She didn’t believe in love anymore. She didn’t believe in love anymore, and it didn’t even make her sad.
* * *
Elsie had tried to share this new omission—of what seemed to her to be fundamental matter—with the important people in her life.
“I don’t believe in love anymore,” Elsie would say, trying to keep the melodrama out of her voice.
“You’re just being melodramatic,” her mother had said.
“You’re absolutely hopeless, Elsie,” her sister, Ruth, had said.
“It looks like it’s probably going to rain,” her father had said.
“God’s love prevails over all things,” her Great Aunt Morgan had said.
“It’s over-rated anyway,” her best friend, Beth, had said. Beth was a good friend. Always knew just what to say.
* * *
“I don’t believe in love anymore,” Elsie told her cat, George, who really didn’t seem at all bothered by it. He sniffed at her hand, licked her thumb a little, and then ambled away, presumably bored.
Elsie sometimes wondered exactly what her cat thought of her. In what terms he viewed her. Was she just the food lady? That woman who masturbated too often, and cried too often, and ate king sized bars of chocolate too often, but who also happened to have access to the refrigerator, which is where Dear George—his full name—knew the food to be. Was that all she was to him? Or did they have something greater than that between them?
“I said I don’t believe in love anymore,” Elsie shouted after him, but he didn’t turn back. Damned men, Elsie thought, only vaguely referencing the plump amble of her cat as he sulked down the hallway. They don’t know that they’re always supposed to turn back for one last look. Over the shoulder. At what they’re leaving behind.
* * *
Elsie didn’t tell any of the women that she worked with about her new self-discovery. She didn’t tell the women that she worked with much of anything. Because Elsie—unlike them—never talked about the men in her life—the men!—they all just assumed that she was a lesbian, never taking into consideration the fact that she never talked about women, either.
Elsie worked as a telemarketer. The whole floor of the building that she worked in was filled, always, with women. Not a single man among them. They sold magazine subscriptions, mostly to old people. The elderly. Telemarketing is a business very much dependent on the geriatric.
It was funny, Elsie thought, that all of them should be women, considering that most of the telemarketing calls that she got at her own home were from men. Some of them with very sexy, gravelly voices. Voices like walking in sand—but not at all like getting sand in your bathing suit.
That was how she had met Mark.
* * *
“Can I speak to Elsie Song-teg?” He had had one of those voices. The sexy, gravelly kind.
“It’s Son-tag, actually, but you’ve gotten the closest yet,” she told him. She was always very friendly to other telemarketers. A commiseration thing. Like an arm around the shoulder of a comrade.
“Oh, I’m very sorry Ms. Sontag…”
“It’s Miss Sontag, actually,” Elsie said.
“Well, Miss Sontag…”
“Do you like your work?” Elsie interrupted.
“Excuse me?” A note of bafflement had entered his voice.
“Do you like your work? Do you enjoy it?”
“Umm—” He hesitated.
“I work in telemarketing, too,” Elsie said. “And I like it, actually, very much. Sometimes people tell me stories.”
“Yeah, I get that, too.” She could tell by the little curl in his voice that he was smiling.
“My name’s Elsie,” she said.
“I know,” he said.
“Oh, of course,” she laughed a little. Of course he knew her name.
“I’m Mark.” There was a long pause. “You’re not going to buy anything, are you?” It was less a question, and more an admission of fact. But without any of the usual kind of defeat.
“No, Mark, I’m not going to buy anything. But you can call me anytime you want to. I like your voice.” Elsie was always much braver on the phone than she was in person. It came with the glorious anonymity of it. The facelessness.
* * *
Elsie was old enough that she understood the idea of the rapid passing of time, but young enough that it hadn’t occurred to her yet to be bothered by it. Sometimes hours, whole days even, would be eaten up with her barely noticing them, but it didn’t strike her in any kind of cutting way. Time passed. It always did. Just a matter of fact.
What did strike her—brutally, coming upon her in that moment between sleeping and waking when Elsie found herself most vulnerable to errant thoughts—was that, though she was young now—a comfortable twenty-four—and that she had been young for as long as she could remember, the greater part of her life would likely be spent at an age that she considered to be old. If she lived to be…she thought she could be generally certain of living until about eight-six…it was a comfortable figure…that would mean that she would be over sixty for more than twenty years. More than twenty years as a senior citizen.
The thought struck her with a kind of meticulous panic, like the teeth of a zipper clamping together along the roof of her skull—though she was well aware that it was foolish to be panicked about such things—and she couldn’t sleep the rest of that night, thinking about being old for such a very long time.
But maybe I’ll die in my seventies, Elsie consoled herself, and that seemed to resolve the matter, though she made a mental note to ask her Great Aunt Morgan—who was now seventy-eight—if it really felt like being old so long…or if she ever really felt old at all.
* * *
“You’re seriously thinking about being old?” Beth had given her a look. That certain look that she sometimes gave Elsie, which translated to Elsie that Beth thought her to be possibly a little unbalanced. Mentally unbalanced. A look that made Elsie think that Beth was catching her at being unbalanced.
