May 2011 - Comments Off

Love in the Time of Cellular

Katherine Perkins '11

Somewhere in a black and white melodrama, there is a classic scene: a woman in a dark, tight-fitting dress with a cigarette and an upper-crust Manhattan accent turns her tear-streaked face away from her young lover to say this line we know so well: You’re dead to me. The violins pick up, her shoulders convulse in rapid shudders and by the time the camera returns to where he stood, he is gone. Perhaps we see a shot of his hand on the latch and then his furrowed brow as he shuts the door behind him—forever. Or perhaps the next shot frames him from behind, standing on the street, turning up the collar on his long grey coat and raising one arm to hail a taxi in the rain. In any case, as the rain, combined with the full orchestra, deluges our senses, we are hit full force with the reality of this moment; Jimmy really has made his exit; Scarlet really is alone, and her pronouncement collects its full gravity—he is dead to her; their lives will never overlap again.

Fast-forward fifty years. In this day, in our lives, this scene could never happen. Imagine, for just a moment: the scene’s the same, but now in color; her dress might still be black, but the cigarette, for the sake of argument, is one she rolled herself. Again, she turns from him; again, you’re dead to me. Again he makes his exit. But this time, just as he reaches street level and is groping for a cigarette himself, his pocket vibrates and the source of this buzzing is an electronic note that says: “wait.” In rapid succession, the following text messages will pass between their phones:

“What?”

“Didnt mean that”

“No?”

“Sry”

“U said im dead.”

“Sry i fl bad”

“Srsly?”

“Yea wanna talk”

“Now?”

Or, as he is standing, waiting for his taxi in the downpour (weather, at least, can be consistent through the ages), he shoots her a text: “Gross,” and her response, though not deeply committed, is at least immediate:

“?”

“Rain,” he’ll say back. “Gross out,” and something in the eloquence of these brief words will move her tides of sympathy, and she’ll ask him meekly if he wants to come back up and talk things out (“les tok upstrs?”). Which, of course, or maybe grudgingly, he does, and their drama, for a brief time, is over.

Here is the shallow reality, the muted drama, of love as we experience it now.

***

Let’s call our drama now off the hypothetical stage and onto the tile-floored, fluorescent-lighted, shouting, boisterous stage of the New York City Public School. Here we find the cell phone has become the ubiquitous tool or weapon of this generation, a toy whose full impact is near impossible to gauge—imagine how 7th grade note-passing is altered when conducted through text messages. Try flirting. Try bullying. Mean whisperings behind somebody’s back. The sheer capacity to pay attention in class. And finally, imagine the excuse that has become as cliché as ‘the dog ate my homework’ of old: I’m talking to my mom.

The girl talking: Aliani, the kind of student teachers both dread and love above the rest, one eyebrow permanently locked in an arch of defiance, her upper lip mirroring the gesture and in doing so, exposing a row of teeth soon to be corralled into the metal chains of braces.

“I’m sure you are,” I said, “but now’s not the time.”

“But she doesn’t know where I am.”

And as implausible as that was, how would it look if I, the assistant afterschool music teacher, demanded the phone put away and caused some crisis of miscommun-ication, some unwarranted worry for a parent with already too many stresses.

I tried the simple, direct root.

“Aliani, put your phone away. Samantha, you too.”

“In a minute,” said Aliani.

“Just a sec, it’s important,” said Samantha.

You’re twelve years old, I wanted to say.

I tried teaching by example. Feeling my phone in the bottom of my coat pocket, I lifted it up for the class to see. “These away,” I said. But a sound of disbelief rose up from the girls sitting in front of me.

“Yo, Miss,” said Aliani. “How old is your phone?”

“Is that an antenna?” said another girl, and they fell into peals of laughter.

“An antenna, yes,” I said, and pulled it out for them to see.

“What does that even do?” asked one girl.

“Nothing,” I said, “as far as I can tell.” Another girl asked if she could touch it.

“But enough,” I tried to corral the focus back to the lesson. “We were talking about harmony.”

