“The Dark Ages” is from MQR’s Summer 2022 Issue. You can purchase the issue here.
Every few months my mother became convinced that our house was going to burn down. A news story about a fire or a sale on nine-volt batteries would bring it on. My brother Colin and I pulled plugs from the walls, not daring to talk back. Fires are more likely to be fatal at night, so once it got dark, the rule was that outlets were off limits. No televisions, lamps, stereos. “We’re entering the dark ages,” we said to each other, quietly.
I never had friends over then, except Lauren. It was too embarrassing to explain why we couldn’t watch a video or listen to music. But Lauren came over and never said a word about it. I guess that’s how you know you have a best friend. They don’t try to make you feel bad about your life, even for a second. Lauren and I had been friends since first grade, when we were seated next to each other because both our last names began with D. We used to joke that we were like reverse mirror images of each other. She was blond; I was brunette. She was tall and skinny; I was short and not. She had an older brother; I had a younger brother. My mother worked days as a secretary at the university. Her mother worked nights as a dispatcher for the ambulance service.
The year I was fourteen, when Lauren slept over on weekends, she and I would creep downstairs after Colin and my mother went to bed, and we would stretch the long yellow cord of the kitchen phone into the living room. The phones still worked back then without power, one of the only things that did. We took turns sitting on the black and white striped recliner, my father’s favorite chair. I think we were all surprised he had left it. For at least a year after he moved out, I swore I could still smell his cologne rising from the scratchy fabric.
Lauren and I used to prank all the time in grade school, telling strangers stupid jokes, calling boys we had crushes on and playing Whitney Houston songs through the mouthpiece, stifling our giggles until our stomachs hurt. Now, in our more mature version of pranking, we only called men. If women or kids answered, we hung up. We wanted deep voices, arms with hair. We opened the phone book randomly, poked our fingers at a number, and dialed until we found our guys, the ones who would answer questions, stay on the line.
It took a while to find them. And it took a while to get the shake out of my voice.
“Hi, how’s it going?” I said the first time, like I was meeting Lauren at the mall.
“Who the hell is this?”
I attempted a laugh. “You don’t know?” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Lauren cringe.
“No. Why don’t you tell me?” He drew out his words in the exasperated way my mom did when she got home from work.
“Maybe I could be your friend.” My voice cracked on friend.
“Jesus fucking Christ.” He hung up.
“Maybe you should be more . . .” said Lauren.
On her third try she got a talker.
“Hey, you.” She put a smile into her voice. I didn’t know how she did it. “It’s been a while.”
She talked for five minutes before saying she had to go, she’d call him later.
“You have to leave them wanting more,” she said.
That night she kept reenacting her flirtatious conversation with the guy whose name she didn’t even know, while I did my impression of the guy who swore at me. “Jesus fucking Christ, you stupid fucking bitch,” I said in my deepest, croakiest voice. And we both laughed, burying our faces in our pillows.
Once my mother got up, she would flip on all the lights, plug in the curling iron and toaster. I suppose it was the absence in sleep that terrified her, knowing that your house could explode while you lay unconscious. I suppose she wanted a fair chance.
Some of the appliances could stay plugged all night, though her justification wasn’t clear, and Colin called her on it once. “Why won’t that start a fire?” he said, pointing at the refrigerator. “What about the stove? And the clock?” He went around the kitchen, an Oprah in the making. An inconsistency for you! And you! And you! Pointing out my mother’s lack of logic with glee on the yellowed linoleum.
My mother stood leaning against the counter, arms folded, one leg propped like a flamingo on the other and shot him The Look. You never knew when you would get it, when she could take a joke or couldn’t, when she’d have a little extra room for the childishness of children or when she would be full up. The Look was the meanest thing I ever saw. Like she despised the person she was giving it to. Pure, burning hatred.
The next weekend, when I finally got a man to stay on the line, I tried Lauren’s approach.
“Hi there, handsome,” I said. Lauren’s eyes went wide.
He laughed. “Hi, yourself.”
“What are you doing tonight?”
“Well, I guess I’m talking to you, honey.”
“Yeah, you are.” My stomach flip flopped. I wondered if he thought I was someone else, someone he had been hoping would call, someone who wore stockings and long, silky, unbuttoned shirts.
“How have you been?” I asked.
“How do you think? It’s hard out there for a man. A long week of hard work. And not a lot to show for it.” His words slurred together.
“Mm-hmm,” I scrambled for something to say. “I guess I could make you feel better.”
“Now that’s exactly what I was thinking. I’m guessing you called me for a reason. I’m guessing you’re a little sexy thing.”