The were out at Jerry Black’s, the only place in town that served chocolate malts—not milkshakes, malts—something that the two of them had been sipping together since they were roommates in college. Sipping and looking at one another over mounds of whipped cream. Whipped cream garnished with a dash of cocoa powder…just the way that they had learned to like it.
“Yes, I’m seriously thinking about being old,” Elsie inhaled a quick mouthful of whipped cream, pressing her face to the froth as if preparing for a kiss. “Don’t you ever think about it?”
“Well, if I did, I wouldn’t bring everyone else down by talking about it,” Beth said, tossing a strand of hair that had stuck to the condensation on the side of the malt glass.
“Would you rather I talk about the other thing?”
“The other thing?”
“The more pressing thing.”
Beth gave Elsie a quizzical look, her eyebrows hopping up almost to her hairline.
“The ‘not believing in love anymore’ thing.”
Beth shook her head. “No,” she said. “No, don’t talk about that. I’m tired of that already.”
* * *
Mark had called her back. Of course. Of course Mark had called her back.
It wasn’t the same night. A week later. Six days.
“May I speak to Elsie Sontag?”
“You got my name right!” Elsie had been genuinely surprised. Delighted. She had been brushing George when the phone rang, and had to hang on tight to the brush’s cat-paw shaped handle to keep from letting loose a more enthusiastic reply than that.
“Of course I did,” Mark said. “Do you know who this is?”
“Mmm…probably not…but you could guess…”
Elsie thought for a minute. “Are you the guy? The one in all the papers? The one who follows women home and attacks them while they’re digging in their purses for their keys?”
“Is that who you think this is?”
“Well, it would be my luck.”
They laughed together. A light, tinkling sound, only slightly deflated by its transport through the telephone lines.
“This is Mark…” And, though it was clear that he intended to say more, Elsie cut him short.
“No fair…you ruined it.”
“Ruined it?” He sounded worried.
“The game. I wanted to guess some more.”
* * *
“The thing about not believing in love anymore is that I have a lot more time now, you know, for things that are more important.”
“Are you still talking about that?” Her sister, Ruth, was cutting Elsie’s hair. Ruth was a hairdresser. Worked in an upscale salon. Worked in a salon that Elsie could not afford. In exchange for free haircuts, Elsie would do odd favors for her sister. Wash her car. Repot her plants. Baby-sit for her daughter—who was illegitimate, something that, though not by modern standards even mildly shocking, thrilled Elsie in a strange, old-fashioned way. She would look at the baby, her niece, and Elsie would think to herself: illegitimate. Her father had been a brief fling—no one in their family had even met him—and Ruth, a life-long pro-choice advocate, had found herself pregnant and unable to actually have an abortion herself.
“What do you mean, am I still talking about that?”
“Well, Jesus Christ, Elsie, you’re not some jilted teenager. Get the fuck over it.”
“You’re cutting my bangs too short,” Elsie said, and then whispered, barely perceptibly: “And I don’t believe in love.”
“What?” Ruth had a tuft of Elsie’s hair between her fingers.
“I said I don’t like my bangs that short.”
They frowned at one another in the mirror, their most serious faces. Faces that they had constructed and practiced on one another as children until they had each gotten them just right. Really very serious frowns.
* * *
Elsie had been surprised when Mark suggested that they meet. It didn’t seem to her to fit with the idea of him that she had formed in her head. In Elsie’s mind, Mark was a voice. A voice. Nothing more. No substance. No matter. Nothing tangible, like what she might wrap her arms around. And she was comfortable with that. Comfortable with just the voice. No head, no legs, nothing to be hurt by. Nothing to dislike eventually. Not that she thought about it in those terms.
When Elsie met Mark, she still very much believed in love.
They had talked on the phone four, maybe five, times since the initial telemarketing call. Had developed what Elsie would call a “report.” Had things that they would talk about, things that they wouldn’t touch. Neither one of them asked the other if they were attached. No: “Oh, by the way, do you have a girl/boy friend” stumbles. They talked about cooking. About how terrible they both were at cooking. They talked about their pets—Mark had a dog named Rufus—and about the postal system. Safe topics. Topics without teeth or sharp edges.
“They know that they’re about to be phased out,” Mark had said about the post office. “Can feel the hot breath of technology on their necks.” Which made Elsie laugh. That thing about the hot breath of technology.
“But I still send letters,” she said, and would have asked if she could send one to him if there hadn’t been this quiet understanding that neither one of them would ask for the other’s address—a question that would have the capacity to push them from comfortable to creepy.
Creepy people asked for strangers’ addresses. Elsie wasn’t creepy. Mark wasn’t creepy. They didn’t ask.
* * *
If Elsie had written Mark a letter it would have said this:
The United States Postal Service would thank me if they knew the efforts I was making on their behalf. Today, I will purchase a thirty-seven cent stamp and affix it neatly to the upper right hand corner of an envelope in a gesture of solidarity. I will drop the letter into one of those blue boxes—checking that the last pick up time has not already passed—and it will be in your hands in a matter of days, depending on your position in the world. Not as fast as an e-mail, granted, but you will be able to see the paper that I touched, will be able to hold it in your hand, and, if I have the foresight to spritz it with a little of my favorite perfume—you know the kind, I told you already—you will be able to catch just the faintest whiff of something like me when you open it.
