Every morning, before anything else, I check my phone – just in case.
Today I wake up because Justin is calling non-stop. I lie in my bed scattered with books and clothes and phone cords and sweat from all the abs I did last night. Gyms are closed, the university is closed, and it has been days since I left my apartment.
Justin’s call is a surprise. He usually texts me. I live in a small town in Oklahoma, now, in the middle of endless fields, where fear delays to come.
My eyes are still half-shut. I let the phone ring and then check my mother’s texts, from back in Italy. No one in my family is sick yet.
As soon as I get up to go make coffee, the phone starts ringing again.
I don’t want to talk to Justin, but it’s not like I’m angry with him. In a moment like this, with everything closed, no one going to concerts, clubs, bars, no one sitting at a coffee shop, I should value any kind of human contact, but I let Justin call and I head to the kitchen. In the silence of my apartment, I hear the hum of the fridge; the coffee filter echoes when I shake it above the trashcan to get rid of the grounded beans from yesterday. I shove the oatmeal in the microwave and stand there, watching the plate spin, as if I was listening to a record. Then, still waiting, I get the dirty laundry and load the washer.
I listen to the water bubbling in the kettle, the microwave warning me with a ding! – the oatmeal is ready. I’m surrounded by the only sounds I’ve been hearing in the past few days: in the morning, when it’s too early to switch the music on, I find myself face to face with my apartment’s quietness.
The phone starts ringing again.
I met Justin in class. Justin is forty, handsome, has combed-back pitch-black hair which gets all scruffy when I put my arms around his neck to kiss him.
Justin is married and has three kids. Justin goes to church every Sunday and has two guns and when he was young, he was in the navy, and he represents everything, everything, everything I hate about America.
Six months ago, Justin kissed me after class. We kept seeing each other, and I never felt guilty. For a second, I had thought of stopping sleeping with him to protect myself and avoid a situation that could hurt me.
But now, as Justin’s name flashes on the screen, I know that I haven’t suffered at all. I only want to switch on the music to cover the phone ring, and pretend Justin never existed.
Of course, I suffered before. I sit on my bed, holding the coffee mug; I still hear the clothes spinning in the washer, the hum of the fridge. I remember of the time my first boyfriend dumped me, at the end of my senior year in high school in Italy. I locked myself up, like I am now, and didn’t do anything for a whole month other than listening to the Stones, reading Dracula and sucking on mint popsicles.
And then my second Italian boyfriend, whom I thought was the one. When we broke up, I stopped eating completely. I managed to count my own ribs for the first time in my life. I wore out Blur’s discography.
I haven’t been feeling that way in a while, which is probably good. I can listen to any song, and it won’t remind me of any boyfriends who got away. I don’t have any memories to erase, social media profiles or pictures or letters that could hurt me. These days, I worry about my family and I pick up the phone as soon as it rings, just in case someone calls me from Italy to tell me they’re sick.
I don’t pick up the phone for Justin. When I see his number again, I think of the songs we heard together; I think of his chocolate eyes, the wrinkles on his neck, his packets of American Spirits, the ice clinking in his glass of Jim Beam, and I don’t feel anything. I don’t feel the bite of hunger, the need to devour him whole between my arms. I just want to listen to a song that will take me away from my room, from the ringing phone, from the noise of the washer, the microwave’s ding, the silence of my apartment.
I would like to hear some Italian – my mother’s voice, my parents’ Golden Retriever barking, my father muttering some curse as he tries to light up his pipe, but the lighter doesn’t work. I’d like to hear the cordless phone ringing downstairs, my brother yelling at me to go pick it up. It’s usually grandma calling, but to be fair, someone is always calling my parents’ place. No one is ever alone.
I start playing a Bowie album, sit on the bed again, and switch on my laptop to watch an episode of a random series while I’m having breakfast. Justin stops calling. Despite the music, I keep hearing the hum of the fridge, the spinning of the washer.
Since I moved to the United States, I have never stopped listening to music. As soon as I can put on my earphones or connect my laptop to the speakers, I have something ready to play – a playlist for studying, one for relaxing, one for getting ready to go out, one for a dinner party, one for an actual party.
I need to hear. Once, Justin asked why I have a record on every time he steps into my apartment – stepped.
I didn’t know how to answer. Telling him that music is good company, that it soothes solitude, would sound like a cliché. But I probably hadn’t even realized it, before the pandemic.
