Birmingham

The phone calls started right before the holidays. They came from a number I didn’t recognize, so I ignored them at first, assuming it was just another person trying to sell me something. The only people who ever called me were my father and this telemarketer from Japan. I once spent an hour talking to the telemarketer on the phone. Her name was Yuki, and she told me about a face cream made with a rare kind of tea. I told her about my dead mother and how I no longer spoke to any of my friends. She kept saying, “You should call your friends,” and “Do you double cleanse?” Then she said something I didn’t like, and I got angry and hung up. I don’t remember what she said that was so upsetting. I do remember feeling bad about hanging up so abruptly, and I spent the rest of the night wondering if I should call her back and apologize, which of course I never did.

The person started leaving voicemails. His name was Ben, and he always called looking for a girl named Celine. I was not Celine, but my freshman year of college I took an English class with a girl named Celine who wore vintage dresses and red lipstick. During breaks, I’d see her standing outside smoking cigarettes and reading The Master and Margarita even though we were supposed to be reading James Joyce. This was the Celine I pictured Ben looking for each time he called. The sort of girl who could ignore a call and not feel bad about it. 

Ben left long messages. He talked about how his father had snuck into his apartment in the middle of the night and stolen two hundred dollars and a six pack of beer. He talked about a documentary he’d seen while tripping on acid, and how every night he fell asleep listening to the same song by The National—the one where Matt Berninger sings, “I was born to beg for you.” I had songs like that, too. I had songs that I listened to in the morning on my way to work and songs that I listened to at night when I was trying to fall asleep. These days I was listening to a song by Shovels & Rope—a folksy, upbeat song called “Birmingham” that made me believe if you just surrounded yourself with the right soundtrack, it was possible to feel better. 

Rock of ages cleave for me

Let me hide myself in thee.

I listened to music instead of going out and socializing. I lived in a small studio where everything I needed was within arm’s reach of my bed, including my record player. The record player had been a gift from my mother. She used to play records for us while she cooked dinner or cleaned the house. She played Stardust by Willie Nelson and Rumors by Fleetwood Mac. She said that she liked music because it could take an ordinary place—like a car or a kitchen—and make it feel special. I liked music because it made me feel close to her.

Sometimes I walked to the Cumberland Farms down the street from my apartment. There was something so soothing about being in there alone: the bright lights, the neatly stacked rows of snacks, the same bearded man at the register slowly unwrapping rolls of quarters with great care. He referred to me as miss, which always made me feel special. He never charged me for my milkshakes and he never asked how I was doing. He was very respectful. 

I was listening to “Birmingham” and drinking alone in my apartment one night when I decided to call Ben. He’d called two times that day looking for Celine, whom I imagined smoking a cigarette in some exotic city, completely oblivious to all this nice attention. I wanted to call Ben and explain that he had the wrong number. 

As soon as I heard Ben’s voice, I knew that I would start a conversation. It had been so long since I’d been on the phone with a friend. The last time I spoke to my friends we got in a fight. They wanted me to go to brunch and I said that waiting in line for eggs was shameful. They said I needed to be less angry. My friends always asked how I was doing in that tentative, nervous way that made me want to lie and say that I was doing great just to prove them wrong. It was better to talk to strangers. 

I said to Ben, “I’m not Celine, but if you want to talk to someone you can talk to me.”

Ben didn’t seem to understand what I was telling him. He kept trying to apologize for bothering me. 

“No, you don’t understand,” I said. “I want you to bother me.” 

Ben was quiet for a moment. I sipped my drink and told myself I wouldn’t care what he said to me, but of course this was a lie. 

“Okay,” said Ben. “We can keep talking.”

*

My father was concerned about my microwave. He said that it was too close to my bed. I told him that was the point, and then I demonstrated how easy it was to heat up a meal while seated on the foot of my bed. “The radiation is bad for you,” said my father, blowing his nose. He was always sniffling or blowing his nose, but it never turned into a cold. This irritated me. I thought maybe there was something wrong with him and he was just not telling me, but he always denied any health issues. He said that what I should be concerned about was me. Nothing my father said ever comforted me. 

My father and I went to Chip Wrecked to eat ice cream and talk about Christmas. It was our first Christmas just the two of us, and my father wanted to drive to Florida so we could spend the holiday on the beach. I didn’t want to leave my apartment, let alone drive to Florida, but my father was determined to make new memories for us. 

