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Collect Call

K. E. Semmel

I was reading when she called me, collect, from Italy. She was drunk. I could hear voices in the background—the familiar muffled hum of pub sounds.

There’s a man here, she said, who’s hitting on me. I told him I was married.

What did he say?

He said it didn’t matter.

Is he Italian?

No, he’s American. He’s at the conference, too. I told him I was going to call my husband.

Then why’d you call me?

I didn’t want to call my husband.

There was a long pause.

What are you doing? she said.

Reading Moby-Dick

Really? Do you like it?

I looked at the clock on the wall. I don’t have a lot of money, I said.

I’ll pay for the call. She paused. Or would you rather I gave you something instead?

What do you mean?

She laughed. A gift from Italy, a souvenir.

I didn’t know what to make of her calling like this. Until this point in the conversation, I’d had a finger holding my place in my book. Now I set the book face down on the couch.

Are you okay? I said.

I’m drunk, she said. And there’s this guy who wants to go upstairs with me.

Is he good looking?

Not really. He’s losing his hair.

So he’s not?

No.

Too bad for you, I said. Is anyone else there?

Everyone left. It’s two a.m. here.

Why don’t you go to your room and sleep?

I wanted to call you first.

What’s on your mind?

I stared out the window as my neighbors, a Somali family with two small children, strolled past, each one of them—even the children—toting a grocery bag.

About the other day, she said. I wondered how you were doing.

I was surprised to see you. How did you know where I lived?

The phone book.

I pressed the telephone close to my ear and listened to her breathing.

You sound tired, I said. Maybe you should go to bed.

I was feeling bad the other day.

It doesn’t matter, Cathy. It’s over now.

I feel better now.

We said nothing for a moment.

I’m sorry for disturbing you like that. I didn’t know what else to do.

Did your husband say anything about you being gone?

No, she said. Then added quickly: He doesn’t mind, you know?

Doesn’t mind what?

Us.

What does he think is going on?

He wants me to be happy.

What are you talking about?

I heard her fingernails scrape against the phone. There was this guy in Pittsburgh, she began. I flew out to see him last year. Jim said it was all right so long as I came home.

Jesus. You’re kidding, right?

Her breathing was slow, monotonous.

He was a friend of mine in college.

What did you tell your kids?

I didn’t tell them anything. They’re too young.

Did it make you happy?

I wasn’t unhappy.

Why are you telling me all this?

I want you to know it’s all right.

What’s all right?

Our friendship.

I stood. I’d been sitting since lunchtime, hours before, and my muscles were stiff. I spread my legs and palmed the floor to stretch my thighs. Then I pulled a bottle of beer from the fridge and opened it. Cathy’s husband was a tenured History professor. I met him once at a department Christmas party my first year of graduate school. He was a graying, heavyset man ten years older than his wife. He drank from a bottle of beer that had been chilled in a bucket of ice, and when I shook his hand it felt as though I’d dipped my fingers in a tub of ice cream.

I feel strange, I said, after swallowing a gulp of beer. About this.

My calling you?

That too, I admitted.

Do you feel uncomfortable?

A little. Cathy, what does your husband think is going on?

Do you want to find a new thesis director?

No. Why? Do you not want to do it?

I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable. I don’t want it to get in the way of our friendship.

Cathy, I’m all right about having you as a thesis director. I don’t want anybody else. I just don’t want your husband angry at me. I don’t need that.

You’re a bright student. I like you.

The beer tasted sweet and good.

I said, Are you uncomfortable? I mean, the other day you . . .

What?

You were crying.

I was upset. I thought you were taking advantage of our friendship. That’s why I came—

I wasn’t taking advantage of anything. I had a legitimate question about my thesis, and I needed your advice.

We’re friends? she asked.

Yes.

You don’t see me only as your professor?

I remembered that I was paying for this call. How long have we talked? I said.

I’ll pay for it, Mark. I’ve enjoyed talking to you like this. I feel better.

Wouldn’t you rather talk to your friend? He’s right there.

He’s gone off to bed, I hope.

Maybe you should too.

I’m down, Mark.

I drank more beer, said nothing.

Mark, she said. What do you want?

What do I want?

What do you want me to bring you?

I don’t want anything, Cathy. Not from Italy, anyway.

She said, The conference ends tomorrow. I’ll be home in two days.

Was it a good conference?

Fine, she said, except for this guy. He’s been bothering me. His name is Benn, with two ns.

Do you know him?

Not until yesterday.

What does he want, Cathy?

He’s just drunk.

Are you going to bed soon?

Her voice tightened. What if I went to bed with him?

I closed my eyes and tried to picture Cathy naked, in bed with a balding man named Benn. Was I jealous? Cathy was forty-years old, a small woman with stringy, dark hair and brown eyes. Her conversations with graduate students could be stilted and weird, filled with long embarrassing pauses. On campus she walked briskly from her office to each of her classes, as if she were constantly trying to escape from some danger that was following her—a former student, perhaps, whom she’d failed—and sometimes being in her presence left me feeling dizzy.

Now, on the telephone, the image of Cathy in bed with another man made me feel slightly disoriented. But I’d never touched her, of course, had never even wanted to touch her. What I wanted was a thesis director.

That’s your decision, I said.

I stood in my kitchen, silent, looking out the window at the complex of red brick buildings behind my own building, listening to Cathy’s steady breathing in the receiver.

What are you thinking about? she said finally.

About how much this call is costing me.

It won’t cost you anything I told you, she said. When you get the bill, give it to me and I’ll pay for it. I needed to talk to you.

I drank more beer. I don’t know what to think, Cathy. I’m a little confused.

Tell me.

The other day, I said, thinking hard about what to say next. I didn’t know what you wanted. I don’t know what you want now.

What do you think I want?

God, Cathy. You came to my apartment crying. And now you’re calling me collect from Rome. What should I think?

She was silent.

Cathy?

What do you want me to tell you, Mark?

An answer would be nice.

You didn’t give me an answer.

So what’s going on?

Maybe I should hang up.

Cathy, wait. Look. I’m just a little confused here, that’s all.

She was silent a moment. Then she said, me too.

I finished my beer. There was a group of loud children playing on the swing-set in the yard below my window. I watched them for a moment before turning away. Moby-dick was still lying face down on the couch. The Pequod’s meeting with the Jungfrau would have to wait. It was dusk now, the sun was setting. The light was on the other side of my apartment. I put the empty bottle gently in the recycling bin beside the stove and I grabbed another from the fridge. I clutched the phone to my ear as if I couldn’t let go of it.

I couldn’t let go of it.

Mark? she said. Her voice was small, and sounded as distant at that moment as the golden hills of Tuscany. Mark? Are you still there?

Yes, I said. I’m still here.

 
 
 


K.E. Semmel is a writer and translator whose work has appeared in Ontario Review, The Washington Post, The Writer’s Chronicle, Redivider, Hayden’s Ferry Review, World Literature Today, Best European Fiction 2011, and elsewhere. His translations include Karin Fossum’s The Caller, Jussi Adler Olsen’s The Absent One, Simon Fruelund’s Civil Twilight and Milk and Other Stories, Erik Valeur’s The Seventh Child, and, forthcoming in 2015, Naja Marie Aidt’s Rock, Paper, Scissors. Follow him on Twitter at @kesemmel.