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Long-Distance Calls MAG
Mother puts blankets over our ugly furniture when guests visit, and Father drapes words over the past when Uncle Bryan calls. There is no need, my father believes, to confront a painful history when small talk will so neatly conceal it.
The dynamic between my father and my uncle is cinematic: A big brother’s need to protect a little brother, one man trying to save another. My uncle has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and my father has been diagnosed with saving him.
Uncle Bryan calls three times a day because it’s easier to talk to family than to yourself. I remember learning that Bryan was crazy, that he’d tried to kill himself, that he’d been put away, released, put away, and released again. I could never connect these facts with the person who made our phone ring so many times every day. I was able to understand that his phone calls made my father act like a stranger.
I hear my father on the phone with his little 45-year-old brother every night, and every night I hear my father’s voice transform.
When (for it is never a matter of if) Bryan calls from his cramped apartment in San Francisco, my father adopts the persona of a California surfer: carefree, living the easy life, eating lobster for dinner and surfing until dawn. He does not talk about the toilet he had to fix that day, the tenant who whined about the heat, or the elevator that stopped working. I think he ignores these things as much to protect himself as to protect Bryan. It’s easier to put on the smooth voice of a made-up character than it is to wear the deep, responsible voice of an older brother who is working too hard.
It’s six o’clock on a Tuesday night. The phone rings. It’s Bryan. I hold out the phone, and my dad, watching television, takes the phone without looking at it. Answering the phone has become a reflex, like breathing. My father puts the phone to his ear, his eyes still intent on some primetime drama.
“Bryan!” he booms. “What’s the what?”
They speak to one another but don’t talk. They exchange catch phrases, and that is enough. This is not a conversation, this is a confirmation. Verification that the person on the other side of the phone continues to exist, to breathe, to think and eat and pee and sleep, to love and live and, most importantly, to answer the phone.
My father hangs up, and 20 minutes later, Bryan calls again. Bryan calls again and again; in the middle of my conversation with a friend from school, he calls, fragmenting our speech with the beep of call waiting. He calls while I am curled up in an armchair reading. When I am eating dinner, fork poised in midair, he calls. He calls when my dad is out and when winter moves in.
My dad complains. When we leave the house for vacation or to visit out-of-town friends, we return to an answering machine bombarded with messages. “Are you there? It’s Bryan. Are you there?” Sometimes the phone will ring and, immersed in a book, my father will say offhandedly, “I’ll catch the next one.” It is as if the phone calls are a bus you can never be late for, and our house is the station. We say jokingly that Bryan is more reliable than public transportation.
One day, he does not call.
He doesn’t call the day after that.
Or the day after that.
The silence is loud; even the static from the television doesn’t fill it. We wait on the edge of our seats. When the doorbell rings, we answer the phone. We go out for dinner on the night of the second day that Bryan has not called, and when we get home my dad rushes for the answering machine. He is hoping the red light will blink, like the eye of a living thing. There is no blinking. There is only the blind stare of the red dot, and no calls. I feel like the answering machine has turned into a dead animal.
On the fourth day, my father’s sister calls. Bryan forgot to take his medication a few days before, she tells my father. He was wandering the streets at night, got hit by a car. Alive? Alive.
The red light on the answering machine begins to blink.
Bryan calls the next day. He mentions physical therapy and then goes off on a tirade about what he had for dinner. My father is gripping the phone, his knuckles white. His eyes are filled with tears. His voice, however, is jovial and booming. He will not tell Bryan about how he has felt the last few days, how worried he has been about his little brother. That would be a conversation, and that is not what this phone call is about. This phone call is for Bryan, not for my father. This phone call is to say: You exist and I remember.
Bryan calls all the time from the hospital, and sometimes I get annoyed when the phone wakes me up at night. The conversations between my father and his brother average 15 seconds, barely enough for a greeting and a farewell. Why pick up the phone at all, if you don’t plan to converse? When I have insomnia and am staring at the ceiling, I think about that. Then I will step into Bryan’s shoes, imagining I am him, before I even realize what I am doing. When I find I’m in Uncle Bryan’s shoes, alone and waiting for a call, I want to jump right out again, slip on my own worn sneakers, and forget that other footwear exists. My father feels responsible for Bryan’s shoes, I realize one night. I fall asleep with the image of my dad guarding a pair of worn brown loafers from an angry mob. The image is burned into my mind, filed away in some folder of subconscious images that pop up in my dreams again and again.
That summer my father and I fly out to visit Bryan that summer. Seeing him in person is different from what I expected. My father talks softly, and Bryan is quiet. We wander around San Francisco, Bryan in his wheelchair, my father beside him. They bump into each other every now and then, to make sure the other one is still there. You exist, says my father’s hand as it rests on his brother’s shoulder.
I watch the wordless interaction between the two and feel as though I am listening in on a silent, private conversation. I turn away and intently examine the flow of people on the street, trying to catch my breath.