“I like the old memories,” I said, to which my father replied that he did too, but eventually they ran out. I pictured my father reaching for memories the way one reaches for a book on the top of a bookshelf, but as soon as he touched the memories, they fell apart in his hand. I wanted to comfort him, but I didn’t know how that would change anything for either one of us. 

“Will there be Christmas trees in Florida?” I asked.

“Of course. It will be just like it is here. Except it will be warm,” said my father.

I knew that it would not be the same. It would not be like it was in childhood when I would go to school and come home to find a giant Christmas tree wrapped in hundreds of tiny lights so bright, they would light up the entire living room. That my mother spent all day decorating the tree, that perhaps she even hated it, never occurred to me. I viewed the tree as one of the many tasks that completed themselves in the spirit of Christmas. Now, I felt exhausted just thinking about the tree. My father kept saying that maybe uncle Bernie could help us bring the tree from the tree farm to the house. This process alone would take a few hours, and at least one of those hours would be spent listening to Bernie talk about his daughter, who was going to Harvard in the fall, and who was perfect in every way. I told my father that I couldn’t bear it. That was when he proposed Florida. 

“I’ll think about it,” I said, and we ordered our ice cream.

My father asked if I’d seen any of my friends lately. I told him no, but I had a new friend who had come into my life by way of the phone. Ben and I had been talking on the phone every night for the past week, and I thought that we might really have a connection. My father said that he didn’t understand how you could form a meaningful relationship with someone through the phone. I said that I didn’t understand how you could form a meaningful relationship with someone in person, and yet we all still tried.

“What does Ben do for work?” 

“He’s between jobs right now,” I said. The truth was I had no idea what Ben did for a living. That type of thing didn’t matter to me. I cared more about his taste in music, and the fact that when we talked, there was an air of mourning in his voice that I respected. This made me believe that Ben was sensitive. He said he’d never been happy a day in his life, but then he’d met Celine and she had somehow made it better. I thought maybe he could do the same for me.

My father said, “Ben sounds like a stalker. Like one of those guys you hear about on TV.”

“He listens to The National, dad. He’s not a stalker.”

“What is The National? Some kind of cult?” 

The girl behind the counter looked at us impatiently. I guess she had already asked us a few times if we wanted any toppings on our ice cream.

“Not for me,” said my father.

“Oreos, please,” I said. 

The girl handed me my cone. I took one look at the cone and handed it back to her. “Would you put some more Oreos on there? You missed a few spots.” The girl’s face turned red. I suppose that was the wrong thing to say. 

My father touched my shoulder. “Samantha. Don’t you think that’s enough Oreos?” 

“No,” I said, refusing to break eye contact with the girl. Apparently, she and I were now in a fight. 

“You know she only makes minimum wage,” my father said quietly. 

“Plus tips,” I said, folding my arms across my chest. “She makes minimum wage plus tips. And if she keeps glaring at me like that, she’s not getting any tips from me.”

“Alright,” said my father, reaching for his wallet. “Let’s wrap this up.” He paid for our ice creams and made a point of stuffing two dollars in the tip jar, smiling apologetically at the girl as he did this. Chip Wrecked was filled with children who were behaving poorly. The young girl behind me threw her cone on the floor in protest. At a table in the back, a young boy was throwing a fit. “You’re a bitch!” he screamed at his mother. “A b-i-t-c-h bitch!” I was the only child in there who was technically an adult, and not just sort of an adult—I was a full-blown, working adult—but after my fight with the ice cream girl, my father looked at me like he wasn’t so sure. I decided to ignore it.

Back in the car, I composed a letter of complaint in my head to the manager of Chip Wrecked. I intended to get that girl fired. I was angry with my father for sympathizing with her—he was supposed to be on my team. My father was still caught on the topic of Ben. He told me that I should be careful. “Just don’t meet up with him in person,” he kept saying. “You know that’s dangerous.”

Ben and I had already made plans to meet for dinner at a restaurant downtown this coming Friday. I’d bought a new dress at the mall and was planning to get my hair done. It was the first time in a while I was looking forward to going out, and I felt angry with my father for trying to take this away from me. 

