Finally, we’re at the last lesson. I hope this piece fit the brief. My last lesson 6, I had a comment that it wasn’t a short story but a chapter in a longer one so this time, I kept that in mind.
The phone inside the flat rang as I sat crumpled on Rafaella’s patio. The morning glory flowers snaking along the trellis next to me were still unfurled but the backs of my thighs were already plastered to the patio chair. A sultry breeze kissed my face, tasted my heart in the dampness on my cheeks.
My head lay limp on the chair back; my eyes squeezed shut as I worked to silence the shrill ring. I’d closed the screen doors when I left my cold bed, but left the outer glass sliding door slightly ajar. Before today, I’d always remembered to close both. I let the phone continue to ring, hesitant to leave my temporary refuge.
It’s strange how you could be thisclose to a person one day and the next, hate their guts, wish you’d never met them. Sam and I epitomised this. My heart started racing and I breathed in through my nose, inflated my lungs and exhaled, contracting my abdominal muscles so that my stomach would concave. Although, concave was an optimistic description of the landscape of my stomach at that moment. I repeated this five more times until I felt my muscles relaxed.
Weary of the unrelenting ringing, I dragged myself from the chair, pulling on the roots sprouting from my feet. The action pinched and I let myself relish the pleasurable pain. My hand was a fingertip away from the sliding door when the ringing stopped. The sudden silence ballooned and my ears felt like it would pop. I dropped my hand and stood there; relief and disappointment washed through me in equal measure.
I returned to the chair I’d vacated only moments before and let the honeyed fragrance of frangipanis that wafted from Susan’s house next door assailed my senses.
Frangipanis, they make me feel melancholy. Sam and I had our first real conversation beneath a frangipani tree. The pure white ones, not the pink. I wanted to move away because my grandfather, once told me that frangipanis were guardians of the dead and this was why they were prolific in cemeteries. Sam didn’t sense my discomfort though and sat down on the curb. He grabbed my hand, pulled me down beside him and asked me how come the auntie charges me half price for the bowl of noodles at the corner coffee shop. I laughed, forgetting for a moment that I was beneath a frangipani tree, and gave him the first piece of my heart. And my phone number too.
Unsurprisingly, my thoughts drifted to the phone – its beige shell with faded grey buttons, the numbers barely discernible. It was already in the flat when I moved in.
“Does this work?” I asked Rafaella, using my forefinger to write my initials in the layer of dust that encased the phone.
“Yes, yes. You use this, okay, no buy new one,” she replied.
Eventually, I learnt that the beige phone belonged to a previous tenant, a messy fellow, Rafaella informed with a grimace, who kept his unwashed underwear in the dishwasher. I never used the dishwasher since.
Sam was the first person I’d called 18 months ago, when I unpacked the last of my clothing from my purple suitcase, folded them and placed it in the second drawer from the top in the dresser Rafaella had left in the flat.
We’d been inseparable for almost two years, best friends for nearly twice that long. The decision to try this long distance relationship had been an uneasy but necessary one. In the end, I’d promised not to plant roots here and to soar back to him when I was done. My wings were ready to sprout from my back.
“Thank you.” Sam’d said. His gratitude kept me warm during the Canadian winter and beyond. His hello, that first phone call after I’d settled in, was initially tentative, but once he’d learnt it was me, our exchange filled with I miss yous and I love yous. His husky murmurs intoxicated me.
Over the next few months, the beige phone was as vital to me as sunlight to cacti.
I remembered sultry nights on my couch-slash-bed, the receiver supported between my ear and shoulder, as we spoke softly of our Future Plans.
“A Short Engagement,” he said. “Ephemeral.”
“A Small Wedding.” I insisted. “And we’ll ask the green hummingbirds from my parent’s garden to gift us a tune!” I was overwhelmed with Wedding Ideas. I’d never been happier.
The two-inch crack on the right side of the phone was a scar from our last conversation. I missed Sam immensely and tired of seeing him only in my monochromatic dreams.
“Come visit me,” I asked.
“You’re too far,” he demurred, “and anyway, absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
I slammed the phone down and the crack appeared.
The beige phone was silent throughout the night and deep into the next day, and I reviled that contraption of torture. However, the following sunset, it rang.
Sam had had a sleepless night too. He loved me, he declared. And he was foolish, he admitted. I held back my recriminations including every teardrop that had threatened to burst forth from within. It was only when I felt his weeping seep through the receiver that I finally felt safe enough to unleash my anguish.
“Us. Our love, it’s getting difficult,” I confessed.
“I know.” Sam muttered.
I loved the phone again. But the romance was short-lived.
It was Sam’s idea to take turns to call every Friday. Having a schedule and following it, he explained, meant there’d be little chance of missing one another. He’d called several times before, he complained, in a gentle way, and was exasperated when his calls were unanswered. I’d laughed. He wasn’t amused.
It was Thursday, the day before my turn to call. I had good news; my thesis proposal was accepted with the utmost joy! My dear beige phone beckoned to me the entire day: be spontaneous! Call him! Delight coursed through me as I succumbed and dialed his number.
His phone rang.
Where was he? Out? In class? No, it was too early where he was. I was ready to hang up when I heard the familiar click of the phone being answered. Immediately, I launched into my Hellos and How are yous before Sam could greet me.
When I eventually stopped to catch my breath, I heard only silence. Not even the sound of his breath.
“Hello?” I began again.
“Who is this?” A sleepy female voice asked.
My hand froze around the receiver. Ice formed, and broke, then reformed in my heart. An avalanche buried the world I’d built with him, deep inside me.
My ear still pressed against the handset, I heard the rustle of sheets and then Sam’s voice in the background “Babe, don’t!”
My Happy Ever After was swiftly evaporating but my mind was fixated on Sam’s voice when he uttered Babe. He’d never called me Babe. I was always either Eva or Dear, or when he was being especially affectionate, Honey. I hoarded the Honeys, all seventeen of them during our time together, in the world inside me.
I laid the receiver down gently and another crack appeared. I loathed the phone. Detested it. I wanted it damaged, for its body to reflect the wreckage inside me.
Eventually, I slept, but perhaps it was just that I passed out from a broken heart.
It was Friday morning and the sky was gradually being filled with mammatus clouds pregnant with rain. The beige phone rang.
It was him. I was sure. He’d attempt to placate me and tell me it was a momentary lapse. He’d tell me that I was the only woman he’d ever loved. His words had power to melt the ice that encased my heart, but I’d always remember that he’d never called me Babe.
I tuned into the papery rustling of leaves that meandered through the air. New roots erupted from my feet and burrowed into the ground, anchoring me to this place. I gritted my teeth against the sharp pain. Inside my flat, the phone continued to ring. The ring slowly became part of the symphony of my life and memory by memory, the happy days fled.