The first draft of a piece inspired by this prompt…
Filled with apprehension, he picked up the telephone and, with shaking fingers, he dialed…
Her number hadn’t changed in decades – he’d double-checked, again, just to be sure – and as he heard the clicking of the call connecting, he resisted the nearly overwhelming urge to hang up. This was at least the sixth time he’d dialed this number – maybe it was more, he didn’t know – but this was the first time he actually let the call go through; in fact, more than once he’d left the last “3” off the sequence of seven and put the phone back in its cradle, lit another cigarette, and told himself that he was being an asshole.
There was nothing he had to say that she wanted to hear – he knew that and, more importantly, he finally understood why – but that wasn’t enough to keep him from coming back to the phone – what was it now? Seven? Maybe eight times – to dial the number he kept on a scrap of paper even though he knew it by heart. As he tapped the ashes off the end of his Winston and waited to hear the first ring through the receiver, he looked at the number written on an old library book slip, the kind they used to keep in the backs of books to stamp the due date on before the whole system went electronic. He hadn’t gone electronic, though – he had to go to the library to use the public computers to look up her number (did they even print phone books anymore?), had written it on the card kept in a neat pile with its fellow castoffs on the desks next to stubby pencils so the patrons could jot down notes from their work at the old terminals. He noticed, idly, that the last date stamped on his slip was June 3rd, 1999. That’s about right, he thought ruefully; that was just about then that he’d last laid eyes on her.
She had been irredeemably angry then, strangely cool and resigned, but he didn’t know that then, hadn’t been able to see that through his own rage and indignation to really understand what was happening. He sat there, on a green plastic chair at a green plastic picnic table, listening to her tell him that she was done. SHE was done! What the fuck did SHE know about being done? What the fuck did she know about ANYTHING? Everything in him raged at the nerve of the kid; what the hell makes you think that you can just tell me to fuck off and be done with it? For the longest time, he could remember nothing about that afternoon but the blinding rage, the look on her face, and the way the heat of the afternoon had made the green plastic chair leave his shirt sticking to his back in a lattice pattern as he walked away for the last time.
But the truth of the matter – the truth that he couldn’t see until it broke over him a week ago like a car crash – sudden and unexpected, completely unintended, wrenchingly violent and instantly, heartbreakingly clear – was that she had been right. There was nothing that he was offering her then that she needed, and certainly nothing she wanted, though she had something he had wanted so badly that he wasn’t even able to even think about her for months after that afternoon. He could easily have reached across that cheap, plastic table and strangled her that afternoon – or at least cracked her a good one – and as he imagined her phone ringing in her kitchen, it occurred to him, for the first time, that that had to be one of the reasons why she had wanted nothing to do with him. How could he begin to explain to her that he knew now; that he saw and understood and that he sometimes wanted to kill himself for being so pigheadedly fucking stupid?
In that moment, at the third ring, he realized couldn’t do this; he wasn’t ready; he understood, just as he heard the click of the call being answered, that he didn’t understand enough. Shit; maybe he didn’t understand anything.
As he moved the phone away from his ear toward the hook, he caught his daughter’s voice, at the same time familiar and eerie, like a long-lost memory or a phantom that he wasn’t quite sure he heard; not “hello,” but the scripted outgoing message from her answering machine. “We can’t come to the phone right now. Please leave a message and we’ll get back to you.” But there would be no getting back, and he knew that now.