Tom invited Becky over to his apartment to have a beer and watch TV. Things had been going well until they started arguing about a fake baby on the television.
All Tom said was, “So fake.”
Becky moved away from his embrace. “Are you serious? You’re talking about that baby?”
“The eyes are all weird. It’s a robot.”
“There’s no way that’s a robot,” Becky said. “Are you joking, because I can’t tell.”
“I’m serious,” Tom said. “Look, they wouldn’t do that to a real baby.”
The father who had been holding the baby tossed it to the mother who sat on the other side of the coffee table.
“They switched the real baby for the fake baby just then,” Becky said.
“Okay,” Tom said.
“You don’t believe me.”
“I do,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter.”
But Becky did not return to his embrace.
The mother got up and drop kicked the baby into the raging fireplace.
Tom must’ve sipped his beer a tad too arrogantly.
Becky got up and left for the kitchen. It was their first argument.
She probably had a smoke on the fire escape because that’s exactly how much time it took for her to return. When she did, she broke up with him.
“Because of the baby?” Tom said. “I mean, the real baby?”
She seemed to think about it. “I don’t think so, but yes.”
“Because you were wrong or because we didn’t agree?”
“It just reminded me of Brian.”
Brian was her boyfriend. He was in Berlin for the semester on a research grant, but they were basically engaged. They had been together for three years, since college, whereas Tom and Becky had been seeing each other for three weeks.
“The arguing reminded you of him and now you miss him.”
“The arguing reminded me of him and how what we’re doing is wrong.”
In Tom’s head there was a way that all of what they were doing made sense, was actually noble, but he couldn’t find any words to express it. She was way too young to get married, it was obvious that she wanted out. It was obvious that what Tom and she shared was true.
A stabbing pain developed in his sternum. He waited for her to change her mind, to correct what she was talking about, but she didn’t. Reality was suddenly no longer real. He just sat there, curled into his pain, and waited for her to leave, which she did without saying another word.
That night the phone rang while Tom rearranged his bedroom. He climbed over his desk to answer it. “Hello?” he said. It was two in the morning.
“Where were you?” Becky asked, obviously drunk. “I was so worried.”
Tom had been under the impression that they weren’t going to talk anymore.
“You don’t know how wasted I am,” she said. “I went to three bars tonight.”
She breathed into the phone as if she were on the verge of sleep.
“I was worried all night,” she said, slurring. “I was worried you were mad at me.”
The call confused him, but he welcomed it. “I’m not mad,” he said. Hurt was more accurate. He picked up the plastic plant that they had purchased as a joke and put it in front of the window with the fire escape.
“Tell me a story,” she said.
“A story? What are you talking about?”
“A bedtime story,” she said. “I’m in bed.”
The breathing. It was as if she were having one of her troubled night’s sleep lying next to him.
Tom paced in the hallway, shaking his head. What the hell was this?
“There’s this guy,” he said.
“There’s this guy, Roger, and he goes out to get … a hot dog. When it’s his turn he orders two hot dogs.”
“‘Sorry,’ he says, ‘make it nine.’”
Becky’s breathing transitioned to snoring.
“Are you sleeping?”
She didn’t answer.
The stabbing pain returned. Drunk or not, calling him was cruel.
He was angry. “Roger gives the nine hot dogs to nine orphans playing stickball in the alleyway. The end.” He went to hang up, but couldn’t.
Just couldn’t do it.
He took off his shoes and got into bed, keeping the phone between ear and shoulder. She probably had fallen asleep with the phone right on her pillow because he still heard her breathing clearly.
He tried to sleep, but wasn’t able to. So he continued the story.
“Part two. Roger drives east. He plans to just drive to the end of the highway, at some point choose either the north or south fork, then just drive to the end and right off into the ocean. Maybe it’ll be a big splash, maybe it’ll be a slow sink.”
Tom tuned in to Becky’s breathing which now sounded like the waves rubbing back and forth on the pebbled shore.
“Roger’s phone sits on the passenger’s seat. He calls up Cathy and puts it on speakerphone. The trees stream past. The highway is coming to an end. She answers, sober and wide awake. ‘I need to tell you something,’ he says. ‘I think you’re making a mistake. Call up your boyfriend in Berlin and tell him it’s over. I don’t want to be away from you anymore. It’s like I’m living someone else’s life!’”
Becky awoke. “Huh?”
Tom shot out of bed and hung up, tossing the phone onto the mattress as if it were a handgun that had been misfired. He dared not look at it for the rest of the nightly morning, and he stayed out on the fire escape chain smoking, replaying the events in his mind. Had she heard him? How much did she hear? The sun rose over the silhouette of the bakery. Birds sang. Did she forget that it was just a story? Or did she think he told her his true feelings? He shook his head to himself while he lit another cigarette. No, she couldn’t possibly think that. Didn’t make sense. Why would a person tell the truth to someone asleep on the other end of the phone?
E. Nolan’s work has been published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Passages North, X‑R-A‑Y and is forthcoming in Rejection Letters and Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, as well as other magazines. He has an MFA in Fiction from the University of Florida and he teaches English as a New Language in a public middle school in the Bronx. In his free time, he composes background music for reality TV.