the telephone booth
Esteban Hernández was stirring pasta, an old radio quietly crackling some cumbia rhythms from a nearby shelf in the small kitchen, when he heard the door of the telephone booth outside close. These days, he no longer even looked out the window when the booth had visitors. As he absent-mindedly swished the pasta this way and that with an old wooden spoon, the radio’s song transported him to the days of his youth when he would wake up to his mother cleaning the house to the same beats, or to backyard parties in the neighbourhood where there was always carne asada, tias grooving to the music and tios drinking tecate and laughing at things you didn’t understand as you chased cousins and friends around the hot summer sun. A time and place, nostalgia touched, where everyone treated you like family. But that time had passed for Esteban who, now a few days away from being seventy-nine, preferred to spend his afternoons indoors where the air-conditioned atmosphere more suited his disposition and where he could indulge in culinary experiments whereby he would try and visit faraway places and cultures through their food. Without any expression on his face, he wistfully remarked on the difference between then and now, the difference that nearly sixty years makes, the difference that tragedy imparts. Life had changed completely that day, nearly fifty years ago, for him, for everyone, and all the survivors of the city of Agadez struggled to move forward without the people they loved.
It had been sudden and it had been violent. The sort of violence that makes one feel lost and hopeless in the face of its earth shattering throes. The sort of violence that leaves a person resolutely numb inside, faith shaken and existential questions at the ready, because there was no-one to blame as the earth, uncaringly, demolished homes and parks and streets and parking lots, churned down buildings and relationships, ripping apart the physical and the intangible networks that enweb people.
For some it had been easier, the bodies of their loved ones, or identifiable parts thereof, found, uncovered, dug out, pulled out. A gruesome closure, but a certain one, nevertheless. For others, like Esteban, it had been harder. Nothing had been found of his family. Some pretended their loved ones perished. Others desperately, illogically it might be said, hoped that they’d be alive, somewhere, somehow. Others flip-flopped between the two extremes. The city had been left a graveyard, the dead and missing outnumbering the living, person shaped holes glaringly obvious dotting the dusty streets. A corporeal grief walked the roads, stopping at this diner for a bite, at that dance hall for a spin, at a home to watch a soap opera or lay down to rest for the night. And everywhere it went, its murky, smoke grey footsteps were visible in the tears that the city shed, whether quiet or public, reserved or belligerent, private or unexpected.
Esteban himself had lost his parents. They had been older at the time. His mother, sickly from the chemicals she had used to clean houses her whole life, had come to live with him. She was a woman who, despite having been a housekeeping maid, had taught him more than anyone else about quiet pride and dignity. In her later years, Esteban like to remember how content she was as she macramed to the sound of a boiling pot of water over a fire. His father, once a soldier and then a piano player for hire, at that time retired on account of his arthritis and fading hearing, still liked to head out almost every evening to, with great difficulty, listen to the sounds, old and new, that pulsed through the veins of the city. His father’s old upright piano now served as a shelf, in an out of the way corner of the living room, for a small shrine that Esteban maintained for his departed. There, he would place a little fresh fruit everyday, and he would light some incense and ring a bell. It was, now, for him, a way to stay in touch. To let the remembered know that they were still a big part of the family.
And he lost his wife. Her picture was there too, alongside his parents. She had been, was, beautiful. He found that he had to constantly correct himself, the tense of his speech in relation to her tense. She was and was not dead, even if he didn’t know where she was. He liked the idea that she was alive, somewhere, somehow. In days past, they spent their evenings drinking tea and saké and talking on the front porch of their modest house. Esteban had been a deep sea fisherman and then, at her insistence, studied and became a marine biologist at the university so that, on those nights, he would tell her stories of a different world, separated from theirs by the water’s surface and reflected light.
