“I wonder if I can get the sound of a vase shattering over the phone without actually shattering a vase.”

When this one calls, Mikey doesn’t like it. Mikey calls him Love Number 6 because once I said that this was my sixth boyfriend ever, years ago. I never actually counted, but Number 6 stuck. Number 6 phones at three a.m. to tell me factoids and calamities.

“The baby’s sleeping,” Mikey says in my left ear, beside me in the bed. “Tell him you can’t talk.”

“Did you see the world news?” Number 6 says in my right ear, miles away in Sarasota.

“Word news?” I say.

World. World. There’s a virus starting up. I always told you one would.”

“What virus?” I say.

“It’ll spread fast,” he says.

He tells me what he’s read. I read things, but he sees news I don’t even know how to access. We talk like this for a while. Talk about other life things too. I go in the bathroom and leave Mikey in bed. The bathroom is all white with white rugs, and the room’s large enough to walk around in. It’s the first one I’ve had like that. The toilet has its own tiny room.

Before we hang up, Number 6 says, “Don’t get boring now.”

That’s his sign-off. That’s his warning. As in: you got married, you had a kid. Now don’t you go get boring.

But Number 6 is the boring one. Drinking and calling people at three a.m. is kid stuff, and he knows it. Men in my life are boring to me when they think they are the most fascinating beings in the world. They talk big shows, they let loose with a yarn, and the bigger they talk, the meaner I get.

The next time Number 6 calls, it’s during the day and the baby is sleeping and the cat’s cozied up and I’m writing a poem that’s got real spike.

“I’m taking a plane to Seville,” he says.

“When?” I say.

“This week.”

“Okay,” I say, flat and tight, because he never does anything he says.

“You don’t believe me,” he says. “Fine. Don’t. Doesn’t mean it’s not happening.”


“The facts are: it’s happening.”

I write Seville in my poem. No spike, but the word has smoothness I decide the poem needs. Thanks, Number 6. He’s sometimes good for that. But I don’t thank him out loud. I try to keep him on topic.

“How much was the airfare?” I say.

“That’s it? I tell you I’m going to Seville, and you want to know what the ticket cost?”

“That’s right,” I say.

“I’m not lying,” he says. “I’m going.”

Words like ticket and cost interest me too. They might go in this poem. Put them near Seville and see what happens. I could really start a story in the poem about someone traveling to Seville with a ticket that cost them a few months’ salary, but I don’t want that, I just want the words, and I’ll shake them up and move them around, see what they can do.

“Where else?” I say.

“Where else? That’s not enough? Granada, I’m sure. Valencia. Bilbao.”

These could all go in the poem. I consider the symmetrical shape of Bilbao and decide I want that word. Where I want it is on the same line as ticket.

“How’s your mom?” I say.

“Still senile,” he says. His voice has switched to another mode, another place.

“I’m sorry.”

We talk about his mother. She was always kind to me. My own parents were not. His mother cooked vast holiday feasts, loaned me her car, called me just because, even after Number 6 and I were through. We’d watch movies and soaps and baseball games. One Christmas Eve, we stayed up all night with Scotch.

“She holds on, though,” says Number 6. “She knows who I am.”

“Tell her hi from me.”

“I will. She won’t remember you.”

If I wait long enough in the day, I lose the sense of what it is I’m doing. In the afternoon I’ll be feeding the baby and be lost to it. I’ll be writing or reading words and be lost to it. I’ll feel nothing and like I’m nobody. Mikey thinks it’s the first year with the baby, that it does things to your brain, which it does. He’s not wrong, but he’s not right, either. He’s a doctor, but just for feet, and he likes to have long talks and explore my brain things with me, but this isn’t where you find answers. I’m not good for Mikey anyway. I can be mean the moment I choose, and I take calls from exes in the middle of the night.

The next time Number 6 calls at 3:45 a.m., I’m already up. I’ve fed the baby and put her back in the crib, then started to push my words around—Bilbao, ticket, cost, Seville. I squeeze on them, love and tug on them. Come on, babies, show me what you can do. Number 6 is disappointed. He wanted to wake me.

“Up this late and not even drinking?” he says.

“It’s not late, it’s early,” I say.

“Don’t go and get boring on me.”

“What happened to Seville?” I say.

“You remembered!”

“I’m not an idiot,” I say. This may be my favorite expression I use.

“You have an interest in my life,” he says.

“That’s inaccurate,” I say, “but it makes sense you’d think it.”

“I didn’t get on the plane,” he says. “Decided against it. There’s a virus coming.”

“That’s not why,” I say. “I haven’t heard anything about that. Mikey hasn’t heard anything about it. That’s not why.”

Things are disjointed. I can’t get the sounds of Seville and cost to make any sense with the rest. I decide to take it out on Number 6.

“You’ve got no follow-through,” I say. “You can’t get anything big done. And you won’t. You couldn’t even get on a plane. You’re 42 and now what? Big talker, my man, but nothing there.”

This is how I lay out all his fears. I know what they are and how to say them. They’re his fears because there’s truth laced in. Only someone who’s loved you finds your veins that way. He’s quiet for almost a minute. In the silence, I poke at Seville and cost in the poem, I avoid the word virus altogether, and I listen for the baby, though I know she’s asleep, far deeper than I’m able to sleep these days.

