The Numbers in My Phone

I got texts in my phone that’ll never ping again
I screenshot ’em so I got ’em; I don’t want this thing to end
A.P.I.D.T.A.

“bell hooks…y’all” the Tribe Called Best thread pings on my phone on December 15, 2021 at 12:35 p.m. Right away, I know. The Queen of Love is dead. This is not the first time I learn via text that someone else has made their way out of this world.

Earlier this year, my brother shared a link to the obituary of our childhood babysitter. Not only did Miss Mitchell make the best lemonade in the universe, or at least on the east side of Columbus, Ohio, but, as I learned from the obituary, she earned a master’s degree in education at The Ohio State University only shortly after the institution finally allowed black students to live on campus. She was so good with us kids that I never imagined she had been anything except for a babysitter. I never had to see the her behind her care.

When I was seven, Miss Mitchell told me I was too old to have an ice cube put in my chicken noodle soup. This sent me into a whirl of pride — I was a big girl. And sorrow — big girls had to be tough and wait for hot broth to cool on its own. This black woman who endured the 1930, 1940, 1950, 1960, and beyond versions of America had never underestimated the value of patience. And I understand now that she must have invented new kinds of patience while trying to instill that same huge notion in tiny me.

Miss Mitchell and bell hooks were born in the South. Tennessee and Kentucky, respectively. They both wound up in Ohio. Miss Mitchell made a life there, while bell hooks spent six years teaching at Oberlin before moving on. They both earned master’s degrees at Big 10 schools where I doubt blackness showed up much in any of their classmates, syllabi, or professors. That didn’t stop Miss Mitchell from embedding in me and my brother the skills we’d need to grow into our black selves in this world — to speak up, to ask questions and expect answers, and to be kind if we believed we too deserved kindness.

Nor did it stop hooks, who just a couple of hours north of us, was revolutionizing teaching, making her classrooms into sites of joy and understanding, where students could bring along their concrete experiences in and understandings of the world and squeeze out of them lessons that were as important as those stemming from theory and external scholarship. I can’t know whether Miss Mitchell ever read bell hooks or heard her deliver a talk on some campus in Ohio, but I like to believe she underlined, highlighted and bookmarked hooks’ early texts, incorporating black feminist scholarship into the decisions made about our play times and the language she used to address us.

When I zoomed in on Miss Mitchell’s image on my iPhone, she looked like she always looked — a pixelated testimony to the saying “black don’t crack.” Though the family could have used an old picture. It’s hard to imagine that digital image of hers printed out and laminated on paper, cut over an inch wide and six or seven inches long, coupled with an obituary on one side and Bible verses or a poem excerpt written in italics on the other. Completed with a pastel or gold piece of string looped through a hole at the top for good measure.

That’s what used to happen to dead people. They got turned into bookmarks that sat propped up on bookshelves or used in big leather Bibles.

I haven’t seen one of those in a long time. Now different things happen to people when they die. Their faces might still end up on t-shirts or mugs, but these days, they become hashtags and get virtual memorial pages and blurbs on sites like Find a Grave. The dead become keepsakes on URLs that can’t be accidentally chewed up by a pet or forever misplaced by a well-intentioned but forgetful uncle.

The news of death is no longer accompanied by voice or loopy handwriting. There are text messaged photos of dead second cousins and great aunts in caskets. Facebook video snippets of church ceremonies where the congregation mourns and howls. Intrusive dings serve as reminders that the funerals we opt not to attend will still find us.

The deceased get filed away in a nowhere but still sort-of-somewhere place we can conveniently access from almost anywhere, at almost any time, without having to carry anything physical or perishable with us.

I don’t think about it often, but I suppose someday, depending on how long I live and how technology develops, my death too will be communicated through lower case texts and maybe warrant calls for prayers and warm thoughts. If, when that day comes, they are still widely used, I hope that the ⚡(high voltage sign) and 💃🏿 (black lady dancing) emojis accompany the news of my death. I don’t think this is the kind of instruction appropriate to leave in a will, but if you love me and have any say in the matter, do try to make it happen.

***

I tried for a long time not to have a smart phone. I already spent too much time online, looking up girlfriends who’d dumped me and gone on to do better without me, trying to track down archived menus from the now shuttered Sisters Chicken and Biscuits, and looking at Google map images of my childhood home. When would the two Japanese maple trees I watched my dad plant wither away?

