I didn’t phone anyone for about a week after we returned from India. The jetlag upon our return was brutal. The boys kept falling asleep at five in the afternoon and waking up at midnight. The thin layer of dust that had settled over everything in our apartment gave it a ghostly pallor. Our cat, Mr. Taft, had to be mollified. He padded after us all with mournful eyes that shot tiny needles of guilt into my heart. Not really. I didn’t feel any guilt about leaving our cat with a house sitter. But the boys felt guilty and dragged Mr. Taft into their room to watch them while they trashed the place, discovering old toys that they’d forgotten about on their global adventure. We lived in a state of domestic anarchy for several days. Eating whatever food remained, mostly out of cans. Sleeping whenever we liked. Pulling laundry out of our suitcases, too tired to put clothes away.
I wanted to hang onto the feeling of being somewhere else. I didn’t want to look at our bank account or start the conversation about the next phase of our bankruptcy proceedings. I wasn’t as anxious about our finances as I had been before the trip. In fact, I wasn’t anxious at all. But I didn’t know if my mood would shift as soon as I started facing what I knew to be unaltered circumstances.
After a few days of this bunker-like existence, the boys started running down to their friends’ apartments and Pat returned to his job, acting in a play he had been doing for several months before the winter break. School started the next week. Everyone but me was back in the swing of things. One of the many reasons why I wasn’t engaging the world back here at home was because very few people knew that I had returned. In finishing up the blogs about our trip, I created the impression that I was still there.
An even bigger reason for my isolation, however, was that many of my friends communicate most easily by phone rather than e-mail. And I have a mild fear of phones -- a fear that grows when I have a lot of information to impart. What if my friends asked me about my trip, which they invariably would since they are actual friends who care about my life? How would I find the words to describe the experience of the last three weeks? How long would it take for me to tell everything? An hour? I didn’t have that kind of time. And after having spoken for a full hour about my life-changing journey, I would want to hear about their past three weeks. That would tack on another half hour. Who had that kind of time? I had a whole apartment to dust. And that’s not the half of it.
My phone issues have plagued me since I was an adolescent living adjacent to an American Army base in Germany, where my parents taught. Forget hanging on the phone and gabbing with friends for hours like every teenager I saw portrayed on Armed Forces Television. In Germany, even local calls were charged by the minute. When you could actually get through. Calling anywhere on base required different codes that may or may not actually work on any given day because they were constantly changed to insure the security of the line. There was no call waiting so an urgent call demanded repeated dialing, hanging up, and dialing again. I remember my mother going through whole hours of dialing and hanging up, while sitting on the floor next to the phone – cursing but persisting, because my mother is a determined woman who could never accept being bested by a mere phone. Eventually, I would hear my mother crow in triumph as she got an actual ring. With no answering machines, however, the phone would often ring and ring and ring until, disgusted, my mother would slam down the receiver only to repeat the entire process an hour later.
When one did actually get someone on the other end of the line, one spoke very fast and to the point, because time was literally money. And on a teacher’s salary that meant there wasn’t much of either. Very early on, my mother insisted that we write out scripts for ourselves before phoning anyone, so that we didn’t digress or obscure our intention.
As a result of this, I still panic when the phone rings. Where’s my script? And when I finally answer, remembering that I live in the states now and I can converse like I’m simply having a face-to-face conversation, I have a hard time relaxing. I keep waiting for my friend to get to the point, already. I interrupt to cut to the chase. And even though I am worried about how long the phone call is taking, I feel the need to explain everything I’m saying or feeling because the line might go dead at any moment and I might not be able to reconnect, leaving my friend wandering the streets in utter confusion about what I was trying to say.
It is a heavy load I carry.
I’ve worked on my issues. I truly have. But when I concentrated on allowing people to speak without interrupting a friend told me over the phone that my silence and big pauses were creepy.
“Well, you were talking. That’s why I was being silent,” I said.
“Yeah, but you need to make some sound so I know that aren’t dead or haven’t dropped the phone and wandered off. Try saying ‘Uh-huh’ or laughing or something. Think of it as a verbal nod. Anything that indicates that you’re still with me.”
I nodded. Then remembered and said, “Whoops. Um. Right. No. ‘Uh huh’.”
Completely unrelated to my telephonic conversational awkwardness is the fact that I’m convinced that my listener can tell how I’m dressed or if I’m dressed at all. When my book came out and I gave phone interviews, I had to dress and put on make-up – so sure was I that I would somehow SOUND naked or unwashed. When I’m dressed in heels in the middle of my bedroom, talking on the phone, I sound the way I look, like a woman with a freezer full of properly wrapped logs of cookie dough.
Slowly, friends have learned that I am back from halfway around the world. They’ve run into me at a party or succumbed to e-mailing me. And occasionally they have submitted to an unsatisfying exchange with me over the phone. I am sort of a telephonic pity-fuck. Ah well. It’s good to be back.