Acts of Lovehttps://i0.wp.com/barrenmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/A-Call.jpg?fit=1616%2C1080&ssl=116161080Abbie BarkerAbbie Barkerhttps://i0.wp.com/barrenmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/AbigailBarker.jpg?fit=96%2C96&ssl=1
Every afternoon, I receive a call from Unknown. The phone hums while I pick lettuce from my teeth. I watch the screen until the call cuts out. I wait for a voicemail that never comes.
My mother warns me of scammers. She says they trick people into spilling secrets, stealing anything they can shake loose. I consider the things I have that someone might want: a modest savings account, an unused graduate degree in literature, a few pieces of furniture I assembled myself.
I’m not sure how long ago the calls started—months, years? My friends and I used to laugh. We imagined promises of fake inheritances. Now, I cancel afternoon plans and wait in my apartment for those familiar vibrations, an incoming call stripped of identifying numbers.
When I ask my mother about my father, she says he loved me the only way he knew how. She believes disappearing can be an act of love. She also told me men who smile easily are rotten. I grew up avoiding white vans and grinning men. These days, when I leave my apartment, I seek sad men, serious men. I slide onto stools next to them in bars. They cry into their palms and thank me for listening, but we never exchange numbers.
Last Thanksgiving, I told my mother I haven’t had a date in over a year.
She said, “It sounds like you’re trying too hard to find someone who isn’t your father.”
“Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do?”
She shrugged. “Who’s to say?”
When I enter my mother’s condo, she squeezes my left hand, searching for something that isn’t there. I ask again about my father. I want to know if he called after he left, if she ever went looking for him.
“It was no use looking. He possessed an ocean of want.” She pulls me into the kitchen where she’s mixing a double batch of cookie dough. She dips a spoon in the batter and hands it to me.
“What about the egg?” I say.
“You need to know when to break the rules.”
I eat the dough and wait for her to explain. Instead, she asks when I’ll be able to afford an apartment in a nicer part of town. She wants to know if I’ve been to the doctor recently, the gynecologist. She won’t say what kind of ocean she sees in me.
Once in college, I tried dating a man who smiled. He approached me at a party while lip-synching a Maroon 5 song. I liked him immediately. But he never stopped smiling at other girls—in restaurants and check-out lines, pumping gas. I started to understand what my mother meant, how a man can make you feel replaceable. How you start to believe the next time you turn around, he’ll vanish.
Even so, there are nights when I wonder what might have happened if I had given him a chance. We liked the same shows. He wrote half-decent poems.
On Tuesday, I eat lunch with my friend Kim. I tried canceling, but she said she had news. She accused me of acting aloof.
Over a plate of nachos, Kim says she’s switched medications and joined an early morning spin class. She keeps talking, mostly about her job. I twirl my phone on my thigh and nod. When I try asking for the check, Kim orders another round of strawberry margaritas, and sure enough, Unknown calls.
I muffle the vibrations with my hand until the ringing stops. I glance into my lap and see that I’ve hit decline. I’ve never declined Unknown.
“Am I boring you?” Kim says.
“You haven’t told me your news,” I say.
She covers her mouth with both hands and squeals. “I’m seeing someone.”
“His name is Barry.” She shoves her phone in my face.
Barry’s head is centered on the screen, but I don’t notice the shape of his nose or the color of his shirt. I’m drawn to the sun-sparkled sea behind him—his wide, symmetrical smile.
In the morning, I drink too much coffee and take inventory of everything I own, everything that might slip away if I spill my secrets. I’m not particularly attached to my stuff, but I’d feel embarrassed if I were scammed, afraid of disappointing my mother. Still, what if Unknown stopped calling and I never answered?
I skip lunch and pace the width of my kitchen. I rearrange the utensil drawer. The call doesn’t come when it’s supposed to, so I scrub the burners, dump crumbs out of my toaster. It’s almost dinnertime when I tear open a package of Ramen. As the water begins to boil, there’s a buzz in my back pocket.
I search the screen—no numbers, no city. Nothing known.
I count to ten and answer.
On the other end, only static. But when I clamp my ear against the phone, it sounds like the inside of a seashell. When I hold my breath, I hear the ocean.
Abbie Barker lives with her husband and two kids in New Hampshire. Her flash fiction has appeared in Hobart; Monkeybicycle; Pithead Chapel; Atticus Review; trampset; Cease, Cows and others. She teaches creative writing and is a reader for Fractured Lit. You can find her on Twitter @AbbieMBarker.