Love on the line

On the road, the rest of the world can begin and end in a stuffy phone booth.

Published June 18, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

I travel a lot and mostly I travel alone. When I enter a public phone
booth to check in with friends back home, sometimes I feel like I'm
opening a mystery novel. I never know what news awaits me, and more than
once, love has rung its way into my life -- or disconnected from it -- in
these places.

"I hate to tell you this way, but your visit to stay with me in Hawaii just
won't work out now," his voice said on my answering machine. It
was at least 100 degrees. Familiar symptoms followed: crazy heart rate, a
wash of sweat over my body. I did a quick survey of my
life, past, present and future, and found it sadly wanting.

I was high
in the Corsican mountains exploring the 1400 B.C. Bronze Age
archaeological site of Pianu di Levie and had decided to stop in the
sole phone booth to access my
messages back in California. After two months in France and Corsica, I was to
be heading home in five days, and then on to a remote area in Hawaii to
spend a few weeks with my lover of the last six
months, a man I had known for the past three years. I'd been looking
forward to this visit, to the love and coziness, to being cared for,
after what had been a rigorous and lonely two months. I stood in the phone
booth with my tickets, reservations and dreams and wondered what to do.

My booth was in the sun,
surrounded by the village's barren and dusty tiny plaza. In order not
to suffocate, I held the folding door of the booth open with one
hip. I called my 88-year-old writer friend, Dorothy Carrington. These days,
I seem to be collecting a certain kind of role model: older women writers
all over the world,
living well and creatively on their own. Dorothy tops my list.

During the next few days, I had been planning to visit her at her home
in Ajaccio, Corsica's largest town and Napoleon's birthplace. Without
pausing for a breath after hearing my romantic woes, she said: "That's
not at all surprising. Men are hunters. Only one in four is at all
capable of making any kind of emotional commitment. And in any case,
you wouldn't want a man around all the time anyway."

"What about sex?"

"Ah, well, yes. That is a problem. When I turned 70, my desire for
sex just walked out the door, and I've been much more at peace ever
since. So, are we going to get together?"

"What about lunch?"

"That's too much. What I really want is a banana split." This stated
with an English aristocratic "baanahna." I was already beginning to
cheer up.

The next day I found myself on the white sand beach near the fishing
village of Campomoro, looking out at southwest Corsica's translucent
turquoise sea. The blank sentinel eyes of a 14th century Genoese watch
tower oversee this area of the Gulf of Valinco. A voice interrupted my
solitude: "You seem to be quite triste; perhaps I can cheer you up." I
looked up. The voice was attached to a tall, olive-skinned, hazel-eyed
young Corsican. "My name is Christian. May I bring my towel over here?"

As I explained my situation to him, he came to a rapid conclusion. "You
must stay on here for two more weeks. There's a phone booth just above
by the cafe. I'll help you call the airlines and we'll change your
flights. In fact, I'm not even using my apartment these weeks; please
feel free to stay there."

I awoke the next day to birds' songs. Below me the sea was blue and calm. The
nightmare had passed. The wrenching of flesh from flesh. On another isle 10,000 miles to the west, 12 hours earlier in time, the
volcanoes still bubbled and smoked and exploded. He slept, perhaps
dreaming guilty dreams of me. Here the volcanoes were calm, mature,
covered with green maquis, smoothed by the centuries. But still the form
of the volcano remained. The potential was there, of passion, eruption.
The bells of Propriano sounded in the distance, below in the town. My
new lover arrived, bearing fresh warm croissants.

"How many lovers have you had?" he asked me.

"I don't know."

"More than me, I'll bet."

Little does he know, I thought.

"Maybe finally you are meeting the right one." He was charming and
convincing and a wonderful antidote. My injection theory of recovering
from a broken heart worked once again: Make love with
another man, and like swallowing an antihistamine pill, you begin to
recover. Replacement juices and hormones do their job.

My Corsican adventure was not the first time a rendezvous in a phone
booth had sent me reeling. My attraction to and fear of phone booths began
years ago. In 1961, I was a senior at a women's college on the East
Coast and living in dormitory housing. There was a single phone booth
for about 30 women. When a call came in from a man, whoever answered
the phone would shout up to your room, "A phone call." If it was a
woman's voice on the line, they would say, "A call."