My laptop was more than plenty. I couldn’t handle the constant access to the endless distractions and rabbit holes that a phone would open up. I didn’t want to worry about cracked screens, about going on even more intense undercover missions to find out mundane details about people I hadn’t spoken to in decades while waiting in line to pay for groceries. I didn’t need monthly bills higher than the $24.99 I paid for service or the temptation to overshare every aspect of my life on social media (…a rich concern for a writer of personal essays, right?).

I embraced printing out and drawing maps when I traveled and having to talk to a human to find out if the barber shop was open. Reading books when my mind was empty. It felt good to judge others who spent their bus rides hunched over, scrolling. To worry about their spines but think my own would be fine. Surely I was superior; I noticed faces and sunsets and the occasional dollar bill on the ground. I liked it when I moved to Chicago in 2013 and, over sushi, a woman I met on OkCupid, asked “What are you, a spy? Criminal? Why do you have a flip phone?” I thought it made me mysterious. Unconventional. Someone who, if this were a novel, would be a time-traveler with a very important message.

But in 2015, I got over myself and my delusions, deciding to get my first smartphone, when I moved to Vermont. In The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, Deesha Philyaw warns that “Black women aren’t meant to shovel snow,” but I was opting to try out life in the tundra anyway. For that, I’d need tools. The slippery sidewalks and confrontational winter would make requesting affordable rides a critical part of avoiding frostbite. A smartphone would be my knight in shining thermoplastic polyurethane.

This technological upgrade would prove to be its own kind of loss.

On one of my first days there, I headed to University Mall in South Burlington and found that most of the stores were vacant. Some had been turned into galleries showcasing hand-blown glass vases and matching canvasses splattered in thick swirls of paint. Some sold cheap Vermont merchandise, like t-shirts with mountain clipart swiped straight from Microsoft Word. Others had storefront security gates protecting large spaces of nothing. The mall’s emptiness was infinite and, if I could just ignore the clinical lighting, unimaginative use of the color grey, and stale air, mirrored the surrounding state.

It was hard to be inside of a mall, or if I’m being honest, any place, without being emotionally tossed in some way back to adolescence. Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s my friends and I would get all of our change and allowance together to buy those disposable cameras that could take 24 or 36 pictures at a time. We’d go into various dressing rooms, pretend we were taking pictures for the magazines, and strike poses in sequin prom dresses, halter tops with bell bottoms, and overalls with our favorite cartoon characters sewn on the pockets. We’d use the rest of our money to get Biggie fries and Frostys off of Wendy’s ninety-nine cent menu while we waited for the film to develop.

When I see those pictures now, I see girls who let themselves melt together toward a bond meant to carry them through a lifetime.  Girls who were totally unaware that their friendship had a shelf life. And not even a very long one.

I still know a couple of their former landline numbers by heart, because I called them so much. But I don’t have their social media handles, email addresses, or mobile numbers. Without those ties, they remain forever thirteen in my mind. I’m glad we grew apart before technology had a chance to sew us together. It’s hard for me to know whether feeling this way is also a coping mechanism. If we all followed each other on Twitter, would I be grateful for that? Would I share snapshots from our photoshoots and take credit for the evolution of selfies? Would I requote their tweets #LYLASA? That means Love You Like A Sister, Always, in case you are not fluent in 1990s girlhood.

But the saddest thing about the shopping center in Burlington was not that there were hardly any teenagers around enjoying their freedom. No, it’s that the Taco Bell had already gone out of business. Which actually might explain the lack of teenagers. On a more promising note, there was an Applebee’s which always had a line. Despite its green reputation, Vermont ain’t all farm to table.

It is at Applebee’s, sitting at the bar, that could easily be in any other busted part of Ohio, Arizona, or Nebraska, that I would, months later, endure the distinct misfortune of dining with someone who insisted on ordering the Cheeseburger Eggrolls. She slapped my thigh as we chuckled and gulped down bowl-size glasses of bright, syrupy booze-slush. When her hand lingered, I got scared she was in love with me and nearly choked. I started worrying I was an egomaniac, and a desperate one at that, for mistaking the basic expression of attention and kindness for romantic interest and lust.

