My ear catches it flitting through the air like a miniscule moth, almost imperceptible, but undeniable just as I’m about to hang up the phone. Curious, I quickly put the phone back to my ear. “Excuse me?”
Silence, but I can tell she’s still there. “What?” Nicole finally asks, hesitantly, probably curious as to what I heard.
“I thought I heard you say something as I was hanging up.” I know it was a mistake, she probably had just gotten off the phone with a lover or family member, and it slipped out, but I want to play this out. I like to play. That’s just the way I am.
“Oh… nothing… it was nothing.”
But it wasn’t nothing; it was much more than nothing. The way I see it, the phrase I love you, in all its eternal possibilities lives somewhere where nothing is not allowed. I love you precludes the possibility of nothing.
When I was in junior high the prettiest girl in the eighth grade sat on the opposite end of the room from me during Algebra, the last class of the day. I sat in the front with the rest of the geeks who always wanted to impress the teacher. She sat in the back near a window. I could always catch her staring out, as if she expected one of the passing cars to pull over and take her away.
I was nothing—as always, the smallest kid in my grade, insignificant to everyone unless I was being used as entertainment, whether that meant being jammed into a locker or being dangled from a basketball hoop inside a gym bag. She, Audra, aside from being the prettiest girl in the school, was everything to everyone—friendly and open, popular amongst every clique, but belonging to none.
Sometimes she would catch me watching her vigil. For those moments, her eyes would be mine, trapped by my eyes—at least that’s what I like to imagine for the brief amount of time before she finally looked away nervously. But sometimes she would offer just the slightest bit of a smile before drifting back to her vigil. Just that would be enough to thrill me and carry me through to dismissal.
Once, as a dare or a joke, I don’t remember which, when she caught my eyes I mouthed the words olive juice. Her face instantly twisted, and her shoulders hunched subtly. I knew she was irritated. When the bell rang she stormed out quickly. Audra was waiting for me as I came out of the school. She grabbed hold of the hood of my sweatshirt and yanked me back near the door.
“What the hell did you say to me?” she asked in an angry whisper.
I was suddenly scared. I could feel the blood pulsing in my scalp and the sweat trickling from my underarms down the sides of my chest. I had never intended to piss her off, and if she beat my ass in front of everybody in school I would be less than nothing. I was perfectly happy with my nothing status, thank you very much.
But what really scared me was being this close to her for the first time. From here I could see that her eyes weren’t blue, they was pure crystal—reflecting the color of the sky. I could even smell her hair, strawberries and cream with just a hint of cigarette smoke. I could hear the full tone of her voice, not just the meekness she offered in class. I realized than that olive juice was no joke.
“Ol—olive juice,” I stammered, “ All I said was olive juice. It was just a joke.”
“Olive Juice?” she asked, and her face softened. “Olive juice… that’s pretty funny.”
My heart softened.
We ended up walking home together, laughing children oblivious to the world around us. When she laughed it made me giddy. So I did everything I could think of to make her laugh, and she laughed at everything I did. Halfway through Patterson Park we were holding hands.
At the west edge of the park towers a Chinese pagoda. It was donated to the city, as legend goes, to honor Canton, the Baltimore neighborhood that shared its name (albeit different pronunciation) with the Chinese province. We called it the Kissing Castle because young couples would stop to make out under its shadow or in the topiaries around it on their way home from school. When we got there no one was around, almost as if the world understood the significance of what was happening.
Kissing her, I was reminded of the taste and consistency of olive juice—vinegary, yet fruity. Thick.
The next day carried with it the electric anticipation of a lightning storm. Every hour was an hour less that I had to wait to see Audra. Every corner I turned in the halls and stairwells was an opportunity to bump into her. By the time I finally did see her, in Algebra last period, I felt like one of those plasma lamps ready to shoot my charge right through the glass. After ten minutes I was grounded, my charge dissipated.
During the fifty minutes of class she looked at me exactly once and looked away quickly. That day I could not capture her eyes. She avoided me and rushed out quickly when the bell rang. After school I was the one snatching her up looking for answers. She didn’t want to talk near school, but reluctantly agreed to walk through the park with me. She didn’t say much and refused to hold my hand. I knew what was coming. I’d been through it enough by then.
Audra finally admits what’s bothering her about halfway through the park. “Look, I like you. You’re cute and so fucking funny, but I don’t think I could get used to dating someone shorter than me. I’m sorry.”
