Free Write: On Ringing Phones and Persistent Good Byes

by pronounced "ahhh" like a sigh

Immigrants know it too well– the way these phones ring at these ungodly hours. The way they jar you out of sleep. The first call can be ignored. It can be dismissed as a cousin wanting money or an uncle confused about the time difference only wanting to say hello. The second is an annoyance. The frustration of being shaken out of bed by the shrill and electronic scream of a telephone. You hear the answering machine click and the echoed “hello? hello? awilo-oh? Hello?” then a dial tone. You roll over to check the time. 3AM. 4AM. 5. Your heart races a bit but you tell yourself that it’s just a cousin wanting money or an uncle confused about the time difference only wanting to say hello.

Then it rings again. It screams again. The answering machine clicks. The echoed hello. the dial tone. You know that this can not be ignored. Good news is never this persistent. Good news leaves a message. Good news announces itself. This is not good news. You lie in bed and listen. Your body stiff and unforgiving. Your breath a facsimile of itself. Your mind races. Remember both your brothers went out separately last night. You allow yourself the strength to lift your body out of the bed. Shuffle to the window. Count the cars. The boys are safe. You picked your sister up from the train station hours before. You know she is safe. Your mother and her grandson share a bed on weekends. This slumber party ritual of The Game Show Network and bedtime stories. They are safe. Your father is away on business. You do not give yourself permission to think of anything but his safety. For a moment, you forget yourself. Find your face in the dark allow the headache that has been threatening your evening to flood over. The pain reminds you that you are safe.

Staring out into the early morning dark and cold of this suburban America, you hear the phone again. The click. The hello. The dial tone. Finally give yourself permission to remember Grandmother died 2 months ago. PaPa left a little over 2 years ago.  You have been in this country for 30 years. You have watched your father answer the phone at these ungodly hours. You have stayed in the shadows and caught the words you understood. You have pretended not to notice the tears. There was the cousin you barely remember. Your favorite uncle. The auntie that fed your  you sweets and an ice cold bottle of Fanta. Your parents have been on the cold end of the receiver. They have ached about the lives they’ve chosen. The one that keeps an ocean between their bodies and their hearts. You start to feel the disconnect between the faces that shaped you and the country that raised you.

The phone rings again. You’ve lost count.

Make your way down the stairs. Forget your glasses. Forget the light switches. Feel your way through the hall and into the kitchen. Taste the cold of winter rushing in way way too soon. Your vision is blurry. Remember your glasses. Feel your way through the kitchen. The red eye of the answering machine blinks silent and furious. Eight. Eight. Eight. Eight.  Press play. Delete. Delete. Delete. Delete. Delete. Delete. Play.

“Sista, awilo-oh…” Press stop.

If you leave now, you can still convince yourself that it is a cousin wanting money or an uncle confused about the time difference only wanting to say hello. You decide to stay. You hear the music of a language that haunts you quietly. When you were 4, it was the only thing that made sense to you. You are 35 now, it is just music. A tune you can’t connect with. You stand in the dark and force a blurred stare into the speaker. The words surround you, you swear you don’t understand but you know. The only question is who. Who now? Who?

It rings again. It screams again. Before the click, you know your mother has heard this. Has gone through her own ritual. She is prepared to pick up this time. You watch the words “line in use” flash for a few seconds, then freeze. Then click. Wait a few seconds before you gather what brought you here and make your way upstairs. When you get to the top wait a few more seconds to search  your brain for who.

Make your way to your mother’s door. Knock softly. Wait for her to ask you in. It’s nearly 6 now, the clock making a steady march towards a reasonable hour of the morning. Open the door and wait for her to say something. Anything.

“Nyono, my father died.” You nod.

“are you okay?”

“yes.”

You turn to leave. You know the history of this one. You’re not sure if a hug is appropriate. You know that there will be no poetry. No fond memories. This is only a reminder that we must heal and forgive before the next phone begins ringing.  So ask again. This time make sure she knows what you mean.

“Are you okay?”

“yes.”

Immigrants know it too well. The way these phones ring at ungodly hours. The way these oceans divide our bodies. The way these good byes rush in before you have had a chance to settle and steady.

 

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