Best True Love Stories
I was on the subway when the child called me. It was a strange number, but I always picked up for strange numbers then: at any given time, I was texting a steady stream of different men off dating apps, and I never saved their names. I was training myself to understand how disposable other people were—for a long time I had thought it was just me that could be disposed of. I called this training self-care; I thought what resulted from it was called growth. I was always supposed to meet one of these disposable people in a bar someplace, and sometimes things went somewhere, but usually they did not. It didn’t matter; what mattered was that I could always trick myself into feeling like my life was moving forward in one direction or another.
I was stuck between stations, suspended right before the point where the train rose up and went above ground for a stretch. This was how the subway, as an appendage of the city at large, would remind me of its dominance and my inconsequence, precautionary measures it imposed over me just in case I ever came close to forgetting what the order was. I knew this was the price I had to pay for asking to take shelter inside of it, to be contained within it.
So I was confined to waiting, that swampy sludge of a place my surge of dates was designed to circumnavigate, and I thought the unidentified caller came as a savior to pull me out of it. “Hello?” I answered, and I heard a warbly voice on the other end, a child speaking like they had been speaking for a very long time and it was me and not them that had called in. It was my own language but still I could not understand what was being said—there was a half-formedness to it, interspersed with giggles and tufts of breaths. “Mom?” said the child, finally. It was the only word I could comprehend. “No. I’m not your mother,” I said, and felt sad to do so, even though it was true, in this instance and beyond it. I was someone who had determined early in life that they never wanted children of their own and remained sure of that in a way I was not sure of anything else. There was silence after that, the line between us immediately cut, and whatever connection I had with this stranger was now gone. I could call the number back if I really wanted to, but why would I when it was clear that I was not who the child was looking for, and nothing would ever change that essential fact. We would continue on with our parallel lives, indefinitely, and I mourned their momentary overlap.
The area code on my call log read Phoenix, AZ. This happened to be the city where my own mother was, with a man I did not know. She had first met him years ago, when they were children, and then spent fifty years living without him until they collided once more at her grammar school reunion six months before. To make up for what they now thought of as half a century wasted, their togetherness was cemented quickly over cross-country phone calls and two interchanging visits—too quickly for me to realize its magnitude until she sold our house and moved to the desert to be with him. We had not talked much since then. I was a remainder of a life that was evidently past.
“You don’t understand what it’s like to be running out of time,” she told me when she told me everything else.
“You have a life and I have my own life,” she said, later.
“You left me first,” she said, later still. “You’ve spent your whole life leaving me.” There hadn’t been much after this.
I was confused by these statements, felt trapped under the weight of their accumulation, because my mother and I had been etched together since my birth, stitched tighter after my father’s death when I was fifteen. I had no siblings; for so long it was just the two of us, and she made sure I knew it. After I moved out and before I talked to strangers, it was her I spoke to every day. She’d call me and ask what I was doing. “I just woke up a little while ago,” I’d say often, as she tended to call in the mornings. “And what have you done since then?” she’d say. “I want to know everything.”
I had never been to Phoenix, or Arizona, or even to the Southwest, but it was one of those places that still seemed occupy an archetypal home inside of my mind—I admired it for that, for having such a vivid sense of self it outpoured into the collective consciousness. I pictured cacti, rocks scattered across sand, and overpowering light spread over a seemingly endless horizon. I could see how that kind of landscape, capable of mirage, could seem appealing to my mother, who had always been obsessed with her own finitude.
There was one stranger in the shifting menagerie I maintained who I had been corresponding with for months, but we had yet to actually meet. He messaged me every day without fail, but never initiated moving things beyond the virtual, so I didn’t either. Our conversations were remarkable only for their consistency, our chain of texts the longest in my phone. He would always start the conversation, and always one of two ways, with good morning or just hey, interchanging sporadically. At first, I had tried to decipher this back-and-forth, like it was maybe some sort of code, for a while hoping it was, but then gave up. He—or what I understood him as, over the ether—seemed like a person wholly uninterested in subtext and its nuances.
