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dial tone

Updated: Dec 31, 2020

Art by Alyssa P

It’s funny, I think. My hands have been shaking for as long as I can remember. It cost me half a mark for presentation for my Hamlet speech last semester in English class. It gave my friends and I a good laugh when I kept fumbling tofu over the dinner table. It annoyed my sister to no end when my photos of her posing in our backyard kept turning out blurry until the lighting changed and the moment was gone.

I reach under the bathroom cabinet and retrieve the pills I’ve stashed there. I shut the door. I slide down the wall, tucking my knees against my chest.

My hands don’t shake now.

I pull my phone out of my pocket. The cracked screen glows dimly in the bright overhead lights. The indicator pulses a soft, insistent red. The battery won’t last for much longer. I dial a number that’s as familiar to me as breathing.

You pick up on the third ring.

Finally,” you say. You sound stressed. You sound sun-kissed, like you’ve been standing outside all afternoon tilting your face up into the sky. Waiting for light. Waiting for nothing. “I called you three times! Why didn’t you show up?”

“I was getting a bit sick.” Across from me, a rumpled towel lies on the floor of the shower stall where I left it the last time I was inside. It was wet then. It’s long since dried. “Decided to stay home.”

“Aw, sweetie. You doing okay? Want me to bring you some ice cream?”

“We all know how that turned out last time,” I say lightly. You laugh.

“God, never again.”

We lapse into a small silence. Faintly, I can hear you breathing on the other end of the line. I wonder if you’re happy like this. I wonder if you will still be after I hang up.

“My phone’s running out of battery,” I say. “Might not be able to talk for long.”

“Oh, not this again.” I can hear the indulgent eye roll in your voice. “Where’s your charger?”

It’s in my bedroom, halfway buried under a week’s worth of laundry. I stare at the bathroom door. My chest aches. My legs feel so heavy.

I don’t think I can make it there. I don’t think I want to make it.

“I lost it again,” I say. My hands are still. My voice is still. “I know, I know, I’m an idiot.”

“You’re not an idiot,” you chastise. You can’t resist but tease, “Pretty forgetful, though.”

I laugh. It grates against my sternum, but it gentles before it reaches my ears. “Remember that time I gave you your Christmas present two days after Christmas?”

“You said the delivery got delayed but you totally just forgot.”

“What can I say? I’m a chronic liar.” My phone buzzes. “Five percent left, by the way.”

“Wow. First time we’ve talked in days and it’s to tell me that you’re falling off the face of the earth again.”

My mouth tastes like iron.

“Yeah, yeah. You know me.”

“Unfortunately.” There’s a rustle of clothing before you settle. “I know I was joking earlier, but... I was looking forward to seeing you today.”

“I know,” I murmur. I pause, gaze drifting up to the ceiling. If I unfocus my eyes, the lights look like blurry white haloes floating above my head. I swallow. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” you answer immediately, like you’re used to it. Then you soften. Maybe you’re hearing some of the things I always leave unsaid. “It’s—it’s okay.”

“Three percent,” I manage around the tightness in my throat. “We’re running out of time here.”

“Damn, sorry you got stuck with such a sappy girlfriend.”

“No one I’d rather be stuck with.”

“You’re too good to me.”

My eyes feel wet. “No,” I say hoarsely. “I’m not.”

There’s a long pause. I’m not sure what you’re hearing. That you deserve better, or that I’m not good enough.

You say, “I love you.” Like a challenge. Like a promise.

The next words come far easier.

“I love you too.”

You laugh, but you sound sad. “We still on for coffee next week? After you get better?”

“Yeah,” I say. The last one percent seems to last forever. I shut my eyes against the light. In the darkness, it’s just me and my thoughts and your voice. “After I get better.”

“You’d better,” you warn. “I will break into your apartment if you ditch again.”

“You’re a menace.”

“Your favorite menace?” you ask, as if it’s still a question. It’s not. It’s never been.

You’ve never been the question. But I’ve never been the answer.

“Always,” I confirm. “But really, don’t worry about me. I’ll be okay.”

“You sure?”

I don’t respond for a long few seconds. I breathe, feeling sadness like a displaced organ in my chest. I breathe until I can no longer hear you doing the same.

I open my eyes. The screen of my phone is dull and black. I smile, though my vision is getting blurry again.

“Yeah,” I say. My voice echoes against the ceramic walls. I’m alone. I uncork the pill bottle and tip its contents into my cupped hands. They don’t shake. “Yeah. I’ll be okay.”

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