A short story by Rebecca Sloan
If love means throwing yourself off the top of the highest mountain, then there I am down in the ravine, crushed on the rocks. Hopelessly in love with someone who is not, never has been and never will be down there on the rocks with me. It’s the pits. Worse than the pits. It’s the rotten pits.
“Hello,” Jake says. We’ve talked three times this month. Something of a record for two people who were lovers 30 years ago, married other people, still keep in touch and somehow manage now to keep it all platonic. Sometimes it’s hard work. Like an old car that still runs but needs to go into the shop a lot more often. “You sound good. How are you?” His words spark the phone lines, literally sending little electric impulses across the air waves.
“I’m doing okay. Working hard. How about you?” I respond with my usual light chit-chat which belies how I truly feel when I hear his voice. Thousands of miles separate our telephones and if it weren’t for Ma Bell or whatever name she goes by these days, we’d just be a sentence in history. “Jake and Maggie once had a thing and then it was over.” Not even a very arresting sentence but nevertheless our sentence, our claim to existence, the last words to a rather ordinary story. But the magic of the telephone has saved us from a fate worse than oblivion and has allowed us to keep alive some part of that “thing” and now it’s not over, just changed.
“You wouldn’t believe it if I told you.”
“Meetings. Reports. More meetings. More reports. It’s a rat race.”
“You have to learn to relax, try to get it down to a mouse race.”
“I do relax. When I’m at meetings, I doodle. And you should see my reports–little pictures all over them.”
We laugh. That’s one thing we do a lot of. Laugh. It’s sometimes all I need to make my day. I suspect it’s all he needs, too. “You’re incorrigible,” I say. “You know what I mean.”
“Yeh, I know and I try. There just isn’t enough time to do it all.”
“So don’t do it all–just some of it.”
“But it all has to be done.”
“Not by you.” I sound like some sort of authority on the subject and he accepts my wisdom graciously.
“Well, I guess I need someone to keep me in line.”
“You have everything you need.” Oops. Be careful. Don’t say too much or mean too deeply. “You just have to think of yourself for a change.”
“But I like what I do.”
“So like it a little less and take better care of yourself. Don’t you want to be around to enjoy it a little longer?”
“I’ll do better, I promise.” He seems grateful for my admonishment as if they were words he needed to hear. But I know better. He doesn’t need words from me to run his life. He’s managed quite well for a long time on his own. I’m the one who has struggled with love and life and other sundry realities.
Then a change of subject moves us into the realm of the ridiculous and the impossible. “How about lunch next week?” he asks as if we’ll meet downtown over coffee, quiche and salad.
“Sounds wonderful. Where shall we meet?” I move into the fantasy with my entire being, at least for a moment.
“How about Denver?” I used to live in Denver and we met there once over coffee, but no quiche or salad. Just coffee and stares and scintillating electricity. Then we went to a motel and made love. But that was a long time ago and we’ve both changed now.
“That’s a terrific place,” really meaning it because the memory of our meeting is almost as good as the actual event was. “Of course, I would have to hitch hike to get there,” I add because these days I’m broke most of the time and even if we could indulge in such a whim, I couldn’t afford it. Sometimes when we joke like this, he offers to send a ticket, but not this time and, of course, the ticket never comes.
“That’d be just great. You’d get there about the time I was leaving.”
“Well, we’d be a lot closer together than we are now.” We both laugh again, but the irony does not escape us. Propinquity is not our strong suit.
“That brings up another subject,” he adds because we still playing games. “When are you coming out?” We have a bad habit of talking about things that will never happen. It suspends us in a level of unreality that is somehow comforting.
“Soon,” is all I say, knowing full well that I will probably never see Jake again. We’ve fallen into a routine that would be sorely challenged by any sort of real commitment. But I accept that routine because he’s really special in a sort of cat-hair-on-your-bed kind of way. You love the cat but you sure wish he didn’t shed.
“Good, you could help me write my reports,” he responds, as if he thinks it will really happen.
“Well, at least I could help you doodle. I’m sure I could make a great contribution to your artwork.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I create pretty high level stuff. You’d have to be pretty good at it.”
