I was living in the middle of someone else’s life. A sublet on Montgomery Street, stuffed with her large-scale Victorian furniture, abandoned clothes, books, spices and grocery lists on the refrigerator. Barely enough room, in the tiny bedroom closet, for my own clothes and shoes, a 3×3 square cleared on a shelf for my tiny television, my own pans and cookbooks and spices boxed and in storage in someone else’s basement; no room for my own furniture, books, or pictures. It was an amazing coup of Boston apartment-jockeying in so many ways that I should really have been happy. Really in the City proper after four years of endless bus and subway rides to and from Jamaica Plain, I was now only a 10-minute walk from my job in Copley Place. I was so close, that even if I had wanted to take public transportation, I was too close. Because I was actually in the City, the view out the bedroom window, from the high, massive old bed included both the Prudential Center and the Hancock Tower, often in picturesque juxtaposition to the silver slip of a crescent moon. It should all have made me very happy, indeed.
I had finished law school, taken the bar, passed the bar, and found work managing a very glamorous retail establishment that sold Rosenthal china to Lydia Shire, and objets d’art to members of the Gamble family, as in “Proctor and.” My story was that the bottom had fallen out of the economy in and around Boston just as I got my law degree, and indeed, the tech start-ups on Route 128 were hurting. Really, I had not figured out what I was going to do with a law degree, I didn’t do how to do anything of a practical nature, and the one interview I had gotten with a Real Business in the Financial District had concluded with the interviewer,a kind friend of my Uncle Murray’s, telling me that I should probably think about what I really wanted to do before I had another interview. He really had wanted to offer me a job, he said, but I just didn’t seem to want to work in that kind of environment. He saw, that kindly gentleman in beautiful shoes, what it would take me years to see.
I got a job in retail, The Devil I Knew, and stayed in Boston after law school ended. I wore black clothes, high heels, red lipstick and perfume samples begged from the Chanel counter at Neiman Marcus. My old roommate, who I had lived with for four years, moved away. The man I had followed to Boston in the first place was cruel, and then involved with someone else, announcing that she had “done things for him” that I could never do. He still called when he wanted to talk to someone smart, or when he was sad or tired or longing for home; mostly he was unreliable and likely to tell me about Her fabulous job, car, apartment, summer share on the Cape, and sexual technique. I had neither the time nor the cash to do any of the many things that Boston had to offer, I had friends, but I was terrified to go anywhere alone after dark, so my social life was limited to the odd brunch or to places where someone had a car and could drive me home.
My cat, Ben, disappeared. I thought he had jumped out the window while I was smoking, and that he was gone into the City, leaving me really, entirely alone. I called my parents in Michigan, hysterical; they were kind, but my father asked, not unreasonably, what I thought they could do about a missing cat 780 miles away? I called the Ex, who said he didn’t want to drive all the way from Cambridge, although he was fond of Ben. He said he would ask Her to look for the cat, since She lived a couple of blocks from me, in the already-gentrified part of the neighborhood. I declined. I cried for hours, trying to interest myself in a book or something on TV, until I heard faint, cat-like sounds coming from the cavernous closet near the front door, where the owner of my apartment had stuffed years of accumulated garbage, and which I had topped off with my own, small collection of boxes, bridesmaid dresses and shopping bags full of law school notebooks. Out came Ben, dusty and blinking, embarrassed by my hug and the feel of fresh tears on his soft back.
Some time in the spring, after I had closed the store, walked home, kicked off the 3-inch heels and fed Ben, the phone rang. This was long before anyone had a cell phone; if I’d had a cell phone I would simply have disconnected the land line on which half of the incoming calls were for the real owner of the apartment. Over and over, I had to explain to disgruntled friends, and, in one case, an unhappy creditor that the real Lady of the House was in California for a year. There was always a chance that it was for me, so I always answered it. A diversion would be nice, a call from a friend, or my mother, or even my insane boss; I was somewhere beyond lonely and into some deep valley of denial and isolation. Mistakes had been made. There was no trail of breadcrumbs.
“Hello?” I said into the receiver of the ancient, black rotary phone. A throat cleared on the other end.
“Hi, is Mike there?” a deep, somewhat phlegmy voice. A fat man. No one calling for me.
“I’m sorry – you have the wrong number.”