Women, you see, make me nervous.

“I’ve never seen a black person’s cheeks turn red,” she laughed, “and you’ve only had a sip!”

“This is a totally normal thing,” I promised, inwardly wishing I knew the name of my white great-grandfather, so I could curse him directly, not for deserting my grandmother and great-grandmother, but for leaving me stuck with embarrassing European genes and not a single one of the benefits. You, reader, might feel compelled to remind me that Alcohol Flush Reaction isn’t a very white thing. True, that. But this is my story and, with all due respect, I alone get to cast blame here.

***

Keeta, a.k.a. the Cheeseburger Eggroll lover, and I first met at a HomeGoods, in a shopping complex almost three miles away from the mall. That day, we both stood cross-examining discounted plate sets neither of us ultimately purchased. Our eyes met.

“Girl, you look like Jill Scott!” she chirped, “I don’t really know any other black people up here. Not to be weird, but wanna hang?”

“Yes. I mean, yes, like, yes I want to hang out, not, like, yes that’s weird. I, yea, could use black friends, too.” Thanks to my great-grandfather, I’ve never been cool. Still, despite my shortcomings and Urkel tendencies, I made my First Black Friend up there. Just like that.

Next thing you know, we were putting candles and pillows in and out of carts, and seeing who was better at guessing prices. Keeta won, by a landslide. Once we tired of shopping for things we’d never need, we headed to Denny’s. Denny’s disgusts me, but I went with the flow, even when my chicken noodle soup arrived cold and congealed. Later, I’d regret missing out on that chance to set the precedent of being honest about my preferences.

When I meet black women and they are interested in friendship, I get fireworks-in-the-head level excited. When I get excited, I lose my fucking mind. When I lose my fucking mind, I make shit weird. And, when I make shit weird, I risk losing the friendship and sisterhood altogether. Audre Lorde wrote “the true feminist deals out of a lesbian consciousness whether or not she ever sleeps with women.” To me this means “hoes before bros.” And more. It is a demand. In a similar vein, I want to believe, even if all my lived experience suggests otherwise, that all women, and especially black women, must love, respect, and admire each other. That we are collectively responsible for our persistence. Perhaps Miss Mitchell and bell hooks taught me to hope for this.

Keeta was someone who prayed over our food, kept a cross in her car, and watched church on YouTube. This all made me reluctant to tell her I was queer. But her religion, I’d gather from how she spoke of it, was a foundation for love, not hate. It took time for me to realize I was projecting my internalized homophobia onto her — I was anticipating disdain, disgust, and distance because some part of me thought I deserved it. My assumptions about her faith — that it would make her run from our friendship — were rooted in my own biases and fears. Not in hers.

Ever since first coming out in college, I had been afraid of telling people I was queer. I especially hated telling black people who weren’t obviously queer themselves. One of my peers in the campus NAACP chapter hadn’t wanted to “invite a faggot” to speak on campus. Miss Mitchell and bell hooks would not have approved of him, but after he said that, I left the group without saying why. I thought if I came out to straight black friends they’d respond with judgement or, if they were of The Book, lecture me for living in sin. Maybe they’d even yell at me, as a man on the subway platform had when he said “Don’t do that gay shit!”

It’s irrational, like many things I believe, but I thought acknowledging my queerness might decrease my claims to blackness. That queer was, just like all of the LGBTQ+ clubs at NYU during my undergraduate years, a white thing. It was like I had a certain number of drops of paint to distribute across social identities, and I could only add to the black bucket by borrowing from the rainbow one. At the same time, I knew — from my gender studies coursework and the resources my mom sent me when she sensed I was in crisis — very well the contributions, blueprints, and blood black people had given and continued to offer queer and trans social movements.

I got defensive when anyone else claimed black people had a culture of homophobia, but inside I operated under a shortsighted, dated, and exhausting assumption that black people were homophobic unless proven otherwise. I was a hypocrite.

It wasn’t in my interest to hide my queerness; whatever I feared was more internal than external. I started to understand that identities were more like paint smudged on one canvas than drops splattered into separate pails.

I wrote and read a piece, mentioning my queerness, at a storytelling gathering. Keeta was there.

Her questions rolled in that very night: Have you dated anyone here? Have you ever had a white girlfriend? Have you ever slept with a man?

