Hung up. Hard words, whichever way you mean them. Like, he hung up on me before I could say all I wanted to. Or, I’m still hung up on him. There’s emptiness in both of them—not a still emptiness like on a beach at dawn or in an office after everyone’s gone, but a busy kind of emptiness. Like when you’re a kid and you’re sure something’s there in the dark in the corner of the bedroom. You can feel it breathing and leaning in for you and wanting you, like you were its last hope for a good meal, and you wonder if you scream will anyone come, and you do, and they do, but they never see it, it hides from the light, and they say, it was just the curtains moving in the breeze and the shadows from the stuffed animals on the shelf. They can’t see it, the razory realness of it, because it’s not theirs, it doesn’t belong to them, it’s only sharp and alive for you.
With Billy, I knew hung up inside and out. My friends got sick of hearing it after a while. I don’t blame them. Even I was getting tired. It was like watching someone pick at a scab, Maureen said. She has a way of putting things into perspective. I sometimes take her advice, but about Billy all I could do was stop talking; I couldn’t manage to stop picking. Still, the last time was so weird, and important, too, because, finally, it was the last time, I have to tell it. The police weren’t that interested. They hear all kinds of stuff, I guess, and get to be immune. Like my Uncle Reno who had a local for his surgery: he said the doctors were talking about the World Series while they sewed him up, looking like a couple of butchers in their bloody white coats, and sounding like it, too.
I decided to write it all out about Billy and the phone and the dead body, while it’s still hot on my mind, like my old English teacher used to say, catch the moment, pin life down with words. Maybe I’ll give it to Maureen to read on our lunch hour. It won’t take her much time, even though it’s really 45 minutes and not an hour, since she had that Evelyn Wood speed reading course last year that she’s always telling me I should take to improve myself and maybe get a leg up at work. I remember the first time she said it, Pat said that’s what Mr. Blanchard was always after her for, to get a leg up, and she could see how it might earn you a raise or even a promotion, but who needs a course for it? We all laughed, even Maureen, though Pat was teasing her. It was too good not to laugh. And after that Pat said, Evelyn would, would you, and we had to make her stop before we wet our pants.
Anyway, I was on the phone Saturday with Billy. Nothing unusual there. We talk a couple of times a week, even though we broke up almost a year ago and he’s had a new steady girlfriend for three months now. Angelica. I can’t believe that’s her real name. She probably got it from a romance novel. I bet she didn’t even read it. Probably just stood in the supermarket skimming through books until she found a name she liked. Billy doesn’t go for intellectual types. He likes to educate girls. Take them to plays and museums and fancy restaurants. Though he will see any movie made. Sit through it even when he hates it, even if his friends walk out. Of course, no girl ever walked out on Billy. Not in the movies or anywhere. Not that I know of, anyway.
She doesn’t look like an Angelica. She dresses too conservative, and her hair is smooth and straight, like Jackie Kennedy’s was, even though the style now is tangled waves with a batch dripping over your eye that you have to keep sweeping back with your hand or with a shake of your head, very dramatic and supposed to be sexy, I guess. My hair’s naturally curly. I tried for years to calm it down, even ironed it in high school when it was really long. Now I keep it short and let it go, but not down over my forehead. Hair in front of my eyes gives me headaches. Once Alonzo cut it too short, though, and Maureen said I looked like Little Orphan Annie, so now I watch him every time instead of reading a magazine or sneaking looks at the other customers in the big mirror and listening to their gossip about people I don’t know. I bet Jackie Kennedy didn’t have to worry about what her hairdresser would do if she didn’t pay attention. I bet no one dared to think he could know better than she did what would make her look attractive, or to give her little lectures on the shape of her face and getting good lift and movement in her hairdo, like it was a trapeze act.
The phone was a cellular. Just a flip one. Billy gave it to me for Christmas last year. He personally has an iPhone. When we were together, we talked two or three times a day. Nothing special. Just chitchat. After we split up, we still talked once or twice a week. And still just chitchat. It twisted at my heart every time, though, to hear him so casual, so regular. It was worse than if he’d been cold to me or cut me out completely. It made me keep hoping we’d get back together. That I just had to be patient, stay pleasant. I’d make my voice lively, think of little stories from the office or my family, ask his opinion about the latest movies.