“So, you promise not to meet up with him?” asked my father.

“Yes,” I lied.

I looked over at my father in his puffy winter jacket that he had zipped all the way up to his chin. When he turned to look at me, it seemed to require great effort. I had the sudden urge to hug him and tell him the truth. This lasted only for a minute. 

We pulled up in front of my apartment and my father put the car in park. “Do you have enough food for the week?” he asked. “I can drive you to Hannaford’s if you want.”

I didn’t understand why he was trying to take me to Hannaford’s when the Cumberland Farms was right around the corner. “Thanks, but my kitchen is full.”

My father looked at me. It was like he already knew that all I had in my kitchen was a box of Honey Nut Cheerios, a bag of oranges, and a dozen microwave dinners. He said, “It’s okay to ask for help sometimes. I know how hard it is to carry a bunch of groceries up the stairs alone.”

I shook my head. “It’s not that hard at all.”

*

On Friday, I went to Antonio’s to meet Ben. Antonio’s was one of those classic Italian restaurants with dark lighting, leather booths, and a small stage where a man dressed like Elvis was playing the guitar and singing Christmas songs. In the corner of the restaurant was a small Christmas tree with no lights, or it had lights, and no one had bothered to turn them on. It was as though someone had started decorating the tree and lost interest halfway through. I will not describe the feeling this gave me. Let’s just say it was dark.

Ben was already sitting at the bar drinking when I arrived. Even seated I could see that he was taller than I’d imagined, with broad shoulders and a poof of brown curls that only added to his tallness. I’d expected him to be smaller, or less sturdy, like someone about to break. I told myself not to get ahead of myself as I walked up to him and said hello.

“Hey!” said Ben, jumping off his stool to hug me. The hug caught me off guard. I thought maybe he should feel nervous, the way you were supposed to feel on a first date. He smelled like whiskey and tobacco, and his eyes had the invigorated look of someone who had just come in from a long run. 

“You want a drink?” asked Ben. He was already looking at the bar, trying to get the bartender’s attention. He seemed more concerned about getting her attention than he did about me. I looked down at my hands. They suddenly felt too heavy for my body, and I wished that I had something to hold. “I’m good,” I said. “I’ll wait until we’re seated.” I didn’t want to order a drink at the bar. I wanted the hostess to seat us at a booth near the stage and bring us a warm breadbasket and the wine menu. I wanted Ben to choose the wine. 

Ben blinked a few times. “I didn’t reserve a table. I thought we could just eat at the bar.”

“Oh,” I said. I was finding it hard to think of other words.

“Sorry, I thought you’d be okay with this.” The way Ben said this made it sound like I was the one who should be apologizing. I found myself staring hard at his shirt, which had a drawing of Mount Fuji in the middle and The National scrawled in bold across the chest. I wanted to tear the shirt off his body and throw it on the floor. And not in the good way. This was not the Ben I’d been expecting. He didn’t seem sad at all. 

I thought about leaving, but the idea of being alone in my apartment right now lacked its usual allure. In fact, it seemed to me like the worst thing in the world. I wondered how I’d spent so much time alone there and never found it depressing. I sat down next to Ben and ordered a whiskey. I decided that if I was going to stay here, I was going to get drunk. Ben offered me the food menu, but I declined. He seemed happy with my decision but also a little surprised. He said, “I’m impressed that you came. Most girls wouldn’t have the balls to meet up with a stranger. Do you do this often?”

“Yes,” I lied. “I prefer to talk to strangers.”

“Me too,” said Ben. “Everyone I know makes me angry.”

“Everyone?” I realized I could have been talking to myself.

Ben talked about how Celine left him for the drummer in a famous band, and how his father was addicted to heroin and stole money from him at least once a month. “But it’s fine, I’m over it. I’m doing great,” said Ben.

“Me too,” I said, but he didn’t seem to hear me. When he thought I wasn’t looking, Ben reached into his pocket and retrieved a small white pill which he swallowed with his next sip of whiskey. I pretended not to notice. The man dressed like Elvis came by to ask us if we wanted to request a song. He was holding his guitar against his chest like a baby, swaying back and forth to a soundtrack in his head. I liked him right away. 

“Can you play Led Zeppelin?” asked Ben. 