My answers, like the comfort shoes I wear, were all the same and boring: No.

She started bringing up my queerness a lot, saying things like, “Your skin is so radiant. I think it’s because you don’t have to deal with men and their bullshit.” I didn’t remind her that she wasn’t exactly dealing with the stress cis-het men cause either. That living in Vermont wasn’t giving her opportunities to go on dates with black men who loved the Lord.

Anyway. Keeta loved having a queer friend and telling me I was her first queer friend. Because I overanalyze everything, it didn’t take long for me to start planning my response should her care for me take root in the kind of curiosity known to morph into expectation and demand.

Though I am all about fluidity and exploration and agree with Margaret Cho’s mom that everybody is a “little bit gay,” I consistently lack the emotional capacity, technical skills, and sexual interest integral to being a Sapphic theme park for straight folks. I half-criticized myself for thinking a compliment on my complexion was some ploy to get in my panties. But I also forgave myself: She was touchy and flirty, and this was confirmed whenever a server told us we were a lovely couple, and she just replied Thanks.

Not that I’m counting, but that happened at least three times. I didn’t think I liked her like that, but, then again, thinking she might like me made me wonder if I might like her. If I should like her. If I could like her. If I would start to like her. Don’t despair, reader, I found an amazing therapist right in the nick of time.

I’m a scaredy-cat. Despite what my passport might suggest, I have only ever fully lived and traveled in my head. And, at this point, I internally felt like an angsty eighth-grader. Emotionally stunted and easily excitable.

Keeta and I started meeting up weekly to do either arts and crafts or watch reality TV shows. We’d eat junk, drink wine, and complain about the poor decision-making skills that led us so far away from the lives we actually deserved. Keeta wanted to be in DC, hosting extravagant brunches on her upstairs balcony, resurrecting plants, reuniting with an ex, and living near a black church with a good gospel choir.

I wanted to be in NYC, sitting on my stoop, talking shit about people from undergrad who actually managed to do something worthwhile with their lives, and hanging with friends who knew me so well they could predict what I’d order from any menu. In lieu of pursuing our dreams, Keeta and I were trying very hard to love maple syrup, mountains, and misery. I was slightly better at it than she was.

One day, she cooked and invited me over to her apartment, where a number of Yankee Candles with conflicting scents burned. We sat on her couch, nonsense blared from the TV.

“Would you date me?” she asked, confirming my dear ego’s suspicions.

She pushed my shoulder before I could respond. “I’m just kidding!”

I excused myself to her bathroom. On the floor was a pair of her underwear that still had a maxi-pad with dried up menstrual blood on it. To my surprise, the pad didn’t have wings. She lived on the edge. The bathtub was not exactly clean. From this, I gathered she was not trying to impress me. And, therefore, she was not in love with me. I was certain. I thought. Definitely.

Maybe.

Weeks later, she shared she didn’t feel like I was making enough time for her friendship. So we went to a nice dinner. Then we mostly stopped talking. Then we ran into each other and made plans, restarting the cycle.

Our nothingness and my over-analysis continued for over a year until she got a new job and left. Once she was gone, at least two other women in the small circle we’d found would tell me that she was flirty and touchy with them, too. We all found it hilarious, but I have to admit I was sad there were others.

We texted two or three times once she moved, but when I went to visit another friend in her town I didn’t tell Keeta I was nearby. I know I am never going to text or call or delete her from my phone.

Our last text exchange remains frozen in the ZTE Blade G I bought when I arrived in Vermont, just weeks before we met in 2015. When I bought the cheap, senior-citizen friendly smartphone, I didn’t imagine that it would outlive any of my friendships.

***

The day I got the ZTE, a sales representative helped transfer all the numbers from my Nokia 6600 Slide and showed me how to download apps. Even if it had only been good for texting, calling, and taking mystery photos for the last five years, I felt sad knowing I wouldn’t use my Nokia anymore. It was the first phone I ever had with internet, even if that part of it only worked in Australia, where I purchased it. Plus, it had followed me to Norway, Finland, the U.K., and Portugal while I studied. It stored phone numbers and messages from former roommates, dates, teachers, and friends in all of those places.

I felt like a traitor.

