She answered on the fourth ring. On the first ring, he traced his finger over the warm, metal keys and collected the dust off them. On the second ring, he rolled the dust between his thumb and forefinger until it formed a tiny ball that he flicked away. On the third ring, he squinted indirectly into the setting sun as it bounced hotly off the dimples of the phone’s reflective surface. On the fourth ring –
“Hello?” she sounded mechanical and tiny through the line.
“Hey, it’s me. Are you ok?”
“Who is this?”
“It’s Mac. Are you feeling alright?”
“Yea I’m fine . . . where – what number are you calling me from?”
“Pay phone. Shit costs like fifty cents nowadays.”
“Mac, you need a cell phone. You can’t keep living like this.”
“Why not?” he asked, turning to face the low light of the sun, his brown eyes glinting yellow as they cast themselves into the light. The glow of the early evening highlighted the dust covering much of his neglected car. “It adds an elegant dynamic to my financial trouble. If they don't know I'm poor, they'll think I'm mysterious.”
“They won’t need to think much at all when they find out you live in your car,” she said. She passed her cell phone from her right ear to her left, clicking on her blinker and switching lanes.
“Girls like guys like me," he said, turning in to face the booth. "I'm a project.” He leaned into the structure and placed his elbow on the phones metal hood, dirtying the arm of his jacket with flaking rust and cigarette ash. He cocked his head into the nook of his arm and with his right hand twisted the mouthpiece toward his smile. “I’m very perplexing. I keep the ladies on a strictly need-to-know basis. Don’t call me baby, I’ll call you.”
She laughed at this. Throwing her head back, she emitted two jovial “Ha’s” before leveling herself and refocusing on the road. She had a tendency to drive one handed while her other hand kept busy on the phone. Every few minutes, she would stick out her bottom lip and blow overgrown tufts of hair from her face, repeating the process several times before it was successful. The inside of her car flushed with unpromising shades of orange and red – illuminating the dust particles floating seamlessly all around her. “You charmer,” she smiled, squinting into the falling sun. Although she could not see it, he smiled too.
“Really though,” he said. “You were weird today at lunch. How are you?” He pulled his arm back to his side and pushed his shoulder into the phones metal frame, switching the earpiece from his left to his right.
“I was weird?” she said. “What was it you yelled at our waitress today? Something about having white guys on the hot sauce bottle?”
“I don’t give really care about white guys on hot sauce bottles,” he laughed. “I just needed to do something to distract from all the Goddamn tension between you and Josh. Why do you put up with that guy? it was so thick. As for the hot sauce, you could have put an Orca whale on the bottle for all I care. I still wouldn’t have put it on my – If you’d like to stay on the line, please insert twenty-five more cents. If you’d like to stay on the line, please insert twenty-five more cents. If you’d like to say on the line—
“Shit!” he shouted. “ShitShitShitShit.” Frantic, he dropped the phone and let it dangle from its chord as he felt around for change in his pockets. “ShitShitShitShit,” he chanted, over and over, thrusting his sweaty hands into his jeans. “Aha!” he shouted, clawing for the quarter fitted snuggly in his back pocket. He pinched for the edge of the coin between his fingertips as he pushed into the crisp denim pouch. When he had finally secured a firm grip, he pulled it up with so much unnecessary intensity that it launched from his pocket and flew high into the air. “ShitShitShitShit,” chasing after the coin as it bounced down the sidewalk.
“Mac?” she asked, pulling the phone away from her ear and squinting at it in the dim purple filling her car. Seconds continued ticking in the upper right corner of the screen, confirming to her that he was indeed still on the line. She held her phone up to the window and checked for the signal bar. Full service. She looked from her screen and then back to the road, then back to the screen and then back to the road, and then back to screen and then back to – well you get the idea. “Ma-A-ac, are you there?” she asked. Her windows fogged. Although she could not feel it, the temperature outside had dropped precipitously. “Hello-ooooo,” she called. “Mac, I’m going to count to three, and then I’m going to hang up.” She blew another wave of stray bangs from her face.
“One . . .”
“Ooh!” Mac grunted, leaping to retrieve the rolling quarter. It had grown considerably darker out, and if the quarter had gotten away from him, there would be no glare from the sun to help him spot it on the asphalt.
“Two . . .” With puckered lips she stretched out her vowels as far as they would go.
Mac skid to a stop on the gravel and turned to sprint back to the phone. He was surprised to discover how far the quarter had rolled, considering how rugged the surface was that it had to move on.
“Three . . .” she droned, deepening her voice and mimicking slow motion; even though no one was around to witness her theatrics.
Mac thrust the quarter into the slot and it ka-chunked into the machine. Snatching up the dangling phone he jerked it to his ear for frigid, robotic acknowledgement.
Thank you. Please stay on the line and wait to be reconnected.
With no light in the car, she fumbled with her phone and felt for the “end call” button. Mac’s miniature voice stopped her when it suddenly started calling her name out in the dark. “Mac?” she asked, pulling the phone back to her ear.
“Listen that was my last quarter, so just listen. I think you should stop seeing Josh. I just think you should. I’m pretty sure anyway.”
“Stop doing what?” she asked, clicking on her headlights.
Mac turned around and looked down the road. The streetlights flicked on one-by-one as the last pale fragments of orange sky softened into night behind the tall pines. Mac glowed pale in the gas station’s fluorescent lighting. He sighed into the receiver and rubbed his hand on the back of his neck, sucking in the cool night air and clicking his tongue against the back of his teeth. He waited for the words to come. They never did. Silence filled the line.