I thought of putting together a Justin-themed playlist, as I did for other guys in the past, but with Justin, I couldn’t. The songs we have heard together, randomly, at a bar, at home, or wherever, are all wonderful, and as such, impossible to connect to a specific moment in our relationship. Something by Dylan, something by Velvet Underground, Serge Gainsbourg – they were simply splendid pieces of music. Nothing could make them better or ruin them for me. So, when Justin came over, I felt free to put on a Beatles album, my favorite songs by Arctic Monkeys; I could even play the ukulele for him, singing the same song my ex-boyfriend had serenaded her for Valentine’s Day, back in Italy.
I had no reactions. Music, alone, was enough.
The phone rings again – a text this time. I need to talk to you. It’s urgent.
For a second, I’m scared. It’s the kind of message that would make me panic if it came from Italy. Before I can even imagine what might have happened to him, he starts calling again, nonstop. A month ago, I would have thought that such a wave of calls could mean only one thing: his wife found out. Today I don’t know what to think.
I pause Bowie. “What’s up?”
“The administrative offices are closed,” Justin says. I can tell he’s driving, as he usually does when he calls me: in his car, Justin is in a non-place, far away from his wife and kids.
I know that the whole campus is closed, including the administrative offices. It’s been going on for a while. The virus is coming.
“I wanted to get some forms signed,” he goes on. He’s much better at lying to his wife. “And, well. Honestly, I just wanted to hear the sound of your voice.” He trails off. “I miss it.”
I can’t remember the last time someone told me a line like that. I don’t feel anything.
I have been thinking about breaking it off with Justin recently – telling him that I don’t feel anything when his number shows up on my screen, when I kiss him, when I feel his body close to mine. But the university is closed, classes are cancelled, and he’s stuck with his family – we won’t be able to see each other for weeks, maybe months. It’s not worth it. There’s nothing to say, no solution. There’s never a right way to say that feelings aren’t reciprocated. Only waiting remains. The quietness of uncertainty, of the end, only punctuated by the same sounds – the buttons of the microwave, the plate spinning, the ding! at the end. The clothes in the washer, the hum of the fridge.
On the phone with Justin, I don’t say anything for a while. I hear the noises in the background, the wind from the windows of his car, Justin taking a drag of his American Spirit.
“My mind is so far away from all this,” I tell him, and it’s true. I’m elsewhere. Every day I wake up and check my phone and I don’t hope for Justin’s good morning text. I only want to make sure I didn’t miss an important call from home while it’s daylight in Italy, but it’s still late at night in Oklahoma. I’m constantly afraid to be too far. The time gap leaves me behind.
And even when I scroll down my texts and realize that – so far – everything is okay back at home, my mind still fluctuates too many light years away from Justin. I think of how, if I got sick, the university insurance wouldn’t cover my treatment. I think that this may be the life I’ll live from now on, locked up in my apartment forever, and I’ll really lose my hope to meet someone whose voice I actually want to hear. I think that collecting doomed affairs, like the ones with married men who go to mass every Sunday, won’t make me happy anymore. I think that I’m alone. I think of being twenty-six years old; I think of the way I put all my resources into leaving Italy and moving to the United States, looking for a better future, but now the future seems on a break until further notice. I think of how, if someone at home would get sick, I may not make it to be there in time. I think of my grandma, who survived World War Two, and now the pandemic. I think of the people I may or may not see again and the new ones I may encounter in the future; I think of going back home, or maybe staying, or even moving somewhere else, of how hard it will be to find the job I want. I think of my plans, which now looks like a tangled spider web. I think of my future, which doesn’t have anything to do with the conversation I’m having with Justin.
I feel the disappointment in Justin’s silence; the distance between us stretches out like a rubber band that is about to dart away. Justin’s voice is coarse, metallic, suspended between words he doesn’t want to say. But he’s also polite, proud, a real Southern man, like he says. “Understandable,” he goes. I know what he’s thinking: bullshit. That’s some bull-shieeeeeet, his Oklahoma accent crawling between his lips.
I don’t say anything, and Justin waits.
I’m swamped in the silence. For a second I hear the hum of the fridge, again, my clothes spinning in the washer, again; I see Bowie’s record on pause. I want to go back and listen.
I push play so fast that Bowie starts singing even before I hang up, before I can allow myself to hear the pathetic sounds of my apartment again. Only when I imagine Justin tossing his phone against the windshield, punching the steering wheel, cursing between his teeth, I find the right words for the end of our relationship, for myself, for the quietness of the world in isolation. We became nothing.