Aliani, for once, had turned her attention entirely to me, eyes narrowed, her voice adopting the no-nonsense tone of an interrogating cop on a show about Law and Justice, but she wasn’t interested in the subject at hand.

“How old is it really?” she asked.

“It’s my first phone,” I said. “The phone I was born with.”

“Really?”

“No—I bought it right before I went to college.”

“And you’re how old now?”

“A senior.”

“And it was your first phone.

“Yes. Okay, let’s get back. Who knows what harmony is?”

Aliani held up her phone, which looked to me like the pink, pocket-sized star of a movie about love and robots. “I’ve had a phone?” she said, “since I was seven.

“That’s beautiful, Aliani, that’s great,” I said. “But what is harmony?”

I was trying to recall exactly the ways that dramas played out between me and my peers in my eighth grade classroom. I remembered one particular day when Jean and Paige, rural Maine’s equivalent to the Samanthas and Alianis of Brooklyn, were caught with an entire three pages of notes whose subject was a boy who, rumor told, had herpes, and who one of them, or maybe both, had allegedly—what did we call it then? “Made out with” sounds too modern for my innocent youth; “Hooked up with” sounds too citified for the coast of Maine—I suspect the phrase we used was “French Kissing,” which still, to me, late bloomer that I was, hadn’t shed the stigma of something a little bit racy and a little bit gross in that it involved tongue and also the exchange of saliva. (Our health class text book taught us that French Kissing was when one person “explored” another person’s teeth with his or her tongue—that sounded gross more than racy, but even so, I was curious; my best friend Helen taught me how to practice with my middle and my pointer finger acting like another person’s lips—“They have to go every other,” she told me—“your lip, then his, then yours, then his, like this—“ she held her own two fingers up to her mouth. “And then you kind of move them up and down, and if you really like him, you put your tongue in.”) So Jean and Paige had pages and pages of notes, which I gathered—through glimpses and whispers and the stretches of my own imagination—were about Kissing and Boys and if Kissing (Frenching!) a Boy who had Herpes might cause YOU to get Herpes… our algebra teacher, 26, his patience tested past its limit at last, snatched the pages and threatened to read them all aloud. But glancing down at that round, wide handwriting in alternating colors, blue and pink, he thought better of it. Standing over the garbage, he tore all three pages into neat, narrow shreds.

After school, in a rare and giddy moment of rebellion, Helen and I decided we would piece the fragments back together—somehow, we even conceived that our Mr. Macko would find it amusing too—that he would laud our efforts and laugh along with us. But alas! Before we could garner all the most precocious and delicious details, we were caught in the act and shamed to the point of apologies with something along the lines of I expected better of you both. But even our hot faces weren’t enough to sate the want to know another person’s secrets—or just to know what it was like. It might have been kissing and it might have been something else—sex, love, love-making? What did those girls know that we didn’t know? What had they experienced that was so grand and so dangerous and seemed so impossibly out of reach?

In any case, I was brought back to all of this as a girl behind Aliani took out her phone and showed it to the girl beside her, holding it low beside her chair in what she thought—or pretended to think—was a subtle gesture. And when she would not put her phone away, I grabbed for it—an impulse there before the thought. And she, faster on her toes than I (and with a great deal more at stake) snatched it back with a glare and I was instantly too aware of myself—aware of my hand which had acted without my permission, aware of the mistake I’d made.

My supervision teacher stepped in.

“Erica, you have a choice,” he said. “You can stay here with us and learn, and put your phone away, or you can go down to the cafeteria and wait there.”

“But this is important,” she said. She wasn’t looking up—she was still texting.

“I gave you a choice,” he said.

“Okay,” she shrugged her shoulders and glanced up at his face.

“I’m not playing, Erica”

“I’m not playing either,” she said, and the other girls giggled and whistled as she picked up her things and walked out the door.

***

It was late August the day I bought my phone, sticky hot and the end of an era—it was my last day home before college, but more importantly, for the sake of this story, it was my last day home before leaving behind the person who I was sure, at the time, was the love of my life.

