I try to leave Mom a voicemail. Again.
The voicemail cannot be delivered. Again. She always stores old voicemails. Always says you never know when they might come in handy. Especially if you’re in a jam and need proof that you communicated with X at Y time. Pre-empt the world.
So, I text her:
Happy Mother’s Day. Hope all is well. Haven’t heard from you. Yet. Hope you’re not too busy with your own teaching. I know how that is. Politics and obligations. Give me a call when you get a second. If you can. Um, I love you very much and I, um, just want to hear your voice for a second. It’s been a month.
I pause. Delete that it’s been a month. She’ll just say she’s been busy. Again.
All is well here. Dr. Fredericks says I’m a model instructor. I’m kicking ass and looking forward, like you told me to. They call me dynamic, engaging, bringing Yates and Nabokov, Whitman, and Plath to life. Some students even call me Nick, instead of Professor Botkin. I know you say formality is needed, but I just think personal communion fosters better learning.
No, omit that last line. She’ll say I’m too much of a dreamer. And I don’t want to try to defend my choices again and again, methodical, calm words always metamorphosing into frantic f-bombs and you don’t understands.
I omit certain truths from the electronic jungle. The faculty parties I’ve not been invited to. The times I’ve been called too bohemian, especially when I brought in bongos to teach poetry. The lectures about the need for poise and dignity in the English department. And I certainly don’t mention the rent I’m juggling, the lesson plans that gape at me with each word erased and added. Will I be able to achieve this objective? Do I need to go more conventional? Are the so-called gatekeepers onto something? Does Mom have it right with her own curriculums, one line connecting another with precision?
She always said be practical. Independent. The words rise, her voice low and tinged with hundreds of cigarettes and weariness. Even when I’d have nightmares as a child, she’d say they were only manifestations and that I needed to be more positive. Depend on myself because the world was cruel, and she didn’t want it to kick me too. She’d turn on the light, sit beside me, dissect the symbols. Snakes represented bullies, monsters represented adults I just thought were frightening. Teachers and such. Floods, tornadoes, and thunderstorms represented stress, along with dreams about being mowed down by trains.
I’d love to see you, I almost add now, but pause. I’ve asked Mom several times to visit and she’s said I’m just lonely. Depressed. Maybe I need to see a counselor, join some Meetup group or another. I think of excuses unwritten, hovering in the electronic cosmos, the flat, yet sharp qualities of the words.
Instead, I add an I-love-you, whisper those words over and over. Love you. Love you. The tenderness crumbles on the tongue. Mom always said it with a kind of briskness, although sometimes it wavered. There were moments her mouth was agape, hands fluttering, as if trying to release something more beautiful. More intimate. More fragile. But she always withdrew back into briskness just as fast.
Then I add a line. By the way your voicemail is full. Just thought you should know. So you can communicate more effectively.
My finger’s poised over the button. It circles the magic button, whirling, like a plane preparing to land.
An image rises: She is clearing away a few old voicemails, a new one slinking in. I conjure my voice stored in there with a thousand other preserved messages from her faculty friends, her movie club pals, the foreign students she tutors in English. An image: She is opening the message. Playing it some night, windows drawn, in the most intimate of spaces, absorbing my voice. She is smiling and whispering an I-love-you that I’ll never hear.
Of course, she might just store my voice. Play it once. But at least it’d be stored, a baritone with hints of squeakiness.
I hit send. Release the finger. The electronic line snakes toward completion. Pauses. Snakes further.
I pour myself a couple White Russians. Try to watch The Big Lebowski. But I check the phone every quarter hour, every ten minutes. Every five minutes. Message received, message received. I jump when I think the phone pings or buzzes.
Finally, at dusk, I see the words. Message read. I rock back and forth, the shadows spilling over me, deep pink and purple. Any minute now. She is rehearsing a message. She is erasing. She is drafting a message in her mind, looking for the right words. Or the briefest. But no bubbles appear, no ping. Just a growing stillness, a blank electronic wall staring, another hour passing.