NOVEMBER 2008 – NO. 28
The third short story selection by our guest editor, Andrew Pyper
At first he thought it was from Angelika. No one else would text him but Claude, and Claude had already sent him three messages that evening reminding him of insanely dull yet stressful tasks that were in no way urgent ("did u contact claire m re liqor lic 4 watch event sept 7?"). But Claude certainly wouldn't write "how r u? will I c u tonite? X", which had just appeared in his screen.
There was a fractional pleasure, or at least a rush of blood to the diaphragm, on seeing it and anticipating Angelika's number attached to it, but he knew even before he scrolled up that it couldn't be from her. Indeed, the number was unfamiliar. He went through his address book, there at the bar, his thumbs blue over the screen, just to make sure, but the sequence was not part of his numerical universe; it might as well have been random numbers from space, like those signals you can pick up on short wave. He was the recipient of an erroneous flirtation. Or possibly nefarious spam, a robot hook jigging for live phone numbers in the wide sea of swirling digits.
Leo was hopeless at texting anyway; he resented it as the activity of junior people who had to spend their lives running around setting up meetings and deliveries like secretaries, jabbing their thumbs at plastic cases as switchboard operators used to plug and unplug jacks. He would turn his stupid thing off if he didn't think that Angelika might, for some reason, though it was unlikely, call. And ever since Claude's promotions manager had been away (Turks and Caicos or somewhere else she couldn't afford on what Claude paid her; Leo suspected a guy, a man, a lover), Claude had been simply dumping all the marketing work on Leo, casually instructing him to have 500 flyers printed up or to pick five – no, say ten – young entrepreneurs we could create an award for. Leo was a copywriter, a creative; it was a waste of his talent to spend his days, and now evenings, on the phone with the kind of 27-year-old woman who doled out freebies from beer companies and car rental firms. There were teams, armies, fleets of 27-year-old women across the city whose job it was to talk to each other about such things. And they knew how to text.
They were doing it now, all around him; there was white-yellow hair cascading all over the bar as the women frowned over their little glowing squares, or surreptitiously glanced at them at their waists as their consorts went on talking about cottages or highways. There were transmitters of various kinds lying on the marble, among the martini glasses and sticky flutes, black and silver, with little lights flashing, sometimes writhing in impatience. With his palms on the stone, he could sometimes feel the surreptitious vibrations coming right through it. It was this kind of bar. People wore ties in here, and they understood if you had to talk on the phone during your date. People here were busy people.
Leo's own date was apparently busy too, so busy that she had been unable to come. Or to phone to tell him why.
He checked his stupid screen; nothing new. He read the wrong-number text again. how r u? will I c u tonite? X. He didn't delete it for some reason; it was nice to have such a message in one's phone. It was reassuring to know that such messages were being sent among people.
He gestured for another green martini.
There was a beep and then a flash: another one from Claude: did u get answer re spa coupons?
Leo deleted this one. It did not occur to Claude that Leo might be on a date at eight on a Friday evening, or rather this possibility did not strike Claude as a relevant fact, because Claude himself was likely on a date and texting angrily away as some leggy thing in a silk blouse pretended to read the bar menu. Claude did this. He would ask you a question and as you formulated a careful response he would pick up his phone and frown. And then, without saying anything, he would dial a number. Then he would hold up one finger. It could be interpreted as an apologetic gesture.
There was a tap on his shoulder, and Leo turned to see her, his date, who was older than 27 but not much, and who was also blonde. She smiled brilliantly and held her arms out wide to embrace him. "Heeey!" she said, as if it was a great surprise to see him. "Am I late?"
They pushed some real estate lawyer sideways and she settled herself and they ordered her a green martini and she said, "Working late?"
"Oh," he said, "no." He picked the phone up off the marble. "But my boss would like me to. I'll put it away."
"Yeah." Leo glanced quickly at the screen before slipping it into his breast pocket. There was, unbelievably, another text message from someone. "How are you?" he said.
She was fine. She wore a black top that showed white cleavage, the perfectly shaped and smooth cleavage that had first sucked Leo's gaze into it the week before, when they had had to work on that under-attended Scotch tasting. She was tightly built, tall and swanlike, and she curled herself onto a barstool and leaned to kiss him.
Leo smiled at her, genuinely, at her breasts and her legs and her high heels. He exhaled a little tension. At least he could look at her all night.