The room where I waited was in one of those highway-side, block-shaped buildings that crop up overnight across America—one day a field or a vacant lot, the next a supercenter staffed by exhausted women wearing blue vests and nametags visible to the legally blind: HELLO! I’m Kelly, Casey, Kimberly. The room itself was one of those spacious, sterile electronics zones with wall-to-wall carpeting, lit by fluorescents and whirring with subliminal noise. I was told by one of the women—Kelly, Casey or Kimberly—with a tired, pained expression, that it would be an estimated two hours before she or anyone could give me the time of day. The waiting area she directed me to was differentiated from the rest of the store only by the existence of two quasi-comfortable chairs and the proximity of the televisions—not two, but three, each positioned at such an angle that there was nowhere that the eye could rest away from them. I tried to shift my chair to face the window, but found that it was attached to the floor.

The love of my life, for lack of a better term—neither ‘boyfriend’ nor ‘lover’ ring true—was a beautiful five-foot, four-inch dancer from Zimbabwe. We taught in summer camp together and had adventures, hiking down to the rocky shoreline after our teaching day was done, lying on the only patch of flat, smooth rock and feeling the sunlight on our backs and bodies; we swam together and I turned away from him while I changed in plain view—a make-shift bathing suit made from my painting smock and skirt. I don’t remember how I put together the necessary parts for proper restaurant attire afterwards, but I remember running to my second job with dripping clothes in hand, both of us out of breath and laughing—he like a hyena, me like a creature who is learning for the first time how to laugh. I think now of a kind of inventory of our summer days, facts of our existence together: that when I walked in front of him I could feel a prickling on the back of my neck from his eyes on my body; When I asked him questions, he never gave me answers, only artful convolutions, rich with color; And sometimes we would sit quiet for hours painting silent, private landscapes, and I never understood him the way I thought I should, but he knew me—this, I told him, and my friends, and myself, repeatedly—better than I knew myself. And when I told my mother that fact, sitting in her Subaru, and that, as a result, I was no longer a virgin, she began to sob there in the parking lot of the farmer’s market and told me to go on ahead, she’d catch up, then called me back, half-panicked when I had nearly reached the fray of people milling and trucks parked, beds full of vegetables, to ask, did you know everything you needed to? Did you use—condoms, and everything?

As I sat in the US Cellular oversized office, I was already forming letters in my mind, based on my impending departure—I was missing him already while still in the same state. How ridiculous to be here, doing this, when I could be spending my last afternoon with him. But these wasted hours must, I thought, be a necessary evil; they would allow us to keep in touch; they would sustain our love. We were ill-equipped for the transition to come.
I am trying to remember now if he and I had ever spoken on the phone before that day—if we had, it was only to say the bare bones of facts and details—where we would meet and when—never real ideas, never feelings. Our conversations were always dense with circuitry and guessing, and I became accustomed to a style of response in which nothing was given; any tiny revelation of his came with work:

Do you have siblings?

Guess.

Yes?

There’s a start.

How many?

Guess.

Three?

Guess again.

More or less?

Guess.

One.

No, guess again.

Two then.

There—how did you know?

And where are you in the lineup?

Guess.

You’re the oldest.

No.

The youngest.

This is hard for you, isn’t it?

The middle?

There! How did you know?

Shortly after my arrival at the cell phone store, I was joined in the waiting area by a twenty-something man named Chris or John or Steve who worked in the gravel pits near my home and was also, incidentally, in the process of breaking down and buying his first cell phone. We were mutually ambivalent about this necessary advancement in personal technology and I was ambivalent about him, but I found myself in that state of openness that sometimes sets in between strangers together in limbo. I learned that he grew up in the town next to mine and that he was in the market for a cell phone so he could have friends again.

“Yup, I graduated four years ago,” he said. “And I’ve pretty much lost touch with everybody.” Would a cell phone solve that problem? I tried not to cast any judgment in my quiet inquiry. He shrugged. “Maybe not,” he said. “But I guess it’s worth a try.”

