I was hoping I could stay with you."
"It's next week," he says. My eyes close, and I take a deep breath. "Cath? You still with me?"
"I'm here." He and I have never met face to face. In eight months of phone calls, we have never met.
I open my eyes, seeing the peanut butter jar through prisms. "Sure. I'll give you directions."
* * *
After cleaning the apartment top to bottom, it takes me three long hours to lug the milk crates full of phone books down to the dumpster and toss them in. I ache all over when I'm through and there is a huge, empty white space on the wall where they have been stacked. There are two phone books left under my end table-one for my area and one for Seth's.
Then I put on Bob Dylan singing Angelina and sit on front of the aquarium, waiting. I watch Davey and Dopey and company swim around their little world until I hear the garbage truck outside. Then I go to the door wall and watch as the dumpster is lifted, and then set back down again, empty. I watch and wonder why I'm crying.
* * *
I call my mother a day before Seth is suppose to arrive. I don't know why, but I call her. It's like unfinished business. Clyde answers the phone and then goes into a coughing fit.
"Hello. May I speak with my mother, please, Clyde?" If it's one thing I am with Clyde, it's polite.
"Catherine?" He clears his throat.
"Just a moment." I wait as he goes to get her.
"Cathy?" It's my mother's voice, soft and concerned. If I close my eyes, I can see her, dark hair, thick like mine, pulled back into the girlish ponytail she likes to wear around the house. I find myself wondering if there was a time when I felt genuine love for my mother. Once, I think, after I'd scraped all the skin from both knees taking a dive in my roller skates. She wiped away my tears and called me "Lovey." I felt something, then… It's the only time I can recall. "Is something wrong? Are you okay?"
"Fine." My voice is hoarse. Her tone brings my memory into focus, and I feel her hand on my cheek, her brow wrinkled, the lines around her eyes only faint then, like scratches on silverware, her voice concerned as she asked, "Are you okay?"
"I just wanted to see how you were doing."
"Fine…we're both fine." And of course, she has to bring Clyde into it.
"I'm glad." I grip the phone and try to sound cheerful. "Well, that's all. I'll be seeing you."
"Cathy, wait!" I wait. "I heard about your job. Your new one." She clears her throat. "I just wanted to tell you…I think it's terrific."
I laugh. "Because I'm typing in an office instead of working in a supermarket? A job is a job, Mother. I still don't have a college education."
"It sounds like you haven't changed a bit."
Weary, I say, "Ditto."
"Why did you really call?" she asks. "You haven't been interested in my life for years, why start now?"
I stare at the phone. "Interested in your life?" A long silence stretches. I shake my head and sigh. "I called to see if I still had any feelings left for you," I tell her, realizing it as the truth.
"Pity, Mother. That's about it."
I replace the receiver, make my way to the bathroom, shed my clothes, and get into the shower. I'm kneeling in the tub, letting water mix with my tears, when I hear the phone ring. I don't answer it. It stops after six rings and, for some reason, I cry harder.
* * *
My hair is pulled back into a ponytail, and I sit barefoot and cross-legged on the couch, wearing a black velvet dress and watching the door. He is fifteen minutes late, and when he knocks, I'm afraid to answer.
"Cathy?" It's his voice, all right, only it's close, much closer than it's ever been.
"Hi." I peek through the crack I've made in the door. He's holding a bag that says Adidas on the side, carrying a guitar case over his shoulder and wearing jeans, a red shirt, and a blue-jean jacket.
"Cathy." It's not a question, just my name, soft and sweet, like he knows me. "Can I come in?"
I step back and swing the door open wider. He comes inside, setting his stuff down. I shut the door and lean against it. He looks around, his eyes settling back on me.
"It's nice." He nods.
I smile a little. "Thank you. So are you." I bite my lip.
"Come here." He stretches an arm out. I drift toward him and he takes my hand. The response is instant and total, and I look down at our hands together in wonder, and then up at his face. He is serious, his eyes on mine. He takes my other hand and stands looking down at me, his breath warm on my face.
"Hi," he whispers. "I'm Seth."
"I'm God," I whisper back. "Nice to meet you."
He laughs and hugs me. I put my arms around him and close my eyes, marveling at the human contact, letting the warmth envelop us.
"I've waited so long to do this," he says into my hair.
"Too long," I reply. His arms tighten around me.
* * *
I sit in front of my quiet aquarium wearing a bra and panties, looking into the secret world of fish. My hair feels silky across my arms as I hug my knees to my chest.
"Cath?" I look up and see him wearing a pair of green plaid sleep shorts. "Are you okay?"
I don't answer but marvel, as he puts his arm around me and leans his head against mine, that he is here at all. "I called my mother yesterday. She hates me."
"No." He strokes my hair. "No one could hate you."
I shrug, watching Doc poke around some plastic seaweed. I put my head on his shoulder, an already familiar gesture.
"Are you sorry you let me stay?"
"No." I kiss his collarbone. "I was just afraid."
"That you wouldn't like me, I guess." We sit in the dimness, listening to the gurgle of the aquarium. "Seth?"
"Do you ever get depressed?"
He squeezes me. "Not too often."
"Because I like myself." He smiles-I have fallen in love with his smile-and he kisses me, tender and lingering.
I am too small to contain what I feel.