“Annabelle, you look beautiful tonight.”
The words drifted into her mind, like leaves on an autumn breeze, settling softly in the forefront of her consciousness. She awoke to find the phone cradled between her cheek and the pillow, the insistent buzzing the only sound from the black receiver. Had there been a voice on the line? Or had she only dreamed it?
She had had dreams before—the kind that would wake her like an alarm bell. Heart pounding, pulse racing, it would take her several moments to get her bearings and know where she was and that she had been dreaming.
Sometimes, her mouth would be dry and her throat sore, as though she had carried on a long conversation with someone now absent. But she always knew when she had been sleeping. However real the dreams would seem—and at times, the line between reality and dreamland was very fine indeed—she always knew the difference.
She was certain this had not been a dream.
And yet, no one had ever called Annabelle on the telephone. No one had ever told her she looked beautiful. No one talked to her at all—not to the real Annabelle, the one hiding behind the straight dull-brown hair, the plain face. They only talked to Annabelle-the-tenant, Annabelle-the-secretary, and Annabelle-the-faceless person amid thousands of other faceless people of the city.
But now someone had seen her. Someone called her by name and told her she was beautiful. With that single phone call, everything had changed.
“Good morning, Miss,” said the flower seller, as he had said every day for the past five years as Annabelle passed his cart on her way to the bus stop.
Usually, she nodded in return, or mumbled a fast “‘morning” as she passed him. She didn’t like talking to strangers, and although they had seen each other for half a decade, he was a stranger still.
But this time, she stopped and smiled at him, “and her eyes were all lit up like she had some good news,” he said later to his wife, who only sniffed and muttered something about drugs.
“How are you?” she asked, and, without waiting for an answer went on talking. “Isn’t it a lovely day?”
He looked up at the sky, overcast and promising rain.
“Oh, it’s a wonderful day!” she rushed on. “The kind of day where anything can happen. My goodness, there’s my bus!” and she dashed to the stop, the few beginning drops of rain hardly halting her flight.
“A lovely day,” she repeated to the doorman of the building where she worked. “A perfectly marvelous morning,” to the switchboard operator, busy pushing buttons on the brightly-lit console.
Her enthusiasm lasted till lunchtime, fading only when no one came forward to talk to her, to tell her how beautiful she looked that day, to apologize, perhaps, for the late-night phone call.
Today would be no different at all, she realized. It was just as if nothing had ever happened.
“Perhaps it didn’t,” Annabelle told her, and rubbed her temples as she felt the familiar ache. She knew from experience that, by five P.M., her head would be throbbing and she would hardly be able to see. The doctor had said it was nerves and stress and had given her some pink pills to take. But they didn’t seem to help.
By nightfall, Annabelle could hardly stand the pain. She crawled into her single bed, pulling the thin cover over her, and prayed for rest, for sleep, for total oblivion. When she awoke sometime deep in the night, her first thought was how wonderful it felt to be able to move her head without pain.
But what was she holding?
The receiver had grown warm to the touch. She must have been clutching it for some time. And the echoes of words remained, caught between her mind and the pillow.
“You are so beautiful, Annabelle. You are what any man would want. I want you, Annabelle.”
She shook her head to clear away the last vestiges of sleep and set the phone back on the hook.
Who was calling her so late, so very late, in the night? Who believed her to be every man’s dream?
The next morning, Annabelle found herself making small but foolish mistakes. She added sugar to her coffee cup, only to repeat the same action a few moments later. She forced herself to drink the sickeningly sweet liquid as a penance for her error.
“I must pay attention,” she admonished herself aloud. Annabelle frequently talked to herself. If she hadn’t, the apartment would be as silent as a tomb.
As for being forgetful, it had happened before. She had left stores carrying merchandise, and only her general air of bewilderment and surprise prevented the manager for charging her with shoplifting. Often, after work, she would arrive at her front door, only to find it unlocked and open since her morning departure.
Sometimes, she would be so lost in her thoughts that she would travel the streets of the city, oblivious to her surroundings.
