Hello, Who’s This?
If we were friends when we were kids, you probably received one of those phone calls. The landline phone rang, you picked up and couldn’t hear a thing. Well, so you know, that was me.
If we were friends when we were kids, you probably received one of those phone calls. The landline phone rang, you picked up and you couldn’t hear a thing. Someone breathing on the other side of the handset but no matter how many times you asked who they were, they didn’t say a word. Then they’d hang up.
Well, so you know, that was me.
There’s this place not far from my hometown. We drove there on a Saturday afternoon. We got ice creams, hop in the car, and by the time I finished licking my fingers we were there. You can’t really get off the car, you just unfasten your seatbelt and look outside of the window with the air conditioning full blast while the world melts outside.
We drive through the main gate and there’s this sign no one reads, saying “Mind the Monkeys”.
We stop the car, my dad turns down the radio, my mum fumbles in her bag looking for a bag of peanuts, and when they look up, a family of monkeys is making souvenirs out of our windshield wiper and side mirrors.
And me, I’m in the back of the car jumping and waving at the monkeys.
My mum rolls down her window just enough for an elephant to stick his trunk through and inhale our peanuts while I’m stretching from the back seat to give him a cuddle.
It was our local Jurassic Park, just you didn’t get swollen by a dinosaur when you stopped to snap a picture.
We’re driving so slow even tortoises are walking past us, and I’m shouting, pointing at all animals screaming their names. I’m bouncing so much the car wobbles, mirroring all the monkeys outside.
Zebras are running free in the fields. There are tigers. And lions, oh those lions. All those movie characters you saw drawn on screen, here, they’re for real. Stinky flesh and pointy ears. We were the Simba generation. Circle of Life singers. Hakuna Matata dancers.
My nose is squashed against the window looking twice the size and my dad keeps checking the child lock before I invite a chimpanzee in and take her home with us.
I’ve got a smile all over my eyes and I’m yelling so much a flock of birds leaves an oak tree and start migrating.
And maybe my dad was having a bad day. Maybe it was one of those days when bills keep piling up and you don’t know which one to pay first. Maybe he had a bad week at work. But my dad, all of a sudden, he jams his foot onto the brake so hard my mum bounces with both hands on the dashboard. He starts hitting the steering wheel with the palm of his hand, pulls the handbrake, turns at me, and he starts screaming. He’s screaming so much the elephants don’t want peanuts anymore. The monkeys, they all jump away holding their heads with both hands. And me, I’m holding my head with both hands too because my dad big hands are slapping me so hard I’m trying to hide, but the child block is on, so I just try to make myself smaller and smaller. My mum tries to hold his arms saying that’s enough. But my dad has swollen roots all over his neck and his heart pounding in his face. The queue of cars behind us is growing all the way back to the main gate. Someone is honking. And with his window shut my dad yells at them to shut the hell up.
The lion keeps floating on his paws, zebras gather around the pond, but I’m not looking anymore.
My Dad pushes down the hand-break and starts driving faster now. Looking for the main exit and driving past the ostriches and the big crocodile. All those peacocks opening a fan of feathers from their butts, I miss them all.
I squeeze my hands together, tucked between my legs, my chin down on my chest, and I start crying.
My mum used to say that when I was a child I used to smile with my eyes. The downside, she’d say, was that when I cried I did it with my whole heart.
And I’m crying with a hiccup. Like I’m choking on fears and regrets. All burning cheeks and snotty nose. My mum stretches her hand to squeeze my leg, but I don’t say anything.
I didn’t say a word all the ride back home. I didn’t say a word at dinner. When I went to sleep my dad came and sat by my bedside. He apologised. He felt so sorry he was crying. And I would have told him that it was okay, that he just lost it, it happens. But I didn’t say a word because I really forgot how to talk.
I turned into one of those old black and white movies you have to pay attention to every move because there’s no sound to listen to.
The day after, my mum shrugged and said that probably I became mute.
Every night my dad kept coming to my bedside. Combing my hair with his fingers and kissing me good night.
When I tried to talk I sounded broken. A tractor in the fields running out of petrol. Words rolled out of my mouth, but they stumbled at the back of my tongue. It’s like I knew how to breathe, I knew how to talk, but forgot how to do both at the same time.
At school, at first, everyone thought it was funny, but then they started feeling sorry for me. We just laughed about it. I could talk but words got jammed in my throat like a bad hiccup.
Then my clothes didn’t fit me anymore, I could touch the end of my bed with my toes and I moved to high school. The hiccup started playing hide and seek somewhere between my brain and my stomach. I’d forget it was there until it’d come up uninvited for a couple of words.
I was acting at the local theatre. I was on stage, performing some modernised Shakespeare set in a made-up townie. Plays went flawless with a standing ovations at the end and my parents sobbing for how proud they were.
Then the school headmaster comes into our class, he asks a couple questions no one answers to, he points at me and says, “You, what’s your name?”
And I stand up, confident like a teenager's boner, I take a big breath and get stuck. I couldn’t say my name anymore. I’m a boiling kettle gargling vowels nobody understands. All my friends looking at their shoelaces. Looking outside if a bird wanted to bash against our class window for a distraction.
And the headmaster, he stands there, zen-calm looking at me while I remember how to breathe and talk at the same time. When I finally manage to drag it out, hosing spit all over my desk, he thanks me and tells me to sit down.
The hiccup was not always there, but there was one moment that always, always triggered it: a phone call. These were the days when you picked up the landline and really had no idea who was speaking. My grandma had a rotary phone. When my parents got a landline with buttons you could press, we all felt up to date with technology.
I tried to avoid calling anyone. I’d walk half a mile to buzz at yours just to ask a question. But if I really had to ring you up, I had to prepare for it.
I started breathing the way you see Yogi practising Ujjayi breath. Like an Olympic athlete before a long jump. Then I picked the receiver, dialled the number and you couldn’t hear anything. When the embarrassing silence turned into creepy breathing, I just hung up.
Then you’d receive another call and then there was me talking. Unblocked. Laughing. Pretending I called you for the first time.
My friends got used to me cracking some words over a couple of beers. It’s like a giant mole on someone’s nose, you stare at it the first time but then you don’t notice it anymore.
Words kept stumbling on phone calls, school exams, timid flirting attempts. Until they didn’t.
My university offered the opportunity to study abroad. When all top students picked their top destinations, the only option left was a two-year scholarship in France. No one applied for it. So I did.
I moved to this small town by the Swiss border. I spoke French, worked in French, made love in French. And my throat forgot all about choked sentences and gargled vowels. I crossed the border, to go see my family and friends, and it came back. Moved to Amsterdam, London, Australia and it was gone again. It was like an invisible passport stamp on my throat.
And maybe I’ve crossed country borders so many times that my brain got confused, but now it’s gone. Meet me on the street and you have to beg me to shut the hell up for how much I talk.
I never brought it up with my dad. Even when I was old enough to light up a cigarette after dinner. You can’t judge someone for a single episode and discard all the rest. It’s easy and convenient, but that’s really a dick move.
In the rare mild occasions when it pops up now, I sound like Woody Allen when he drags a syllable. Like I’m really thinking about what I’m saying. Philosophising around. But I’m truly not.
Now I call you shouting in your ears. I repeat the same long, verbose stories over and over again like my nan used to do. But if you hear me dragging a word for too long, if you hear me gargling a letter on the back of my tongue that’s not me trying to blow a raspberry. That’s just me forgetting how to breathe and talk at the same time, and if you wait a bit, just a little bit longer, you can be sure, I’ll remember how to do it.