I’m writing this letter for a multitude of reasons, the first of which is to prove a point about the beauty of letter writing. You feel good with a letter in your hand. You might be happy to receive an e-mail from someone, but the little electronical thing doesn’t have in it the same warmth. This letter is warm. You can pinch the paper between your fingers. See the way that my “y”s kick up at the end—a little flare that might suggest passion on my part. Might suggest a kind of sexual energy.
Another reason for writing this letter is to tell you things that I could not say to you right out. For instance, I could not say to you, do not have the courage to say to you, that I adore your voice, and that at times, during the day, I find myself thinking about you and wondering if you will call, wondering if you want to talk to me this night…or this night. That is what letters are for, really. They are a place to put the things that cannot find their way through the tongue. At least that’s how I see it…
And it would go on like that for a couple more pages, and then Elsie would realize what a silly thing it was, tear it up an begin again:
Probably you didn’t think that I would really write to you at all. Well, here I am and writing you a letter. One thing that I didn’t take into consideration is the speed of writing. Already it’s taken me several minutes to write something that I could have said to you in under ten seconds. And on top of that, I don’t think it sounds as good as a letter ought to. Letters ought to be grand and magnanimous. Or something like grand and magnanimous. Something at least good and weighty.
But, since I said I would I thought that I had better at least write you a letter, though it seems that I am much out of practice for all of my “I still write letters” talk.
Take care of yourself.
But, of course, Elsie never wrote Mark a letter at all.
* * *
She never said, not even once, that she was in love with Mark. Not to him. Not to Beth or Ruth. Not even to herself. But it seemed to Elsie that if she should be in love with anyone it should be Mark. But she never really said she that was.
They met. At a coffee shop. Somewhere neutral. They lived in the same city, and it was a coffee shop that they both sometimes went, but they had never met…and wasn’t that strange? But it was a big city, and maybe they were never there at the same time at all, and it wasn’t as if either one went to the coffee shop to meet people. Just went. To have coffee.
He was cuter than Elsie had supposed he would be. Most good-looking men did fine for themselves and didn’t have to resort to meeting anonymous women over the phone. But there he was, with dark, curly hair—just how she would have made it if she could have chosen—and eyes that couldn’t really seem to decide on a color. And she had tried on three outfits before deciding on jeans and a sweatshirt. Sexy jeans and a tight sweat shirt, but still casual, and still not looking like she was trying too hard, which all of the other outfits had seemed to imply. Effort. Effort was a dangerous thing to suggest.
Mark had big hands and a softer voice in person, and he clasped both hands around his coffee mug when he talked instead of gesturing, as Elsie did, with her hands and arms and face and body. She talked with every part of her that she had at her disposal. She even caught herself talking with her feet sometimes.
And they talked, nice and easy, just like on the phone. And Elsie thought that she should probably be the one to suggest that she should go, to leave him wanting more, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it, because it was nice sitting and talking to him. So when, after a couple of hours, he said that he should be getting home, she realized that she had missed the chance to do it, and that it gave him somewhat of an upper hand. A trump card. That and the fact that he had her number and she didn’t have his. Mark was in control. And he didn’t kiss her goodnight, but he touched her hair, and that was somehow better. Just that simple thing. They were standing in the doorway of the café, both about to go in opposite directions, and she was saying that they should get together again, and he reached out with his big, knuckley hand and tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear, and she felt something in her belly turn to liquid. And then he walked away, his back broad and bobbing with the weight of his steps, his hands in his jacket pockets. She watched him until he turned a corner, not even really blinking, it seemed. And it was only later, when she was home, tucking herself tight into her bed, hat she realized that he hadn’t looked back at her. Not even once.
Elsie thought about Mark all the next day. Imagining him in her apartment. Imagining him sitting on her couch. Mark on her couch. Mark drinking from one of her wine glasses. Mark propping his feet up on her coffee table. Mark standing in the doorway of her bedroom, looking in shyly. She thought about him and thought about him until she felt a little heavy with it. And she carried her cordless phone with her from room to room, thinking that he might call, and that she didn’t want to miss it. But he didn’t call that day. And not the next. And Elsie couldn’t think why, except that maybe she wasn’t beautiful enough. That was the only thing that she could think of.
* * *
It was a week later—after still no phone call and her still thinking about him, and imagining him in other places, other rooms and touching other things of hers, drying his hands on her bath towel, looking at himself in her room, knocking on her door—that Elsie made up her mind not to believe in love any more. Because if love couldn’t manage to grow itself in such lovely and romantic circumstances, such fertile ground, than probably it wasn’t there at all, and she just wouldn’t think about it any more. She was done with it.
Elsie didn’t believe in love any more. But it didn’t really change anything. Not really.