She had powder on her face. She was younger than Angelika. She did PR like every woman in the world. She didn't mind the hard work; she got to work with some great people. She sometimes wondered that she got paid just to do so many great things and experience so many great products. And she admired some of their clients, she really did.
Leo listened and smiled with a rising dizziness. He wasn't sure, at first, if she was being serious, but it was increasingly clear that she was. He wasn't used to this. He hadn't been on a date in a while. He didn't know what to say. He knew it would be rude to bring out the big stupid blocky black phone and lay it there just so he could see it in case it buzzed, but he wanted to. He was curious about the last text. And then there was always the possibility that Angelika might call.
"I actually, believe it or not, admire Pepsi," she said, "I really do."
"Pepsi," he said. "Pepsi-Cola."
"Oh yeah. I'm a big fan."
"I can't really taste the difference," he said.
"No, I don't mean like what it tastes like. I don't drink anything like that. I just mean in terms of brand."
"You mean you admire their marketing?"
"Of course I do. Who doesn't? I mean, classic David and Goliath, right? I just admire what they did, what they've done to the field."
"Yes." He reached into his pocket. If he just pulled it out a bit he could glance at it and probably read the message or at least see who it was from.
"I mean like the whole points program idea, everyone gets that from the Pepsi Stuff campaign, and the interactive component of it. I learned a lot from that. We did a case study in school."
"Really?" He pulled out the phone, caught a quick glimpse. The first line of a text: we culd hook up after the reception.
"You ringing?" she said, and looked away. She drank her green drink.
"No, no, sorry," he said. "Didn't mean to be rude. Someone keeps texting me."
"Ah," she said. "Popular guy."
"Not really. It's someone I don't know."
She raised her eyebrows and smiled.
"You don't believe me?"
"Here." He pulled out the phone. He scrolled to the last message. "Here, read this. I don't know the number. Or anyone who sends messages like this."
"It's okay," she said.
"And now there's another one. Call me, he says, with exclamation marks. I think it's some guy texting his girlfriend. It's someone he knows pretty well."
"You can go ahead and answer it," she said. "Look, now I'm ringing too. Hello?" She slipped off her stool as she brought the blue glow to her face.
There were now three messages on his phone from the stranger. Laboriously, while his date chatted about her weekend plans to someone who was also not officially a part of their evening, Leo thumbed his way through the alphabet. He put some words together. U R TEXTING THE WRONG NUMBER. He hit send.
By the time they got seated in the dining room his jacket was vibrating again. "Christ," he said. "Sorry."
don't b like that, said his screen.
"So," said his date, "what do you like to do on weekends?"
Answering her as best he could – which was not well, for he could not really remember what he usually did on weekends, aside from this sort of thing – he wondered why on earth he had asked her out. He had not seen anything but the hips in their tight fabric, the swell of bust. He had liked that she drank Scotch and had a quick laugh. Surely she had said something amusing? He could not remember what it had been. Perhaps he had not spoken to her at all.
He thought she would be disappointed that he didn't suggest they stay out late together, or press to come in when he dropped her at her building, but she was quick and businesslike. She thanked him and kissed him on the cheek. He was relieved but also, he supposed, a little hurt. He was also, he had to be honest, a little disappointed himself that there were no more texts from strangers on his phone.
He went home and slept without pills.
Then it was Saturday and there was no reason to switch it on at all. He was yawning over his sink when he saw it sitting on the table, and he shuffled over with a glass pot of water in his hand and he just tapped the power button without thinking. He heard it tinkle to life as he was sluicing the water into the coffeemaker. He didn't think anything of his action until he was back at the table and there it was flashing demonically at him and making impatient music-box tunes.
It was that feeling you have in the split-second after you burn yourself by grabbing a pot that's been sitting on a red burner: why the hell did I do that?
One from Claude, of course. We need to chat today. Instantly deleted.
Then the strange number again.
what happened to u? i waited for 60 mins and so did the others. It would nt have been difficult to tell me wher u were.
This one had been sent around midnight. There was another from an hour later:
I was embarrased, I told M and jen F u wuld b there. it shows a lack of respect that u told me u would show up and then left me waiting.
He changed his mind about the gender of the sender. She was worried about what jen F thought of her; she was a girl.
There was no message from his date, which was not surprising, of course, she wouldn't text him, since they had not become intimate. She would email him, or not.