They had met on the shoreline. It was a warm summer evening when he, returned from the days’ fishing, unloaded his catch into buckets and she, sitting out on the rocks with other girls while other boys around them tried to be impressive, threw pebbles at him so that he would turn around and see her. But when he did, she would pretend it hadn’t been her and would pose so that he would notice her in the new dress her mother had sown. She was a decade younger than him but had always been the one leading their relationship forward. It was she who had made him so happy when, one day, as he walked in the house, coming home from the university, called out to him from the kitchen that dinner was going to be about twenty minutes late because I had to go to the doctor to make sure everything was fine with the pregnancy and the doctor said that it looked like we would have a healthy baby. His happiness overwhelmed him and he stood motionless in the hallway for an entire minute, his brain dumbfounded, his hand still holding the coat that he had placed on the hanger, before his body started to function again and he was finally able to smile. Uncontrollably.
His son’s picture was there too, on that piano shelf. The picture of a boy that would never turn one. A bubbly, smiling baby boy with olive skin, brown eyes and a wiry tuft of hair sticking out this way and that, despite the numerous times his mother had tried to smooth it down with her palm and a little spit. The day he had been born was the happiest day of Esteban’s life, he thought to himself. But then so was the next day, as he watched the boy drink milk from his mother’s breast. And the next. And each after that; every moment had acquired more meaning and importance with the infant’s arrival. One day, sitting on the porch and drinking saké with his wife beside him and his sleeping son in his arms, Esteban thought about how blessed his little house at the edge of the cliff was to have so many types of love under its roof, so different but all, somehow, so alike. The love his parents had for each other, tempered by time and argument and compromise; the love he shared with his wife, still young, bold, enflamed, passionate; the love his parents had for their adult son, proud and worried and content; the love he, as a father, had for his son, expectant and protective and unconditional.
After that day when it all ended, he had not known what to do with himself. He lived in one of the shelters set up by the army for disaster victims. He lived there for three years and, for a while, he would cry himself to sleep at night and would search wherever he could during the day, trying to find his family. Then one day, Esteban returned home where rubble and dust awaited him. There, in his garden facing the cliff overlooking the ocean, laying on its side, was a telephone booth. It was square, painted white, with glass window panes that were broken. The door had been ripped off and lay a meter or two away on the ground. Inside, a black rotary phone half-dangled from the receiver that was stuck through one of the broken window panes. Esteban, without knowing why but feeling like it was the right thing to do, lifted the telephone booth on its end, walked in, and stood there. After a while, he bent over, picked up the phone that was not connected to anywhere, and placed it on the little shelf. The wind blew through the broken windows and the open door and the sound of the sea crashing against the shore could be heard nearby. He sighed and left.
The days passed and Esteban, a shell of a man, walked around performing his daily tasks with automated grace, all the while he tortured himself in his mind, not being able to cope with the loss, “How do you talk about grief? How do you say I love you when it can no longer be heard by those it’s meant for?”
It hadn’t been planned. He hadn’t even thought of the telephone booth since the last time he had seen it. But one day, as he paced around, clearing rock and plaster and disaster, his feet took him to the door of the booth. Perhaps his thoughts could not be relayed on a regular phone line. Perhaps they needed to be relayed on the wind.
He picked up the door, stepped inside and softly propped the door behind him, ensconcing himself with makeshift privacy. With an unsteady hand, he picked up the receiver and brought it to his ear. There was no dial tone. Nevertheless, his finger absentmindedly dialed a number. It was the last phone number that he and his wife shared. It is the only phone number he can think of. Then, he stands in the booth in silence, holding the phone to his ear. Time passes. He fidgets. And he tilts his head up, towards the ceiling, like he wants to cry but is trying hard not to. Like he is trying to will away tears that just won’t stop flowing. Still, it doesn’t work. He takes off his glasses, covers his face with his hands and pushes the bottom of his palms into his eyes. Eventually he hangs up but does not exit the booth. He lingers there a little longer, hands clasped in front of him, staring at the phone, staring at the phone booth floor. Outside, birds chirp happily, oblivious to his grief.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t save you.”
He walks out.