“I can play whatever you want, as long as it’s a Christmas song,” said the man. 

Ben snorted. “No thanks.” 

The man walked back to the stage and began to play “Blue Christmas.” This delighted the people in the booths. I think some of them even believed they were listening to the real Elvis, and the thought of this pleased me. 

After a few more drinks Ben popped another pill, and this time he didn’t try to hide it. “Can I have one of those?” I asked. 

“Sure. But don’t you want to know what it is first?”

“Not really.”

Ben looked at me with interest. It was the first time he’d really looked at me since I sat down, and whatever hesitation might have sprung up to stop me from what I was about to do was quickly gone. 

“Open your mouth,” said Ben. I opened my mouth and let him place one of his pills on my tongue. I swallowed it with my next sip of whiskey. Then I waited for wherever it was the pill was going to take me. 

An hour later, I was in the bathroom calling my father. “Merry Christmas!” I said.

“Christmas is next week, Samantha. Are you drunk?”

“What do you mean, dad?” I walked over to the sink and turned on the faucet. I wanted to feel the warm water rolling over my hands and off the ends of my fingertips. I wanted to watch the suds collect in a pile in the sink and then wash the suds away with a new stream of water. I gazed at the wall above the sink. It was covered in framed photographs of celebrities who’d all dined at Antonio’s. Some of the celebrities had even signed their names on their photos and left notes like, “Great times and great spicy rigatoni!” I think the person who signed that note was a Kardashian. I couldn’t tell which one. “Dad,” I said. “Which Kardashian is the one who had the baby?”

“What do you mean? They all had babies,” he said. These were the times when I was certain my father and I were related. Other times, I was not so sure. “Where are you, Samantha?”

“Birmingham,” I said. I put my hands under the water. The warm water felt so nice—it was like taking a hand bath. Rock of ages cleave for me, let my heart forget a beat.

“Birmingham, Alabama?”

“Not the place, dad. The song!”

I could hear my father moving around. It sounded like he was looking for his keys. He said, “I don’t know where you are or what you’re doing right now, but I want you to know that I’m not happy about it. Now I’m going to ask you one more time: where are you?”

The thought of my father coming here right now had a sobering effect. I dried my hands and checked my reflection. My makeup made me look like someone who was trying, and I wasn’t sure what that meant for me. “Sorry, dad. I have to go,” I said. “But I’m fine. Really.”

Back at the bar, Elvis was perched on one of the stools, drinking a martini. I sat down next to him and ordered a water. “Are you done playing already?” I asked him.

“Sadly,” said Elvis. “I ran out of songs.” He had this look on his face like he was still singing. 

“It’s okay to play the same song twice sometimes.”

“Not in a bar,” he said.

We started talking. I told him about my dead mother and how I no longer spoke to any of my friends. He said it was important to put in effort with people even when you didn’t want to. Then he pointed at the floor behind me. “Isn’t that your friend over there?” 

I turned and saw the bartender reaching down to help Ben off the ground. I hadn’t even realized he’d fallen. We watched Ben stagger to his feet and push the bartender away. “Get your hands off me,” Ben said. “I’m fine.”

I remained very still in my seat, unsure what was expected of me. I felt embarrassed for Ben. I thought maybe they would kick him out and I could go back to talking to Elvis, but the bartender looked at me and pointed. “You,” he said. “I need you to make sure your friend gets home safe. I don’t know what he’s on, but he shouldn’t be here like this.” 

“He said he was fine,” I said. 

“I’m not asking you. I’m telling you,” said the bartender. I cleared my throat, prepared to start a fight, but before I could say something Ben was swinging his fist at the bartender’s face. It was a lousy attempt at a punch, and the bartender ducked it with ease. Ben staggered back helplessly. He looked at me as if he thought I might help him, but I looked away. I did not want to give him the impression that we were on the same team. 

A large man escorted us out of the restaurant and deposited us on the sidewalk. We stood there for some time looking in at the people who were still allowed inside. Standing there, I became aware of a wanting that was not directed at anything specific, but which made me feel as though the people inside were in possession of something I was missing. I had no idea what that was.

We walked in silence back to Ben’s apartment. He lived only a few blocks from the restaurant, but it felt like miles. I kept waiting for Ben to say something to make the walk better, but he only smoked cigarettes and looked depressed. At one point he turned to me and said, “You don’t have to walk me home if you don’t want to.”