We got together twice in the past year, and one time was after Angelica was on the scene, which I thought might mean something. But if I’m honest with myself, it only meant I was easy and comfortable for him, not that he missed me or didn’t like Angelica. After all, what guy is going to turn down his old girlfriend when she shows up unexpectedly at his house early one morning before work and opens her coat and has nothing on underneath but a slinky slip from Victoria’s Secret?
So I was holding on, hung up, like I said. I had got to the point where I didn’t call him any more, but he was still calling me, and I was still turning on the charm as best I could and then cursing at myself and sometimes even crying a little as soon as the conversation was over. I made myself feel better by pretending it was a stage on the way to a good friendship, the kind movie stars usually insist they have with their ex-husbands. Billy was always the one to say first that he had to hang up.
On Saturday, Billy called while I was in the car. I was trying to find a new dress shop Pat said had real bargains. It was in an out-of-the-way place, and I wasn’t paying attention, and I got lost. I thought I was in the right neighborhood, though, so I parked and got out, still on the phone with Billy. I had to put the car in a muddy lot at the top of a hill because the street was all torn up with construction. I thought I’d have a better chance of finding the dress shop on foot, what with all the detours and big machinery blocking my view when I was driving.
I went down a residential side street. Pat said the shop was in the front two rooms of someone’s apartment. Maybe the stuff’s stolen, she’d joked. I was checking windows for signs, but all I saw were drapes and potted plants and, in one window, a big yellow cat. I was telling Billy what I was doing. He said I should call the place for exact directions. He’s practical that way. He used to think it was cute that I was a little scatterbrained about directions and got my left and right backwards all the time and never knew what people meant when they said, it’s on the south side of the street. Now it seems like all that irritates him a little or bores him. Angelica works in a map store, I heard. Maybe that’s it. But she’s just the cashier. She could have as bad a time finding places as anyone. I bet she can get maps at a discount, though.
So, I was going down the street slowly, looking around, listening to Billy tell about the plot of “Dracula,” which he’d just seen last night, as if everybody and his cousin didn’t already know that story backwards and forwards. My brother was Dracula for four Halloweens running. I saved the cape. Once I wore it, to Mr. Fillmore’s retirement party at the Royale Hotel. Maureen said it was embarrassing, anyone could see it was a costume, and everyone so dressed up and all, but Mr. Fillmore complimented me on it and said it was the kind of thing fine ladies wore to the opera when he was a boy in Savannah. I thought of “Gone With The Wind” then, my all-time favorite book, even though I couldn’t stand it that Rhett left at the end when really they loved each other underneath and only were too proud, each of them, and too much had happened for them to really show it so the other could see.
I was just thinking I should get off the phone and pay more attention to finding the shop, or forget about it and leave, when I heard a commotion behind me and turned and saw a group of people coming down the street talking and laughing, and in the middle was Billy, with his phone to his ear, not knowing I was right there on the same block. I stepped back next to a tall stoop to watch. They went up some steps nearby where I was hiding. It must have been Angelica’s place because she unlocked the door. They all marched in, about six or eight of them. I thought it was pretty funny that Billy hadn’t even noticed me since I could have touched him almost, we were that close, and I told him, you just walked right past me, Billy—I’m out here on the sidewalk.
That’s when he tried to hang up, like he was afraid Angelica would find out who he was talking to, or that next I’d be knocking on the door. As if I ever would. Anyway, whatever the reason, he sounded nervous and said he had to go, I should go home.
I didn’t hang up. I always wait for the disconnect. It didn’t come, but he wasn’t talking either. Just silence. A kind of warm silence, I thought, like two people can have that have been together a long time. Now, of course, I know it was only that he was too distracted to hang up. Like my mother when our neighbor, Mrs. Carratura, came to our house shouting that a car hit my brother on his bike down at the corner, and my mother ran out of the house with an eggbeater in her hand and was still holding it an hour later in the Emergency waiting room and would have held it even longer maybe except my father came in and took it away from her. When the doctor came and said my brother was going to be okay, she looked down at the eggbeater in my father’s hand and said, what are you doing with that here?
