The phone sits on a crowded small shelf, in the hall, next to the front door. A chair is close by, to ease long conversations. Only mother sits there, enjoying the occasional chat. Dad is grumpy and brisk. Sister is too young. My brothers and I, in our teens, take great care of our privacy. We interact with our gang of peers directly, outside, or via public phones in bars, in the street. Cell phones are to be invented.
I pick up the receiver on the fly, ready to pass the call to someone. I stop dead.
Hang in there. There's nobody on the line. I mean… there is music. It starts soft, imperceptible-that is why I hesitated. But, as if calculated, the volume goes up just before I put the receiver down. And I figure the tune. Anyone would. It is the main track of Dario Argento's Deep Red.
Many of my classmates have the record. We love playing it at parties while we dance in the dark or semi-dark, then make out on the sofa. We are a bit too green for alcohol and drugs, barely getting there. Too young, too well behaved-and in fact, though the movie is the talk of the town, some of us were forbidden to watch it. Only kids of kind-of-progressive families have sneaked in. Otherwise it was deemed too sexy and too gory. We vicariously gorge on the soundtrack, bathing into its satellite glare, while the fortunate brief us about the story we missed.
I haven't watched the movie, but I recognize the score. Not a melody, no-a sequence of weird sonic fragments, vibes, ambiances. I enjoy it. I stand still on the carpet, wrapped by the dim halo of the abat-jour. Squeezed among TV chatter and kitchen clangor-oblivious of both-I am mesmerized with pleasure. I have no doubt the call was intended for me. I have received it.
For the following weeks, then months, it randomly happens. No pattern is discernible-the calls come any day, any time. At least those I catch, but no one else is mentioning them. Would they keep them secret? I don't believe so. I don't doubt being the sole recipient of these mute appeals. For unclear reasons, they make me exceedingly proud. I don't wait, don't expect them, do not get anxious. I know they will come, sure as rock.
They always last till I hang up because someone is yelling my name, passing by, asking questions. I am careful of not tickling anyone's curiosity. I end the call at the first hint of intrusion, as if tossing a porno mag under the bed, flushing a cig in the toilets. Thus I am the one screwing a lid on this treasure trunk. This bottomless Pandora's box.
It has more than music inside, as I have sensed even before experiencing it. Sound is only the lining, thick and velvety. Words emerge after a while. Like the track itself, they start soft to progressively increase in volume. If they are recorded, the tape is constantly updated. They are unpredictable, as if improvised on the spot. Hoarsely pronounced, barely whispered, unintelligible, and yet I grasped some. At least scraps.
Some of them are curses. Many are obscenities. Or a combo of both as it often happens. I drink those maimed utterances as I would gulp hard liquor, still out of my reach. They sure inebriate me and, again, make me proud.
The routine lasts for little under a year-sparse, yet not at the point I'd forget, lose my taste for it. I would say my caller is quite adept at relationships, knows how to adroitly balance remoteness and assiduity. Is this my first romance? I guess. And a miniature, private initiation.
Aldous has been a friend of my childhood, with play-dates and all. We have lost touch with teen age, but living in the same small town we run into one another, at a party, and rekindle. He has grown to be a promising artist and a cute guy. I ask to see his portfolio. Then we get into the habit of scouting art exhibits, sometimes go to the movies, the theater.
Once he wants to meet me without a specific plan, just for coffee and a walk. He has something to tell me, he says. I get nervous. He does too. Conversation comes in bits and pieces, clad in veiled allusions, sparse with jokes I am supposed to understand, but I don't.
I feel clumsy, ill at ease. Maybe he has nothing to tell me after all. Or he has changed his mind. He isn't well in his head, and I haven't realized it till now. Or, I guess, it is just a slow, long delivery. And I am the incompetent OB nurse, aimlessly stumbling around.
Water helps… we stroll by the river, watching seagulls and barges. We keep going for a couple of miles, aiming for the delta where fresh and salt water melt. It is also the harbor-a not-too-safe area of town. Not sure why we are directed there. Night is falling.
We sit on a bench for a breather. We shut up for a while. I think eagerly about catching a bus, get back and get home. But a lassitude washes on me, a sweet patience. We relax. He's pointing at something-not too far, not too close. A small crowd, a bustling, a come-and-go, under a streetlight at the corner of the docks and the pier.
"You see that?" he says. I carefully focus. First I think of drug dealing. Then I realize it is prostitution, of course. Male. "I am one of those, don't you know?" His smile becomes a grin. This is what he has tried to reveal all the way. "Didn't you realize?" Why should I have, and how? And then what does it change? We are friends, aren't we?
He is exasperated. We are born and we live in a dormant, dumb, cruel, conservative town. What he is sharing is heavy duty, as heavy as it can get. What he is sharing is a basket of thorns, a phial of venom, the antiphon of a life of panic and lies. Does he want my solidarity? He got it but it doesn't appear to sooth him. Does he want my compassion? I am afraid I don't have any. In fact, I admire him for being who he is, and for the courage of telling me. Does he wish for my blame? He might.
I don't feel I should ask for details. I don't know if I should look at the passes happening under our eyes, silhouetted against an incendiary sunset, spiked by the air's saline sting. I start feeling not-quite-entirely-real. Displaced in time, sucked into a novel or so. Rather into a future of sorts… His next sentence falls out of the blue.
"Do you still remember Deep Red?" I don't immediately get it. Then I do. "It was I".
I say nothing. There is a crooked smile on my face. I feel vaguely ashamed. Maybe I should sound offended, but I want to sound nice. Clumsily, I ask why. He comes apart. "I don't know," he says. "I was still confused, still searching. I was figuring what kind of things I might like, what would truly excite me. I tried that, and it worked for a bit".
I don't dare ask how exactly, though I acutely wish to know. For a bit it worked, he said. Then it stopped working. For a bit, though, we have shared that shadowed chamber, a motel room of sorts where we entered blind. At least I did. Now the veil has been ripped. Do I like what I see?
I still feel kind of proud. Maybe I have been of some help without knowing, for him to sort things. Or I am simply proud of my secret-still a secret, for two. We have been partners in our little crime, then. Now we are sharing another secret-much larger.
Open, shattered at the edges, dirty and perilous, tinted scarlet by the drowning sun.