“Sorry.” I moved my hand to replace the receiver, but he was still talking. I raised my hand to my ear again. “-could talk for a little while?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you…”
“Oh. I said you had kind of a nice voice, and maybe we could talk for a little while.” Nothing really shocked me any more; I had seen a dead guy in the lobby of the Boston Public Library, I rode around on the subway with transvestites, and I had briefly defended the criminally accused in deepest, darkest Roxbury. What could this guy do to me over the phone?
“Okay,” I said slowly, “who are you?”
“Steven. Who are you?”
“Ann” came out before I thought. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
“Hi, Ann. You have a really sexy voice, you know. You could do phone sex.”
“Uhm, thanks” I answered, thinking that I had probably just made another mistake, another bead to add to the endless string of wrong judgments, overestimations, backwards hunches. “I’m not really into that, though. I don’t really want to talk about that.”
“Oh, I bet I could think of something that would get you hot, I was-”
“I DON’T want to talk about that!” I could have hung up, but I didn’t.
“Well okay, baby…we don’t have to talk about that.”
“Don’t call me ‘Baby,’ either.”
“Touchy, touchy. You know I can’t leave my apartment. I’m fat, and I take lots of medicine because I have mental problems.”
“So you just call people all night and pretend it’s a wrong number?”
“No!’ he answered, sounding genuinely affronted. “I really thought I was calling Bob!”
“You asked for Mike.”
“Shit. I was confused, It’s the meds.”
“Okay, this is too weird for me. I’m hanging up now.” I did. I took a shower in the claw-footed tub with a jury-rigged shower head that fell onto my own head one of every three showers. I could hear the phone ringing, the click of the answering machine, no voices. I dried off, fixed a bowl of cereal, and played the messages.
“Hi, this is Steven The guy who just called you? I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to freak you out. I just get so lonely, and you have such a nice voice, and-”
“Hi. Steven again. Your message thing is really short. If you want to talk, call me at 555-12121. I’m always-”
“Sorry to keep calling. It’s Steven, if you were wondering. I’d really like a call, I mean if you have time, I’m-”
I shook my head as the tape re-wound inside the machine. I couldn’t change my number, because it wasn’t “my” number. He would have to get sick of it when I didn’t call back or answer. I settled down on the lumpy horsehair sofa, covering myself with my own quilt that smelled comfortingly of fabric softener. I switched on the tiny TV. The phone rang, and I jumped.
“You have reached 555-1213,” I heard my own voice, sounding nasal, “we aren’t available to take your call right now, but if you leave your name, your number and the time of your call, we’ll get back to you as soon as we can. Thanks, and have a great day!”
“Hi, Ann, it’s Melanie-” I jumped on the phone, happy to talk to the ditzy-beautiful employee who had given me a bag of “magic” mushrooms for my recent birthday. The conversation took me through bedtime; she had a Bad Boyfriend, and there was much to discuss.
The next night when I got home from work, the answering machine tape was full. Three baffled messages for the missing sublessor, the rest for me, from Steven, in various stages of contrition, annoyance, cajoling and pathos. I didn’t call him back. The next day at work, as I dusted glass display cases and created a new window display with a frilly blown-glass vase holding a single, ironic Bird of Paradise, I told my staff about the man on the phone. They agreed that it was creepy, and were all pretty sure that there was no way he could find me, just from the phone number. I thought about Steven, felt sorry for him, was afraid of him, wondered whether my voice really was all that sexy. I wondered what would have happened if I’d taken him up on his offer. I wondered whether other men would pay to hear me “talk dirty,” and if I could come up with enough material about caressing feet, and ball gags, and donkeys.
Time passed, and during the Los Angeles riots I called my friend Michael, who lived in West Hollywood, telling myself that I wanted to make sure he was okay. I really just wanted to hear his voice. Steven kept calling, filling the machine with messages. On days off I went to the remaindered book store, bought novels and devoured them in coffee shops, taking breaks to wander up Boylston or Newbury Street to the next place with coffee and chairs, listening to REM on my Walkman. My ex broke up with Wonder Woman, showed up days in a row to cook dinner with me or drive me back to his apartment to hang out. She was crazy, he said; she drove around his house when he wouldn’t answer the phone, and had once climbed in through an open window and stripped, waiting for him in his bedroom. They got back together, and he stopped coming over.
