by Rebecca Erpf
Rebecca Erpf is currently pursuing her M.F.A. in Fiction Writing through the brief residency program at Spalding University in Louisville, KY. She is hard at work on her graduating thesis, a collection of stories titled "Manic Romantic," and has been previously published in The Chick Lit Review. She is a native of North Carolina and is now living in Eastern Tennessee with her husband and their Chihuahua. Rebecca can be reached at BeckyErpf@gmail.com.
Betty's thumb bumps along the rubbery landscape of the remote, catching between each button in the cool plastic crevices before finding its way instinctively to the next command. Channel Up, Previous, Guide, Menu. She has them all memorized. She doesn't even have to look down at the words anymore — not that she would see anything. Most of the neat white letters have been rubbed off from wear, smudged into obscurity by the soft searching pads of her fingertips. The Channel Up button is worn completely clean, just a smooth black rubber oval. Betty hardly ever uses the new Guide button; she prefers to stick to her old method, flipping up deliberately through each of her 589 stations until she finds something interesting to watch.
Verizon cell phone commercial, with logos all red and black. Local news. Black and white movie, perhaps with Cary Grant, one of her favorite actors. Sunday nights are usually perfect movie nights, but Betty isn't sure she's in the mood, so she continues clicking up. Music videos. Nature show. Dog food commercial. If only she didn't work so much, Betty might have a dog to feed. A skinny black dog like the one her boss brought into work that one Friday, who ran around in and out of each office, sniffing people's shoes and poking his head in their paper-filled trash bins.
Click, click, click. Through the two hundreds, through the pay movie channels in the three hundreds. Through the national news stations in the five hundreds. Click, click, click. Betty's thumb doesn't lift off the button. Suddenly, a familiar dark-haired woman is looking at her with a concerned frown.
Betty sighs, shifting her finger over to the Channel Down button. The woman is still there when Betty finds the station again, passed by four clicks in her steady rhythm. It is an infomercial that she's stopped on before.
"Do you feel tired, depressed, overwhelmed?" the woman asks, her shiny black hair bobbing back and forth as she tilts her head. "Maybe you've tried therapy, maybe you've tried medication."
Betty's arm floats stiffly in front of her, the remote still extended toward the TV. Those words send little tics through her brain. Depressed. When she lived with her mother, after her parents' divorce and before her mother's remarriage to Bora — the loud, partying third husband — Betty used to sit in the living room staring at the television while her mother talked to her, rattling on incessantly despite the fact that Betty could never think of anything to say back to her. Betty's father had been depressed, her mother told her so many times. A sickness, she had called it — as if sadness were a disease that you could catch on the bus, or in a movie theater. She said it was the reason her father had left so many years ago when Betty was only three and her two older sisters were still in elementary school. A sickness had caused him to disappear from their lives forever. Betty wishes the dark-haired woman on the infomercial would one day stop just hinting around and tell her more about "depression," but she only talks about her program — how to fix the sickness. She wonders if her father has ever seen this commercial.
Betty presses her thumb on the button again, clicks up one channel, and the dark-haired woman's concerned grimace dissolves into the angular face of Katherine Hepburn, her thin lips tightened into their usual pout, curly hair bouncing as she strides across the screen.
"There is a leopard on your roof and it's my leopard and I have to get it and to get it I have to sing," Betty recites along with Katherine's character. The movie is Bringing Up Baby, and while Betty has always been a bit intimidated by Katherine Hepburn, the movie is still one of her favorites.
Betty places the remote carefully onto the wooden coffee table in front of her couch and leans forward to take a bite of the garlic-salted spaghetti noodles she cooked for dinner. They're already cold. She takes another bite anyway, tucking the loose noodles into her mouth with the edge of the fork, chewing slowly, quietly — never taking her eyes from Katherine Hepburn still arguing with Cary Grant. Maybe she will watch a movie tonight after all.
Suddenly, interrupting Katherine's pleading, Betty's phone rings — three sharp blasts of tinny percussion that always send chills of anxiety up her spine, since it is almost always her mother on the other end of the line, calling to check on her. Or on occasion her soft-spoken younger sister Scarlett, the only of Betty's two sisters who still keeps in touch since Betty decided to move across the country to take a small promotion at work. A promotion her old boss never expected her to accept because of the significant relocation and the lack of pay increase. But it was never really a question for Betty. She wanted to move — to live in a place that only she knew about. There was nothing left for her back home after her mother married Bora (according to her, "the only person in the world that understands me") and after her two older sisters both married, moved to the city, and started having children (Betty has five nieces in all — two of them adopted from China). She had taken the promotion at work without even the slightest pang of hesitation.