I forced myself to laugh.
“Why don’t you tell me what you’d do to make me feel better? I’m getting hard just thinking about it. Help me out here, baby.”
“Um . . .”
There were a few moments of silence and I could hear the television in the background, what sounded like moans and groans.
“Or better yet, why don’t you tell me where you are and I’ll come over and show you how you can make me feel better. I’ll make you feel good, too, I promise. I’ll flip you—”
I ran into the kitchen and slammed down the phone.
Lauren ran after me. “What did he say?”
“He’s just gross, that’s all. He’s gross.” I crossed my arms, tried to block out the image of some huge, hairy man coming through the night to my house, tracking me like a scent.
“You go,” I said, putting a smile on my face.
“Are you sure?”
She called the same number from the week before and stayed on the line forever. I alternated between pacing the living room floor and staring out the front window, my mouth going dry every time a car drove down the street. But Lauren’s voice in the background and the increasingly quiet road soothed me. It was astonishing, how she knew the words that made other words come.
When she hung up, she was giddy. She had found her guy; his name was Alex.
It took another two weekends for me.
“I’ve been thinking about you.”
That was how I met Les.
“What kind of name is Les?” Lauren asked. “He’s probably a dweeb.”
It was a disappointing name, but Les’s voice was like gravy trickling through my ear, down into my belly, where I’d get warm thinking of it.
The rule was we would only talk to them with each other present. While Les was mine and Alex was hers, they were really ours. We were a composite. That was how it had always been. When Lauren made the cheerleading team in fifth grade and I didn’t, she quit. We only ever went to parties we were both invited to. Until high school, when she had started hanging out with her brother and his friends, all juniors and seniors. She was meeting boys and getting buzzed off beers handed to her by pretty girls who knew how to roll their jeans and tease their bangs. There was a curtain about to drop between the two of us.
But when we started talking to the guys, Lauren stopped mentioning those other friends as much, stopped recounting the parties, the stupid sex jokes, the different kinds of alcohol she tried. If I hadn’t already liked Les, I would have liked him for bringing us back together.
One Saturday at the end of January, my mother took me shopping. I had put on weight and everything was too tight. According to her, I was getting to the age when too tight sent a message, her eyes on my chest like it had given her lip.
I used to love our trips to the mall, just the two of us, my mother passing her credit card lightly across counters, trying things on while I sat in the dressing room and held her purse, her perfume wafting towards me as she pulled a sweater over her head. All those tags swinging. She would try on the most outlandish dresses—sequins and shoulder pads and thigh-high slits—and when it was my turn, she let me try on clothes from the juniors’ department, the shoulder-baring tops and spandex skirts, and I would laugh so loudly the fitting room attendant winked at me on the way out.
Afterward at our Ruby Tuesday lunches, she told me over and over, because I asked, about her high school dates with my dad, and their long train ride across the country on their honeymoon. She laid out the memories like shiny things, things I couldn’t wait to call mine and tell her about at lunch in my golden future. I wanted to be both her and her daughter at the same time. When we came home with bags dangling from our wrists, my dad would joke: “I guess I’ll go sell a kidney.”
She had her fears then, demanding monthly fire drills, making Colin and me climb out of windows while Dad shook his head and watched. But when we came back inside, the lamps glowed and Dad would make us hot chocolate on the stove. She let him build a fire on Christmas Eve.
Now, we went to the mall after eating lunch at home. There were no conspiratorial winks from the sales staff. My mother glared at me if I so much as lifted a hanger with a tiny T-shirt or a pleated miniskirt. “That’s not what we’re looking for,” she snapped. “That’s not what we want.” She held up the line to find the coupon that had vanished to the bottom of her purse.
Leaving JCPenney, we walked towards one of the sunken areas with ashtrays and phone booths and teenagers, who were smoking and sitting on the half-walls with their legs dangling. I recognized one of the girls that Lauren and her brother hung out with. She wore a long-sleeved T-shirt with the name of our school on it, which she had cut into a crop top, her belly exposed even though it was twenty degrees outside. She had her arms around a boy’s neck and was repeatedly kissing his cheek. I was scared I would see Lauren there in her own crop top, her sliver of skin aglow.
“Disgusting,” my mother said, too loudly, as we passed. “I should call the school.”
Burning up underneath my coat and sweater, I felt like I was going to pass out. There used to be a time when my mother would smile when she saw anyone kissing. She never told stories about being young with my father anymore. Now she spoke of him as the greatest disaster of her life, the worst thing that ever happened to her.
To read the remainder of “The Dark Ages,” you can purchase the issue here.