“Listen, I can doodle with the best of them. Don’t ever underestimate me.” Or overestimate me, for that matter, I think, remembering that he once told me that he’d put me on a pedestal. I thought at the time that absence had made his heart grow foolish, but I didn’t say so. I mean, how can you tell someone that has just told you that he’s put you on a pedestal that he’s a little crazy?
“I would never do that,” he says lightly with a slight sexiness to his voice. Suggestive of nothing really, but sometimes we talk as if there is still a romance between us even though there hasn’t been for a long, long time. It must make up for some deficiency in our diet.
“I might be in St. Louis for a meeting next month,” he suddenly volunteers. “Maybe I’ll stop off and see you.” I would get angry with Jake if I could, but I don’t think I’ve ever been truly mad at him. Hurt, disappointed, frustrated, but never angry, so I play along as usual.
“That would be fun,” I say. But I never ask if he really means it.
“I could stop in Ottumwa for a couple of days and we could have that lunch.”
“Jake, I don’t live in Ottumwa and you know it. That’s just like you to go out of your way to see me and then miss me by 200 miles.”
He laughs. I laugh. Our laughter merges the distance between us and tries to replace what is missing from our relationship. But there is no further mention of the discrepancy in distance or the trip. He may be in St. Louis, but I won’t see him and we won’t have lunch. That’s the nature of our association. These days, I accept it.
For awhile we talk about the weather. It’s warm where he is and cold in my region. He used to live where it’s cold and really enjoys the warmth. He smirks about my freezing my fanny off and I feign indignation. We’re really funny together but you’d probably have to be there to appreciate it. We then talk briefly about computers–we both love them and spend some time extolling the virtues of 4 megabytes of RAM and a 486 processor. That’s not even state of the art any more, but it’s what I have and what he’d like to have. It’s more than enough to get the job done.
Then the conversation inevitably begins drawing to a close. We used to be able to talk for hours. Now about twenty minutes and we’ve said it all. Maybe that’s not all bad. We’re comfortable with each other and what we have to say is insignificant compared to the feelings we’ve condensed into a small ball that we bounce back and forth between our telephones.
“Well, Babe, I guess I better get back to work,” he says first.
“Yes, I know,” I say with a sigh. “I hate to say goodbye,” I add because I really do. I hate to terminate the magic we’ve been weaving like a web, but I no longer know who is the spider and who is the fly.
“Me, too.” His voice is almost a whisper. “I’ll call again soon.”
I let go easier than I used to. “It’s been nice talking to you,” I say with only slight regret.
“Nice talking to you, too.” Then he says easily, not exactly like an afterthought, almost like he really means it, “I love you, Maggie.” But he needs to be more careful. Words take on a life of their own and stay with you long after they’re spoken. It’s easy to speak of love when it no longer carries with it a threat to your way of life, but it can still be dangerous. Someone might misunderstand. Not me, of course. I think I’ve known Jake long enough to know the limitations of his intent, so I don’t think I’m in any danger when he speaks of love.
“I love you, too,” I am able to say, just as easily, even though I think I mean it on a little deeper level. Like a steam shovel digging its way to truth. Only trouble is that pile of earth looks and smells like something else and the truth is pretty elusive. But I’ve been looking for it for a long time and might recognize it when I see it.
Today, it’s difficult to hang up the phone. The next call might be in one week or one month. But I should know better than to worry. I used to live for the sound of his voice. Now I just look forward to it. There is a difference and it came with a hard lesson. I put my foot into the bear trap called Jake a long time ago and survived with minimal scarring. My heart still limps a little, but I know now that if I never heard from him again, I’d be okay. I would miss him like you miss anything that has cut deeply into your life with teeth of steel. I mean, the marks are still there and you see them everyday, but the pain eventually goes away. So I lay the phone in its cradle and for just a moment bask in the warm remembrance of his voice. It was, after all, a good conversation. Better than usual. He made me feel important in his life. Something I would have died for thirty years ago. Today, I pick up my pen and get back to work.