Now it was usually her mother calling, with her loud voice, always pressed too close to the mouthpiece, as if she thinks it's the only way Betty will be sure to hear her from so far away; and her constant questions: What did you do at work today B? Have you made any friends there yet? Have you spoken any more to that one girl you told me about? The one that was nice to you? Recently, her mother has started to call incessantly. Practically every day now she calls Betty to check on her. Apparently Bora has joined some "leagues" and is gone quite a lot.
The phone rings again, the three abrasive shrieks causing Betty this time to drop her butter-covered fork onto the coffee table, flicks of white garlic salt spraying off on her hands and the sleeves of her brown wool sweater.
"My mother has turned me into a mental case," Betty sighs into the empty room, to Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant on the television, still arguing. With two careful fingers, Betty picks up her fork and places it back in the bowl just as her answering machine picks up the call. This means she won't have to speak to her mother, but it also means more questions. Where were you last night? Did you go alone? Did you speak to anyone while you were out? As Betty rises out of her chair to wash the garlic and butter from her hands, the generic robotic voice of her answering machine message gives way to the sound of a strange man's voice.
"Jaslene," the man says. "Jaslene, it's Patrick. Pick up if you're there."
Betty freezes next to the kitchen counter, her eyes locked on the bright green light of the phone that indicates line in use.
"I got your new number from Brody," the stranger continues. "Look, we really need to talk. I don't even know where you're living right now! I know that you're confused, and you think you never want to see me again, but I think we need to talk. I need to explain, and I really just want to know you're o.k. Brody didn't know where you are — nobody does! Jaslene," he sighs. "I'm sorry. I love you, please call me, I think we can work through this." He falls silent for a few seconds and then hangs up. Betty stands motionless, staring at her phone with her arms extended out stiffly in front of her like a startled zombie. "Jaslene," she says out loud to herself, feeling the roundness of the name on her tongue. The way the final syllable pulls her lips back into an involuntary smile. Who is Jaslene? She wonders. Why is she not speaking to this man, Patrick?
For the rest of the night she can't stop thinking about the message. She flips without end through her 589 channels but never finds anything to hold her attention for more than a few moments. At midnight, she rises from her chair, shifts her finger to the Off button, and heads to bed.
The next day at work, sitting in her private cubicle in the corner of her seventh floor downtown office, scrolling mindlessly through the data entries on her computer as she does every Monday morning, Betty still can't erase Patrick's voice from her mind. I'm sorry, I love you, he keeps saying over and over again as she copies every tenth entry into the logbook on her desk. I know that you're confused, she hears him say as she lines up in the cafeteria at lunchtime to collect her usual creamy tomato soup and tuna salad sandwich to take back to her desk. Today, instead of using her thirty minutes of personal computer time to search the Internet and check Amazon.com for cheap DVDs, Betty just sits, quietly munching on her soggy sandwich, staring straight ahead at her bulletin board, dotted with colorful post-it notes to herself. Monkey Business! one shouts at her from its lime green square. A reminder to find the Cary Grant comedy to order online, one she had never heard of before it was mentioned in an article earlier that week on the Entertainment Weekly website.
She reaches up to finger the brightly colored reminder. Ginger Rogers is in the movie as well.
"Ginger," Betty whispers to herself. The name pulls her lips into a pout.
Later that night, after Betty leaves work, she stands in front of the oven watching the digital thermometer click its way up to 400 degrees. Charade is on in the background on AMC. Audrey Hepburn is her favorite actress in the world. She's beautiful like Katherine Hepburn, but not as menacing. Audrey would be a great best friend, Betty often thinks.
"Four hundred," Betty says as the oven clicks up from 399. She opens the oven door, a frozen lasagna perched in her free hand, six holes poked into the plastic cover. Just as she stands up, the lasagna pan placed carefully in the middle of the bottom rack, her phone rings, its dagger alert causing her to let the oven door slip, clanging heavily closed. It must be her mother this time. They haven't spoken since Saturday afternoon. Betty decides to let the machine get it and just write her an email at work tomorrow morning. She's got no news to report to her mother anyway, not that she ever does.
"Sorry, Mom," Betty says to the empty room, wiping her hands clean with a dishtowel, just as the machine picks up. PLEASE LEAVE A MESSAGE AFTER THE TONE, the robot voice says.
"Jaslene?" Betty's breath catches in her throat. "Jaslene, please pick up, it's Patrick again. Look, I don't want to explain this to your machine, but I will if I have to." He pauses.