None of my Nokia messages transferred over to my new smartphone, and I was not smart enough to figure out how to export the Nokia texts and photos to archive elsewhere. So I was glad I could hold onto the physical Nokia, and keep it, like a prized souvenir, in a bag in a box under my bed, mixed with tangles of cords and chargers that go with who knows what. My fancy digital camera, now rendered unnecessary thanks to my phone, quietly joined the Nokia in that bag of things that fall between too-nice-to-let-go-of and too-old-to-actually-use.
Much like the text threads stored within it, the little silver rectangle holding evidence of my life on so many corners of the planet went silent. I still miss its ringtone, which was the introduction to Kelis’s song ‘Like You,’ the most realistic love song of our time.

Kelis is the only celebrity I have ever dreamt about. To my surprise, I acted cool after meeting her in real life, when a friend who worked in the music industry brought me along to the 2006 birthday party of Nas, Kelis’s partner at the time. Kelis was so chatty and down-to-earth I almost felt compelled to make it weird and tell her about the dream I had of her shampooing and roller-setting my hair. I’m still proud I resisted. Turns out I can be normal, so take that, great-grandfather.

I’d see Kelis again in Melbourne, Australia at a music festival in 2011, though I wouldn’t get close enough to talk. Cee Lo, Damian Marley, Phoenix, Erykah Badu, and Nas were all there, too. I captured tiny, terrible pictures of them on the Nokia.

When I bought the Nokia, it felt like a tremendous upgrade from my bright pink phone that looked cooler and somehow had email but otherwise no web browser or ability to function outside of Japan, where I lived for two years teaching English. On the Nokia, I could tweet and pull up maps that were hard to see but still helpful. The buttons allowed me to text without ever really looking at the screen.

I can’t remember the salesperson at the phone shop, but I’ll never forget the distinct joy of shopping while black in Australia.

After I secured my phone, a bag in a window of a leather shop caught my eye, and I stepped in to see if I could afford it.

“Tanzania?” The shopkeeper greeted me.

No Hello. No Let me know if I can help.

When I didn’t respond, he continued, “Kenya, Botswana, Ethiopia?”

Was he offering me…coffee? I shook my head.

“I’m going to guess where you’re from. I used to live in South Africa. So, I know a lot about Africans,” he insisted.

“What are you looking for?”

“A bag.”

“Barbados!”

My black skin was so loud, I realized, that it prevented him from hearing my U.S. American accent.

When I told him I was from the States, he smiled. “Your people have taken white culture, improved it, and also made something of yourselves with it. Oprah. Obama. Your music. Look! These Abos could learn a thing or two from you all. Let me tell you, they won’t touch real Australian culture. They didn’t even have the wheel before we got here. No gratitude, these people.”

He presented his inner thoughts like they were offerings for which I should be grateful. The beautiful bag ended up being in my price range, but I wouldn’t let myself buy it. Not from him.

That same year, Oprah came to Australia with a hundred of her fans. Flags blew across Melbourne with her face all over them. It was strange but satisfying to be so far from home and see someone so familiar, and so black, garner such attention.

I was there on a working holiday visa that was open to folks with U.S. citizenship, alongside nationals from a number of other countries. I started reading Aboriginal literature and learned that Aboriginals also referred to themselves as black — disrupting my certainty that black and Afro-descendant were synonyms.

I got a stupid job, doing administrative malarkey, making good money at a world-threatening oil company. About a month or two in, maybe thanks to the law of attraction, I showed up at work, only to see another black woman standing near the elevator bank — talking with a Texas accent, at that. We started hanging out. She was a big deal, on a contract to train the Aussies on some real shit that I, to this day, don’t understand.

She had a Sigma Master Black Belt, which always made me imagine her doing corporate karate. For me, the proof of her status was that, beyond always covering the tab, in 2011 she retained her U.S. American phone number while living in Australia, with no regard for all of the fees then associated with international data and being out of network. Plus, she had a Blackberry. Nobody else had a Blackberry.

But Dina was humble.

A bunch of us lowlifes who sat bouncing between Microsoft Excel and Access and communicating with the Manilla team, called ourselves the Office Chickens.

“Chicken, want to get lunch?” We bocked at each other and flapped our arms and vented about the monkey work and corporate farm life that drained us. We were paltry poultry.

