It’s an old, familiar secret that any good lover knows: to make a person value something, take it away.
That’s what I did, with myself: I moved out of the house Jalea and I had been renting the past three years, and I drove across the US to Tennessee, where I found a one-room cabin on ten acres, with hand-pumped well and an old wood stove.
It was quiet. I woke and ate and slept on my own schedule. There was no longer arguments about money or dishes, or how many signs of affection each of us needed.
But of course, I came to see that whatever I took from Jalea, I also took away from myself. After a few months, I would sit in my cabin, on the farm I’d always dreamed of owning, and think of her, imagine her walking down the lane, admiring the garden I’d planted, then making dinner for her on the wood stove and us lying on a blanket in the clearing, staring up at the stars once it grew dark, feeling alive, full of a wonder I felt we’d lost back in San Diego.
But Jalea didn’t come, though she did call, and I’d get her messages when I walked out of the hollow I was living in and climbed the hill, where there was reception. I’d walk along the dirt road, the gravel underfoot, listening to her voice from 2,000 miles way, recorded somewhere and now sent through the small metal box pressed to my ear and think, this is the connection you now have to her.
And once I’d listened to the message, I’d walk some more, to the spot on the hill where the reception was best, thinking of what I’d say if I got a hold of her.
Sometimes there would just be her voice again, recorded, asking me to leave a message, with the distinctive laugh, as though she were embarrassed or found it funny to be saying the phrase everyone says on their recording:
Please leave me a message.
I’d heard the phrase so often, my mind began to hear it differently, like this: Please leave me. (A message.)
I wondered even if this was her way of secretly telling me what she wanted.
And I had left, though I was still calling her, still trying to connect, from the gravel road at the top of that hill in Tennessee. I’d leave her my own message, upbeat, sunny, describing the day, how the wind was blowing through the tupelos, how I’d found a turtle in the garden who became the garden’s mascot, how a heavy summer rain had brought down trees and dug a pool in the creek deep enough now to swim in.
Sometimes, as I talked into the metal box I pressed to my face, I imagined we were having a conversation, which, reduced to its core, its binary essence, said:
Please leave me, please leave me. (A message.)
Look what I have, look what I have.
Other times, Jalea would pick up the phone, we’d talk for a long while, and I didn’t think about what it all meant, except that I felt the longing still, in her and in me. It felt like all we were saying:
I miss you.
I miss you, too.
Sometimes we even said those exact words.
The summer passed like that. The bean plants shot up, then their long pods dropped down. The garlic grew like thick grass, then browned and curled over. There were sweaty humid days so full of mosquitos and no-see’ums all I could do was sit in the creek pool and swat at horseflies or lay in bed by the cabin window trying to read some old damp paperback I’d started and abandoned years ago, when my life was too busy for it. I couldn’t even imagine working outside or climbing the long hill to check my messages, to try and talk to Jalea. I even stopped imagining her being here. What was there to show off? Who would want to stay in this sweltering heat?
Then a thunderstorm came in late August. I ran out into clearing naked, arms stretched, feet spinning in the unmowed grass, the grey-green sky another world cracked open like old porcine by bolts of lightning. I laughed as gullies of rain washed over my feet. I went to the garden and picked the cherry tomatoes that had fallen in the down pour, and ate them one by one, laughing as the cold rain beat against my skin.
After, I dried off, put on clothes and shoes and marched up the hill with my phone, passing the leaves and sticks as they tumbled down in a current of water in the ditch beside the road. The sun was breaking through the heavy white clouds as I reached the spot where I could get reception. I stood looking out over the valley, steam rising off the tops of the tupelo trees.
In what had been a week without talking, there was just one message from Jalea. “Call me” she said.
I did, but I sensed it was not a good sign. I feared hearing “Please leave me…” one more time, but Jalea picked up just before the last ring, though at first she didn’t say anything.
“Yes,” she said. “You called. I thought you wouldn’t.”
“It’s been hot,” I said, which suddenly didn’t seem like a good excuse, although I couldn’t think of how to convey just how hot and humid the days had been.
“You weren’t just avoiding me?” she asked.
“No,” I said, though a part of me felt excited by her words. There was a sorrow in them, a hurt that suggested longing. “I’m sorry,” I added. Then, “You wanted me
“I did,” she said, but remained silent.
The steam of the trees seemed to pulse in the sunlight. I looked West at the endless blanket of green that, even with an electronic signal, seemed impossible to cross.
“I’m seeing someone else,” Jalea finally said. Though she had never been with anyone else before, her words felt like an old, familiar story.
“I see,” I said, although what I saw and what she had said had nothing to do with each other. I kept walking up the hill through the steaming heat.
“How does that make you feel?” Jalea finally asked.
I wondered if she wanted me to say that it made me sad, that it made me want her more. But I couldn’t tell her that; I wouldn’t give her that. All I could do was offer her less, in the hopes that she’d return to me.
“Will you say something?” she asked after a long silence.
I had reached the top of the hill. The sky was clear now and the reception was good. Still, I said nothing. Not a word, I thought. Not a word. It was the only thing I could give.