He sent a reply to the last anonymous message that said STOP TEXTING ME I DON'T KNOW YOU.
Now there was nothing to do except studiously ignore Claude until the late afternoon, just to make him wait. He should have set up a squash game. He turned off the phone and tried to read the paper.
His phone chimed mischievously.
New text message.
baby! u kill me!
Leo actually laughed at this. He put the phone aside.
But he couldn't read the paper. "All right," he said aloud.
He picked up the little metal brick and hit "reply". At length, he spelled out, I'm sorry. I'll see you tonight.
Then he erased the last sentence and wrote it as i'll see u tonite.
He sent it.
His phone was dumb for a while, to his slight annoyance.
He resisted calling or emailing Angelika all that day. He did not know how he filled the rest of it: he played squash with Stephane, he called his mother and she didn't need anything. He went grocery shopping. He filled his wine order from the Opimian, and still he went to the wine shop to see if there were any new Alicantes. He really did not need any more wine.
He watched a movie about fighting cars until about one o'clock and then slept without masturbating, in a kind of defeat.
He was in FutureShop. He was asking about the next step down from a digital SLR — not for him, he had one, a real one, but Angelika didn't really need one, she wasn't the type to really care what all the buttons were for, to adjust for a bright sky, to underexpose for mood, she wanted to take pictures of beautiful dinners people had made. She would use the flash. There was no reason, of course, to be buying a gift for Angelika at all. It might be an idea though — just out of the blue, no reason at all, not your birthday, nothing, just dropping it off for you, thinking of you. This was a really stupid idea and he knew it, he knew he wasn't even going to buy the stupid thing, but he was still going to stand here and wait for the 18-year-old clerk to come around to him because it was a way of thinking about Angelika.
And there was the foreign chime of the phone, that sound he still didn't recognize, the new text message chime. It was like the music behind the logo of a production company at the start of a film.
Jst wanted to say that was really nice. It was great to see you. im thinking of u. how is ur next weekedn?
It was from the same unknown number, except now of course it was known. It was a number he recognized as he would have recognized Claude's or Angelika's.
He didn't buy the camera. He went to a Starbucks and sat in the window and concentrated on typing with his thumbs. He would have to improve at this, understand the word recognition program that wanted to type "format" when you wanted to spell "ferret", or better yet buy a real thing with a full qwerty keyboard. Claude would be thrilled. Leo would then be one of those guys walking around with a full keyboard attached to his belt, some glorified delivery boy that people could reach 24/7 to ask him if he had had a chance to review the promotional materials and if he was available for a meeting Wednesday at eight.
He just used the old-fashioned alpha spelling, press seven twice for r, three times for s, get it wrong, back up, try again, do it in the wrong case, back up, try again. Whoever he was communicating with was much better and faster at this than he was, and so likely much younger. And she was female.
Eventually, he wrote a couple of long texts, as long as he was permitted, about how he was really sorry but he didn't want to see her, this person, any more. He found himself using Angelika's words, Angelika's words to him. He wrote that he needed some time to work things out, to work out his own needs, to think about where he was going in life. Time and space. And it wasn't fair, he wrote, it wasn't fair to her — it's not fair to you, he wrote, to go on like this, in this undecided state, because you are young, and I don't want to rob these years from you. You could be with someone who is much more certain, someone you deserve. Because you deserve someone who is totally committed.
On that note he concluded that they shouldn't see each other for a while and he wouldn't be answering any more texts. He hoped she understood and respected his choice. He sent it and looked around at the strange people in the Starbucks who were sitting there in their workout wear or fussing over babies in strollers and unaware of how strange things were in life.
Then he went home and sat at his computer and he wrote a friendly email to Angelika. He asked if she wanted to get together that week, perhaps after work some night, either Tuesday or Thursday, just for a drink, no big commitment. He kept rewriting it. Just a friendly drink. A drink as friends. He would like to be able to contact her and see her every once in a while. To see her as a friend, perhaps have dinner.
He sent this and then surfed listlessly for a while. He looked up the woman he had gone out with on Friday, as he hadn't heard from her. He saw with some surprise that she had some kind of blog. It was called Mojito Girl. The pages were black with pink lettering. The subtitle was Adventures In Urban Dating — From A Single Gal Who Wonders Where All The Cary Grants Are? The entries went back a few months. She seemed to be going on two or three dates a week.
