Previously published in the Los Angeles Review of Books Special Edition: Fiction Issue
Lucy died a year ago, and now I’m finally dating someone new. For a while there, it just didn’t feel like I could form connections with people. My therapist at the time said I never really dealt with Lucy’s death, but then insurance stopped paying for our sessions.
Kate, my new girlfriend, has a great laugh and I like her. Today I have to get a new iPhone, so we’ve come to the Verizon store together.
Usually it’s like yanking fingernails to get attention in these places, but a ginger-haired sales manager is hovering, probably because Kate’s tank top shows off her bare shoulders and the vanilla slope of her breastbone area. His nametag says “Marty.”
I wave him away. “We’re just looking.”
I play with one of the brand-new display iPhones. To test it out, I type my phone number in and send myself a two-word text.
My old iPhone vibrates in my pocket; message received. My phone is two years and two generations old, obsolete. But it’s the phone I had when Lucy was alive. It still has all her texts on it. Plus pictures, videos, all that. I could transfer them to another phone but somehow it would feel disrespectful, cavalier. A hundred years ago dead people left behind finite things like handwritten letters. Today what’s left of Lucy are reproducible patterns of data—like her Facebook page, her Instagram, her Twitter, all of which still live online, dormant. Plus the articles about her death. She died of complications during a simple endoscopy, and she was young enough—twenty-six—and accomplished enough that a lot was written in the local papers.
“I actually don’t really need a new phone,” I say.
“Yes, you do,” Kate says. Her tone seems vaguely hurt.
“I like my old phone.”
“Why?” she says. “Why would you want to keep your old phone?”
“Come on, Kate, let’s go,” I say, heading for the door. The sales manager, Marty, watches almost sadly, as if we just looked at a bunch of orphans and then decided not to adopt.
Kate walks out after me, saying, “I wish you would just say why.”
We spend the afternoon hiking. I never used to hike, but Kate loves it. She makes a good point that high metabolism won’t last forever.
I get a text message.
It’s from the display iPhone at the Verizon store. I know that right away because I didn’t delete that message I sent myself before—Greetings human—and this one appears on the same thread. I also never deleted anything on the display phone itself, which means my number is stored there for any customer to text. I tell Kate what’s happened and she laughs, delighted.
“Text them back,” she says.
I text back—
Nope not real. Just a ghost in the machine
After a moment the person responds.
Lol. Then, M or f?
Kate laughs. “Men!”
“That’s not fair,” I say. “How do you know it’s a guy?”
She gives me a look, like, Really?
All afternoon, I keep getting texts. They come from different people. Some are playful (Nock nock), some hostile (Fuck eeeeeeverything), some baffling (Kizin is coming).
Kate seems bemused by the eagerness with which I reply. But it’s entertaining. I like to picture these anonymous store-goers who send me their messages, who let a faceless stranger glimpse their secret selves.
Finally I can tell Kate’s getting a little frustrated by how much time I’m spending on my phone instead of appreciating the mountain. I’m getting bored anyway, so I ask whoever’s on the other end to delete my number from the display phone so nobody else can text me. I don’t get any more texts for the rest of the hike.
We go to Kate’s place for the night. Tomorrow’s Labor Day and we’re going to a barbecue so I’ll sleep over. Her place still feels wonderfully unfamiliar. Her bar of shower soap has flecks of buckwheat or oats in it.
Before sleep, we have sex, and then we read books side by side in bed. She falls asleep first. Twenty minutes later, I turn off the light. I’m almost dreaming when my phone vibrates. A text message.
It’s from the display iPhone in the Verizon store.
You were in the inbetween huh
I reply—Yeah was almost asleep
Wish I could be there with you
I reply—Meaning what?
Wish we could do things
I wake all the way up, kind of puzzled but amused. Finally the obvious question occurs to me. I text back—How r u texting me from the display phone in the phone store in the middle of the night?
I’m not in the store
Where r u?