Despite her clout in the company, Dina quickly and willingly became Dina Chicken. What I really respected was that she didn’t pretend to be all sophisticated when she told the Aussies what to do. She never hid or dressed up her inner black girl from inner Houston. She wore sneakers. She cussed in meetings. She didn’t wait for anyone else to tell her it was okay to eat.

Like I would later be with Keeta, in Vermont, I was afraid to tell Dina that I was queer. Her country accent made me think she’d call me Satan and toss me off of a cliff of the Great Ocean Road. Again, I did not recognize that while homophobia certainly was and remains real, it was mostly my interior shit driving my worries, not active threats.

One night, after lots of cocktails, I decided to come clean. Mostly because I had an agenda. I needed to reveal that I was in love with one of my friends. Get some advice. Also, by then I had been out to my family for a good decade, and if I could get through that, why was I afraid of what a stranger would think? If Dina didn’t want to be friends because I was gay, I reasoned, I could keep meeting queer women on a website called Pink Sofa. The site attracted plenty of older women who were more than eager to console and offer advice and meals to a lost, foreign, youngin like myself.

Instead of getting to what I thought I wanted to discuss, which was whether I should pursue a romantic relationship with someone back home, or try to preserve our friendship, I offered Dina a tour of the last eight years of my life. I went on and on about how I liked boys in high school but not all the way and had thought I was asexual, then got to college, where new parts of me were awakened by a cute girl with bright eyes and a buzzcut.

I told Dina how, after a few rounds of failed intimacy with other women, to help me accept myself, a friend gifted me a copy of bell hook’s All About Love with selected sections highlighted.

One passage emphasized was: “Women will only be truly sexually liberated when we arrive at a place where we can see ourselves as having sexual value and agency irrespective of whether or not we are the objects of male desire.”

Another was: “The best sex and the most satisfying sex are not the same.”

Dina’s eyes grew anime big, and she nodded with purpose. Was she hype from the cocktails, being performative, preparing to share her favorite bell hooks’ quotes, thinking about ways to kill me, or genuinely interested?

When I finally finished my forty-five minute monologue, she laid her hand on mine.

“That guy back home I’ve been talking about is actually a woman. I was scared to tell you, too.”

It had been impossible to believe she feared anything. We started holding hands and ended up oversharing until we were asked to leave. That we were thousands and thousands of miles from our country but able to find a home in each other felt like, but wasn’t, more than luck.

It is not lost on me that the fear I had and the fear she had both served as barriers that would have kept us apart. Only when we dismantled them could we connect in the truest, realest way. bell hooks, again, got it right: “When we drop fear, we can draw nearer to the earth, we can draw nearer to all the heavenly creatures that surround us.”

***

Dina and I got as near to the earth and each other as we could.

Over more hangouts, she told me about the love of her life, back in Texas. The woman was someone who had teased Dina in high school, making fun of her weight and queerness. As attractive as disinterest can be, I couldn’t imagine falling for one of my bullies. But maybe this was better, easier, than falling for a friend, than falling for someone who had shown you love, just not the kind you longed for. It sounded like this woman continued to bully her, telling Dina that she wasn’t attractive. Dina wasn’t fazed. At some point, Dina bought tickets for the woman and her three children to come spend time in Fiji and Australia, but the woman cancelled the trip at the last minute, costing Dina almost $10k. While that amount of money didn’t mean a lot to her, the disregard stung. Dina stopped talking to her. For at least a week.

Reader, I thought what you’re thinking, but I did not voice it.

“She wouldn’t ever go down on me, and when I go down on her she complains that I’m too into it,” Dina told me, seeking a reassurance I was in no position to provide. “She doesn’t like my body, just my mind.”

Dina’s tears were contagious. Vicarious rejection is no joke. I started thinking that if I made a move on Dina, who was perhaps the only person in the world more eager for affection than I was, I could distract her from the empty-hearted woman in Texas. Show her how it felt to be loved. But that would only be false. My heart was preoccupied and not yet big enough to love more than one person, at least not like that.

I wanted to tell Dina I didn’t think the woman back in Texas, with whom she was about to have a one-year anniversary, loved her or even had any real, let alone slight, interest in being with women. She most certainly was not committed to a “lesbian consciousness.” I worried she was simply drawn to Dina’s oil money and would try to survive the relationship as long as it was long distance and convenient. But I didn’t have the heart to tell Dina she wasn’t loved by someone whose rent and bills she was paying. So, I only suggested she deserved more. Of course, it was not about what she deserved. It was about what she wanted.

