By Eduard Tatomir
The phone rang from across the room, 15 — no 1500 — yards away. It was vibrating off the hook, shaking the house. I could feel it in my throat. I could feel it in my heart.
It’s been years since I left New York. The intensity of the city just grew too much for me. Maybe it was the sleepless nights, the early mornings. Or maybe it was people — how many there were, how crass they were, how ruthless they were. As though I’m any better. I’ve become just like them over the years. The city changes you. I can’t quite put my finger on when, but it did. My father warned me before I left, tried to stop me when I told him. He said I’d hate it, that it’s not my kind of place, that I wouldn’t find anyone there like me. He was right about one thing.
The second ring was even louder than the first. It echoed down the street and through my neighbourhood.
I used to get vertigo from the skyscrapers — being inside them, looking down, and being below them, looking up. It was dizzying, New York. I never quite felt connected to the earth below me, because it wasn’t there. It was nothing but concrete or stone or carpet or tile. I could’ve gone months without feeling dirt beneath my feet or seeing greenery in the trees above me. But one thing made it better.
The third and fourth rings bled together. I’d almost tuned them out. I stood up to answer before it stopped. Because I knew it was you and I couldn’t not pick up.
When I picked the phone up off the hook, I had to hold it with both hands to keep it up. Had it always weighed a tonne, or was I just getting weaker? I heard a car go by on the other end.
“Hello?” you said, as though you were the one that answered.
I cleared my throat away from the receiver, “Hello.”
“I’m sorry, do I have the right number?” You sounded just like you did the first time you called; somber, telling me you needed to drive to LA, that you needed to see me. What about? You didn’t say. You never say.
“Yes, it’s me, John. Where are you now?”
“Riverside. I pulled into a truck stop to dial.”
“That’s not too far,” my fingers slipped through the coiled wire. “That’s not too far at all. When can I expect you?”
Silence, but the call didn’t disconnect. I heard another car going by on the wet road. You sniffled away from the phone, a deep breath.
“An hour at the most,” you said.
My ring tapped the receiver. “Everything all right, John?”
“Oh absolutely, Lana. Absolutely. I’ll see you soon.”
You didn’t sound the same. I heard it. The neighbours heard it. The cats in the yard heard it. Something’s changed with you. I thought perhaps I was imagining things from our first call — I chalked it up to you being tired from the stockyards.
Now it’s undeniable.
I hope everything’s okay, John. I’ll only know when you arrive, so please hurry.
I made a spread. Cheeses and hams, bread and crackers. You’re always hungry. Even when you tell me you’re not. I cooked for two every evening, despite the protests.
An hour had passed. Then two. Then three. Sunset came and went. I worried. It wasn’t like you to be this late. What if something happened? What if you got in an accident? I didn’t know who to call. I didn’t have a number. All I could do was wait.
And before I knew it, I’d fallen asleep on the couch in the flower-print summer dress I put on for you, hugging a throw pillow, with my heels kicked off under the coffee table.
Knocking at the front door woke me up. Tilly meowed at me. I checked the clock, half-past midnight. It couldn’t be you. You wouldn’t be this late.
I peered through the window, but it was too dark to see.
“Who is it?” I asked.
I opened the door, and it really was you. Soaked from the rain — it looked as though you walked here. Your car wasn’t in the driveway and you reeked of alcohol.
“Oh John, what happened?”
You cleared your throat. “My car broke down.”
I stood in the doorway as you made your way to the couch and sat down.
“Is that so?” I asked, shutting the door behind him.
The rain stopped for a moment. Everything did. Even the cats stood still.
“So, if I took a match to your mouth you wouldn’t breathe fire?”
You looked over at me, eyes drooping. “I’m sorry.”
“Christ, you’re such a dick, John. I don’t know what I was expecting when you called. I thought maybe something had happened, that maybe you changed.” I pulled out a cigarette.
I lit it up and took a drag. Then another. My entire body ached for it, as though I were starved. I hadn’t smoked in four months, but that streak didn’t matter anymore.
“That was foolish of me to think. You’re still the same old man child,” I said.