I’m in a field without trees and I can see the constellations
Who is this?
There’s a long pause. Then the reply.
I miss you
Who r u?
Afraid to say
I lie awake for a while. And then I fall asleep.
In the dream I’m hiking on the mountain. The trees by the path are fleshy, with slits down the trunks that expose red stuff. Lucy comes down the path toward me, which is weird because she never went hiking. The sight of her makes my heart feel like a broken leg. When we get close, she nuzzles my face the way she used to.
“How have you been?” I say.
“Not so bad,” she says. “It’s like I’m in the inbetween all the time now, so it’s nice. I just wish you were here.”
I wake up freaked.
You know how sometimes you “remember” something when you’re in a dream, but in the morning you aren’t sure if it was a false memory, created by the dream, or if you were remembering something real?
That was Lucy’s phrase for the state you linger in just before you fall sleep. For some reason the text last night didn’t trigger my memory. But when she said it in the dream, I remembered right away. And it wasn’t a false memory. The real Lucy used that phrase.
Which makes it very strange that whoever texted me last night used it too.
Did I really get those texts? Were they part of the dream?
I check. Not only are they real, but I have new ones.
Good seeing you
Remember when we went to the movies and stayed all day?
I do remember. That was a good day.
My head gets all swimmy—a kneejerk weakness just at the thought of getting a message from Lucy. At the same time I’m feeling this rage, hot and prickly like a cactus cloud or something, at whoever’s fucking with me.
I call the number. It rings. I picture the display phone ringing in the Verizon store, some people standing nearby, vaguely startled, wondering whether to answer it. No one does. I call a second time and still no one answers.
I write: Who r u?
Text me ur name.
I write: Stop fucking around. Who r u? How do u know me? How r u using this phone?
I hate when you get impatient w me
“Who are you texting?” Kate says, half-awake.
“Work,” I say, turning the phone off. “I know, it’s the weekend.”
“The holiday weekend,” she says.
When she’s in the shower, I turn the phone back on and text the person back.
Who r u?
We have to go to this Labor Day party. It’s going to be all Kate’s friends from her job, which is a nonprofit that works to reform the foster care system. But all I can think about is who’s sending the texts and why—and how. Kate’s losing patience with me. The whole way to the barbecue, I’m glued to my phone.
Want to ask you something, the person writes.
I respond, What?
Are things good with Kate?
Who r u? I text. How do u know her name?
Is it better with her than me?
When we get to the party, it’s just a bunch of people in a backyard with their shirts buttoned up a little too high. There’s a pool.
“Why is no one in the pool?” I ask.
“It’s overcast,” Kate says. “And probably no one brought a suit.”
“Yeah,” I say, “because no one even mentioned a pool.”
“Who do you keep texting?”
“I would’ve brought a suit if they’d mentioned the pool.”
Kate walks away to hug her boss hello.
I text the person, U don’t even sound like Lucy. Then I get a beer and start drinking.
I send another text. Fuck u, whoever u are
I wander through the party like a ghost. No one talks to me. Kate’s caught up with her boss and a couple of male coworkers. One look at them and I know exactly how they talk about her when she’s not in the room. I finish my beer, then notice a bottle of tequila by the grill. I pour myself some in a paper cup.
Fuck u, I text. I bet ur a guy. U r fucking sick. Come see me in person. Oh right u don’t have the courage. I’d break your fucking face
I stare at the party. The people, talking. The empty pool. My phone vibrates.
Remember the day we went to the movies and stayed all day? That was a good day
FUCK U, I text back.
Sorry. I shouldn’t have texted at all. I won’t text you again.
I hover at the edges of the party. It feels like I’m floating in space. Kate beckons. Instead of going over, I get more to drink.
Another text comes in and my heart flinches until I see it’s from Kate, saying, Are u ok? How come ur not talking to people?
I reply, Just not feeling it. I’ll be fine
But she keeps looking at me, worried. I refill my cup and move to the opposite side of the yard.
