When I was a girl, my favorite phone for making long-distance calls sat on the corner of a dresser in my parents’ room—a beige and bulky cordless with a metal antenna that accordioned out with a satisfying thwap-thwap-thwap. I curled up with it on the floor in front of the heating vent and warmed my toes as I talked. After 20 minutes, the phone grew hot in my hand. Ten minutes later, my ear started to ache. I only hung up when my parents made me; when they picked up the line in the kitchen and realized that I’d been in another room, running up the bill.
Starting around age six, I called the same person long distance at least once a week: my best friend, Ashley, who lived four hours away by car. Our parents had gone to college together, and we grew up visiting each other several times each year. But the bulk of our relationship took place over the phone. Me, playing with the looped, sand-colored carpet as I sat on the bedroom floor; her, methodically wrapping and then unwrapping herself in the 10-foot-long cord in the kitchen, ignoring her brother’s whines for her to get off the phone.
Neither of us can remember what we talked about for all those hours. But I know that because of those calls, we felt as though we lived inside each other’s lives. When we’d finally meet in person after months of separation, we already knew what books the other was reading, what friends the other was spending time with, what strange and secret rituals of childhood were happening four hours away. The stream of living was never interrupted.
The phone is a medium of intimacy: a technology of best friendships, of lovers, of secrets. A voice is piped directly into your ear. You can hear the pensive sighs and sarcastic tone, you can pick up on urgency and excitement. There is always that telltale moment at the end of a call when one of your voices shifts, when you can hear that the other person’s mind is on the dinner she is going to cook or the work she has to do, and you both know it is time to go. A phone call offers a closeness that is sometimes even more intimate than two people sitting together and talking; a phone call keeps you deeply attuned to the particulars of a single voice emanating from the vibrating guts of another soul.
In the early days of the telephone, psychologists warned of this intimacy, of the way the telephone gave women in particular am opportunity to expose their secrets to outsiders without supervision. According to historian of technology Carolyn Marvin, it offered those women an escape from the domicile, and therefore was an intrusion into the order of the bourgeois home. In the late 19th century, magazines published stories about women talking to secret lovers over the phone, spilling their secrets over the line to men who were not their husbands. “We shall soon be nothing but transparent heaps of jelly to each other,” said one British writer about the fallout from the telephone.
But the device was also the fulfillment of a centuries-old dream of connecting friends across time and space. As Marvin writes, the Swiss alchemist Paracelsus imagined a fantastic way of communicating with a long-distance friend in the 16th century: each person would cut out a bit of skin from an arm or breast and transplant it to the other. Traced letters on the skin would then appear to the other, no matter how far away. Around the same time, Italian scientist John Baptista Porta suggested that friends synchronize their compasses to the same lodestone so that they might communicate across vast distances and from behind fortress walls. He imagined using a kind of ouija board to achieve this—the synchronized compasses could point to letters and spell out a message. In the 19th century, writers fantasized about machines that would allow for people to hear each other’s voices and see each other’s faces even when far away, spinning out fantasies of handheld batteries that would allow walkie-talkie-like communication. And although the telegraph came first, the telephone, when it came along, not only permitted information, but also conversation, transmitted across counties and states and oceans. Friends could finally gossip and chat even when far apart.
I know not everyone loves the telephone. In my late twenties, I worked at a museum and managed a small number of employees. I was an old millennial and they were fresh ones, but in the scant years that separated us, talking on the phone had become a thing not to crave, but to avoid. They were texters and emailers and Gchatters; the telephone seemed to scare them. I had to encourage them over and over again to dial and talk instead of emailing and waiting hours for a reply. The phone was an obstacle to be overcome, not a welcome machine of closeness. I once wrote out a script for a young woman to use in order to call the Smithsonian and ask for the loan of an object. She was terrified to call such an august institution, worried she’d say the wrong thing.
Increasingly, I understand where she was coming from. Telephone calls have started to feel like an intrusion. To call someone out of the blue is to push yourself into their space, to invade. Because the phone is such an intimate medium, a voice speaking right next to your ear, a phone call can feel out of your control. A call is not typed, not planned; you do not log onto it, you cannot revise it, or throw in an emoji. Yet this lack of control is the appeal of a telephone call—it just happens, aural and ephemeral, electric and awkward and alive. It is an improvisation: you hear a ring and then start talking. You’ve got to make it work on the fly.
I recently read that it is now proper etiquette to text someone before you call. I mostly agree. I text with my friends constantly and fervently and rarely call anyone in a professional capacity without planning it ahead of time. When I do, I think of it as a little trick or a last resort and feel like a bit of an outlaw: I’ll catch a person unawares and all of a sudden. With luck, I’ll startle them into giving me what I need.
In the past few weeks, most people’s feelings about phones have changed. During social distancing and sheltering in place, the phone has come back into fashion. In a world where every face-to-face interaction is tinged with fear of infection, what once felt like an invasion—a phone ringing out of the blue—now feels like a lifeline. What once felt icky in its closeness—a voice lapping at your earlobe—is now a welcome sensation at a time when tactile experiences are all but forbidden. Just like the alchemists of the 16th century, we long for a way to experience the intimacy of friendship, whether three blocks or 3,000 miles away. In this time of tragedy, text simply won’t do.
But even before COVID-19, I still called Ashley almost every day, just as I called other friends in Richmond, Chicago, and Washington D.C.—calls that all would have cost 10 cents per minute on the long-distance plans of the ’90s. With some friends, we talk for an hour or more about deep and real things like ambition and love and aging. When I whisper my secrets in their ears, I am alone, but we are also together. Like speaking aloud in the cloister of a confessional booth, we have the intimacy of not being seen. That is what, for me, makes the phone preferable to Zoom or FaceTime or Skype, which are at once too revealing and not revealing enough.
These days when I call Ashley we talk on the headsets that came with our iPhones. Wait a sec, I’m gonna plug you in, we say. And then we walk to the grocery store, or do the dishes, or pace around our apartments telling each other about our days. On most days, I know what Ashley made for dinner, how many hours of sleep she got, what happened at her job as a preschool teacher, what the weather is like in Portland, Oregon, where she lives. I tell her about subway delays and the mouse problem in my apartment and the new buds on the sycamore trees. I can hear in her voice when she is getting a migraine, when her husband is driving her crazy, when she is proud of how she tamed a biter at school. We live our lives side by side, across thousands of miles.
Last June, as I walked from Prospect Park past the Brooklyn Library, my phone vibrated in my hand. I answered and heard something new in Ashley’s voice. She was panting a bit, struggling, and then she stopped and her voice returned to normal. I’m in labor, she told me. Over the next two days, she called me as she tried to distract herself from the pain, and later, as she struggled to decide when she should go to the hospital. Once, with a high-pitched sound in her voice that indicated a full-body wince, she called and asked if I thought she should take the drugs they were offering her. Ashley is the closest thing I have to a sister; it made me miserable that I could not hold her hand and smooth her hair as she labored. But we had the telephone, just as we always have. The next time she called, I heard the strange and birdlike coos of her daughter’s first sounds. Our voices made us close, even though we were far.
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.