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On Years of Voicemails, Some Old Flames Kept Burning

An ode to emotional baggage that fits in your coat pocket.

15.2.2020

For our annual Love Stories series, one Vogue editor reflects on the six years worth of voicemails saved on her phone.

An ode to emotional baggage that fits in your coat pocket.

Pinterest I don’t really know how to start this story, exactly, other than by saying that there was quite a long period of time during which I wanted nothing more than to be other people. (This, in my mind, is different than wanting to be “someone else”; at once more and less specific.) I wrote like other people, I dressed like other people, I sought cues from films and books and friends and song lyrics and I sort of welded the small tower of myself together based on what arose from all of those separate parts. I don’t think I’m alone in that, by the way—I think part of the reason young women are always such an object of fascination, whether in fictional accounts ( The Crucible !) or real ones (the Manson girls!), is due to that innate mutability during that tender time before they realize that they are, in fact, enough. Girls are like so many shimmering chimera then, these plastered-together impossibilities, disloyal even to themselves. What could be more dangerous? When I grew older, and more sure of myself, and who I was emerged out from behind who I thought I wanted to be, it became too easy to forget those earlier versions entirely; to write off the years spent horseback riding, or ballet dancing, or planning a future spent in the study of Egyptology, or as the muse of this artist, the wife of that man, the star of this, the author of that. To paraphrase Elizabeth Bishop, I lost whole cities that way, though not all of mine were lovely, and some have a way of turning up when I least expect it; a torn-up sky and a tousled hilltop reminds me of this small Scottish town; an arid beach road of that summer in Spain; a slick city street at daybreak is suddenly the New York of my youth, spangled and somehow holding its breath, full of exciting strangers and endless opportunity to make memories that I’d never imagine I’d later want to forget. And then, this being New York, you take good real estate where you can find it, and you paper over the bad memories with good ones until you can't remember why you used to avoid that stretch of street; anyways, it’s where your new office is. A lot of this is the process of growing up, but it’s also the only real excuse I can give for the point of this essay, which is the following: I have somehow saved six years of voicemails on my phone. Shall I explain? A person learns pretty early on in life that there are lots of different types of baggage. Kids, pets, real estate, sexual hang-ups, bad habits, emotional triggers, restaurants you can't venture back into, or neighborhoods that you won’t. My baggage, at least, fits into my coat pocket. Twenty-nine voicemails, at last count, carried over from several different phones, such being the magic (and the threat) of modern technology: I can lose my phone, my past lives will still find me. This means, by the way, that inevitably my inbox only has room for one or two additional messages: my dry cleaner, my parents, a doctor’s office, a restaurant confirmation. Those go in and out, no problem, though sometimes the shallow end will get a backlog (easy, when there’s only room for a few) and I’ll get a frustrated note from my mother— tried calling, your inbox is full, call me back . . . xo —who, in the habit of all proud mothers, likely thinks that it’s her own fault for having such a terribly popular daughter, though she doesn’t know that her messages are crowded out by sweet nothings that have long since expired; ambitions that have lost all their air; devotions that time has deflated, and grown putrid on the vine. And besides, my friends know to email, or text if they need me. It occurs to me that I’m hoarding. The second-oldest message I haven’t heard since the night it was left, when I watched the bright face of my phone and waited for the poured-out protestations of a heart I had broken in an effort to preserve it. I barely listened to it then—though I remember the first few words perfectly, each sticking their landing, notching into my heart as I sunk off the edge of my bed and onto the floor. I pulled the duvet over my head, the phone away from my face. I don’t remember the rest of that night, or who else was in my apartment, though I know they were there, waiting beyond the door, or else my lamentations wouldn’t have been so private. The rest of that night is lost to me, subsumed somehow: How long before I got back up, fluffed the duvet, re-emerged with a shrug and a smile? It can’t have been long enough. Advertisement That’s the trick about remembering to forget: you are reminded all over again. The soft click of a voice in the ear and the body betrays you with a sort of caving in: an instantaneous smallness that feels like your organs solidifying into one dense