I’m not mad, I text the Lucy-person, I just want to know who u r. Just tell me who u r
Can u stop please? I text. Just be honest.
I am me
By now I’m drunk. I hover near the grill and pretend to study the burgers and sausages. A guy offers me a selection of them on a paper plate. I take one, put it on another plate, and walk halfway around the yard to throw it in the garbage. Then I send a series of texts.
What r u trying to do
What do u want
Either tell me who u r
And what u want
Don’t text me again
There’s no response right away. I look around the yard. Still no one swimming. Kate’s watching me. My phone vibrates.
I look at the incoming text. There’s no message. It’s just a photo. It shows a sunrise seen from a rocky beach. There’s a collapsing stone lighthouse silhouetted at the edge of the image. I recognize it right away. It was taken on the coast of Maine. I took it.
I took it on Lucy’s phone. She was sitting next to me. We were visiting her parents near Pumpkin Cove. We had stayed up all night in their house and gone for a walk in the morning and saw this amazing watercolor sunrise. The photo makes me forget to breathe.
I see Kate walking toward me. I go into the house and lock myself in a bathroom. It all comes over me, the person-sized gap in my life. We were together five years. I never got to say goodbye. I’d give anything, anything, to get her back. I start to heave with silent sobs. I turn on the bathroom sink to hide the sound, just in case I make a sound.
She texts me, Remember that trip? The things we did?
I reply, I remember.
The things we did in my parents house?
I don’t know how to respond. I just sit on the tile floor and curl up, feeling that person-sized gap, wanting to crawl into it. Wanting to do anything except be here, in the present day, where she isn’t.
My phone vibrates over and over, more texts coming in. I can’t even look at them. It’s too much, too intense. Like touching the raw pulp where a tooth used to be. Finally my phone stops vibrating. After a few minutes I pick it up and look at the texts.
They’re straight up pornographic.
They’re explicit, detailed descriptions of what she wants to do to me now. They’re present-tense. What she is doing.
I look at them for a while. I feel an anger and, at the same time, a strange, vulnerable recklessness. Finally I text back—
When I walk back into the yard, I’m still drunk but I feel different. Almost purified in some way. Kate sees me. She comes toward me.
“What’s wrong?” she says. “What are you doing, why are you taking off your clothes?”
“I’m getting in the pool.”
And I do. I strip down to my boxer shorts and go in. I’m the only person. I go underwater for as long as I can, and then I float. When I come out, Kate looks mortified. Her coworkers are staring. I go inside, dripping, and get a towel. Kate follows me inside holding my discarded clothes and waits outside the bathroom as I dry off. When I come out, she’s staring at me in a different way, like there are live coals behind her face.
“I have to get out of here,” I say.
Kate throws my clothes at me. I get dressed. I walk to the front door and out on the front lawn. She’s still following.
“I looked at your phone while you were drying off,” she says.
I stop. “Oh.”
She looks like one of those demon women from myths, a fury or a siren or something.
“What is wrong with you?” she says.
“What do you mean?”
“You just SEXTED with someone pretending to be your dead girlfriend!” she yells.
“Yes,” I admit.
“I really care about you,” she says. “I thought this might be the beginning of something really good. But you aren’t even close to being over her. I know you went through something terrible and it’s hard to get past. I get that it takes time, but you have to work for it. I can’t just be the other woman in your relationship with your dead ex.”
“You’re not,” I say.
She holds out her hand. “Then give me your phone.”
Someone—her boss, I think—is watching us from the front door. Kate doesn’t notice.
“Why, what are you going to do with it?”
“I’m going to throw it away!” she says. “You only keep it because it reminds you of her. So if you care about me, give me the phone.”
I feel paralyzed. She just stands there with her hand out.
“If you don’t get rid of the phone and get a new one,” she says, “then I can’t be with you.”
I look at her. She looks back. Her eyes are green. Lucy’s were brown.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I just can’t.”
