The phone rang after everybody had gone to sleep. I had been playing Super Tecmo Bowl and waiting for my girlfriend to call. I picked up the phone on the first ring.
I was all, “Hey lady…” and when she didn’t laugh, when she didn’t say I sounded like Barry White–or Barry Sanders, who I had just used to rack up 400 rushing yards against the Bears–I said, “This is Bryan. Don’t hang up.”
I hated the creakiness in my voice, especially because it was the outward and visible sign of my inward anxiety. This girl–my first real girlfriend–had quickly become vital. These late night phone calls, the notes passed between classes, had turned me sideways. And I loved it.
“Are you there?” I asked.
Nothing. I could hear her breathing on the line so, thinking this was a joke, I said her name playfully. Singsong-y. It’s best that we not dwell on this part for too long, because very quickly this turned from a John Huges guy-gets-the-girl love story to Wes Craven horrific. I expected a girlish laugh. Oh Bryan, you so crazy… Instead, the voice of hell itself.
“I’m gonna kill you.”
And then the line went dead.
Now, I wasn’t exactly tough. Had somebody said this to me face-to-face, I probably would have responded with something like, “Please don’t.” And despite that I had lived most of my life near Chicago, I was nothing like the Lords of Hell or any of the other hardasses that stalked the city nights.
So this unnerved me, and I did what you’d expect in this situation. I sought the reasoned and trustworthy advice of people who cared for me and would never think of steering me down the wrong path. I brought it to the lunch table.
“You should probably learn karate,” one friend said.
“Or hide,” another offered. “Like, forever.”
This is pretty much the way it went for the rest of the day until I finally saw my girlfriend and told her about the late night call. She looked appropriately freaked out–we lived in a small town and these sort of things weren’t supposed to happen to us, the good kids. I looked her in the eye and promised we’d be safe.
As the day moved on, I began to rationalize the situation. I had never done something to warrant such a threat, I reasoned, so it must have been a wrong number. By the time track practice rolled around, I was feeling pretty confident that I wasn’t being stalked by some lunatic. So I spent my practice as I normally did: trying to impress my girlfriend by running as fast as I could. All while pretending not to see her.
After practice we held hands–it’s just how I did–and talked about the coming weekend. We were dating, but I was still scared to ask if she wanted to come to my house or to do anything one might expect from a high school relationship. So when she invited me over to her house that night, when she said we could watch a movie, I knew all that sprinting and disregarding had worked its magic.
When I arrived at her house, I said hello to her mother and was quickly shepherded to the windowless basement. We watched Wayne’s World on VHS and it was perfect. And as the credits rolled–as the room grew darker and darker–I knew this was my moment. I kissed her. And then I went home, victorious.
That night, as I waited for her phone call, I sat in the living room, the phone on my lap. I was lost, reliving every moment of the night when I heard something outside. We lived on a busy road, so this wasn’t abnormal. And in my post-victory stupor, I dismissed it as exactly that. But then there was laughter. I heard my name. And then the doorbell rang. I opened the door to find a piece of paper. A note.
Typing that now, it seems comical. Who writes something like that? But in the moment, standing on my porch in the cool Illinois night, I was freaked the hell out. I didn’t realize I was still holding the phone, so I jumped when it rang.
I answered with a yell.
Her voice, like a balm to everything. I told her about the note and she was sufficiently worried. She asked me to bring it to school the next day and I said I would, trying not to cry.
I showed her the note the next morning and her face cloud over. This is the moment where I should’ve been the strong one, where I should’ve taken the note from her hands and said, “Nobody’s messing with me. With us.” Instead, when she asked to keep the note–when she folded it into her pocket–I was happy to be rid of it.
And that night, when the phone rang, I prepared myself for the coming threat.
“Hey,” she said. “Are you okay? You sound angry. We can talk tomorrow.”
I swallowed back the testosterone, the relief I felt upon hearing her voice. I went singsong-y, but didn’t care. We were approaching three weeks, just footsteps towards forever, and she needed to know the real me.
“I thought you were the killer,” I joked. She didn’t laugh. She didn’t say much, actually, and I was worried that I’d somehow made her mad. But when I asked if anything was wrong, she perked up and said, “No, no. Of course not!”
We talked late into the night, until we both were delusional from the early morning. And maybe that’s what did it. Maybe she had meant to do it earlier, when she first called, but it took four hours of mindless chatting to finally pull it from her lips.
“I need to tell you something,” she said, her voice like church.
“If you want to tell me I’m awesome,” I said. “I already know.”
(And looking back–knowing what I know now–I wouldn’t have dropped such a great line. I would’ve held back. I would’ve waited.)
She paused. I assumed she smiled. Then she said, “I know who’s been calling you.”
His name was Dylan and he was her boyfriend too. I was indignant until I realized they’d been dating for more than a year, and that I was the actual interloper.
“Say something,” she said.
But I couldn’t. All I could envision was Dylan sitting outside my house right now, watching me with night vision goggles. It made sense he would have such technology, because everything else about him was just as fantastic.
Her boyfriend. For a year.
The next day, at the lunch table, my friends proffered advice.
“Oh shit, man. You know that dude. He’s the guy with the Iron Maiden t-shirt collection. He might actually kill you.”
We went to a large school, so I didn’t, in fact, know this guy. But after looking him up in the yearbook–seeing the way he scowled at the camera–I did fear for my life. I mean, the guy was wearing an Iron Maiden t-shirt in his school picture, which meant he had little supervision at home, which meant he probably owned nunchucks or brass knuckles, which meant he could, quite easily, follow through on his threats. So I did what anyone would do in that situation: I went to the nurse and pretended to be sick.
I spent the next three days at home nursing my broken heart. Despite the fact that I was the other man, it stung to be cut loose so quickly and with such little regard. My girlfriend never spoke to me again–seriously. I ended up moving to North Carolina a year later and the last thing she ever said to me was: “Yeah, well, I kind of have another boyfriend.”
I don’t know how to end this except to say that I looked them up as I was writing this post and it turns out they got married. Married. I won’t lie: it eased the sting. I was going up against fate and True Love. I didn’t stand a chance. And maybe that’s the moral of the story: the person that dumps you will probably end up married to a guy that wears metal t-shirts for his school picture. A guy who calls people in the middle of the night, threatening them with the voice of a chain smoker. And, in some little way, that has to make you feel better. And if it doesn’t, rest easy in the fact that phone numbers are pretty easy to track down these days.
You know, I’m just saying.