As the days pass, Esteban returns to the phone booth, never saying anything, but always dialling the same number. He even takes the time to fix it: repairing the broken window panes, replacing windows, repainting the booth, attaching the door and greasing the hinges. The phone inside remains disconnected.
One day, he surprises himself by speaking into the phone, compelled as if by an outside force: “Hello?”
“Hello? Maria, where are you? Aureliano? Mom? Dad? Can you hear me?”
Thirteen words. That is how long it took for Esteban Hernández to begin the process of healing. Not moving on or forgetting. But the beginning of a journey to regain that part of himself that could enjoy a beautiful morning or the feeling of a cold drink soothing your throat on a hot day.
Since the day when he first spoke into the telephone, he made a call, or at least a visit to the booth, everyday. And every day he would say something different. At first he would plead: “It’s been so long since the disaster. If this voice reaches you, please listen. Sometimes I don’t know what I’m living for. Aureliano, please, let me hear you call me papa. Even though I want to build a new house, dad, mom, Maria, Aureliano, without all of you, it’s meaningless. I want to hear your reply. But I can’t hear anything.”
Other times he would imagine that he was leaving a voice-mail that they would hear even though they could not return his call: “It’s so cold now, that winter is coming. You’re not getting cold, are you? Maria, is our son with you? And grandma? And dad? Come back soon. Be found soon. I am waiting for you, ok? I’ll rebuild the house in the same spot, you’ll see. It’ll be just like we had it before… make sure to eat something, too, anything, just stay alive, just be alive. Somewhere. Anywhere.” A choked sob would escape: ”I’m so lonely.” And he would hang up. And stare at the ceiling. And the floor. His real feelings were communicated through the small gestures in his speech: making sure they had something to eat or staying warm. He did not know how to say “I love you” out loud, so he said it indirectly and more honestly through his words. And then he would exit the booth and return to rebuilding the house. And waiting.
The phone booth became the one place where he could voice his complicated feelings out loud. His irremediable regret of having held back, of having let the fearsome vulnerability of being hurt preclude the grand reward of being truly understood. He would have the same conversation with his parents, his wife, his son, over and over, in his head, or on the phone. He would keep telling the dead all the situations where he had wished he had keen kinder, more patient, a better son or a better husband. All the situations where he mourned his failure to confide. Where the word ‘should,’ a dreadful, auxiliary word, followed by the word ‘have,’ described an act he’d never thought of at a certain time, or, worse, an act though of and decided not to enact and his immense anger at should having and not having done.
On some days, the grief would rise, unexpected, choking him: ”I do have one question to ask: Why? Why did you die? Why did it have to be you? Why just me left? I’ve always wondered, why am I the only one that is different from everyone else? Anyways, please be found quickly. Where are you now? They never found anything of you. Aureliano, I know you’re young, and I’m sorry to ask this, but please take care of your mom and your grandparents for me.”
“I just want to talk to you again.”
It had been forty eight years, three months, twelve days and twenty hours since Esteban Hernández had last seen his family. Time had smoothed and soothed the hole they left behind. He had done his very best to go on. He had endured. “Don’t worry about me,” he would say now, at the end of each call. The dead didn’t need to spend time worrying about the living. Father Clara, the parish priest, often said that the dead were not immediately released from their earthly worries, not automatically in heaven, happy and carefree, and it is up to us to let them know that we will make it and that they can move on, that we are not their burden to carry. And so, with time and the help of the phone booth, Esteban did just that. Now he cooked pastas and curries and sushi and imagined family vacations that his Maria had wanted to take. Esteban had endured, but he had not been made whole again.
Word gotten out, over the years, about the phone booth and other people came to use it too. Sons and wives. Daughters, grandmothers, cousins, brothers. They came and, hesitatingly, each made a call. Some would just update their lost ones on what was happening in their lives. Others would work through their grief. There was never an answer that could be heard through the receiver. Nothing ever, except the dead silence of an inanimate object.
But sometimes, through the cracks in the booth, the crash of the sea and the whistling wind sounded like someone was listening.