I get a cab to pick me up. When I get home, I don’t want to go inside and be alone, so I drive around in my own car for a while. Eventually it’s night. I end up at the Verizon store.
It’s closed. The display room is dark and empty. The Lucy-person has been texting intermittently since I left the barbecue. I stand outside the Verizon store and text “her” and wait for a reply to come.
When it does, I look in the store window. I can see the display model iPhone that I typed my phone number into yesterday. I’m right at the window, three feet from it, and no one’s using it. It doesn’t even light up when I text it. What the fuck is going on? Where are these texts coming from?
Then I notice something. The display iPhone I handled yesterday was black. This one is white. It’s a different fucking phone. Someone switched it out.
Why? How? The display phones are attached to their stands with anti-theft cables. You can’t get them off unless—you have the key. Unless you work at the store.
The fucking sales manager. That ginger-haired fuck. I remember him. I even remember his name.
My phone vibrates.
Tell me you miss me
Tell me you miss my touch
I text back furiously—
UR FUCKING DEAD MARTY. I KNOW WHO U R MARTY. FUCK U.
There’s no reply.
I pace the parking lot. The fucking sales manager. How did he know all that shit? He saw us in the store yesterday. He had my number because I typed it in the phone. He used my number to find out my name. He googled my name and found out about Lucy. And all the details… he must’ve combed her social media accounts. Certain details about her day to day life, things we did together, spending all day at the movies—he could’ve gotten from her Twitter and maybe Facebook.
I go on her Instagram and, yeah—there’s the Pumpkin Cove sunrise photo.
Why? Was I rude to him? Dismissive? Did he hate me because he wanted to fuck Kate? Did he want to fuck me? What the fuck would make him do this?
I drive around and get food from an all night gas station. Then, just before dawn, I park down the street from the Verizon store, out of sight, and lurk in the shadows, hoping against hope that he’ll be the one who comes in early to open up.
A grey Toyota pulls into the lot just after sunrise.
It circles like it’s scouting. Then it parks. The driver gets out—it’s him. The second I see that shapeless ginger-haired silhouette, I’m sprinting. He hears footsteps coming up hard and he turns. His eyes widen. He drops the keys. I slam him up against the glass.
“Why’d you do it?” I yell.
“Don’t hurt me!” he shrieks.
I wrestle him to the ground and pin him with my knee and punch him in the face a bunch of times. I’m not that big or strong but this guy is absolutely hopeless. Just crying and covering his face and stuff.
“Fucking pervert, fucking piece of shit!” I say over and over as I hit him.
“My wallet, take my wallet, take my car!”
“Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you!” I’m sort of crying with rage now.
By the time I tire myself out, I’m starting to feel bad. It’s like beating a fat old dog. He’s not even defending himself. He’s terrified, fumbling to give me his keys. I get up and back away, panting.
“Don’t ever do that again,” I say. “Not to me or anybody.”
I go home and pass out. I don’t wake up again until the sun has almost set. The first thing I do is check my phone. There are no new texts.
The long sleep makes it feel like everything was a dream. I feel hollow and ashamed. I call Kate. She doesn’t answer. I send her a text asking her to call me. After a few minutes, she replies—
Please don’t get in touch. Let’s just make a clean break.
So I lie in bed for a while. Then I scroll back through the “Lucy” texts.
Where did she ever use that phrase online? I search her Twitter, her Facebook, her Instagram. I google her name and the word “inbetween” in quotes. Nothing. No online uses of the word associated with her.
I go back through her Instagram and look at the Pumpkin Cove sunrise photo. Then I look at the version “she” texted me last night. It seems like… they’re a little different. There was a filter applied to the Instagram one. But the one from the barbecue… it seems like it’s different. Like the angle is slightly different. Or like maybe there’s no filter at all.
It’s getting to be night outside. The sky is dark blue and getting darker. I can see the moon and maybe a couple stars, although I could be imagining those.
I start texting.
R u there?
Photo By: Daniel Peckham