I would return the greeting and he would then ask me how I slept, or how I was feeling that particular day, and I would talk about being tired, or the weather, or my commute, and he would respond with the same sort of things in return. I was fascinated by the apparent endless permutations of small talk, how mundanity contained an infinite number of slight variations within it. Our texts were always interspersed hours in between each other, so there was very little pressure to respond in a timely fashion, or even at all—I liked the time-release nature of whatever our relationship to each other was. His texts gave me a sense of consistency when I felt like everything else was rushing away from me.
I shared an apartment with two roommates, but they both had partners and were rarely home, because they had other places, other options, besides it. I worked a solitary job as a transcriptionist, where I listened to other people speak all day for a living but never to me directly. Sometimes it felt like a lot of pressure to catch all that was being said, to not let any word or utterance fall through the cracks of preservation, and convey it all for what it was and not just what I thought I had heard. In other words, I was lonely in my life, but lonely seemed too neat a word for what I was feeling: its contours navigable, familiar. I felt lost inside of something that only seemed to grow beyond recognition, larger and larger beyond anything I could have fathomed.
Before my mother met the new man, I used to take the train home on weekends, watch the city’s staggered dissolve into the country from fingerprinted windows. She would meet me at the station, waving to me from the platform in the crunchy, cricket-laden dusk. We’d drive thirty more minutes to our lakeside town, and I’d walk back into the house where I grew up and feel myself descend back into the smallness of my life before I left the first version of it behind. Since my father’s death—one that was called honest by my mother, her definition being that he did not want to stop doing the thing that would drive him to an early grave, his love for his fatal vice rendered somehow pure—the house he built us carried on his legacy, his essence. The house became my father, embodying his best intentions at stability, at sheltering us. When I was back there, I was with my family. And now that was gone too.
When I was thirteen, I had written some boy’s name on my bedroom wall, reinforced it over and over again in permanent marker against a time-warped and slightly jagged terrain, and then this boy had gone on to break my heart in the usual, predictable ways. In search of a can of paint and a brush to erase him, I found a fallen screwdriver in the overstuffed utility closet. On a piece of paper taped to its handle was my mother’s name—Marie—followed by another name—Turner—which was not our last name, nor her maiden name. This was startling for many reasons, not the least of which being my mother did nearly nothing for herself, and certainly nothing that would require a screwdriver.
The house my father had built us was a five-room cabin that hovered over uneven ground by the ugly side of the lake. He spent his life building other houses all day, so my mother’s job could be, as she said, to take care of me. It felt less like taking care than living alongside; we did everything together like best friends would—that’s what she told me I was to her. Whenever we got into a fight, she would ask me, “can we be friends again?”
My mother chose to spend our days luxuriously, languorously sprawled out in bed watching old movies or reading discarded library books—because she liked owning things but not paying for them—on the back deck that overlooked the lake. Her chosen reading materials were field guides on bird-watching even though she hated being in the woods, hand-sized paperback classics that smelled like rust, and home and living magazines full of circled recipes she never made, and dog-eared suggestions on how to improve your home’s organizational capacity or its overall potential for containing your life, running out inside of it.
“You’re old enough now for me to tell you, I suppose,” my mother said when I presented the screwdriver to her. She was sitting on the floor of the room she shared with my father but that was much more hers, painting her nails bright pink while watching the classic movie channel. She was constantly either putting paint on her nails or taking it off, and the room always smelled acrid, toxic; my stomach hurt whenever I entered. I did not know how my father could stand it. “I was married before your father,” she told me, to a man named Elijah, which for some reason sounded to me like a pilot’s name, or at least an air traffic controller—something airborne and adrift—but he was just a regular business man, she said. He was much older than her, and he had been one of her customers when she was working as a waitress at the fancy restaurant inside of a regionally famous resort in the mountains, not far from where we lived now.
A few weeks before she met him, she had gone to a psychic in the village who told her that she would be traveling frequently in the near future, flying all over the world, that she would live in a big house, with a big dog. “That’s impossible,” she had told the psychic, and explained her deep fear of airplanes—the only time she had been on one it had nearly crashed, and she swore never again. “I’m a waitress,” she said, “I live in a tiny room in a boarding house that doesn’t allow dogs.”
