My dad had students. He taught social work. They’d call to discuss the reading. They must’ve been insomniacs or late-night readers—or maybe vampires. They’d call at all hours of the night. I’d pick up. I’d hold the receiver in my hand. Then my dad picked up in the other room. Hang up, he said. OK, I said. I fake-clicked. I may have done this a couple times.
The girl talked, for the most part. Neither of them said anything really interesting. She said “like” or “really.” My dad nodded. But she couldn’t hear him. I could hear her mentally self-correcting. She’d try to “like” less but this only made it worse. It was like—
“Like, like, like” (dad’s breathing/nodding) “LIKE”
I felt bad for her (maybe). I wanted her to see my dad. He sat there in his underwear. His camel coat was off. It was as if he’d hatched, it had given birth to a smaller man. He slumped and his belly dipped. He had a bald spot. It was in inverse proportion to his charisma. It was like he’d been cursed/blessed. Some evil witch said: you have this bald spot, yes, but women will still love you.
It was important to hang up first. The woman knew this. My dad knew this. I knew this. She knew this and still couldn’t pull the trigger. I tried sending her psychic signals (now, now, NOW)—but if she heard me she didn’t let on.
Our apartment filled with smoke. Mom smoked in her room. She watched Lifetime. She loved Lifetime. It featured her favorite kind of person: Women Worse Off Than She. Men treated women badly and then they murdered them and this made my mom glad. She said, run, run, but what she really meant was: die. Die already.
She ashed her cigarettes into the milk. The cones dimmed and mixed in with her cereal—Lucky Charms and Apple Jacks. These were Bronx staples. The rest of the house was Father but my mother’s bedroom was the Bronx. It was like a film set, her props included: a wooden bedroom set from the 70s, circa Son of Sam; a defunct A/C unit (we had central); and our dead dog. Her name is Carrie. She is invisible and deceased. I miss you, my mom would say. You couldn’t tell who she was speaking to: but I knew. Her legs stretched, accommodating Carrie’s shape.
The woman sat there on the line. She held her breath. Finally, my dad hung up. You could always feel it before it happened. He sounded annoyed. Or not annoyed—checked out. It was like he had a “do not disturb” button. The iPhone people got the idea from him—all notifications will be silenced.
I covered the phone. I waited with her. She knew this was happening, she still couldn’t move. She couldn’t get herself to pull the plug, to be first. I knew exactly how she felt. I remembered my dad walking me to school, watching him. I’d do this from my class. My dad stood outside, talking to someone on a payphone. He’d smile and twist the cord, and I imagined that person on the line. She’d light up. The sun would come from my father’s smile. It wasn’t a particularly nice sun. It was kind of gray and there was dirt in it. There were sunspots and wayward pigeons that migrated the wrong way. Still, she was blinded.
Finally something clicked. My dad was getting tired. Not on the street, but in his study. The woman wanted to hang up. She couldn’t. Some kind of force of nature was preventing her. She began to speak and then my dad said: it’s getting late. It was already late—this was beside the point. He clicked and she waited there, holding the phone. We breathed, together. Finally something kicked in—survival instinct—or maybe she had to pee.
She hung up. I *69ed and wrote the number down. I had pages of these. They were marked: “Top Secret.” It was reverse psychology or maybe direct psychology for dummies—Dad would find it and think: What’s this? What is my daughter up to? Or Mom would find it and be pissed. She’d divorce him. I wanted this until I didn’t.
I’d be the one to find them. I was 15 or 17. I walked out in the rain. Or I imagined rain. Rain to me = something romantic and clandestine. I held an umbrella. I stood there. I fed some quarters in the phone. I felt the ringing connecting me to a person. Or a voicemail. Or a voicemail that said: this is a wrong number.
Then I hung up. Or I stood there with the phone. I heard breathing—an annoyed voice saying: hello, hello. It was a woman’s voice, slightly older. I waited for acknowledgment—like oh, oh! you must be that professor’s kid. Somehow they would know. And I would feel them know.
They breathed and this time their breathing was more confident, less like-y—and I hated it. I wanted to ask if they could give me lessons. To be my mentor. To cut my “likes” with some toenail clippers. But I didn’t. I hung up. Or I stood there for a while. Someone was waiting to use the phone, or it really began to rain. Or maybe it was my period.
I waited. I wanted one—one “like.” Or even a “really.” I’d settle for a “really.”
“*69” placed third in the 2020 SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction Competition.