FOR A GOOD TIME
The line rang seven times, and my hand holding the phone started to sweat; not pooling in beads like during a workout but an oozy, unattractive dampness. I thought of swamps and mildews, mushrooms and public speaking. Finally, someone answered.
“Hello?” The voice was uncertain, high pitched for a man but low for a woman. I was stumped into silence.
“Hello?” said the voice again. “Who is this?”
“Um…” My voice squeaked. I cleared my throat and tried again. “I’m, uh, looking for a good time?”
My new friend laughed. It was melodic and genuine, but gave me no clue as to the gender. I had assumed it would be female, but why? All of the women I knew had better things to do than sneak into men’s restrooms and write their phone numbers on the wall.
“Are you?” he or she said.
“I found…I, uh, found your number in this bathroom on Fifth Street—”
I traced the figure with the tip of my finger. It wasn’t just written, it was carved into the plaster. Whoever was on the other end of the phone wanted to make sure the good time didn’t get away from them, even if it was painted over.
“Oh, Hon,” said the voice, “that’s because I put it there!” She (maybe) chuckled, and it was surprisingly warm and friendly. I almost hung up, but I was too curious.
“Who are you?” And then, because I’d been teetering on the verge of tipsy all night, “What kind of person goes around putting their real phone number on the bathroom wall?”
“What kind of person calls it?” he (possibly) fired back.
“Okay,” I said. “Touché.”
“I’m Kel,” said the voice, adding another layer to the male/female debate.
“That’s not a name. That’s a syllable.”
“Mister,” she said, “If you called me up just to be rude to me, I am not interested. I’m hanging up now.”
“Wait!” I said, though I couldn’t for the life of me imagine why. “Don’t go.”
“Okay.” I pictured him as an old-timey psychiatrist, crossing one leg over the other as I lay on his couch. “Tell me about yourself.”
I wondered if this was what it was like calling a phone sex hotline. I felt dirty. Freud had been a psychiatrist, hadn’t he? He’d always had a pointed little beard in the pictures I’d seen. I wondered if the face that belonged to my companion had a little beard like that.
“I’m Gary,” I said.
“Is that your real name?” Kel asked. It was, but I didn’t want this monosyllabic stranger to know that I was stupid enough to give out real information. What was next, my credit card and social security number? A home address?
“What’s it to you?” I asked.
“You called me,” Kel said again. I pictured a big boned woman with long blonde hair. Tanned but not orange. Pleasantly muscular and a little plump.
“How long ago did you leave your number here?”
“2002,” said the good time girl. “I’ve got surprisingly few calls since then.”
“Really?” I asked, not sure if it was a question, “Can I ask you why you wrote it there?”
I pictured her shrugging into the phone. “I was younger and stupider. It seemed like a good way to meet men. To get noticed.” I undressed her in my mind. She was wearing a white tennis dress, practical underwear. Ankle socks.
“Did it work?”
“I met you, didn’t I?” She laughed again, and it was lower, more masculine. My mind’s eye refocused and I saw a thin man with a Freddy Mercury mustache.
He was still talking.
“I used to get one or two calls a year, but it’s been a while. I was starting to think they’d renovated.”
“Nope,” I said, mouth dry. “It’s still here.”
“Are the walls still that horrible blue?”
I looked around as though maybe they had changed since I’d come in, but they were still a washed out eggshell blue, flecked with steel gray where the enamel had chipped.
“Still blue,” I told him. “My girlfriend says the ladies’ room is the same, only pink, like Pepto Bismol.”
“Your girlfriend?” He was laughing now, again and again. I realized my mistake. “Honey, why are you calling strangers in the public toilet when your girlfriend is out there waiting for you? Is she out there?”
I pictured Nancy in her new dress, playing with her french fries while she waited for me to come back from the restroom.
“I lied,” I told Kel, face burning. “There’s no girlfriend.”
“What’s her name?” he asked, gently, mustache blooming into a swarthy goatee, the kind my modern history professor sported in college. I pictured Kel in one of Dr. Mishou’s sport coats, endlessly clearing his throat and putting up new slides.
“Nance,” I said. “Nancy.”
“Nancy and Gary,” Kel purred, like an old time movie star. “How sweet. Rhyming couplets.”
“We’re having, ah, some problems.” I had a sudden urge for a cigarette, though I’d quit years ago.
“Bedroom?” asked Kel. “Erectile? You or her? Both? They make a pill for that.”
“It’s complicated,” I said. “Family stuff.”