"What?" Betty says to the bright green light.
"I'm sorry I didn't tell you earlier," Patrick continues. "I didn't want you to find out like that. I can't imagine how you must have felt. I'm so sorry. You have to understand that the situation is out of my hands. There's nothing I can do, and I'm not saying that just to hurt you or to keep you out of my life." He stresses the accusations as if they were something Jaslene herself must have accused him of many times. "Jesus, Jaslene, I'm so sorry. I should have — BEEP!" As the machine cuts him off, Betty realizes she's been holding her breath. She lets it out in a loud sigh. The green light turns into a blinking red one. New Message.
She doesn't touch her answering machine until after the lasagna is cooked, after she has eaten it all right from the pan, in front of the television, watching Audrey Hepburn escape the thieves in Paris. After the movie is over, Betty rises from her chair, drops the empty lasagna pan into the trash, and goes to stand by the counter, in front of the answering machine. She doesn't want to erase the message — it's not hers to erase. It's not hers to listen to again either. "It's Jaslene's," Betty says out loud. So she leaves it. She likes the idea of keeping the red blinking light, the urgent important blinking red light for Jaslene. From Patrick.
# # #
The next day after work, Betty drives directly home, not stopping to pick up anything for dinner, even though the only thing to eat or drink in her kitchen is a half a pint of skim milk and a three-month-old unopened box of Wheat Thins. The day at work had been another bad one. After lunchtime, her boss had come out of his office and headed straight for Betty's cubicle. She had watched his shiny black hair bob through the maze of partitions toward her as she crumbled the wrapper from her sandwich to stuff in the trash.
"Betty," her boss said as he turned the corner. "I have an issue I need to speak with you about, if you have a minute."
"I have a minute," Betty said, glancing at the screen saver on her computer, a fish tank with tropical fish floating back and forth, bouncing clumsily off the edges of her monitor.
"There was a mistake with the Lead Entries this week. There were some inconsistencies with your records. Now . . ." He paused, looking down at his shiny black shoes. "Now, you know this is not the first time there have been mistakes. And you just need to be aware of how much extra time mistakes like this require to straighten out."
Betty couldn't listen to the rest of her boss' explanation. A mistake. Another mistake. She had told her mother about the first one. Three weeks ago. She hadn't been able to stop herself from dissolving into tears as she recounted her boss's words through the phone. She knew she wouldn't tell her mother about this day, though, this second mistake.
Once she gets home, Betty locks the door behind her, drops her purse in its usual place on her kitchen table, goes to her bedroom to change back into her favorite set of white pajamas with pink hearts on them, and settles onto the couch. No dinner tonight, but surely there must be a movie on one of her channels. Her head throbs with the tears that she has been holding back ever since her conversation with her boss. She picks up the remote, her thumb floating across the surface of the rubber keys, finding its way to the Channel Up button. Just as she begins clicking, her phone rings. The channel stops on a commercial for NutriSystem Diet Plans. I lost 50 pounds! the thin woman is shouting as Betty shifts her thumb over to the Mute button.
The phone rings again. Betty rises from the couch and steps over to the counter. After the fourth ring the machine picks up. PLEASE LEAVE A MESSAGE AFTER THE TONE, the robot commands.
"Jaslene? Jaslene, please pick up. This is getting ridiculous. I really need to speak to you."
Betty reaches over to grab the phone. "Hello?" she says.
"Hi!" Patrick shouts. "Who is this?"
"This is Betty."
"Oh, hi," he says. "Is Jaslene there?"
"No," Betty says softly. "She's not here."
"Are you her roommate?"
Betty pauses. She glances at the muted screen of her television, the skinny woman wearing a pair of huge pants, pulling away the sagging waistband with one hand. "Yes," Betty says. "I'm Jaslene's roommate."
"Oh, good," Patrick exhales. "I was worried this might not be her number. Will she be home soon?"
"Umm, I'm not sure," Betty says. Her head is throbbing and spinning like she's on one of those gravity defying carnival rides; she closes her eyes to try and regain her balance. "Well, could you tell her I called? When she gets home? Could you tell her I called again?"
"Yes," Betty says, her breath stumbling over the word on its way out.
"And could you tell her that if I don't hear from her, I'll just call again tomorrow night."
"Yes, I'll tell her."
"Great, thanks Betty," he says, then hangs up the phone.
# # #
The next afternoon Betty leaves work ten minutes early so that she can stop by the grocery store to pick up dinner and be home by six o'clock. Patrick had called at 6:05 the night before.