knot. It's inescapably physical. And being physical had been a joke amongst our friends when we were together, how we couldn’t keep our hands off each other, not even in public—and we were, more often than not, entwined, puppyish in our affections, generous with our very selves. Who could be surprised, then, that distance—one Atlantic Ocean, to be precise—became the problem? No one warned me, I want to say, but of course, everybody tries. But it was not so much the distance as the fact that he wouldn’t make the distance any less, and I, if I admitted it, which I never would have, wasn’t really sure that I really wanted him to. My new life was fun and more importantly, new, and his was back where we had been, which had become, somehow, a place that I could no longer go. I expect that he knew that, and I expected it then, but what I didn’t expect was the call, the inherent vulnerability of the voicemail itself (which these days may as well be an etched stone tablet for all of its contemporary relevance, but even then was extreme): a plea, that began simple and straight and as insistent as a pulse: pick up. Pick up. Left for posterity in the hands of someone else, his every shift in tone between expectation, anticipation, confusion, disappointment audible: An entire relationship and its demise laid bare in exactly three minutes (a drunk-dial, a dull ache). He never called me again—though, to his credit, I had told him not to. (To my credit, I hadn’t thought he would listen.) The idea of playing it again, even now, more than half a decade later and some new lives lived, makes all of my extremities feel like they’ve fallen asleep. And we’re not even in love anymore. But in that message, we still are—and worse, we both know it. At least, I think we did. We never spoke again, which seems amazing to me now—to share a number of years and most of your thoughts with someone and look back only to see them, suddenly, gone. It makes you feel as if he may never have existed at all; in that way, it’s like he’s the one who left. I guess I’m reluctant to make him disappear again, even if he (likely) wishes I would. Not all of the messages are romantic. Some aren’t even particularly noteworthy. At least one is a type of collateral, evidence in case I need it against the overreaches of a creep who threatened to write me into his movie. Others are dear friends I don’t see as much as I’d like—or who aren’t as happy now as they were then—singing happy birthday, sharing a ridiculous story, telling the punchline to a joke I’ve long since forgot. The vast majority are from my partner, running the arc of the collective momentous gestures and minutiae of five years spent braiding our lives together: him on the road at various film festivals; me asleep, a time zone ahead at some foreign Fashion Week; him about to step onto the red carpet at an awards show. There are holiday plans and errands to run, one of us at the airport, or the grocery store, or stuck in traffic, that sing-songy dialect unwittingly developed by couples when they’re talking just to each other (or, I’ve since learned, to their animals), Hi, it’s me, just calling to say I love you . Now that we have a dog, we FaceTime when we’re apart for long stretches. Our dog never knows where the voice is coming from; he used to bring toys to the iPad, for pats and approval, now he turns away. I think it disturbs him, the disembodied voice coming from something so flat, and so cold. Advertisement Why save voicemails from the first and last person I speak to every day? I always believed that it was sprung from some version of a deeply held paranoia I rarely admit; a completely unprovable belief rooted in anxiety and the world’s general unfairness that too much happiness queues up an inevitable correction, a wave of its opposite—love being, in this case, defined as the terror of their plane crashing, not your own—and that all of this emotional investment in something as fragile as another human life or the ties created between you was your own idiotic folly. And I, in my lawyer’s-daughter mind, feel like I will want auditory proof, inculpatory evidence of exactly what I lost. A voice in the silence, vulnerable and pure and untethered to a heartbeat. Listen—he loved me. But I know that it’s more than that. It’s a connection to all my selves (at least from the past six years), and the pieces from which I built them; my own museum, or mausoleum, led by the same impulse as the home-video craze, but as intimate as a sonogram. No jealous threat to a current love, but a scrapbook that refuses to fade, in a world where things are increasingly ephemeral. 29 little ties to false starts and fictions and lives I’ve lived as deeply real to me now as they were then, once you press play. Listen to this—Remember? That was us. But I’m not exactly sure, because I never do listen to them. It’s enough to know that I have them, queued up, waiting there, in case of emergency, or if I forget myself again. Topics Read more: Vogue Magazine

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