The Right Words and Other Things I Can’t Find
I was lying on my bed holding my phone tightly between my ear and shoulder when I finally concluded that I am in fact my parents’ child. It was December. Winter in western Massachusetts is bitter and cold, and the room was sweltering, the knob on the heater stuck on the highest setting.
The person on the other end of the line was important to me. Correction: Is important. Second correction: I’m just not very sure. Once upon a time, months prior to this phone call, on the other side of the planet in Beijing, I described him as a “friend.” My mother referred to him as “a special friend.” But the implied air quotations had since vanished – I was back in America and this phone call was with just a friend, full stop.
The occasional post-China phone calls were usually harmless, always nostalgic. “Do you remember that time in Beijing when…” “Remember the hostess at that place in Sanlitun who…” “Remember how it felt when…”
But this conversation reached a point of contention. We were talking about the holidays, and he told me he was Catholic. Correction: He reminded me he was Catholic. I shouldn’t have cared, but I did. It was not really the fact that he was Catholic that bothered me, as much as the fact that I felt bad for not already knowing, or for not remembering. The distance snuck up on us. It had been months since we’d last seen each other. He knew I was caught off guard, and I began to ask myself when our phone calls became so combative.
“It’s fine. I don’t care. Not that I should care. I mean, I’m baptized. It doesn’t bother me. Not that it should,” I told him. Each word worse than the last. Silence. “Yeah.” He said. More silence. He asked me what his sisters’ names were. I couldn’t remember. More silence. The room felt really cold and the white light on the walls seemed to be painted in streaks with long dark patches in between.
Time and space had crushed our youthful optimism and some immeasurable distance had formed between us since our unofficial breakup. Say something, I thought. More silence. I felt it on my skin. Just say anything. Tell him you hate him. Tell him you love him. After a while the low buzz of the phone disappeared: The person on the other end of the line hung up. In the silence I felt an eerie familiarity. This space is familiar, this moment is familiar.