The Call


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Her mother’s name was Lara, too.

As her port-colored thumb hovered over the contact card on the unfamiliar iPhone’s screen, her eyes stinging as her mascara mixed with her tears, she knew it was the last thing she should be focusing on. But finding other details to latch onto had always helped her stay calm. Like when her mother had been screaming something on the phone to a bad boyfriend and she and her sister would loudy count the cars parked on their street to drown out the noise. Right now, she needed to be calm and stop her hand from shaking. She had a call to make, and the call was to Lara. The other Lara.

From her perch on the Naugahyde chair in the corner of the hotel room, she dared to look again at the unmade bed. In that bed was Lara’s husband, who’d never told her in the seven months she’d been seeing him that his wife was called Lara. If he had, or if she’d bothered to look into anything about him outside the context of their affair, maybe she’d have cut it off sooner; there was something Freudian about the whole thing. Looking at his still form in the bed made her realize how much of him had been-and would now remain-a mystery to her. In this moment, she felt she was better off not knowing. 

He was staring up at the ceiling. She wished she could say he looked peaceful, but he didn’t. He’d been having fun, but in this state, he looked bored.

She thought back to an instance a few months ago, their relationship still on the newer side. They’d already established a rotation of hotels and other illicit spaces to meet, so by then, the conference room in his work building was a little familiar to her. No more comfortable, but her opinion didn’t matter; they did things on his terms. It was that day, him fresh from his yearly physical as her backbone dug into the table, that she learned two phrases for the first time: “pay-pig” and “heart murmur.” 

“My only issue,” he’d breathed, still inside her. “Otherwise tip top shape. But you already know that, don’t you?”

A similarly feeble attempt at dirty talk had been the last thing she’d heard him say today. Feebler, even, which made it a sad note to go out on. 

The phone had gone to sleep. Turning it on, she was brought to the lock screen, where Laura and two smiling children beamed at her from their glass prison in the phone. The children’s auburn hair, ruddy cheeks and deposits of baby fat and privilege gave them a cherubic glow, made all the brighter by the phosphorescent light of the phone. 

She felt her heart coming back into her throat like bile. Like Lara, he was equally silent on the topic of the kids, so she knew little about them. She reminded herself of this as she choked back the next wave of nausea and angst. These people are nothing to you. Other than a few months and some gift certificates, he’s nothing to you either. 

 

Bottling her emotions was one of her best assets, but like most of those assets that didn’t involve her looks, it had often been twisted by others to be a handicap. Like the man in the bed, who’d feigned pouting when she didn’t respond happily enough by his birthday gift to her (a necklace with the birthstone of a different month). Her mother was the same way. Lara. What a stupid coincidence. You don’t show enough of yourself, she’d say. People will think you don’t care. Never mind her mother’s comparative frustration when her sister would wail about some interpersonal conflict. Stop being so emotional. Always concerned with the way her girls were perceived, her mother rarely paused to see them for who they really were. 

In spite of everything, she was thankful for that person, the person she really was, now. She unlocked the phone. He had never given her the passcode, though she’d seen him type it in too many times to not know it. It was how she knew where all his apps were, including the contacts- it was right next to the app where they’d first met. He’d never seen her look over his shoulder to learn these things, too distracted by the email that had come in while they were still having sex. He’d been distracted today, too. She could tell something was off even before the breathing got weird. There wasn’t much to do. It was over in seconds. 

Other than that reference all those months ago, she didn’t know what had happened. Maybe work had given him stress. Maybe Lara was pissing him off. But she’d clearly been doing that along if he’d been hiding from her in such a way. 

The phone remained a dumbbell in her hand. Lara. How had she met him? What dreams did she have for the rest of their marriage, so young in nature? The children were practically babies, a life of choreographed joy and happiness laid out tentatively before them. Lara. The outline of the name, the little “a”s nesting demurely together, lit up the screen. Apart from the setting sun muted behind the drawn curtains, it was the only light in the room. The man in the bed lay mercifully shrouded in darkness. 

Her knees hurt from keeping them pulled to her chest. Maybe she didn’t need to do it. Maybe she could leave. Her name wasn’t on the reservation, after all. It would be clear that it was an accident, but the purveyor of fulfillment that had caused such an accident would be nowhere to be found. Another ash in the dustbin of other woman history. She was a college graduate, the first in her family, and this was her legacy. 

 

She looked around her at the hotel room. It was a modular space, more expensive than she ever could have dreamed of as a younger girl. If you took away what had just happened and some other minor details, her mother would have been happy with the circumstances. She’d achieved access to wealth and power via her beauty; from the moment that beauty had started to become apparent in the dawn of her youth, her mother had instilled in her the importance of it as a weapon. 

Based on the lock screen, Lara wasn’t beautiful, not like she was. It wasn’t unkind, just objective. Lara had the cute, perky features to pique someone’s interest, but she was never supposed to be the main show. That was for girls like her. And yet, look who was who in this moment. Lara, the one with a diamond ring on her finger, her husband’s mistress the one entombed in dark closets until it was convenient to exhume her. Lara didn’t deserve this. A call from a woman just over half her age, unknown to her, to tell her her husband was...

She thought back to counting the cars with her sister. It had always been her idea; her sister had gone along with it but questioned how much it really helped. "We're not really doing anything," she'd whine. 

For too much of her life, she hadn't done anything, or at least anything meaningful. She'd defined herself by her relationships, her looks, her transactions. That had to stop. For better or for worse, what had happened in the hotel room that afternoon was something she needed to own. It was time to do something.

As though from afar, she watched herself tap the phone icon. Suddenly, the call screen and the ring. For a moment she felt paralyzed, but by the second ring, she’d exited the call panel and returned to the home screen. She had to focus on something else, since she hadn’t prepared what she’d say. She just wanted some fun and a little extra spending money. And maybe to feel wanted. By the third ring, she was looking back into the eyes of the chubby little boys on the lock screen. In spite of everything, she missed her mother.

A voice, but a prerecorded one. The voicemail message sounded tired. She could just hang up now, right? No, she needed to carry it through. Call me back, she’d say. Ominous, but the anticipation would be there no matter what. The sentiment was caught in her throat, ready to escape, when the phone rang.  

 



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