As she rushes into her apartment, dropping another frozen lasagna heavily on the counter, her heart jumps at the sight of the red blinking light on her machine. But it's just Patrick's messages, still just a blinking red "2" in the message window. Betty turns the switch on her oven and watches the numbers begin to click up from 250 degrees. At 325, her phone rings.
She picks it up on the second ring.
"Hi, it's Patrick. Is Jaslene there?" he says, his voice strained and urgent.
"No, I'm sorry," Betty says.
"Well did she get all my other messages?" he asks. "She changed her cell phone number, and this is the only number I could get for her."
"She got the messages."
"Good," he sighs. "Well do you think she'll talk to me? Or is she still too pissed off?"
"Um, I don't know," Betty says slowly.
"Shit. What did she say to you? Did she say anything about . . ." He pauses. "Did she say anything about what happened?"
"Yes," Betty says, afraid to move, to breathe, to do anything that might accidentally disconnect the call. "She told me. She asked me not to say anything about it to you, though."
"Yeah," he says. "That figures. Listen, Betty, will you tell her I called again? And will you tell her that I really think we need to talk about what happened."
"Yes," Betty says quickly. She feels like she has been taken over by this person. Jaslene's roommate. Maybe her best friend. These words are not her words. "I'll tell her."
"Thank you, Betty."
After Patrick hangs up and she sets the phone back on the counter, Betty can still hear the dial tone ringing in her ear.
The next day, an office holiday, Betty sleeps in late and starts an Audrey Hepburn movie marathon at lunchtime, curling up on the couch with a plate of leftover lasagna and a glass of milk. Halfway through Breakfast at Tiffany's, as Audrey is flitting around her party in her huge sunglasses, carrying her long black cigarette holder and talking to all her friends, Betty's phone rings. Her stomach tightens thinking about Patrick. She'll have to tell him Jaslene is still not home. She takes a deep breath and pinches her eyes shut as she places her hand on the phone, readying herself.
"Hello?" she says.
"Betty what are you doing home? I thought you would do something fun outside today since it's a holiday!" Her mother.
"I can't go outside, Mom, its twenty degrees outside here."
"Oh," her mom sighs. "Well at least go to a movie or something to get out of the house. You know you will never meet any new friends in that town if you never go outside of your apartment! Or any boys!" She stretches out the word boys to boooooys.
"I'm not going to meet friends by going outside in twenty degree weather, Mom." She pauses, shifts in her seat. "And anyway, there's already a man I have been talking to."
"Really?" Her mom says. "Is he from your work?"
"No," Betty sighs.
"Does he live in your apartment building?"
"Mom, I don't want to talk about it! Stop butting into my life! You are so ridiculous!" Betty tugs on the phone cord, stretching it out and letting it coil onto her lap.
"Fine, Betty, I just —" There's a beep from the call waiting.
"Mom!" Betty interrupts, her heart suddenly pounding. "I have to go! I have another call!"
"Oh, really . . ." Her mom starts to coo before Betty presses the Flash button and cuts her off.
"Hi," Patrick's voice says on the other line when she answers. Betty straightens up and clears her throat. "Betty?" he asks.
"Yes, hi again," she says.
"Sorry to keep bugging you, but is Jaslene there by any chance? I still haven't heard from her." His voice sounds even more strained than the last time he called. Raspy and thin, like an old man.
"Still?" Betty asks, trying to sound surprised. "She said she was going to call you."
"Really?" he asks. "Shit, I hope I didn't miss her. I had my cell turned off for a while yesterday." He pauses and Betty holds her breath, wondering how much more Patrick will be willing to say.
"How is she doing?" he asks after a few seconds. "Is she doing all right? I mean, I know this all really upset her. I didn't realize how hard it hit her until she disappeared, you know? And now she won't even talk to me."
"She's doing o.k. I think." Betty takes a deep breath. "She disappeared?" The sound of the word sends chills up her arm.
"Well, yeah, I guess it was about a month ago," Patrick says. "Until I got this number from Brody I had no idea if she was even still in town."
"Oh, yeah," Betty says. "She's been all right here. I've been helping her, a little."
"Yeah, that's good," he says. "Look," he sighs. "Would it be all right if I come over there? I don't care how long I have to wait. I'll wait outside if I have to. I just really need to see her."
"Yes," Betty says. "Sure, you can come over. You don't need to wait outside. I'll let you in."
"Thanks," he says.