“Yea, I’m here. I just –
“Mac, you know me,” she cut him off. “I’m just too picky.”
Mac placed his hand above the pay phone, matching his right palm to the stained left arm of his jacket. He pushed his head against the pay phone’s cool metal frame and closed his eyes. “Well, maybe you should try new things. Nobody likes a picky eater.”
She shrunk into her seat. “Other picky eaters like picky eaters . . .”
“No they don’t,” he said, pushing himself off the phone and leaning against his back. He stared out at the empty street. A single car sped by. “Picky eaters dislike other picky eaters. Even more then everyone else dislikes picky eaters.”
“Well, they’re drawn to each other at first. Of course they are,” he said. He mimicked yowling, sneering voices. “Oh, you only like particular things? How lovely, because I only like particular things too.”
“That doesn’t seem so bad,” she said, taking a sharp right turn. "finding somebody who likes all the same things you like." She entered an unlit, narrow road adjacent to nonspecific clusters of neighborhoods and communities.
Mac rolled his eyes. “Well at first – at first it doesn’t seem so bad. It's always exciting to meet someone who's just like you. But opposites attract for a reason - there's a reason that's a rule. It's a rule because of how much everybody else is in love with themselves. If it wasn't for opposites, people would just be running around fucking themselves essentially. Everybody's always running around trying figure out what the hell to do with that empty second half that somebody else is supposed to fill in. So when you meet somebody you have a lot in common with, you essentially fall half in love with them right away. Just like that. You think, wow, this person likes all the same things I like! I really like this person! But that’s not true, because essentially, your just projecting how much you like yourself onto this other person. You can't fill your half that's full already with all the same stuff. Essentially, you're gonna crowd that side. But you don't realize this until it's too late. So you start to sleep with them. You sleep with them because essentially you're half in love with them. You fuck them to fill that empty half so you'll be happy. Because If you’re in love you’re happy, and you want so bad to be happy that you'll just dive right in and sleep with this person - just so you can be in love. But you can't fill that empty space inside you with that person who's essentially the same as you. So you’re filling that empty side of yourself – with yourself – essentially fucking yourself. And if you’re essentially fucking yourself then you’re masturbating, and if you’re masturbating, then essentially you're all alone. Completely and utterly alone, fucking yourself over and over again, all the time, alone.
Her voice came through the line dissonant and small. “What does this have to do with being picky?”
“Because, when picky eaters get together, none of them are willing to change anything about themselves. They’re just so goddamned particular about every little goddamned thing. They just get so excited finally being able to share themselves with somebody. Finally, they think, someone who’s particular about all the things I’m particular about. Thing is, they’re both so particular about what they want to share and what they want to receive, that when they finally get together, they find out they’re both particularly particular about completely different things.”
“So, they get together and one says to the other, here, you have to try this, it’s my favorite! Then the other person says, oh, no thank you, I’m particularly particular about this here which you have presented here in front of me.”
“Really?” she asked, half listening as she turned down another road, slowing even more to check for street names in the dark.
“Really. They always end up hurting each other. They’ll chew on something new every now and then – looking towards the ceiling as if contemplating whether or not to swallow it – but they always just spit out into their napkin and turn their noses up. Yuck, they say. I don’t like this.”
“So what does this entail?” She asked, turning on her blinker and veering into a neighborhood.
“Well, the other person gets hurt by this. They say, how can you not like this? This is the only thing I like! And it’s this vicious cycle that just repeats itself, until there’s nothing left to be particular about. And there’s nothing left for them to share because they didn’t really have anything to share to begin with. So they fuck all the time so they can feel like one whole person, even though all they’re really doing is masturbating all alone.”
She pulled into a driveway and parked her car. The phone in her hand was warm from being held for so long. The screen was slick with oil. Her palm was moist from gripping the warm plastic. She reached out and clicked off her lights. She did not turn the phone off. “So what are you saying?” she asked. She picked small pieces of lint out of her sweater before unbuckling her seatbelt. She slid back into her seat and pushed on her abdomen to make herself appear thinner. “What do you mean?”
Mac wiped his face with his hands and ran his fingers through his hair, scratching at his scalp along the way. He clicked his tongue against his teeth. “I’m saying that love is about making sacrifices and taking chances and trying new things.”
She sat in silence on the other line.
“Love is liver and onions.” He blurted, confusing himself.
“I don’t like liver and onions.”
“How will you know don't like it unless you try it?”
“Josh’s parents made shrimp once. I tried that, and I hate shrimp.” She fished a tube of lip-gloss from her purse and applied it in the rearview mirror, puckering her lips and making a kissing face. She put down the phone down and smoothed out her hair, looking at her face from different angles in her compact until deciding she was pretty enough. She picked up the phone again. “Mac?” she asked, listening to see if he was still there. “Mac?”
He fumed silently with his face in his hand. He held the receiver out in front of him and listened to her tiny voice call out his name.
She looked at the phone and clicked on the screen, the seconds running in the corner confirming that he was still on the line. She clicked the “end call” button and got out of the car, marching up the driveway to Josh’s house.
Mac marched through the dark, his breath billowing heavily out of his mouth as he walked in the cold. Behind him, the phone dangled and swung from the coiled metal chord as a robotic woman’s voice chanted: If you’d like to stay on the line, please insert twenty-five more cents. If you’d like to stay on the line, please insert twenty-five more cents. If you’d like to stay on the line . . .