I was just crossing the street when suddenly all the people who had gone into Angelica’s house came rushing out. They all looked upset and scared, even Billy. I saw him put his phone up to his face. There’s a dead body on the couch, he said to me. Then he told me again to go home, stricter now, like an angry nun. The police are coming, he said, and I don’t want you to see the body when they bring it out. It’ll be too upsetting. Besides, if you stick around, they might question you. Then, finally, he hung up.
But I didn’t leave. I sat at the top of a stoop across the street and down a little from Angelica’s place and watched. A pretty brunette from the bunch who’d been inside came up and sat beside me. She didn’t say her name, but she knew who I was, and she looked familiar to me. I probably met her at one of Billy’s parties. He’s always giving parties for one reason or another, though he never relaxes at them, never seems to have fun. He runs around like a cockroach, changing the music and refilling the refreshment plates and taking coats and answering the phone and introducing people to each other. What he likes best, I think, is the next day. Sleeping in and then going out to breakfast and talking about who was there, who talked with who, who danced and who didn’t, who drank too much, who left early and why; then going home and cleaning up, stretching it out to fill the whole afternoon; then an early movie, a dinner of party leftovers, and sometimes another movie.
The brunette told me it was a woman on the couch in Angelica’s. Looked like a junkie, she said and flipped her hair back—she had one of those do’s, but at least her hair was shiny, not matted like some of them can get. She was all skinny, she said, and she was wrapped up in a sheet, like a mummy or a little kid who was cold. I told her I had been on the phone with Billy all along. I felt daring, and a little afraid, like I was telling a secret. I knew Billy would see it that way. He has extreme ideas about privacy. But the brunette wasn’t impressed by the amazing coincidence of my being on the self-same street where Billy appeared. I think Angelica knew that woman, she said in a low voice, like now she was telling a secret. I think Angelica gave a junkie her key and let her stay in her house.
I wondered how Angelica could feel safe about doing something like that. I wondered if she was one of those people who never think anything bad or ugly or even inconvenient is ever going to happen to them because they are just too beautiful or too rich or too smart. Like their car will never stall in the rain. Like their boss will never stare at their chest and say he likes their new blouse that’s really a ratty hand-me-down from their sister-in-law in Pittsburgh. Like their boyfriend can talk all he wants on the phone to his old girlfriend and it will never mean a thing because they’ve got him wrapped around their little finger like a droopy tomato plant tied to a stake.
The police came and were taking people’s names and statements, like they call them. A fat detective stopped me as I was leaving, but I told him I wasn’t inside, only out on the street. He looked a little suspicious, but he let me go. Call us if you think of anything, he said and gave me a card. But he looked like he hoped I wouldn’t call. The other witnesses were all talking over themselves, probably giving more information than he needed anyway.
I did a lot of thinking on the way to the car. I had to pick my way through mud and broken bits of concrete where the construction was, so the going was slow, but I would have gone slowly anyway, because I was working a lot out in my mind, like why I had been there on that strange street just then and what it all might mean.
Maybe I’ve seen too many movies, where everything links up and what people do or see explains what they feel or what someone else feels, and then they say, okay, that’s it, from now on I’m with you, or I’m through with that, or now I understand all of it. That’s how it goes in American movies, anyway. Those ones from other countries aren’t always so clear. Except walking to my car, I felt like there were sub-titles floating by me about waist-high and that if I had been watching myself in a movie, I could have read my inner thoughts spread right out there.
I saw how I had never let Billy go, not in my heart. That’s why I kept on the phone with him all these months. And how he had just put up with it or maybe liked the attention, as long as I didn’t get too close. He never really wanted to think about us, not about what used to be and not about whatever we were doing now, and he didn’t want me to think about it, either, just like he didn’t want me to look at the dead body.
I let him have his way. Dead bodies have their fascination, as long as they’re not someone you know, someone you used to love and who used to love you. But those are the dead you should look at, the ones that meant something to you once. Look and say good-bye and move along. If you don’t want to be haunted later on. By voices without bodies. By hopes without hope. By stories you tell yourself that sound true but aren’t.
There was a round metal trashcan in the parking lot. I held the phone over it. I let go. It clanged on the bottom. I heard it ringing while I was unlocking the car door, but I didn’t go back.
“Hung Up” was adapted as a dramatic monologue for “Solos In Harmony” produced by Blue Sphere Alliance at the Lex Theatre, Los Angeles, 2002.