When I taught a short story elective, I loved using Dorothy Parker’s wickedly satirical story “A Telephone Call.” It’s a wonderful example of the use of internal monologue as a (more than) slightly obsessed young woman literally waits by the phone, expecting a call from a young man that she is apparently dating. Published around 1930, I had to build some context for the students. Yes, phones used to have dials. Yes, women used to wait for men to call first. At the time, it was considered forward and inappropriate for a woman to be perceived as the aggressor—to take the initiative in a relationship. They honestly looked at me as if I had somehow slipped into a foreign language.
The young woman in the story dramatically ponders every encounter she has had with the man and every word he has said to her previously as she tries to convince herself that the man’s tardy phone call is no reason for alarm:
This is the last time I’ll look at the clock. I will not look at it again. It’s ten minutes past seven. He said he would telephone at five o’clock. “I’ll call you at five, darling.” I think that’s where he said “darling.” I’m almost sure he said it there. I know he called me “darling” twice, and the other time was when he said good-by. “Good-by, darling.” He was busy, and he can’t say much in the office, but he called me “darling” twice.
Upon finishing the reading, the class was quick to claim that she was simply crazy, obsessed, ridiculous.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Do you mean to tell me that you’ve never gotten a note, or a message, or a text and spent considerable time reading and re-reading it, trying to guess at exactly what the person’s intent and tone was?”
“Ooooh, yeah,” they laughed. Virtually all of them had stories of messages about which they had obsessed–the more important the person, the greater the examination and analysis.
I am not immune from this. However, my first experience was when my bride-to-be and I dated long distance for two years during the early 1970’s. We depended on the U.S. mail almost exclusively, writing each other two or three letters a week. For me, each trip to the mailbox was full of sweet anticipation. How would she have responded to my most recent verbal advances? Would there be some vague promise of greater intimacy that would keep me entirely on edge until I could see her over the weekend? Exactly how would she sign it? Was “thinking of you” better than “love you” or a generic “see you this weekend” or the ambiguous “luv ya!” ( I mean, really, what does that mean?).
I saved most of these letters and occasionally I’ll grab one, in part to examine the artifact of the 7¢ stamp, but more to enjoy suddenly being cast back 40 years into my past, swept up by the youthful enthusiasm of a first love, feeling caressed by the warm words of affection that have lost none of their impact over the years.
I don’t bemoan the advances in technology or long for the time when one had to wait days for a loved one to receive a letter or to get a response, but I have discovered great dangers in the instantaneosity (I just made up that word) of our communication.
Lots of people struggle with this transition. I remember when phone message machines first gained popularity and almost every message I got began with “Oh, gosh, I just hate talking to these machines!” At least for me, that changed pretty quickly to feeling disturbed and a little betrayed when a person actually answered his phone when all I wanted to do was to leave a quick message and wasn’t mentally prepared for all the social niceties that go along with an entire phone call.
Texting has taken this dynamic to a whole new level. In talking with my former students, especially those involved in some kind of romantic relationship, texting seems to be the primary means of communication, possibly exceeding face-to-face conversation. When they have described their day or even week-long texted “conversations” to me, I become convinced that they have thrust themselves into starring roles in a Dorothy Parker short story.
I get a lot of questions from former students, mostly young women who are now friends, particularly if relationships come up as an issue. If they are in the midst of some intense texting with their intended, I get asked to help interpret–“after all, you used to be a guy.” Yes, once, long ago.
“I mean, what does it mean when he says he loves me, but he needs some time, some space? (“Means he’s dumping you”) “ How can he say he loves me and then just treat me like crap!” (He’s cheating on you) “But he texted me at 2 AM and it really sounds like he means it this time.” (No, it means the bars just closed, he’s drunk, and feeling nostalgic, not romantic). “How long should I wait before I respond?” (“For. Ever.”)
In truth, I never say any of the things above that are in parenthesis. In truth, I have no idea how they should respond and what they should do. Mostly I just listen and try to figure out what they are hoping that I will say, and reassure them that yes, eventually, everything will be just fine.
Texting has been problematic for me also. I have found that sarcasm does not translate well in texting, so I have had to resort to an occasional 🙂 to let the person know I’m teasing and not savaging them with some off-hand remark. However, most emoticons are a mystery to me and I don’t use them because they seem silly and confusing.
But the greatest danger I have found in texting is not in being misunderstood. After all, you can always go the extra mile and actually talk to the person. No, far more dangerous is texting under the influence. Because, let’s face it, we often use words to shield ourselves from the raw emotions we might feel in the moment. Take away that filter, that safeguard, with two or five beers, and anything might happen.
Recently, I flew from San Diego to Phoenix to see the great James Taylor in concert, a concert I had been waiting to see for 40 years. Lucking into ninth-row seats and getting close enough at intermission to have him autograph my ticket, left me walking back to the hotel full of the afterglow of a night I had waited for for a very long time. I was exhausted, but just didn’t want the night to end. Have you ever felt that way?
I ducked into the hotel bar around midnight, hoping to slip in before last call. Well, it turns out that “last call” was a pretty flexible concept to the bartender, and I was content to have a beer, watch basketball highlights, and eavesdrop on a blonde sitting nearby who was spewing profane and angry invective about her ex-husband and life in general to an anxious looking guy who I think was listening patiently and hoping to get lucky.
Pretty soon, those two cleared out (the guy never actually had a chance it turned out), and it was just me and Brian, the bartender. One beer turned into three and then after a bit, my glass just kept getting refilled without me even asking. I figured out later that once Brian and I had hit it off, he simply wanted someone to talk to while he got the bar closed up sometime around 2 AM.
I suppose that it’s not universally true, but it seems that anytime after 2 AM, alone in a hotel room, is about the loneliest place I have ever found myself. I would be home in less that 12 hours, slightly hung over, but surrounded again by all things familiar, but somehow the need to reach out and make contact with a friend right then and share something about the wonderful concert, the too-long stay at the bar, my guilt over realizing that I should know better, seemed overwhelming. I composed a text about the night that I had just spent but feared sending it to anyone. My sister in Maui and my wife in San Diego were sound asleep, and I knew I could not disturb either of them. In the end, I picked on a friend, a teacher in New York City, someone who I convinced myself just might be awake, someone who I knew would forgive an ill-timed text. I was surprised to get a quick response, somewhat garbled although she claimed to be awake already, reassuring me that if I drank some water, took some Advil, and went to bed, I’d be just fine in the morning. She was right of course, and I did just that. Eight hours later sitting at the airport, I wrote her a much more sober apology text, an I’m-such-an-idiot text, which she laughed off forgivingly.
Texting, like every use of language, is imprecise and subject to misinterpretation. It can create confusion, anxiety, heartache and is the worst tool to be used for a break up since the post-it (“I’m sorry, I can’t, Don’t hate me”). However it is an extraordinary advancement in aiding the most human of needs—the need to stay connected; to reach out to a friend on a lonely night; to share a picture with your son; to make your daughter laugh; to remind your wife that you haven’t forgotten the days of the 7¢ stamp.