He looked away, at the floor, through the earth, and into the galaxy on the other side of it. Tilly meowed at him.
I waited for him to speak, to move, to blink. Nothing. I put the cigarette out and walked over to the fridge.
“You know what this reminds me of? That time at Rockefeller when you got pissed with the Hardy brothers.” I opened a bottle of wine.
One of the good ones — I was saving it for something special.
“It was your birthday, so I didn’t say anything, but you were such a tool that night, and every time you drink, which only seems to be on the days you want to forget.”
I poured myself a glass and it went down like silk. “You always make such an ass out of yourself. You always get so ugly.”
I slammed the glass in the sink. It cracked.
“And what was all that on the phone about you needing to come see me? Huh? Driving all the way down here from New York for days just to get wasted on the last stretch? Then lying to me about it? The hell’s the matter with you? What was the point of all this?”
I turned back around to face you, “I mean, tell me, what was the point…” only to see that your head was now bobbing in your hands.
I’d never seen you shed a tear in my life. I’m sure God could say the same.
Tilly curled up next to you and began purring. Sunny swept your leg.
When I sat next to you, the act started and old John tried to return. You cleared your throat, you covered your eyes, you stood up and away from me. You did everything you could so I wouldn’t know what you’d just done.
Your hand was on your mouth, as though you’d uttered a slur.
How many times have you hidden this from me?
“You’re right, Lana, I’m sorry.”
You rubbed your eyes until they were raw. “No, everything you said was true. I shouldn’t have come tonight. This was a bad idea.” You made your way to the door. “Forgive me.”
You opened it into the storm and stood there for a moment, shivering. The wall of water had you trapped. That’s when you dropped your defences.
You kept repeating, “I shouldn’t have come, I shouldn’t have come, I shouldn’t have come.”
My words of reassurance were drowned out by your repetitions. You fell to the floor crying and I fell with you. We sat there together in a puddle of your tears until you were ready; until you finally spoke.
You asked me, “why did you leave New York?”
All the air left my lungs. There were a million things I wanted to say, but only one that mattered.
“Because I couldn’t take it there anymore. The cold, the grey, the hardness of it all. It changed me, for the worse.” You didn’t move. “Why do you ask?”
“Because I don’t think I can take it anymore, either. I don’t have anyone.”
I pulled him close. “You still have me.”
“You’re gone, Lana. It’s all gone.”
“Nothing’s gone. No one’s gone.”
You rested your head on my shoulder, it fit perfectly, and we just listened to the rain hit the roof.
“I’m always going to be right here,” I whispered in your ear. “No one’s going anywhere.”
I wish I could’ve pushed the subject, I wish I did, but I wasn’t about to take a mile when you only gave me an inch.
I made up the couch and you stayed the night. No way I was letting you go anywhere in your state.
I thought you’d pass out quick, but you laid there with your eyes open and Tilly cuddling you while I turned out the lights and closed the blinds.
“Lana,” you said.
“I have?” I asked. You nodded.
I sat on the cushion next to you and, even though that was the closest I was to your face all night, you felt so far away.
You left before sunrise. I never found out why you came, or why you were crying, or where you went. I had no number to call, no address to visit, and the operator has no correspondence with the last name I provided her.
You disappeared, and the only note you left behind was an apology for the intrusion. As though there was one. I only wanted to know what happened to you and why you came that night. You held back, to the point of falling apart, and then vanished.
My mother always said that’s how good men disappear — they keep quiet until they reach their breaking points. Then, they’re gone forever.
“Why?” I remember asking her that sunny afternoon after dad’s wake. I was only 11. “Why do they do that?”
“Because that’s what they’re told their whole lives,” she responded as she was washing all the dishes in the house. Even the clean ones. “That they’re wrong for feeling sad, feeling vulnerable, feeling depressed, hell… feeling anything at all. So, they don’t. Then, they break.
And then they’re gone for good.”
I don’t want you to end up like my father, John. I don’t want you to be gone for good. If you’re reading this, I want you to know I’ve never moved and I’ve never changed numbers, and I don’t plan to.
I’m always going to be right here.
No one’s going anywhere.