When it came time for me to leave, my new phone (the least expensive model, the most rudimentary design) in a box in my purse, he said it was too bad I was leaving for college the next day because he would have liked to take me to a movie in Bar Harbor. And I said, yes, it was too bad, and walked out into the now-dwindling daylight.

That night, I would be up all night, packing and weeping, weeping and packing, and my mother would come down, bleary eyed and warm with sleep every hour or so to say, “You’ll stay in touch, darling. You will stay in touch with him.”

My new phone would not act as an aide in our transition apart; our conversations would continue with their circuitry and convolutions, but without the reassurance of his hands or the amusement in the glow behind his eyes.

How are you?

Keeping alive, keeping alive.

Keeping alive?

A long pause would stretch out between us.

What does that mean?

Don’t ask me, I just work here.

What have you been doing?

A little of this, a little of that.

What does that mean?

I told you, I just work here.

In one of these talks, he told me: “so I think, if it’s okay, I’ll come and visit,” and to myself, more than to anyone, I pretended excitement, I pretended joy.

When he came, I didn’t know how to bring two worlds together; I no longer recognized the space that we made when we sat in one room together.

I told him that I was no longer in love. I thought it then a simple fact.

***

In Brooklyn, in the winter of my senior year, I attempted a romance with a shortish, mustachioed man in a red cap and skinny jeans. It began, one could say, semi-accidentally—a friend of friends, he bought me a drink at a bar, an action, in the moment, of no great significance. Later, I followed up with a facebook message: “I’d like to get you back for that beer you bought me.” I thought I was being, if not subtle, then at least indirect. “Are you asking me out on a date?” was his reply. Was I? I didn’t know. And what was the inflection of his question—was it warm and flirtatious? Excited? Are you asking me out on a date!!? Or was there something a little aggressive about it—possibly accusatory? His status did, after all, declare him a married man. I wrote—and discarded—a few drafts in which I expounded upon my great affection for the moral pillar of monogamy; I attempted humor; I attempted clarity, but settled, in the end on something glib and potentially charming, pointing out the fact of his so-called married life. His reply was a screenshot of his information page as he changed his status from ‘married’ to ‘separated.’ Alright then, yes. Yes! I was asking him out on a date. I was dizzy with the romance.

What was beginning here was an elaborate game, a kind of excruciating hokey pokey in which the emcee sings the directions in a language that none of the players have quite yet mastered. The object, you discover as you go, is to maintain dignity while trying desperately to determine which limb is supposed to be in the middle and how long you have to shake it. More often than not, you find yourself exposed and off balance, teetering with some essential part of you hanging in a void, smiling so that everyone knows you’re having fun. You put your whole heart in! You put your whole heart out! You put your whole heart in, and you shake it all about…

Aren’t we all so flippant? Aren’t we so delightfully nonchalant as we sign ourselves of as players for life in this sordid little game? And I say for life because we’re all, you know, becoming addicts to these new ways of talking, thinking, feeling. Mustache Man and I—we never even had a real date. He invited me to his studio one day, and we sat on stools at a table made from rough wood propped on saw-horses. I asked what he was feeling and he told me that sometimes he got nervous, while I sat across from him rolling pieces of masking tape into tiny little beads and lining them in perfect intervals on the table in front of me. He offered me coffee and we drank it black. This could work, I thought. This could be something sweet that moves slowly.

We never exchanged a single phone call. Text messages aplenty, touching our big toes to the water, testing, testing, testing, but never making a real dive. Once, on a beautiful snowy night, I sent him what I thought might be a lure: “Snow!” I wrote, and waited. “Fresh start!” he wrote back eventually. My heart skipped a beat. What could he mean? I discarded the draft that said, “What’s starting?” and also the one that said, “Start with a bang!” and settled for “What’s so fresh?”

“Feb tomorrow,” he wrote.