“It’s fine. I don’t mind,” I said. The pill was quickly wearing off, and I convinced myself that if I just kept moving, I could delay the comedown I felt inching closer and closer with every step. I tried to distract myself by conjuring some sort of feeling for Ben, but all I found was my own desire for this all to mean something, and that only depressed me. By the time we reached Ben’s apartment, I was feeling low—like someone had pressed me deep into the earth’s cavity and now I couldn’t get out. When Ben twisted his key into his front door, I was prepared to beg him to let me come inside, but he saved me the embarrassment by inviting me in. “You can crash on my couch if you want,” he said. It was the kindest thing he’d said to me all night.

Ben’s apartment looked like it had been decorated by someone who was not Ben. There were plants in the windows, throw pillows on the couch, shelves full of family photos and a tall, mahogany bookshelf. One of the books on the shelf was The Master and Margarita. I opened it and smiled when I saw the title of the first chapter was “Never Talk to Strangers.” 

“Is this your book?” I asked.

“No, it’s my father’s,” said Ben. He handed me a pillow and blanket with the letter embroidered in gold across the middle. “That couch isn’t bad. I’ve slept on it before,” said Ben. 

I spread the blanket across the couch and admired the embroidery. “Did someone make that for you?” I asked. But when I looked up, Ben was gone. I heard the water running in the bathroom and then a door slam shut down the hall, and I was there alone, staring at the blanket. 

I paced around the room, pausing in front of the shelf filled with framed photos of Ben and his parents. The photos were all taken of Ben when he was a child or a teenager; there were no photos of Ben as he was now. It was as if someone was trying to keep the Ben that I knew outside of the frame. I took out my phone to call my father and stopped myself from dialing when I saw that it was 2am. I forced myself to lie down on the couch and covered myself with Ben’s blanket. 

*

I woke up the next morning to the sound of Ben saying my name and shaking me. “I need your help,” he said. He was kneeling beside me, smoking a cigarette and flicking his ashes on the floor with a shaky hand. “There’s a man outside trying to get into the apartment, and I need you to go talk to him.” As he said this, I became aware of a banging on the door and a man calling out Ben’s name.

“What does he want?” I asked.

“I think he wants to kill me,” said Ben. His tone was dejected and resigned, as if he’d known this moment was coming and he just couldn’t believe it was here. 

“Who is he?” I asked. 

“It’s a long story,” said Ben. “Let’s just say that I owe him some money.”

“So…he’s your drug dealer?” 

Ben tossed his cigarette on the floor and lit another one. “Please,” he said. “I just need you to go downstairs and talk to this guy and tell him to come back next week.” 

I tried to stand, but I was so shaky from whatever it was I’d taken last night that I immediately had to sit back down. I felt like Ben had trapped me, and the thought of this made me furious. Then I remembered that I had done this to myself, and I had the urge to weep. I knew that if I wanted to leave, I was going to have to face whoever was on the other side of that door. I told myself to get it together and forced myself to my feet. The banging on the door persisted until it began to sound more like an alarm. Ben’s phone began to ring. I realized it had been ringing this whole time. Ben pleaded with me again to help him. 

“Okay, okay,” I said. “Jesus.” I went into Ben’s kitchen and rummaged through the drawers looking for a weapon to bring with me. I settled on a small cheese knife, which I hid in my jacket pocket. I kept my hand in my pocket, wrapped around the knife’s handle, as I stepped slowly down the stairs. I told myself that if I survived whatever was on the other side of that door, I would move my microwave away from my bed. I would go to Florida for Christmas. I held my breath and opened the door. 

What I found on the other side of the door was a tall, elegant man dressed in khakis and a peacoat. He was rooting around his pockets rather frantically, but other than that he looked harmless. I loosened my grip on the knife. On the ground beside the man was a rolling suitcase and a shopping bag full of presents. “Thank god,” he said when he looked up and saw me. “I lost my keys and Ben isn’t picking up his phone. Are you Celine?”

“No, I’m Samantha. Who are you?”

“I’m Ben’s father. I just got back from London, and I seem to have left my keys on the plane. Is Ben upstairs?”

