While I’m not quite sure why an iPhone’s battery can deplete so rapidly, I do know that I spent a great deal of time this weekend either charging my phone or kicking it into “low power mode.” And sticking with that lifelong personal trait of mine of not fully comprehending science-y stuff, I can’t say with certainty what a low power mode does, but I can tell you that the light at the very top of the screen turns yellow and yellow is my very favorite color – as is evidenced by the fact that I wear black all the time. There’s a real part of me that believes the batteries in our phones are preprogrammed to shrivel up and die – much as I pray that one person I hate will also do imminently – whenever Apple is set to release a new version, but that could just be the conspiracy theorist inside of me running amok because I’m sure no gigantic corporation would ever do anything unseemly, like futz with its products simply to inspire rabid customer consumption. Anyway, I digress; what I am trying to communicate here is that I was away from my phone for much of the weekend because it needed to be plugged into a wall and I chose not to spend all of my time sitting next to a wall because it was gorgeous outside and I am so pale that I think I might soon be considered my very own species.
At one point while my phone was not within its standard arm’s reach, I received a voicemail from one of my oldest friends. It’s funny: many of the people in my life who call will never leave a message. I guess they just expect that I’ll notice I missed a call and return it and really, who wants to wait out all of those rings? But this is a guy I knew back in the days when call waiting had recently become a glorious new invention and answering machines were still tabletop devices you ran to while praying the red light would be flickering because that flicker maybe meant someone good had reached out to you. As a caller, I’ve spent a lot of long seconds of my life praying that I’d get the machine instead of the actual person because there were moments I guess I felt too nervous or tired or annoyed to talk for real, but at the same time I always hated how my voice sounded on messages. You have such a sweet voice, a guy I used to really care about said to me more than a few times – but I wasn’t looking to sound sweet. I always wanted to sound when I spoke like Stevie Nicks sounds when she sings and well, let’s just say I don’t.
This guy, though? The one who left the message? His voice sounds exactly the same as it did when we were fifteen and he’s lucky because his voice is and has always been kind of sexy. The impact of that voice on me has obviously changed throughout the crashing and passing of all these years. Back in my high school days, his voice was all I needed to embark on some internal hope tour where I would imagine spending rainy afternoons, clear nights, and maybe the golden future with him by my side, even as the logic that sort of defines me now rented space inside of me then too and whispered that we were about to go our separate ways. That knowledge created a built-in longing that colored everything; I was always hyperaware that those days were so very temporary and I guess I’ve never done all that well with endings.
He and I stayed in touch while I was in college, but barely. There were just so many other things to do and think about while I was away and nobody had a cell phone and “texting” was just a two-syllable example of gibberish back then. Still, there was this one day during my senior year when I really missed him in a way that felt palpable and I called his house and spoke briefly to his father and reminded him who I was. Yes, Nell, I know, he said, and I could hear the smile in his voice. After I gave his father my new phone number (remember when your phone number used to change every time you moved?), I went upstairs to visit with some of my roommates. (Ah, those days of living in a house with eleven other people… I miss those days. I miss being able to go shopping in other peoples’ closets. I miss not always having to go food shopping because we had this house rule we established once when we were so high our faces almost melted off that anything found in the kitchen was fair game as long as the item was located after midnight. I pulled a frozen Snickers bar once out of the ice tray at three in the morning after being at a bar and then at a fraternity house and locating that King Size bar of chocolate was like finding the holy fucking grail. Seriously: I almost wept.) On that senior-in-college-day, I spent some time upstairs and then came back to my room and that’s when I saw the unmistakable light blinking on my small answering machine, the light that silently communicated acceptance. I’m a little embarrassed about writing that last line, but it’s the truth. I’ve always just been someone who needs just a little bit of consistent validation and today that kind of validation usually comes from a quick “How’s your day?” text while back then it came from a phone call and sure, I’ll work on that part of myself after I combat my procrastination tendencies and harnessing the freedom with which I so easily spout the word fuck.
Anyway, on that day when I was twenty, I pressed the button on the machine and heard the voice that had all but been the soundtrack to my sixteenth and seventeenth years of my life and something inside of me that I thought had hardened broke into a zillion tiny pieces. If those feelings had been food, I would have swallowed every piece fucking whole without chewing because it all felt so gorgeously familiar, auditory comfort food. I didn’t call him back right away to tell him that I’d somehow equated him in my mind with macaroni and cheese or rocky road ice cream topped with Magic Shell. I sat on my bed for a second instead and I looked around at the unfolded sweaters tumbling out of my open closet and the collection of empty glasses covering the top of my nightstand and the layer of dust over my television screen that seemed to keep getting thicker and I heard someone run up the stairs outside of my room and then a loud peel of laughter coming from down the hallway and my Cookie Monster was shoved into the corner of my bed and my covers had been tossed aside and Say Goodbye by Dave Matthews was playing on repeat on my CD player and my room smelled like CK One and I recall thinking just before I picked up the phone to call him back, This is what twenty years old feels like.