But then Elijah came into the restaurant and told her that he would change her life—that’s how he asked her out. He was very tall and spoke slowly and moved as if he was sure of the world, and had always been, and this sureness made the world bend right back to him. As the psychic foretold, he was someone who traveled frequently for his job and he would bring my mother with him, so I suppose my hunch towards flight had been somewhat correct. He brought her to places as disparate and far flung as Geneva, Budapest, Buenos Aires—places that she would have never otherwise seen. His sureness made her feel, finally, unafraid, and towered over her anxiety. “Nothing is going to happen to you,” he said, and she believed him, without question. This was what she was looking for in love, she realized—a shrinking of the parts of herself that were too loud. They soon married, and he bought her that house, and that dog.
“Our story was published in a magazine, in fact,” she said, reaching under the bed where she kept her mountains of old issues, casting them across the room until she reached one at the bottom, yet another monthly rhapsodizing the supposed art of housekeeping, published five years before I was born. “They were having a contest for best true love stories, in 500 words or less, and I won.” She showed me the article, the text aligning against a picture of her and this strange man, backlit in a strange city. His face was obscured by the sun. I could only see the outline of it. She was small next to him with her eyes half-closed, mouth open in laughter. My mother was still beautiful in a way I would never be, although I could see in old photographs that her beauty used to be even more intense, but never more so than this photograph. I remember being scared looking at the picture, partly because of the severity of her beauty but mostly because I was beginning to realize that there were likely many other things I did not know about my mother, this stationary, constant creature, familiar in her acetone reek.
“What happened to him?” I asked.
“He left me for someone else,” she said. “Maybe multiple someones. That’s usually how things end in this life, I’ve found,” she said. She placed the magazine back under the bed, and began burying it once again underneath all of the others, the motions smooth like an assembly-line between her own hands. Once the magazine was firmly back in its place, she told me she submitted the story after the man left her, but before the divorce was finalized. “Why would you do that?” I asked.
She shrugged. “It was a good story,” she said. “Just because it was over didn’t mean it wasn’t a good story. I think that contest is the only thing I’ve ever won.”
I must have looked stricken, because she went on to say, “You know, sometimes I think it’s for the best. It can get tiring living with the same person for years. Living with their idea of who you are. It can be hard to get them to think of you in other ways, once they’re used to thinking of you as one thing.”
I didn’t know what she meant then; I didn’t know what other ways of myself could exist. I was afraid to see what they might be, or if I would like them.
I wondered how many people had read her best true love story in the magazine, her failed romance frozen in its apex, and what these readers had felt from it. I wondered if it inspired something like hope in any of them—hope to keep waiting, that love was real, that there was such a thing as fate. Was that hope false if they didn’t know the end of the story—or was that just how hope worked, a match that served to light something else, not to stay lit on its own accord?
My father, by contrast, was an honest man, as my mother said. So honest, that he didn’t conceal his rumbling anger, or his need to drink himself into a stupor when he got home from work. To my mother, this was transparency, some kind of virtue, and she taught me to view it that way as well. When my father got too drunk and started breaking things like vases of my mother’s flowers or framed pictures of us without him in them, my mother would hide us in their bedroom, locking him out, and say to me, “he’s just being very honest.”
After I learned about him, I couldn’t stop thinking about Elijah Turner. I would search his name on the internet in the school library, and get many matching results: there were Elijah Turners all over the country, and the world too; I became despondent at the abundance of Elijah Turners, how they outnumbered me. I realized I didn’t know though if my mother’s Elijah Turner was even still alive, if he had been so much older than her.
There was a pay phone in the hallway of my middle school, which seemed exotic to me, a relic from a nearly-bygone era I could observe dissolving all around me. Whenever I passed that pay phone, I would think that’s where I would call Elijah Turner, if I could ever determine which one was the right one, because I was never alone in my house, even though I didn’t know what exactly I’d say. I hated him, of course, for hurting my mother, but it was strange that this person was half of what I could have been, and I didn’t know whether or not to grieve for that possible version of myself that was not quite myself. Thirteen and the screwdriver marked the start of the bog I would slowly sink into over the course of the rest of my life, pulled under by the desire to be anyone other than who I turned out to be.