One night in March or April, I was heavy with sadness, alone at the end of the work day, having forgotten to buy cat food at the grocery store on my lunch break and unable to go out in the dark, past the old guys drinking malt liquor on the steps. I made Ben an omelette, tried to read “The Cape Anne,” tried not to cry. I could see myself from the outside, like a movie: the single 30-year-old woman with a cat, her younger brother getting married in June, no prospects for boyfriends, her only real friends far away, or busily married, pregnant, starting Serious Law Jobs, her work “friends” currying favor because she was their manager. The phone rang, shattering the mood and making my heart leap at the prospect that somebody was reaching out to me. Somebody cared. Out of habit, I let the machine pick up.
“Hi,” a heavy sigh, “it’s me. Steven. I’m not giving up on you. I-”
Reader, I picked up the phone.
“Hi!”he said, surprised.
“Hi. I don’t want to talk about sex, I don’t want to talk about anything personal.”
“Okay, okay…whatever you want. You sound upset.” Familiar, like we talked every night. Like we shared something.
“Nope. I’m fine. Just a long day. How are you?”
“Okay; I’m watching pornos. Sometimes I like to watch real people doing it, but-”
“WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH YOU?!” I yelled. From the floor below, the crazy guy who lived, sans furniture, in what had once been the ballroom of the grand house before its tragic division into apartments, banged on his ceiling with a broom. “What,” I hissed “is wrong with you? You keep calling and calling, and you don’t want to talk to me, you just want phone sex, which I TOLD you I’m not going to do. Jesus!” There was a long pause.
“What else would we talk about?” he asked. “I don’t even know you.” I hung up.
That night. I dreamed that my brother was dead. It was that kind of vivid, agonizing dream that seems entirely real, and stays with you through the next day. It was a stress dream, and a bad omen. Two nights later, I dreamed that my father had been killed. The night after that, in the high bed, looking out at the tallest buildings in the City and feeling none of the old magic, I heard a voice say “go home. It’s time to go home.”
I had never heard a voice before. I was pretty sure I wasn’t schizophrenic, I was entirely sober, and I was wide awake. I wanted to discount the voice, but it was right; it was time to go home. The Dream, whatever had gotten me there, and kept me there all those years, was not my own; it was a shoddy montage of a man who was pathologically unkind, a mistaken belief that law school would point me in a socially appropriate and lucrative direction, and a professed love for urban living when I could not begin to take anything the City offered besides dirt, fear, and an obscenely high cost of living. It was time to stop playing at all of that, to cut my losses, to break up with the image of myself as Mary Tyler Moore in Minneapolis. She was prettier, had a better job, and lived with Rhoda instead of a cat.
The next day, I told my crazy boss that I wanted to go home for my brother’s June wedding, knowing that it conflicted with a trade show she planned to attend with her husband, the even crazier boss. She yelled at me, she told me I was “ungrateful,” and that if I wanted to go to “my stupid brother’s wedding” I was fired. I had never been fired, before. I walked out past the people who had, fifteen minutes earlier, worked for me; they had all heard the yelling. I walked home, called my parents and told them that I was coming home in a month, when my lease was up. I went to a temp agency, and worked 9-5 shifts at banks, and ad agencies, and the Boston branch of the Federal Reserve, I boxed up as much as I could and sent it home, I made arrangements to rent a car to carry me back, along with a few un-mailable and prized possessions, including a large oil painting done by my Uncle David, and, of course, Ben.
Steven kept calling. He was sorry. He missed me. He “just wanted to see how I was doing.”
The last day of May, my ex drove me to the rental place where he put the rental on his credit card, I paid him back in cash, and he drove me back to my apartment. He helped me carry out the few things of mine that remained, we loaded the car, gingerly putting Ben in the back seat after everything else was stowed. I had visions of Ben escaping somewhere on the drive home, sprinting out at a rest stop. I had to take the “long way” home instead of driving through Canada, because I couldn’t enter a foreign country with a live animal in my car.
We sat on the curb having a cigarette, not talking at all about the five years we had spent in Boston in and out of each other’s lives and apartments and hearts and brains. We stood up, brushed the dirt off of our pants, and hugged; I gave him the envelope addressed to my apartment’s real tenant, containing her key and the final rent check. He walked away, and I got into the unfamiliar car, careful to locate Ben and murmur some comforting words to him. To me. I slid my parting gift from the ex, Annie Lennox’s newest, into the car’s cassette deck and drove out of Boston listening to her sing “Why” as the tall buildings shortened in my rear view mirror.