He of course scrolled to the most recent one. The entry was titled "Texting On The Job" and it described a date with a guy who had been taking text messages all through their date while trying to pretend he wasn't.
I could see him practically shivering with curiosity every time his little phone bleeped. I could see him trying to keep his eyes focused on me — you know when you know when a guy is trying really hard not to stare at your boobs? It was like that but he was trying not to look at his phone to see who had messaged him. My boobs weren't even in it, I guess (although he didn't mind taking a good look at them when I arrived. I had deemed him worthy of my new Lejaby push-up from Under The Skin which, listen up ladies, is my new favorite emporium in the entire city). What's the etiquette on leaving the text message function on while you're trying to woo a lady? We should have some new word for that surreptitious glancing-at-your-phone thing — you know like when you want to glance at your watch in a meeting but you don't want anyone else to see you do it, so you move your hand to your lap and then you pretend to be scratching your wrist and then you quickly glance down as if you're looking for crumbs on your skirt? The Nod-and-Check, something like that. You clever ladies will be able to come up with something funnier than that — I leave it to you. Anyway, this poor guy was so eager to go check his messages he practically ran me through dinner. I hope whoever she was had just as nice a bra as I did — and that he got a chance to see it! Somehow I don't think he did. Needless to say, this Mister Phone Romance won't be getting a second chance to show off his telephone etiquette with me.
Then there were a few comments from readers who had come up with cleverer names for him — Distracted Dater, the Light-brained Lothario, Text King, S-M-Escapade. But most just wanted to tell similar stories of assholes with digital devices.
He was surprised most of all by her energy — she hadn't seemed nearly as articulate over dinner.
He did get another text from the stranger, at about 11 the next morning. He was just coming out of a boring meeting that he hadn't needed to attend with Claude and the people from a leather goods store about the planning of a party involving a basketball star. The message said, hope u feel as nice as i do.
He didn't respond, although he felt like asking if sarcasm was involved.
The next one came just a few minutes later. seriously, it was really nice to see u, and i am so glad you came over. i feel warm all over. we didn't talk about it, but i gues you changd ur mind about what u wrote yesterday in the pm. i'll forget it if u will.
And it was right after his reading this that his phone rang, an old fashioned ring, there in the hallway on his way down to the coffee shop with an order for Claude and for Heidi the new office girl, a ring that said someone with a voice wanted to communicate with him. He answered as the elevator doors grinded open and he stepped away from them to go to the end of the hall to talk.
Of course it was Angelika, who had chosen this moment, right in the middle of the day and his office, to talk to him.
She was gentle but melancholic. She didn't think it was a good idea, much as she would love to see him and find out how he was doing, she just didn't think it was a good idea to see each other again. It was too soon. There really was no point, she said.
"No point?" he said, looking out over the white concrete city through the slit window at the end of the hall. The window was made of reinforced glass with a wire grid in it, like a prison window.
"Well," she said, "you know what I mean."
"No, I don't. What is the point of any social activity? Does it have to have a point?"
She sighed. "Leo, you've never got this. But arguing, or writing long letters, doesn't change anybody's feelings."
He went down to the coffee shop and sat in the window for a moment before ordering. He just stared at the street, which was busy and distracting because it reminded him of all the people in the world who weren't a part of the killingly, crushingly, mutilating dull basketball and leather goods party that he had to go back and talk to Claude about.
He took out his phone and found the last text.
we didn't talk about it, but i gues you changd ur mind about what u wrote yesterday in the pm. i'll forget it if u will.
He wrote, i'm glad we were able to work things out.
The reply came back almost immediately. i'm happy.
Leo wrote, so am i, and on sending it he actually did feel a kind of pleasure, a warmth, the thing you feel when someone loves you and you can love them back unrestrainedly. He smiled at the street where people were walking in the white light to their strange jobs, all of them interesting because possibly having fictitious affairs with strangers on their cell phones.
He went to the counter where a new girl was working and he noticed she was pretty, unusually pretty, with loose shapeless clothes and glasses to try to hide it. He smiled at her and ordered his three coffees and then, while he was waiting for them, said "You don't seem so busy today."
"Nope," she said. "That's $6.75." She wasn't smiling.
"Probably better for you when it's busy, I guess," said Leo. But she had turned and walked away.
Original art courtesy of Rob Grom.
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