She can tell that he's smiling. "Do you know Hampton Corner Apartments? Near the Birkdale Shopping Center?" she asks, a smile creeping into her tone as well.
After she hangs up the phone, Betty remains sitting, back rigid on the couch, eyes darting around the room. Maybe she should clean? But her apartment isn't messy. It never is. She decides to go put on a pot of coffee. Perhaps Patrick will want something to drink when he gets there.
Before long, much earlier than she anticipated, Betty hears Patrick's heavy knock at her door. She stands motionless in the kitchen through his second knock, then she walks over to the door and opens it slowly.
Her first thought when she sees Patrick standing on her purple peace sign doormat is her father. He looks just like her biological father! Well, just like the few pictures she's seen, at least. With his red hair and droopy eyes. And his shiny white teeth, lined up in a row as neat as if they had been drawn in with a pencil. The resemblance is undeniable. What if Patrick is her long lost half-brother, Betty thinks with a flurry of anxiety in her stomach. But, no, that would be impossible. This is not a movie, she tells herself as she looks into the stranger's sad eyes.
"Hi," Patrick finally says. "Are you Betty?" She nods. "I'm so sorry to do this," he continues. "I just really need to see her, you know?" He looks at her, running his hands through his shaggy hair, pushing it off his forehead. "You know," Patrick says. "You probably know better than me, right? She talks to you more than she talks to me, right?"
Betty nods. Looking into Patrick's jittery eyes, she can't tell which one of them is more nervous. He doesn't even seem to be seeing her as his gaze darts from the doormat to Betty's face to the empty apartment behind her. "You can come in," she says, trying to make her voice sound soothing and confident like an elementary school teacher's.
Patrick smiles and brushes past her into the living room, looking at her and pointing to her overstuffed beige armchair, the one Betty herself has never even sat in, before he sits down. She nods, then walks over to take a seat on the couch.
"How long have you two lived together?" Patrick asks, once they are both sitting.
"Oh, I think it's been about a month," Betty says.
"I just can't believe it's blown up like this," he says, screwing his face into a half smile, half grimace.
Betty's heart is thumping so loudly in her ears, like someone is playing the bongos on her eardrums. What if she says the wrong thing? What if she makes a mistake and he gets up and leaves her apartment? It feels like a game, almost — she can't mess up her lines.
"Do you know when she'll be home?" Patrick asks.
Betty smiles. "No," she says. "I'm not sure." As his face drops she adds quickly, "But you're welcome to wait here as long as it takes, I really don't mind."
"Thanks," he says. "I just hope she'll talk to me when she gets here, you know?"
"Yes, I know," Betty says. "How long did you two date again?"
Patrick's eyes jerk up from his knees, where he was picking at the hem of his ratty jeans. "She told you we were dating?" he asks, pushing his face forward eagerly.
Betty takes a sharp breath, staring saucer-eyed with horror into his face. Sickness rushes into her stomach as she realizes how soon she's ended it all. She opens her mouth to reply, to try and explain, but before she can squeeze out a word, Patrick smiles.
"It's just," he chuckles. "She never actually called me her boyfriend. It was always sort of an issue with us, you know? You know what she's like, right?"
Betty looks into his smiling eyes, crinkled up around the corners, and she feels herself relax again.
"How long have you two been friends?" Patrick asks, returning his gaze to the seam of his jeans.
"Oh," Betty sighs. "For a while. We've been friends for a while. Like," she tries to look like she's thinking, "about two years?" she says finally. Two years is how long she has been living in her new town, so far from her mother and her sisters. Sometimes she thinks it would have been nice if she had a friend like Jaslene when she moved here all alone.
Patrick nods. "I'm just so ashamed at what happened," he says. "I should have just told her, you know?"
"I kind of understand how upset she was, I guess," he continues. "I can't imagine what she must have thought when she saw me."
"Yeah," Betty says tentatively. "I think she was a little . . ." She pauses, trying to think of a word to fit. "Confused?" she says, looking up into Patrick's eyes. He nods, squinting one eye in frustration.
Betty smiles to herself, feeling warmth all through her body. She can't remember if she was ever in a room alone with a man like this before. She closes her eyes. It feels good, she thinks. To be talking to this man. To Patrick. He needs her — she is his only link to Jaslene.
"So do you know if she is definitely coming home tonight?" Patrick asks after a few quiet moments. "Did she say anything about her plans?"
"I think she should be home soon," Betty says. She might say anything to keep him there with her. "You know how she is," she adds, and her heart surges again in her chest.
Patrick nods, then settles back into the cushions of Betty's beige chair. And then they wait.
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