by Elise Hempel
When I was twelve, the year some kids started “making out” and sneaking cigarettes, I walked to the drugstore alone and made a secret purchase, nervously doling to the cashier the money I'd saved up, then racing home with my heart pounding, clutching the brown paper bag as I bounded up the stairs to my bedroom, making sure the door was locked before I crinkled open the now-sweaty bag and pulled out … my new toy telephone.
I don't know what I was thinking, except that I'd never had one before, and … my family must never find out. My new phone was plastic, of course, thin and cheap, a lemony, too-yellow yellow no real phone would ever come in. The receiver, attached by a fake curly cord like a pig's tail, was hollow, both ends dotted with phony “holes,” and under the clear dial that jingled flimsily as it spun (an anemic tricycle bell), the numbers were only stickers. No way to plug it in, smooth and solid in the back, my phone was an imposter, connected to nothing but itself.
But in its capabilities, my toy phone far surpassed the real phone downstairs. After school each day, the facts of the teacher's voice and multiplication far behind me, I'd sit on the central of my bed, dialing and dialing the endless numbers of my imagination, “talking” to far-away people in any country I chose, “listening” and nodding as they spoke back to me. As swiftly as spinning the globe, my finger spun the dial, and though I might have used the few words of French I'd learned in school, no language barriers existed. Before it became Sri Lanka, I must have called Ceylon (a fifty-digit number?), reaching in an instant over the ocean, transported out of my neighborhood of sidewalks and plain houses to rock palaces and elephants, the lush perfume of white flowers. I don't know if I ever dialed outside the Earth's atmosphere, asked some creature from Pluto how his distant day was going, but I certainly could have if I'd desired. And there was never any bill; it was all free.
Not tethered to the adult world or the wall, my phone was immune to any physical laws. So, not only could it take me to any place I wanted to go but it was also a miniature time machine, enabling me to cross on a whim from the present to the past and back, to converse one moment with an ancient king perhaps, chat with, say, John Lennon the next: Hey, John, I've been practicing some songs on my new guitar, and I've almost got the chords worked out for “Norwegian Wood”! (Smashing, Love!) Is that an A chord or an A7 in the second part? (It's A first and then A7, Love.) Thanks, John! By the way, how are George, Paul, and Ringo?…
And then – Gotta go! when the real voice of my mother broke in, calling Time for supper! up the stairs. I'd slip the phone into my dresser drawer, smothering its jingle beneath my socks and underwear, smoothing everything over the bulge until tomorrow.
And when tomorrow came, after I'd dashed from the school bus through the back door, after I'd flung off my scratchy dress and changed to shorts and my brother's old T-shirt, and made sure my sister was out with friends, I'd ease my phone from the drawer like a thief, settle cross-legged on my bed, and insert my finger in the cool wheel of the dial. There must have been the occasional confession or apology, things I was afraid to say to anyone in person:
Hi. Mrs. Marzalek? I'm sorry about last summer, when we talked across the fence. I know I ruined our nice conversation with my sarcastic remark. I don't know why I said that.
Yes, Susie, I lied to my mom. Twice. I didn't really get that scrape from falling against the house or getting my hand stuck in our dog's mouth.
And all of my other “calls” during that secret time – a week? a month? – that I made with a certain urgency, an awareness that time was running out:
Hello, Mr. Peanut? I never told you that I love your top-hat and monocle. I eat your peanut-butter every day.
Knock-knock. (Who's there?) Oink-oink. (Oink-oink who?) Make up your mind – are you a pig or an owl? (Hysterical laughter.)
Santa, I know you don't exist, but please bring me a toy cash register this year….
At what moment does each of us finally “disconnect”? When was it – when I woke one morning? – that I preferred the heavy blue Princess phone my parents had bought for me and my sister, and longed to chat with my real friends about boys and clothes? Lately, I've been struggling to figure out my own daughter's “moment,” exactly when it was her connection went dead, when the voices of her stuffed pig and rabbit faded out of range, replaced by those of her girlfriends in cell-phone texts and instant messaging. It has me stumped.
My mother has been gone for years now, but I'd like to know, too, her reaction that day she was putting away laundry and finally found my secret I'd carelessly forgotten – not a love note or a boy's number or a pack of cigarettes, but a yellow toy phone. I wish I could ask her that, and the thousands of other questions I've had since she passed away, my hand still sometimes reaching for the useless white phone attached to the kitchen wall. My toy phone would give me a direct connection, and I can almost hear her now through the weightless yellow receiver, when I tell her that Neenah just turned 18 but doesn't want to be an adult yet. Neither did you, honey, she laughs. Neither did you.