Later, I’d regret my Midwestern inability to be direct and honest. My fear of causing conflict and discomfort.

It went on like this: They’d be talking. Then there’d be a betrayal or a fight and Dina would be on the phone trying to get the power cut off at the house where the woman was staying or convincing a family member to go get her car. Next thing they’d be swapping nudes. Then Dina would send a bunch of money for the woman’s kids’ clothes and school activities. Then the woman would remind Dina that her children only had one mother. Repeat.

Dina started showing me pictures of the woman’s Facebook page. She’d blocked Dina because she felt like she was being spied on. So, of course, Dina logged in through a friend’s account. “Look she’s posting about getting her hair done for her new boo, but she tells me she’s just with me.” And “… she’s going to Trinidad; so she can go there but not here?” The woman was on Dina’s phone plan and Dina could see that she was having long conversations with her ex. The woman and Dina fought hard and heavy. It made me want to fly to Texas, find the woman, smash her phone into tiny pieces, and punch her.

Not that I’d punch a woman.
Or anyone.
But I’d definitely destroy a phone.

What strikes me now is that I cannot remember the woman’s name at all. It could be in a text in the Nokia, but that phone is at my primary residence in New York, not where I’m staying in Florida, so I can’t check it. Plus, there’s a good chance we had some sort of inside joke name for her or just referred to her as an initial. We spent all of those hours talking about her, but now, because it isn’t documented in any way and my brain is filled with other trash, it feels like it was in vain.

Siri, Alexa, or whoever is keeping track, what else am I forgetting?

One weekend at Myer, the Australian answer to Macy’s, I was sniffing perfumes when a woman came up to me and asked if we could take a picture. She had been at my concert the day before and loved my voice. It was clear I was being mistaken for Me’Shell Ndegecello, whose outdoor concert I’d been at too. Me’Shell and I both had shaved heads, brown skin, and big glasses, so it wasn’t the most unlikely of mix-ups. I posed for the picture, holding the elated woman around her waist. When I told Dina, she called me a creep. I didn’t challenge her insight.

What happened to that picture? Was it forwarded and shared? Does it live only on a nonfunctional device? Was it printed out to hang in a lonely office cubicle or be saved in a photo album?

Within the year, Dina was back in Texas. After another ten rounds of “We’re really done this time,” she started seeing new people. I was in Norway for grad school when our friendship turned into an email thread. When I moved back to the States a couple of years later, we texted and Skyped sporadically. I had the same Nokia, but I don’t know if she had the same Blackberry. It didn’t and doesn’t matter.

Most of this doesn’t.

In 2014, for my new, less evil job, I got the chance to travel to Houston to serve as a judge for a national study abroad scholarship competition. I figured I would see Dina there and planned to reach out. A couple of weeks before heading down I got an email from one of the aforementioned oil admin job chickens. “Have you talked to Dina Chicken?” Tuyen asked. I responded that I’d be in Texas soon to see Dina but didn’t have concrete plans yet, so Tuyen should join us for a Chicken Reunion. She responded and said “Sorry to share, especially this way, but she’s dead. The company sent an email. Take care of yourself and think of her family.”

I sat and wrote Dina’s name in cursive over and over for much of the day. I tried to draw chickens in the border and laugh-cried about how terrible they looked, how terrible she would say they looked. I wished I had called her the weeks before, when I first realized I’d be going to Texas. I tried to remember the last time I heard her voice, but couldn’t. It’d been months. Maybe even a year. There were some texts between us on the Nokia but not many.

I considered asking Tuyen for more details about the death but didn’t. The obituary offered no clues, and I appreciated that. Something in me didn’t and doesn’t want to know how Dina died.

Soon came a link for a scholarship in her name. I donated and continued to send texts to her and leave voicemails, hoping for who knows what. “Chicken, I love you and will forgive you for this terrible joke, I swear,” I teared up on her voicemail, feeling stupid and simple as I did so. I reread the emails where we made so many jokes about someone called DEADMAN but have no recollection of who that was, why we thought he was so pathetic, or what that nickname means. The emails about the nameless woman who took so much from her exhaust and upset me. I allowed my heart to wish an eternity of regret upon that woman, but it didn’t make me feel any better. Half-a-year after Dina’s death I opened our thread to see only her blank name, no messages.