She wasn’t even that much taller, maybe three or four inches. But that was the story of my youth: cute, short, sorry. Most of the time it wasn’t so much that they thought it, but that their friends thought it. Either that, or they were afraid to be mocked. Like the previous day, we walked to the Pagoda together, this time in silence, before going our separate ways.
Occasionally, in class, when I would catch her eyes I would mouth the words, and we would share a momentary smile. The joke now was that I was actually mouthing I love you.
So I have this girl on the phone, and she knows I heard her say something, but she’s not sure what. But she’s curious because she has yet to hang up, and we just met. We’ve known each other for all of five minutes, if you can count taking someone’s order over the phone as knowing someone. Nicole orders books for a small chain of bookstores, and I take orders for a publishing company. I was taking her order, and although there was a bit of banter, I don’t recognize her voice from the hundreds of voices I hear over the phone every week. All I said at the end of our conversation was, “Thank you. Have a nice day.”
I anted, she raised, but I know she’s bluffing. I finesse my hand to the table. “Oh… I thought I heard you say, ‘Love you.’”
At this point, she could have folded. She could have said, No, you heard wrong, and hung up. She doesn’t. She says, “Yeah, well I just got off the phone with my boyfriend, and I’m used to saying that before hanging up with him. I probably just got confused. It doesn’t mean anything.”
She’s all-in, but it’s time to let her off the hook, at least for the time being. “Well, don’t you think your boyfriend should know how you feel about me?” I can’t let her off too easy. We both laugh away the awkwardness of the situation and say goodbye—a second time.
A few weeks pass before we talk again, but it doesn’t take any time for us to recognize each other. “Excuse me a moment,” I chide, “but isn’t this the love of my life?” We giggle our way through the whole book order. After a while, if she doesn’t get me when she calls, she asks to be transferred to my desk. We gradually develop a rapport that builds into a sort of sight unseen friendship.
Every phone call with Nicole ends up lasting an extra five to ten minutes because we always end up chatting. We talk bout the movie that just came out. We talk about the difference between Baltimore’s weather compared to Cleveland, where she lives, even though they’re so close. Sometimes I listen to her talk about how much she hates how mundane her job is.
After a while, my supervisor points out that I’m taking too much time with certain calls, and tells me to be aware of how much time I needlessly spend with customers. Nicole and I decide to keep our calls strictly business, but agree to call each other during lunch breaks.
We discuss our quirky families. I compare my reclusive uncle Marco, who does nothing except play chess by himself in his bedroom until my grandmother forces him to come out for meals, to her loopy aunt Gloria who has a house full of never-read books, and a never-off television. I was there to console her when her boyfriend broke up with her, and she encouraged me when I told her I had decided to go back to school.
It’s December 9th, memorable because it’s unusually warm, and I decide to wear a light jacket to work. At this point, I’ve known Nicole for a little over a year. Besides our twice a week lunch conversations we email each other daily, and on occasion, chat on Facebook. There’s an email waiting for me as soon as I turn my computer on. There’s a number for me to call. She says it’s urgent. The brevity of the message makes me think she’s frantic. I leave for lunch five minutes early and immediately dial the number she gave me.
Nicole answers in tears. She’s a mix of anger, frustration and bruised ego. The number is her mother’s phone. She’s upset because she’s been fired. Her job had recorded a personal call to me using a company phone and found out that it wasn’t the first time she’d done it. She only used their phones when she had forgotten her cell phone or when she was close to her minute limit. “I didn’t think they’d notice.” she sobs, “I’m so damned stupid.”
“No you’re not,” I shouted at her, “don’t stay that! I know you well enough to know you’re nowhere near stupid. A little careless at times, but that’s at least three degrees away from straight out stupid.”
I assure her that everything will be alright, that she’ll find a new job in no time, and that until then, all calls can be on my dime. Eventually, the conversation drifts to more normal topics. Once I feel she’s calm enough, an hour and a half later, I let her know that I should get back to my desk.
“Jeez!” she says, realizing the time, “I’m going to end up getting you fired, too.”
“Nah!” I tell her, “Didn’t I ever tell you? My godfather owns this company. Not that it matters—I would have done it anyway. I lo—”
“What?” she asks.
I wait a moment, thinking.
“Nothing,” I say, finally.
“Right, nothing,” she agrees.Nothing has never been so full of possibility.