“Pregnancy scare? Condom malfunction? Bossy in-laws? Yours or hers?” Kel’s rapid fire questions were making me feel winded.
“No, nothing like that.” I didn’t want to talk about Arthur Reyes or my accusations, or the trip we’d planned together but now couldn’t afford.
“You ungracious bastard.” Kel’s voice was still light, but I pictured a Disney villain, like Ursula from The Little Mermaid, tentacles swirling and suckers snapping. “Go tell your girlfriend you love her. Hang up on little old me and get off the pot. Or better yet, hand the phone to her. She deserves better than you, and there’s a lot of other guys out there.”
There was a moment of silence, and I spun the roll of paper back and forth, letting it creep a little closer to the floor with every twirl before switching directions and sucking it back up into the dispenser.
“Unless,” said Kel, “you really are after that good time.”
“I, uh…” I couldn’t think of anything to say. I considered longingly my glass of water out at the table across from Nance, or better yet, my gin and tonic.
“You want a blow job, pretty boy?” Kel cooed, temptress like. “Want to come over to my place and let me run you ragged? Or we can do this over the phone, my talking and you just listening, all hands and no dance, you know what I mean? Just squirt your load all over my number when it’s time. Give me a little something to remember you by.” She coughed, and I sat on the toiled lid, frozen, transfixed.
“It’s been done before,” said Kel when the coughing subsided.
“Really?” I whispered, voice caught again.
Kel laughed, and I could hear a smile through the phone.
“Have you--” I rolled my tongue around in my mouth. It was like a dry sponge, dead weight in the cargo hold of my mouth. “Have you been back here since you wrote it?” I said it like it was a dirty secret, like graffiti art pornography instead of ten little numbers which I hadn’t heard combined like this before twenty minutes ago.
“No,” he said calmly, and his hair lengthened, beatnik style. “That night was not a good experience for me. Maybe that’s why I wrote it.” Now we were talking about a poem, a rousing political piece, an award winning play. “Maybe I just wanted to see if I could.”
“You could,” I said, awkwardly feeling the need to praise, to reassure, “You did. Congratulations.”
There was silence again, and a noise I couldn't identify.
“Gary,” he said. “Can I tell you something?”
“Okay.” I leaned my back against the wall, drew my feet up onto the lid so my heels rested against my buttocks. Someone came in and went to the sink. I ignored him.
“I’m glad I did it. But a little part of me—just the tiniest hidden baby piece—wishes it never happened.”
“Why’s that?” He had a beaked nose, maybe some little silver glasses.
“I feel vulnerable. Too exposed.”
“You could change your number.” Blue eyes, the color of the bathroom wall.
“I suppose I could. But what if he calls?”
“He who?” I poked at the paint, chipping it.
“He whoever. Him. You know, ‘the one.’”
“I don’t know,” I said. I’d been in the bathroom so long I found I needed to relieve my bladder again. I stood up and lifted the lid.
“You don’t, I guess.” Kel sighed. “You’ve got Nance. You’re not the one.”
I pissed into the bowl and wondered if Kel could hear it on the other end.
“I might be the one,” I said. “You never know.”
“You’re not. Probably. Unless you want to meet up? Figure it out in person?” She had long dark hair and almond skin, a slinky black dress and lace lingerie. A femme fatale with a dangerous looking cigarette holder.
My hands felt clammy again, and my penis shrunk in my hand in fear as I tucked it back away.
“Probably not a good idea,” I said, trying to sound gentle and not broadcast my nervousness. What had I done? I’d told this stranger my—our—names and location. He could come down here at any moment and I’d never even know it. Not to mention the discomfort the idea of a sexual rendezvous with someone I wasn’t even sure the sex of gave me. I suddenly wanted to be with Nancy very badly. I flushed the toilet.
“What was that?” asked Kel, still uncomfortably close to my ear. “Are you flushing? Are you flushing me?”<br><br>
“Sorry,” I said, praying a little that this would not come back to bite me.
“They always flush me.” He sighed again, shrinking and widening, a sad middle aged man alone in his studio apartment. “Every last stinkin’ one of them.”
“I’ve got to go,” I told him, zipping myself back up.
“You men,” she said, but there was no malice in her voice. “You’re all alike.” Did her eyes sparkle just a bit? Was she teasing me?
“Okay,” I said, suddenly tired of this game, wanting real life back, wanting Nance and my burger and my drink. “I guess. Sorry. Bye.”
“Hey Gary,” I heard her say as I was closing the phone, slipping the lock of the stall, trying to forget those ten digits burning into my brain. “Did you have a good time?”