When I had been at the shop upgrading my phone, I had not thought about it holding some of my last correspondence with her. I felt better when I remembered those exchanges weren’t gone. they were all on the Nokia, safe beneath my bed.

It’d be three years after her death, after the ZTE started to freeze and shutdown, that I’d switch over to an iPhone. Again, I got to keep all of my contacts and none of the messages. A tiny part of me wanted to go back to having a basic phone, but it was too late for that; the smartphone had made me dependent in all the ways I feared it would. The distraction and burden of having constant access to information were, I’d tell myself, a small price to pay in exchange for connection to people who might poof away at any moment. Plus it allowed me to see what was on happy hour at The Gryphon without walking all the way over or calling anyone. Using a real-time map and not having to call friends and read street signs whenever I needed to get unlost was great. Smartphones offered a quick way to Google Dina’s day of death whenever I forgot it, which was often. I opted for the simplest iPhone, the SE, and the most intense case cover and protector.

It was through texts on this new phone that I learned that the parent or relative or friend of this or that friend had died. That my cousin’s partner had been murdered, leaving my cousin pregnant with twins. And weeks later, that one of twins did not make it. Because of this, whenever I see too many notifications on my phone, I get nervous. Who will it be, this time?

Luckily it isn’t too hard to mute texts and limit notifications, so that’s what I did. And, after reading that it would help me keep my screen-time in check, I switched my screen to grayscale. This is not to say I wasn’t having fun on my iPhone. I was. I downloaded an app that lets you play games within text threads. It’s called Game Pigeon. The ninety-second-or-so challenges bring relief.

I started being late for meetings because I would play so many Word Hunt games with Dina, or more accurately, against her number. And I’d win — I still win — all of them, as anyone playing a one-player game has a good chance of doing. But I’d never wanted more to lose or have a friend kick my butt.

I can’t pretend I play these games with Dina because it is a part of some sort of tradition we had. It isn’t. We never played games. Playing against her does make me feel connected to her without having to figure out what to say. It’s the same reason I’ve started sending game invites to my thirteen-year-old niece, whom I adore but don’t know how to talk to. Game Pigeon lets me engage with both of them and not take their lack of response personally. And, this may be a terrible thing to admit and think, but playing against Dina is good practice and training for playing with, and beating, others.

I wonder if Dina’s phone is stored in some box somewhere or if her family got rid of it. The voicemail still works, which may mean someone still pays the bill. Maybe someone uses the phone and has simply blocked calls and texts from me. Maybe it is a phone that cannot have apps and nothing happens at all when I send another game along. Maybe it is still plugged in and active and lights up every time someone reaches out.

***

After my wedding, I send a text, “dina 🐔 you missed a really good party,” including a picture of the tables at dinner. To myself, I admit it is the party that missed her. After a few minutes, I pull out my phone again, “but it’s ok that you didn’t come, i get it.” My worst nightmare is that someday someone will inherit her number and ask me not to reach out anymore. Or that some sort of auto-response will come into play, constantly reminding me this is not a functioning number. But for now, it just feels like she hasn’t gotten around to responding.

Like she’s thinking of what to say.

The same day that the news about bell hooks comes, I play dozens of rounds of Word Hunt with Dina. I find so many words and get a 19,800 point score (for the sake of comparison: my typical ‘good’ score is usually around 10,000). I screenshot that score and send it to another friend, to prove all that I am capable of. Maybe I need someone to be proud or impressed that I can find so many words. The way Miss Mitchell was when I told her if we just added a V to my name and rearranged the letters we could spell heavens. I save the screenshot to the cloud. Will I still be able to access it in fifty years? Will I want to? I could print it out but I’d probably just lose that, too. I start a new game and try not to think about it; the memory will have to suffice.


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sheena d.

sheena d. (@bookofsheena) is an essayist based between Brooklyn and South Florida.

sheena has written 1 article for us.

11 Comments

  1. Wow! This was the best kind of unexpected read. So many great lines and things to think about later.

    And I’m still chuckling over “Don’t despair, reader, I found an amazing therapist right in the nick of time.”

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