But never had she heard voices, save her own and the ones belonging to real people in the real world.
“He must be real—a real person,” she whispered. In the mirror, she saw, not a lonely woman, but a beautiful young girl—every man’s dream, every man’s desire.
“He will call again,” and with that hope worn like a shield, she went out into daylight.
But as days passed, the secret lover was determinedly absent from her life. Each morning, Annabelle would wake and wonder, “Will he call today? Will I see him somewhere—in a crowd, on a bus, by my apartment door when I come home—and our eyes will meet and we will touch?”
She could hardly bear the suspense. She had taken to going straight home from work, not lingering at shop windows in case he phoned again, but the telephone stubbornly refused to make a sound.
Perhaps it was over, she thought hopelessly. Memories of other stillborn romances moved through her mind as past hurts and long-buried desires ached within her. She was not so old; she thought resentfully, that her life should be only memories, and empty ones at that. Surely, she was entitled to one love affair.
A month after the calls began, Annabelle was plagued once again with a headache, and the worst she had felt. Barely able to function, she suffered through the long work day. And at day’s end, she gratefully took her place on the bus heading home, resting her head against the grimy window, thinking only of her bed and soft pillow.
And those little pink pills. Maybe she would try them again. Take four or six, instead of the two prescribed. Eight or ten—what did it matter, after all? All she wanted was for the pain to stop.
Almost unconscious with the pain (had it ever been this bad before?) she found herself at home, in her bed, with no real memory of how she had gotten there or if she had passed anyone on the way.
“Sleep,” she moaned, not bothering to take her shoes off or slip her dress from her narrow tired shoulders. She closed her eyes, fighting the waves off pain, and dropped quickly into oblivion. Her chest barely moved with her faint breath. Only her eyes betrayed her life, as her lids shifted in time to their movement, following dream visions more real than the life she lived.
By morning the pain was gone but so was her hope.
“There is no mystery lover,” she told herself hopelessly as she drank her cold coffee. (Had she forgotten to warm it or had it just sat there on the counter so long that the heat had vanished?) “He’ll not call again, I’ll never see him, it’s over. It never even began.”
Not for the first time she wondered if those little pink pills could stop the pain of an aching heart. Could they obliterate the sense of loss and longing that plagued her?
Perhaps tonight she would try them, she thought, as she closed the door behind her.
Perhaps it was time to give up, give in, she realized on her way to the bus stop. No one would miss her anyway.
Lost in her thoughts, she would have passed the flower seller had he not called out to her.
“Your flowers, Miss,” and his voice jerked her around. He was holding a sheaf of deep red roses. She could almost taste the fragrance.
“For me?” and, bewildered, she held out her arms to receive the flowers.
“Yes, for you,” and his impatience caught at her. Why was he angry with her? She didn’t know anything about them.
“But I don’t know—” but just then, another customer called to him, and he turned away, shrugging his shoulders. Clearly, he thought she was supposed to know all about the roses.
They must be from him, she whispered over and over to herself. I’ve not gone mad—there really is someone and he had called me, sent me roses! Maybe tonight will be the night—maybe tonight I will see him!
As she turned the corner, the flower seller turned to his wife and shook his head.
“That lady, she is getting stranger by the day,” he said. “Last night, she was in such a mood—picked out the roses without saying a word, paid me and said to hold them ‘til this morning. Now, she acts like she doesn’t know anything about them. Is she crazy or what?”
“Ah, what does it matter, Fred?” answered his wife prosaically. “Crazy or not, her money is as good as anyone else’s. Now, what do you want for supper?”
Nancy Christie’s fiction and essays have been published by The Chaffin Journal, Wanderings, Experience Life, Tai Chi Magazine, Woman’s Day, Stress-Free Living, Writer’s Digest, Ohio Writer, Succeed Magazine, Xtreme, Mostly Maine, and Over the Back Fence. She is also the author of The Gifts of Change (Beyond Words/Atria) and currently working on her second novel. You can find more about Nancy at www.nancychristie.com