Soon after I found the screwdriver, I got my period for the first time at school. I had learned what was coming from my teachers; they had been prepping us for it for several years, a looming event of the body I had gained admission to when I was born. They told us one day we would find blood, but they didn’t say it would be so much, and so I thought something was very wrong the day it came. I went to the nurse’s office and told her I was worried I might be dying, but she told me that I was only just beginning. I told her I felt pain and she called my mother to come pick me up. When she did, she sobbed all the way home. “I’m just beginning,” I repeated the nurse’s words back to her. She cried harder. “That means I’m beginning to end,” she said.
I never did call Elijah Turner, but I realized the middle school’s pay phone had a number of its own, inscribed underneath the receiver, and so when I got my own cell phone a year later (for emergencies, as my mother said), I programmed its number inside and sometimes I would call the pay phone and see who picked up: usually no one did, but sometimes someone answered, some teacher or janitor, always confused, out of breath. I would always hang up, because I never really wanted to talk to anyone, just see who, if anyone, would answer. I liked to call it at night sometimes, just to picture it ringing in the empty dark building.
I realized recently I still had the number in my phone’s address book, that it gotten transferred from phone to phone as I grew older, and I tried calling it, alone in my room in the city. I knew no one would pick up, and if they did, it could never be who I wanted it to be: myself on the precipice of the rest of my life. But it didn’t even ring—it had finally been disconnected.
One day alone in my apartment, when the consistent stranger texted me in the morning asking how I was, I told him. Feeling very, very sad, I said, and laid it all out: My mother moved across the country to live with a strange man and is not answering any of my calls. It felt like only a step above talking to myself.
It was the first time our communication had broached the quotidian, but the stranger surprised me by being an attentive and empathetic listener. Wow, he said, that’s a lot to be dealing with. I’m really sorry you’re going through that.
Thank you, I wrote back. That’s nice of you to say.
You’re welcome, he said. I’m here to listen, if you want.
Our messages answered each other in succession, in a way they never had. I watched the cursor blink for a moment.
What do you think I should do? I asked. I was open to any kind of answer, from anyone, from anything. And he seemed to have them; he seemed to know.
Do you know his name?
I bet you could find his number online.
You could call him and ask to talk to your mom.
I did know the man’s name—my mother had told me: Cyril Parker. Later that night, I searched his name online the way I used to search for Elijah Turner, but this time I knew his city. Cyril Parker, I typed, Phoenix, Arizona. There was only one.
I picked up my phone and dialed the number. The phone rang for a long time. While it did, I wondered about Cyril the way I used to wonder about Elijah—who was this person who knew things I would never know about the person who created me, who I used to live inside of. I wondered if Cyril knew the child who had called me, if their paths had ever bumped up against each other in the strange, faraway city of Phoenix, even in some minor, peripheral way—in a crowded store or at an intersection, the child passenger and Cyril driver mere feet away from each other but unreachable within their individual vessels, each of them contained inside of distinct vehicles accelerating away from each other. Or maybe in some larger, deeply intimate sense: maybe the child was their neighbor—their friend—and my mother, Cyril, and the child were all together right now, staring right into the Arizona sun, blinding themselves against the glare of the fact that all of them would one day burn out too. I wondered all of this until the ringing stopped, and I thought that I had been disconnected, but then there was a rustle I couldn’t discern, silence, and then breathing.
“Mom?” I said.
A man’s voice answered. “No. I’m not your mother,” he said, and hung up.
Later, I texted the stranger.
I did it, I wrote. What you said.
How did it go? He responded immediately.
Not well, but I think maybe it needed to happen, I said.
He didn’t say anything to this, so I wrote again.
Would you maybe want to meet up sometime? I asked.
I waited a long time for him to write back, watching the three dots that signaled he was typing ripple and then disappear, and then kept waiting in their wake, the silence underneath the last thing I said. I waited and waited. It was only recently that I stopped waiting, for the stranger, or anyone else.
Nikki Barnhart is an MFA candidate in Fiction at The Ohio State University. Her work has appeared in Juked, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. “Best True Love Stories” was originally named a finalist for Cutbank’s 2022 Montana Prize in Fiction.