“He is,” I said. “But he’s not in great shape.” The man didn’t seem surprised to hear this. I wondered for a moment if he was lying about being Ben’s father, but then I looked at him again and saw that he was identical to the man in Ben’s family photo. I couldn’t decide whether to feel relieved or angry about Ben’s lie, or where was the right place to direct either of those feelings. 

I told Ben’s father that Ben said that he was here to kill him. His father did not seem surprised to hear this either. “Ben says a lot of things when he’s high, but not many of them are true,” he said. “I live here with Ben. Or I should say, Ben lives here with me. This is my apartment.” He spoke with the measured patience of someone who was accustomed to explaining things a few times, and I had the strongest sense that I was standing across from my own father. The effect was calming—like looking out at a still lake in the middle of winter—and I wanted to reach out and take the man’s hand and tell him that if we left now, we’d be in Florida before Christmas. 

“Are you on your way out?” asked Ben’s father.

“I was just about to call a cab.”

“We can call you a cab from inside. I don’t want you standing out here in the cold.”

I followed Ben’s father inside, where we found Ben lying on the couch with his arm over his face, sleeping. A weak light filtered in through the curtains, falling on the cigarette ash that made a trail from the couch to the door. Ben’s father stepped around the ash with quiet precision, as if he were accustomed to the obstacle, like he had done this all before. He hung his coat on the coat rack and placed the bag of presents on the floor. Each present was wrapped in this beautiful gold paper, and the idea that these gifts were all for Ben made my heart clench. 

Ben’s father walked over to the couch and stood there for a moment watching Ben sleep. The things he thought in that moment I could not begin to imagine. I liked to think that if I were in Ben’s position, I would have at least let my father in the door.

*

My father and I drove to Florida for Christmas. I spent a day putting together a playlist for the trip. The first song we listened to on the drive was “Birmingham.”

“This is a song about two musicians who give up their solo careers to form a band,” I said.

“Are they still together, this band?” asked my father.

“Yes,” I said, smiling out the window at the sign that told us we were no longer in New York. There was so many signs telling us where to go. Sometimes I appreciated the information—like when I wanted to stop for a milkshake or a snack—and other times it felt like overkill. “Those signs annoy me,” I said. “What if you just want to forget about where you are for a while and drive without thinking?”

“Then don’t look at the signs,” said my father. “Just keep your eyes on the road like I do.” It was true that my father was a careful driver, who stayed in the far-right lane and listened to his GPS with the rapt attention of someone absorbing instructions on how to get rich. Only once on our trip did the GPS misguide us, and we were forced to pull off at a gas station to ask for directions. I could tell my father was upset that he had to ask the kid working the gas pumps for help because he didn’t say thank you, and when we got back on the road he didn’t speak or look at me.

I tried to comfort him by asking if there was maybe a song that he would like to hear, but he said that for now he preferred silence.

“Silence works,” I said. My father allowed his gaze to stray from the road just for a moment, and when we met eyes his face softened, as if I’d just reminded him of something he’d long forgotten.

In Florida, we checked into a small hotel on the beach. The hotel had two Christmas trees in the lobby: one that was themed pink like a flamingo, and one that was more like the Christmas trees we had back home, with frosted ornaments and cool-toned lights. Both trees looked like someone had put a great deal of effort into making them look good. When we passed by the trees on the way to our rooms, my father and I looked at each other and smiled.

On Christmas morning, we woke up early to buy donuts and take a walk on the beach. The sky was grey and overcast, the air sticky, and my father and I both agreed that it did not feel like Christmas at all. And yet being there felt better than I’d expected. 

Two dogs were chasing each other down the beach ahead of us. One was small and the other was large, and they looked like they might be related. At one point, the smaller dog lost interest in the game and stopped running to sniff at a random rock. It took a while for the other dog to realize that he was now running down the beach alone, but he eventually turned back and joined the smaller dog near the water. A wave rose up and crashed over the dogs, drenching them both completely. For a minute the dogs stood still as if they’d been zapped, wondering what had happened. Eventually they shook the water off their fur and continued with their game. My father and I watched the dogs until they were so far ahead of us, they were nothing but two dots chasing each other down the beach.  Sometimes it was the small dot chasing the big dot. Other times, the roles were reversed. 

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