Before I even dialed the numbers, I imagined what would happen when you looked down at your phone, buzzing softly across the table, and saw my name. I even briefly wondered if you had removed my name from your contacts at some point, and would have seen only the number. Deleting me seemed too harsh in its finality, and not really like you, but even if it had only been the number — I imagined you would have recognized it. We see the same numbers so often, hear them repeated, that even if we couldn’t produce them on command, we know what they look like. The landscape of digits forms a sort of painting in our mind — a few sevens followed by a four — that conjures up as much an image as a name might. I thought about you seeing me pop up on the tiny, crystal-clear screen, and felt a fleeting wave of nausea.
It was hard not to consider where you were at that moment, what you would have been doing. When we call someone, we’re inevitably poking our noses unexpectedly into a life that is very much in the process of being lived. They’re out at a bar, they’re having a serious conversation, they’re watching a movie. There is something going on that you are now interrupting, and though it’s not a crime to tap them on the shoulder, the moment you walk into changes everything about the conversation. I thought of how embarrassed I would be if you had picked up with sharp, shouted bar talk filling the room behind you. If you were surrounded by friends, by opportunity, by everything that I didn’t want to think about — how would I talk to you? You telling me, “I can’t hear you, can you speak up?” with your friends laughing in the background, and me doing what? Telling you I’d call you later? That couldn’t be the context of my call.
And if you didn’t pick up? If my missed call just lingered, blinking silently into whatever empty room you’d left your phone in, waiting for you to come back and pick it up, what then? You’d look down and see my number, my name, and would likely flip through some mental rolodex of all the reasons I could possibly be calling. You would go through emotions the way one might try on shirts before an important evening out — pity, distress, nervousness, hopefully setting on a morbid curiosity strong enough to at least merit a text message back: “What’s up?” No, you had to pick up. The conversation could only work if I backed you into an invisible corner and forced you to look at my upturned thoughts, spread out like a deck of tarot cards on a table you don’t want to sit down at.
Why am I calling? I’m calling because, though the inevitable silence following your “Hello?” that necessitates a breathless explanation on my part makes my palms sweat and stomach turn, not calling is no longer an option. The percentage of my days spent thinking about what would happen if I spoke to you, if I reached out, if I said something, now greatly eclipses the time spent where you don’t cross my mind. What was once an itch at the back of my brain, an amusing what-if that was never supposed to be acknowledged, is now an all-consuming need to confirm that, regardless of what direction life has taken you in, you are still familiar of the path that led you there. You know, the one that included us, together, as something that we cannot smother with the passage of time. I guess calling you to say hello, to even confirm that you still exist with that same voice and the “hmm” I can hear when you smile through your words, is more necessary than it is uncomfortable.
My fingers feel like numb, dead weights at the ends of my hands, sweating and shaking as I move from number to number. Yours is built into my very muscle memory, something I could do on any phone, blindfolded. I feel the saliva gather in my mouth and then be forced down my throat as I remind myself to swallow. I can hear my heartbeat, feel my lungs rise and fall with each breath that gets progressively harder to take in. Each ring lasts a decade, and yet evaporates behind me in a matter of seconds while I scramble for a chance to do this over, when more prepared. And then you pick up, “Hello?” That perfect mix of gentle understanding and genuine curiosity that I at once hoped and feared you would respond with. Always nice, always considerate, always better than me. “Hello?” you ask again, as I am paralyzed on the other end. You say my name, hoping perhaps that the sound of it would jar me into action, would make something escape from me to justify and explain this call so long after it could be considered appropriate. You wait, and the line crackles.
And I hang up, because I am a coward.