One evening the
promising words "phone call" summoned me to the phone. I had been
dating an Irish Catholic man, Kerry Keegan, who attended an Ivy League
men's college in New England. I was in love with Kerry -- and I was going through a
pregnancy scare. A few days earlier I had
called him to tell him that my period was late. My hope was that he was
calling me. Instead a strange male voice identified itself: "This is
Father Fitzpatrick. Kerry has shared your news with me. I am sure a
smart college girl like yourself will know how to take care of this
problem and not upset a fine family like the Keegans." Clearly my
Jewishness had placed me somewhere in the category of an untouchable in
those intense anti-Semitic days. The phone booth was suddenly stifling as I
up and dragged myself back to my room.

Other times phone booths yield happy surprises. When
Abdallah Sidi called me in Paris from
Tunis to say "Je t'aime," I had expected neither his call nor the
message but was very pleased. We had met just a few weeks before when
I had spent 10 days at a Tunisian coastal resort. During gray rainy
Parisian winters when sun becomes an atavistic memory, Tunisia is an
inexpensive and sunny getaway for the French.

There in Tunisia, at a Club Med-style resort near Hammamet, a creative
maitre d' had seated me at the same table with probably the only single
man in the dining room. Abdallah, an economist with the Tunisian
government, was staying at the hotel while
conducting government business in the nearby villages. He spoke French
well but with a Tunisian accent. His English was another story. He used
wonderful literal translations from Tunisian like "I have the nose"
to explain that he was getting a cold and had congested sinuses. We talked
during meals, met for after-dinner coffee, became friends and finally
something more.

Americans take phone booths for granted. In Tunis, the only public
phones are in the crowded post office. Waiting in line to call can
sometimes take an hour. Then, at least in the days when I knew
Abdallah Sidi, you were limited to three minutes per call. So when he
phoned me in Paris, recalling the crowds and the heat in that area of
Tunis, I appreciated what he was going through. I pictured the old souk,
the market place, just behind the post office, the same souk where
French friends and I had gotten trapped during a flash flood and had to
pay a local boy to lead us out, flood water up to my knees, clutching
over my head the maroon and gold woven dress I had just purchased.

"I want you to come spend the summer with me in Tunis," he said. "Friends
have made
an apartment available. There won't be any furniture but that's not a
big problem." I thought about sleeping on the floor in a
non-air-conditioned apartment in summertime Tunis. Abdallah was a very
nice man, intelligent, handsome, divorced and intense. He had
introduced me to what seemed a rather kinky aspect of Muslim
lovemaking: silence. "You must make no sound because Allah can hear.
When you are satisfied, you may say, 'OK.' But only that." Back in Paris, I
had been thinking about him a lot and missing him.

"I want us to be married. We have to speak quickly because my three
minutes are almost up." My mind whirled. "Click, click, buzz," went
the dial tone as we were cut off. As I hung up, I sighed a small thank
you to the Tunisian phone system and began planning my letter
of adieu.

Sometimes phone booths aren't for phone calls. I discovered this while taking a
cruise with my mother. She was a traveler; in her last years and failing
health, she found cruises a means to keep up her wanderings. As
claustrophobic and sedate as I found them, I accompanied her on
several. One was unmercifully long: three weeks from the Caribbean
through the Panama Canal and up to San Francisco. A man who sat at the
next table from us and I eyed each other, spoke, danced and finally
tried to find a private place. He was sharing his cabin with his young
son and I was sharing mine with my mother. After midnight, wandering around the
ship, we discovered an odd room off the gambling casino that, strangely
enough, had a phone booth in it. The room appeared to be deserted so we
started to hug and kiss. Eventually I ended up on the little seat in the
phone booth. Enjoying ourselves immensely, we burst out laughing when a
member of the crew
started to enter the room, saw us and grew wide-eyed. "Is everything
all right here?" he asked.

And now I sat by the Gulf of Valinco, thinking about loves that ended and
began in public phone booths. I'm all right now, I thought after reflecting
on my current situation. Laurel blossoms fell on me from the surrounding
trees. My head had cleared; Corsican seas are soothing, blue and full
of wonder. I was on Prospero's island -- and there wasn't a phone booth
around for miles.

By Diane LeBow

Diane LeBow is a freelance writer and community college professor who divides her time between San Francisco, Paris, and Corsica -- when not on the road.


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