Oh. The first day of February. The conversation ended there. What he wrote was not, perhaps, a closing door, but it also wasn’t a full return; there was no desire, no momentum in his words. I turned in without a late-night, snowy city ramble, or the thing I sought beyond that: a simple bit of warmth.

The mustachioed fellow and I went our separate ways. What it came down to, in the end, was the game—my lack of game savvy. “You like the game?” I asked, and he admitted, with a smile, that he did. I could only shake my head in bewilderment. “You’re not as bad at it as you think you are,” he said. “I mean, you know you play it too.” This was, for me, the most disturbing part of the whole affair.

***

So: my own culpability. Let’s turn our attention there.

In the summertime, I almost loved a wiry, sun-tanned science camp teacher from Colorado. He didn’t have a cell phone. He didn’t have facebook. He did have an email address, but we didn’t exchange the necessary details. We relied instead on the landline in his apartment, notes left on or under each other’s doors and messages relayed through friends and roommates. He is the only friend I’ve made in the last four years who knows my phone number by heart. By the end of the summer, I recognized not only the sound of his voice, but also those of his three roommates. Here’s how phone-calls to his house would go:

Voice: Hello?

Me: Hey! Is this Jen?

Jen: Hey, let me find Ian. (off) Ian! Katherine’s on the phone!

What unaccustomed practice for my ear! How nice to get to know somebody in the context of his family—or something close to that—again! The time was sweet, quaint. Refreshing, was the word I used when people asked. I said no to the part of myself that was frustrated when I wanted to send him text messages and couldn’t. Isn’t it good, I told myself, that I’m learning to make real plans again, that I’m learning again to say a time and a place and stick to it. Isn’t it good that this is a real, genuine connection and not a game.

Some time around late July, my phone developed some funny personality traits, turning off in the middle of conversations, shutting down at will, only working, in the end, when it was attached to a charger.

It would be overdramatic to say that the death of my phone caused the death of our relationship, but to ignore the correlation would be, I think, dishonest. With essentially two landlines between us and busy daily work schedules, communication petered to a perfunctory trickle. He left messages on my voice mail; I didn’t listen for days at a time. I left messages with his roommates; he went on a four-day trip and didn’t call back. After a series of misses like these, it is hard to motivate, hard not to think: well, so be it—this is how it’s meant to go. By the time my new battery came in, (one-week shipping from China—just two dollars!), the spark was gone.

Addictions come in many forms. You play a game for long enough, you don’t know you’re playing. It morphs away from the status of game, evolves, simply, into the way that you live. Of course, it doesn’t take a facebook account to play a mind game; nor a cell phone to set a lure or fall for one—I am told that my foremothers and fathers were well-versed in many games, including, but not limited to hide-and-seek and hard-to-get. But what happens when this luring—the baiting and the long anticipation before we bite or are bitten—becomes our only language? What happens when we forget about the loves we had before this time?

***

Let’s return to the original heroes of this tale. We left them last with Jimmy in the downpour, Scarlet in a torrent of her own emotion. Two months later, the sun is out, the windows are open—my god! Fresh air! Scarlet sits in a cafe. She’s alone with her computer. Let’s zoom in for a moment, first on her face, where a faint, enigmatic smile plays about her lips, then a shot of the screen—ah, facebook. She is looking at her own profile, carefully taking stock of how she is presented there. She is changing her status from ‘single’ to—the mouse hovers between options—‘in a relationship,’ or, ‘in an open relationship.’ But just as she’s about to make her decision, on the table beside her, the telltale vibration sounds. She glances at the message:

“Wanna hang out?”

She waits a moment, ponders.

The arrow hovers and makes its decision—In a relationship—it’s official.

No, on second thought, It’s complicated. Yes, that’s better. She breathes a sigh of fresh spring air. The phone buzzes again, threatening to edge itself off the table. Her eyes don’t leave her newsfeed as she reaches out a hand to set it on silent.


About the Author: Katherine Perkins was born and raised on Mount Desert Island in Maine. She studies Drama and Literature and is currently enjoying her final spring term at Bennington College.

Published by: in Prose, Volume 67: Issue 2

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