In the messages he leaves me today, he still takes the long pauses between words he took back then and I can close my eyes and picture myself talking to him on the bed I slept on while I was in high school. For a very long time, he was the person I was the most honest with – the most myself with. We spoke on the phone just about every single day and our talks were lengthy and it’s not like we talked about nothing. No, the topics we covered were real and our conversations were dense and he challenged me and I challenged him right back. I think he was the first guy besides my father to tell me that I was really smart and funny. He was not the first man besides my father to tell me that I was pretty, but he was the only one I cared about hearing it from.
When we lost touch for a bunch of years because of circumstance and the fact that we were living completely different lives, I felt like I’d lost a key part of myself. I’d come to rely upon him to be my exterior barometer, one I’d bounce my thoughts and ideas and feelings off – and he was never afraid to tell me sometimes that I just needed to calm down or that I was wrong or how maybe I should laugh instead of getting annoyed. I did that for him, too. I enjoyed doing that for him. He was a very complex person, one who was so different on the inside than he was on the outside. There was both a steadiness and a wildness to him that I not only understood, but I embraced. Long story short? I like complicated and he was nothing but complicated. A walking cautionary tale come to life, he started me on my quest of attempting to figure people out, even when it turned out there wasn’t much to decipher besides, “Actually, he’s just an asshole.” I’d blame my friend entirely for making me this way, but that doesn’t seem quite fair so I’ll just blame my parents instead because that’s way easier to do.
Very simply put, this guy was one of my best friends who I also really loved and the love I had for him was different than the love I felt for my other friends so the simplicity sometimes became chronically difficult and I tried to navigate my heart and my mind in such a way to keep from losing myself. When our relationship eventually twisted, I told myself that I wasn’t surprised. I knew such a thing would eventually happen. Hell, I’d mentally prepared for it even on nights where nothing was hinting that my feelings would eventually be demolished and the only reason I can give today for preparing myself for the worst back then is that once you’ve watched your own father die suddenly in front of you, surprises are things you just want to avoid at all costs.
The relationship he and I have now is very different than it used to be. It’s still loving and full of humor and affection, but we don’t talk as often as we used to and we can go weeks between checking in on one another in a way that would have made me go catatonic back when I was seventeen. The second we do speak or text, though, it’s like we just spoke yesterday. There’s a shorthand one can have with an old friend, one that exists between us:
Him: Remember how I used to love James Dean?
Me: Rings a bell. You signed a Valentine’s Day card you gave to me with his name.
Him: I was such a douche…
Me: Yes. And somehow I was still smitten with you.
Him: Forget James Dean. Watch the movie Reds.
Me: I own Reds. It’s amazing. Read this Vanity Fair article on the making of it. I’m sending you the link.
Even more than what we have always had in common and the history we have between us is how I’m able to be completely honest with him, even if projecting that honesty makes me appear weak. While I try like crazy to avoid coming off as vulnerable with everyone else and my brain and my smile actually hurt sometimes on the days I really have to fake it, I hold on to my authenticity with him. Now that I think about it, there are probably only three people in my whole world who know for real how my entire mind and heart work. There used to be four. A part of me still misses that other person every day.
It’s that voice, though, the one that can send you down memory lane where you pluck only the memories you want to revisit from the recesses of your mind like I used to pick daisies from the side of the road. I missed that voice during the time we weren’t close because the cadence of it, the dips in breath, had become like a reliable and familiar radio station where a block of commercials was never playing but early Springsteen always was. I remember now the phone call that resulted in the two of us getting close again and that there was one key question I had to ask him after a period of distance had grown between us and how he had a question for me also. If you think either of our questions involved what had happened between us and how had everything gotten so far off-track, you don’t know either one of us. That kind of shit could be explored at some later time – or just be ignored altogether once things were good again. The issue that was immediately essential to cover on my end was whether or not he had seen Pulp Fiction yet and his question for me was if I found Brad Pitt to be as legitimately good of an actor as he did. And we discussed the answers to both of our questions and then discussed everything else and we hung up over an hour later, a reconciliation that didn’t even need to be mentioned finally complete.
I guess part of it depends on exactly what it is I’m going through, but I find that there are only a few people I even want to talk to during my most tumultuous of times. I gravitate towards those who offer a steadfast support and an honesty delivered in the blunt style to which I respond best since it’s coming from someone I know has only my best interests at heart. I’m not looking for validation; I’m looking for a conversation that allows me to figure my thoughts out so they can become linear again. I’m looking to relieve some of the pressure I can feel freezing or scalding my insides. I’m looking for my constant, like Desmond had with Penny on Lost – and I’m looking for someone who watched Lost. And the only question that now remains is whether or not I have it in me to let someone new in the way I did all those years ago – and I think I can, but if I don’t charge my phone again immediately, the process cannot even begin.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle.