I am writing this down because it’s starting to get confused, and I want to be clear, perfectly clear about what happened here. I’m not trying to defend myself, nor am I trying to offend anybody else. I never wanted to hurt her; that’s never been my goal. I don’t know if the same thing could be said for Ruth.
I, (name here), being of sound mind and body, do hereby testify that the events related in this document are real. They happened. I don’t want to get into an epistemological discussion of what’s really real, and what does it mean to say that something “happened,” and why the past doesn’t matter anyway since you can never get it back; I don't want to discuss how you can reassemble as many of the pieces as you can gather, get then into the same room painted the same yellow-white with the plastic radio playing the Bee Gess, the same exact dents on the bedspread from where we lay on it with our shoes on leaving the same shadows exactly; how you could bring both of us in and force us to re-do it all, but we could never bring that day back. It lives in my head, and it lives in her head; it has two separate lives, like a kid with divorced parents, both of who expect you to love them best.
This is what happened:
It was a Thursday. I was reading papers in my office on campus. It was about threeish, I guess, but since I’m going for solid facts here (instead of the liquid facts I’ve been stuck with lately), let’s call it quarter after three. The phone rang, I answered. It was the breathing.
This had happened once already this semester – a student, probably, angry over a grade; that was the most likely. Who else calls and breathes when you speak, refusing to answer – a grown up? The thing is you never know who it is; you can suspect, but you can never be sure, and that’s what the breathing is meant to say: I am a living human who actively hates your guts, and I could be anybody you know.
At first I’d wondered if Mark might be having an affair, until I checked his email and his phone, and discovered that he wasn’t, that he was too boring to have an affair. Not a single one of his emails or texts was interesting in any way; even the porn in his browser history was vanilla. Still, I didn’t mention the strange call to him, not because I didn’t trust him, but because I didn’t want to give the whole thing too much credence, too much life. I didn’t want Mark to start asking if I’d gotten another one of “my phone calls.” It wasn’t mine.
In the interest of full disclosure I will say that from the first call I thought I knew the breathing, the shape of the nose the breath was drawn through, the tenseness of the throat. Even when we don’t speak, our breath has a voice; I learned that at a party from someone who taught Linguistics. The rate at which we breathe, the depth of the breath, the amount of force we use to expel it; he said he could tell before a caller said hello who the caller was.
“That’s because it’s always your wife,” I said. “I know who’s calling before he says hi because it’s Mark. Who else would it be?”
But this wasn’t Mark calling. This wasn’t Mark’s breathing. This was a breath I’d known many years ago, getting ready to whisper something in my ear, sleeping next to me on the cot in my room my mom had bought because she slept over so often. I was going to say something, something besides “Hello? Hello?” which I’d already said; I was going to say “Who is this?” but I was afraid of the answer. Then the caller hung up, and I slumped back against my chair.
It was nothing. A wrong number, a student too shy to speak.
It didn’t happen again. I went on with the semester, staring at each of the students as they bent over their in-class exams, trying to tell by their scalps who might have called me. I thought I had someone pegged, a sophomore named Gustavo, who seemed to pay an extra intense attention in class sometimes, so I made sure to discourage Gustavo, to turn to him with blank face and eyes and smile deadly at him in class so he saw I had neither fear nor interest in him, but apparently it was all for naught, it was me flattering myself, and I had to admit that I must have somehow hoped that Gustavo would call me and hang up.
That it had happened once and did not happen again was irritating too. I was constantly expecting it to recur, never able to relax. It had to happen again so I could get more clues about it. It had to happen again or I might have misremembered, made it up. Six weeks passed, then eight. I had stopped suspecting Gustavo but had eyed an emo freshman who cut class a lot and stank of marijuana, until I had to concede that she too was not interested enough in me to stalk me.
Almost three months had passed. I was starting to “forget” about the call, meaning that I was sometimes able to go twenty minutes at a time without thinking it. But I wasn’t forgetting, not by a long shot, and any time my office phone rang with an unrecognized number, I felt myself get excited and scared in a way I haven’t known since childhood, and was inevitably disappointed when it was a colleague, or a student (though they all tried to call after hours so as not to speak to me, my voice mail time-stamping their calls with “two…forty…three, a.m.”), or even a friend.
It was a Thursday, quarter after three. I’d been looking online for new gynecologist, so I could switch from the one who kept urging me to get pregnant “before it was too late;” I had “calls out,” as they say to several doctor’s offices. I didn’t even get my customary chill when the phone rang; I assumed it was a doctor and said “Hello?” in my most ingratiating voice.
It was the breathing. I knew exactly who it was. “It’s you,” I said, and tears sprang to my eyes.
The breathing didn’t say anything, didn’t speed up or slow down. Just breathed. Not making a point of it, but not moving the mouthpiece away. Just kind of being there, together. Not having to talk. There are certain people in your life who are such a terrific relief because you can be together and not have to talk. With everyone else, it’s a constant battle of wits. The breathing was almost soothing, someone else there on the line. Proof of the rest of the world.
I started to say her name, “Ruth,” but in the space between opening my mouth and sound coming out, she hung up, leaving me to say it out loud in my office. Ruth.