Halfway through our Saturday
morning ride, I finally pick up the phone and try giving her a call.
Lately I've begun carrying the
cell phone with us everywhere we go ... especially on long bike rides. This morning the
phone is stuffed into the little bag beneath my bike seat, along with a
handful of limp Band-Aids, half a bottle of Extra-Strength Tylenol, a
purse-sized notebook and pen, a couple of ancient Power Bars ... all of
the stuff we never actually use but like to carry with us anyway,
just in case. While David is inside the little general store,
buying us both a recovery soda, I stand outside next to the bikes and
tap the 800 number into the teeny tiny keypad.
She'll be awake by noon on a
Saturday ... right?
on the other side of the
parking lot, a herd of young cyclists in full Power Ranger regalia are
milling around, laughing and slapping each other on the back, chugging
Calistoga. I recognize a lot of them: they zoomed past me on
the road, four or five ascents ago. I turn my back to them now and
press the phone flat against my ear, straining to hear the sounds of
Clicks. Beeps. Far-away underwater ringing,
followed by the familiar twinkly theme music. "Thank you for
using AT&T!" chirps the Automated Operator Person, in
her tinny, overbright Automated Operator Person voice. "For
instructions in English, press 1 now." (A bilingual Automated
Operator Person is cut-and-pasted into the message at this point: "Para
instrucciones en espanol, prensa dos ahora.") I obediently
press the correct number key: English, por favor.
And then I wait to be admitted
into the AT&T phone card system.
While I'm waiting, I take a
furtive look around ... not particularly wanting to make eye contact
with anyone, if I can possibly help it. It's a beautiful sunny morning:
blue skies, new poppies, just a tickle of breeze, absolutely no hint of
the rainstorms they were predicting earlier in the week. We've been
riding for about an hour so far: a series of rolling dips and ascents
on Cañada Road in San Mateo, along the Upper Crystal Springs
Reservoir. It's not the toughest ride I've ever been on -- it's not
even the toughest ride I've been on this YEAR, so far -- but I'm sweaty
and hungry and glad to be taking a break.
Plus I'm itchy to talk to her.
"Enter your card
number!" the Automated Operator prompts. I flip the cell
phone over and read the eleven-digit phone card number off the back of
the phone, where I've written it in Magic Marker, and then I turn the
phone right-side-up again and dial the combination of numbers, quickly,
before they dribble from my short-term memory again.
I wanted to call as soon as we
heard the news this morning ... as soon as I looked over
David's shoulder and saw that first gutpunch of a headline on the Yahoo
News website. NASA loses contact with Shuttle Columbia.
But I resisted the temptation. It was too early, and the news was too
brutal. Even though she's not a teenager anymore, I know she still
likes to sleep late on weekends. (That will end the moment she becomes
a MOM. I figure we might as well let her
enjoy it while she's young.) Still, she was the first person I thought
about when I heard that the space shuttle had exploded ... the same way
Patty Rae Patterson is the first person I think of whenever I see
newsreels of President Kennedy's assassination, or the way the grumpy
bartender at Dave's Place Tavern is the first person I think of
whenever John Lennon's murder comes up in conversation. By default,
Jaymi will always be the first person I think of whenever there is a
That's because we lived through
the first one together.
The Automated Operator Person
suddenly comes back on the line, murderously cranky. "The
card number you entered is not correct!" she scolds. "Enter
your card number!"
(Bite me very much, Automated
Operator Person!! YOU trying punching
numbers into a teeny tiny keypad while wearing BIKE GLOVES!)
I re-enter the string of numbers into the keypad -- trying
to use a little more finesse this time -- and then I press the phone
against my ear, one more time, waiting for connection. A few feet away,
a fat man dressed in camouflage sits in a battered pickup truck,
smoking a cigarette and glaring dourly at the Power Rangers. He
probably thinks they're a big bunch of annoying showoffy goofballs,
I'm thinking. But then I catch a glimpse of myself reflected in the
store window -- top-to-bottom Spandex, blue lollipop helmet,
ridiculously overpriced bike shoes, sweaty dirty hair hanging in my
sweaty dirty face -- and I realize that in his eyes, *I* am probably
one of those annoying showoffy goofballs.
I'm not sure whether this is
good or bad, actually.
After a minor eternity, I
achieve connection to the AT&T phone card system and
the Automated Operator Person presents me with another choice. (She has
forgiven me, apparently, for my incredible screw-up two minutes
earlier: either that, or she's in early-stage Alzheimer's and doesn't
remember that she hates me.) "To call within the U.S., Canada
or the Caribbean," she says cheerfully, "please
I press "1" for TicTac.
She was four years old when The
Challenger exploded, seventeen years ago. We were living in the little
Kirkland house at the time: Jaymi, me, her dad, her two-year-old
sister, a bazillion cats, a couple of scruffy dogs, a bloated goldfish
or two. (Her baby brother was still safely in utero
at that point, no doubt wondering if he really wanted to come out
and join the dysfunction, already in progress.) I remember every moment
of that horrible morning as if it took place twenty minutes ago, even
without benefit of going back and checking the journals. But I'm
curious: how much does she remember? Maybe that's
why I want to connect with her this morning. How much of that day has
she legitimately retained in memory? For instance ... does she remember
bursting into tears when I explained to her what had happened? Does she
remember sitting next to me on the living room floor, helping me fold
the same four towels over and over again, while we watched the endless
horrifying newscasts? Does she remember getting out her crayons, midway
through the afternoon, and announcing that she was going to draw
pictures for Christa McAuliffe's little girl? ("She doesn't have a mommy
anymore," she said. "I don't want her to be sad.") Does she remember a
shellshocked President Reagan on TV, calling for a one-week period of
mourning? ... or running to hug me every time they replayed the video
of that hideous corkscrew vapor trail? ... or looking at me, the day
after the tragedy, exasperated because her cartoons were preempted
again? ("Is that spaceship gonna splode again?" she asked ... her
finite resources of four year old empathy exhausted finally.)
Or does she remember all of
this stuff because -- like every other moment of her life -- I've remembered it for her,
here on the website?
"Enter star, plus your
Speed Dial Code," interrupts The Automated Operator Person, "or
else the area code and number." I confidently tap the phone
number into the keypad -- this, at least, is one number I don't have to
double-check or look up in my address book or read off the back of my
phone -- but then I abruptly stop dialing in mid-tap. It suddenly
occurs to me that she may not have even heard about the Columbia
blowing up yet. What if she checks her voicemail messages before she
turns on the TV or opens a newspaper or logs onto the Internet today?
Do I really want to be the one to break it to her? I don't think I do:
at least, not like this. But I've already invested so much time and
effort and *Emotion Molecules* into making this stoopid phone call, I
figure I might as well see it through ... if only to keep the Automated
Operator Person from reaching right through the Nokia and killing me
totally dead. I finish typing the rest of Jaymi's number into the
"You have 596 minutes
of call time for the number you dialed," says the Automated
Operator Person: her parting words to me. Then she disappears
completely, and her voice is replaced by the sound of my daughter's
automated voice, instructing me to 'leave a message at the tone.'
"Hi Puss," I say, as soon as
I'm connected to her voicemail. "It's Mom. I'm in the middle of another
hideous ride, and I just wanted to hear a friendly voice. Let's touch
base later, OK? I've got something I want to ask you."
And then I disconnect from the
AT&T long distance system, and I stuff the cell phone back into
my bike bag, and I go into the general store to find my husband.