Before the Ring


When he doesn't call at his usual time, 8:15 a.m. to be exact, you imagine possibilities.  You stand next to the new coffeemaker with the stainless steel carafe that keeps coffee hot longer and consider what has gone wrong.

He is with another lover.  They have overslept.  Usually he is good about this—he is up and dressed at 7:30 and has the young woman brushing her teeth while he sings to her from the kitchen.  He sings and calls the young woman angel and slaps her ass just hard enough when she leaves that he knows she'll find him again.  The woman out the door by 8 a.m. the latest.  Usually.

But today, this morning, he sleeps his body curled around this new lover, his hand resting on her thigh, his breath soft at her neck.

Or maybe no.  Maybe this new lover is sitting at the breakfast table, sipping tea—oh, a tea drinker, green tea to keep her young and hip—and she reads headlines to him.  She calls them out in a serious way, knocks her hand against the table for emphasis before she speaks, something wise and world-weary.  She knows the news.  It is why he likes her, maybe will one day love her.

Or perhaps this.  There is no lover at his side or in the kitchen.  He sleeps alone, but her taste is still in his beard, in the small cracks of his lips.  She left last night, home to a husband or another lover; she is that kind of woman, easy with her ways, believing the heart can hold many.  He does not mind this; it is good for him to know she is there and then not there.  Soon he will wake and shower and he will smell only of himself.

It is possible there is no woman.  It is something else.  He has woken early, gone to the store to get fresh orange juice, pulpy and cold, to ease the sore throat he mentioned yesterday.  He stops to talk to the cashier.  She is pregnant, and her belly, pushing against the counter, wipes dust.  Boy or girl, he says, and he smiles so that she can see how his left front tooth is slightly chipped, a skateboarding accident from when he was sixteen.

There are other things.  Death or injury.  Pills, a shortness of breath, a dizzy fall, a hitting of the head.  A car accident, perhaps.  He says there is horrible traffic in his city.

You pour from the carafe.  It is true; the coffee is hot.  He has not called, and there is this: a sense of sadness and—you are caught by surprise—relief.  You hold a hand at your chest, pushing, as if you were holding in an understanding.  Your life will return to normal.  No more of this madness.  You met him one weekend on a business trip and since then you talk every day.  You tell secrets and share stories and make plans to see each other.  You wait for his call.

The phone rings.  Finally.  That momentary relief—we are done!—disappears.  You move toward the phone too quickly and coffee spills from your mug.  Your lips brush the back of your wet hand before you say, "Hello?"  

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