Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Dialing Childhood

When I was twelve, the year some kids started "making out" and sneaking cigarettes, I walked to the drugstore alone and made a secret purchase, nervously doling to the cashier the money I'd saved up, then racing home with my heart pounding, clutching the brown paper bag as I bounded up the stairs to my bedroom, making sure the door was locked before I crinkled open the now-sweaty bag and pulled out ... my new toy telephone.

I don't know what I was thinking, except that I'd never had one before, and ... my family must never find out. My new phone was plastic, of course, thin and cheap, a lemony, too-yellow yellow no real phone would ever come in. The receiver, attached by a fake curly cord like a pig's tail, was hollow, both ends dotted with phony "holes," and under the clear dial that jingled flimsily as it spun (an anemic tricycle bell), the numbers were only stickers. No way to plug it in, smooth and solid in the back, my phone was an imposter, connected to nothing but itself.

But in its capabilities, my toy phone far surpassed the real phone downstairs. After school each day, the facts of the teacher's voice and multiplication far behind me, I'd sit on the central of my bed, dialing and dialing the endless numbers of my imagination, "talking" to far-away people in any country I chose, "listening" and nodding as they spoke back to me. As swiftly as spinning the globe, my finger spun the dial, and though I might have used the few words of French I'd learned in school, no language barriers existed. Before it became Sri Lanka, I must have called Ceylon (a fifty-digit number?), reaching in an instant over the ocean, transported out of my ordinary neighborhood to a lush, exotic place as fascinating as its name.

Not only could my phone "take me" to any place I wanted to go but it was also a miniature time machine, enabling me to cross on a whim from the present to the past and back, to converse one moment with an ancient king perhaps, chat with my favorite rock star the next. Not tethered to the adult world or the wall, my phone was immune to any physical laws. And there was never any bill; it was all free. I don't know if I ever dialed outside the Earth's atmosphere, asked some creature from Pluto how his distant day was going, but I certainly could have if I'd desired.

When it was time to "hang up," when the real voice of my mother called "time for supper" up the stairs, I'd slip the phone into my dresser drawer, frantically smothering its jingle beneath my socks and underwear, smoothing everything over the bulge until tomorrow.

Like my daughter now, I would usually come home cranky from school, exhausted by the long day of blackboards and grades, trapped in my scratchy dress. Lugging my books, I'd trudge through the back door sourly, grunting to my mother's inquiries, not wanting to talk. But something was different about talking on my phone, and during that secret time -- a week? a month? -- I'd rush from the school bus to my room, thrilling as I eased my phone from the drawer like a thief, inserted my finger in the steering wheel of the dial. On my phone, no one ever nagged or reminded me, and the dull minutia of life was filtered out. On my phone, I always said the right thing, smart and funny and interesting. On my phone, I could tell my fears, my crimes without judgment; I was always believed, understood, and heard. After eight hours of following someone else's rules, the phone belonged entirely to me, and I was soothed by the pacifier of its cheerful jingle, the smooth, cool dial. Plus, time was running out. There on my bed, while my sister was out with friends, I made my "calls" with a certain urgency, anxious that she might walk in, of course, but also as though I knew....

At what moment does each of us finally "disconnect"? When was it -- when I woke one morning? -- that I preferred the heavy blue Princess phone my parents had bought for me and my sister, to chat with my real friends about boys and clothes? Lately, I've been struggling to figure out my own 12-year-old daughter's "moment," exactly when it was her connection went dead, when the voices of her stuffed animals faded out of range, replaced by those of her girlfriends in cell-phone texts and instant messaging. It has me stumped.

My mother has been gone for years now, but I'd like to know, too, her reaction that day she was putting away laundry and finally found my secret I'd carelessly forgotten -- not a love note or a boy's number or a pack of cigarettes, but a yellow toy phone. If I had that phone back, I'd ask her.

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