“I was right,” he says. “I said your name to Mother. She doesn’t know who you are.”

I hang up on him then. He has no right to find veins in me.

The next morning, I add the words folly and gusto to my poem that maybe is moving somewhere, making progress. I add them because Mikey said them the night before—about a show we were watching—and then I could only think about that. My mind gets going on a track and stays there all night. It reminds me of when I met Mikey at a bar, and he kept asking, “Do you want to see a picture of my dog? Do you want to see a picture of my dog?” and finally, I said, “Sure,” and instead of taking out his phone, he opened his wallet, and said, “I forgot the picture. I’m absurd,” and I kept thinking that word in a circle: Absurd. Absurd. Absurd. It turns out he had no dog, and that was not the only lie he told then. We’ve talked a lot about lies.

Now it was folly and gusto working themselves in a circle in my brain. I get them laid out on the page and let them shimmy and shake next to Seville, Bilbao, cost, and ticket. I can never get anything big done, and I don’t count my daughter because she’s just eight months old, just begun, she’s a work in progress, forever unfinished. I want to complete a poem, at least, but the words don’t settle, they heave and jump and strain on the page in front of me and at night in my careless brain. I have never been to Seville. I have never been to Bilbao. At least I don’t lie.

I’ve gotten other calls from men. My mother says it’s because I was a great beauty back in Laurel. She says was. Once I heard her say the phrase “gentleman caller” when she was talking to a neighbor about me. My mother is from another time. You could tell the phrase wasn’t natural to her, and I’ve never heard her say it since. I guess I do have gentlemen callers now. Was is a word I like for its strange sounds, not for what it means.

Number 6 is the one who worries he is a boring person, that he’s lived a boring life. This is what he tells me when he calls in the afternoon. It’s supposed to be a confession. He confesses he has a great deal to confess. That’s why he calls. It’s one of his resolutions to confess. He keeps trying to let it come out.

“I slept with someone when we were together,” he says. “When I was on a trip to Mobile. It was that convention I went to for that shit job. She was working a booth there. I was with her both nights.”

I say nothing.

“I swear I never saw her again,” he says.

“I knew about that,” I say. I didn’t. But Mobile is a lovely word, and I decide I’m going to use that and Valencia too. Not shit job. Shit job is a cliché, but convention, maybe. Convention is a word we all underestimate, I think. We just say it in a matter-of-fact way, or even with despair or disdain, but consider the sounds, and the words you can make from it: vent, once, coven, ion.

“That was the time you came back with the flu,” I say. “You were in bed for two weeks. And you gave it to me!”

“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah.”

He’s upset, but I hear him breathe out one of those breaths that means the person feels redeemed. I know this sound. Whatever he feels he needs from his confession he is starting to get. He’s shedding the great weight.

“What was her name?” I ask.

I expect him to say he doesn’t remember, and how could he? He doesn’t think about her anymore. She of course means nothing to him. But without a pause, he says, “Naomi.”

“Oh god,” I say.

“What? What?”

He thinks I’m upset, betrayed, unraveling, but really I’d just forgotten how much I loved that name. I type it out six times. You can get lost within it when you say a word like that. Naomi. Naomi. Naomi.

“I don’t forgive you,” I say.

Now I’m just fucking with him, because I don’t care what he did years ago. He thinks he’s so important. He thinks he can hurt me, or that he might dismantle some part of my life. Mikey’s not jealous of the phone calls. He just doesn’t want the baby to wake. Naomi. Naomi. Naomi. I wonder if Number 6 has other names I’d be interested in.

“Who else?” I say. “Who else was there? You better tell me.”

I act angry now. I can really play the part, commit to the long game. I’ll go all in, pretend I’m throwing things. I wonder if I can get the sound of a vase shattering over the phone without actually shattering a vase.

“Nobody,” he says.

Nobody is an interesting word, but I already use it all the time.

“You’re lying,” I say. “You dumb shit. It’s time. It’s time to tell me everything.”

“All right,” he says. “All right. There was one more.”

“Tell me her name,” I say. “And where were you?”

“Another convention,” he says. He’s almost crying, like he didn’t know this would be the phone call where he would tell all.

“What city? Specifically? If I don’t know the details, this isn’t a true confession.”

“Barbara,” he says. “Barbara in Knoxville. I didn’t know her last name. It happened four times. No, five. I never saw her again.”

“Barbara in Knoxville,” I say. I type the words out and take a long, solid look. I could work with that. “And Naomi in Mobile,” I say. “Got any more? You went to a lot of”—I pause for effect—“conventions.” I even love saying the word.

He’s not talking now. I type for a little while. I know he’s got something else.

“Gwen in Rome,” he says.

“Shit,” I say. “When were you in Rome?”

“Rome, Georgia,” he says.

When I get all these words on the page, typing them up as we go, shoving them together on the screen, the poem gets complicated. I don’t know how I’ll bring everything together. I have so many other words too: glacial, erosion, Super Tuesday. I never want to separate anything. I want it all to exist at once. I want to think about everything simultaneously. Mikey tells me again and again that things are messy, lives aren’t neat, and this is why the baby and I are going to stay home and not go anywhere for a long, long time. I say this out loud, and Number 6 says that this is a good idea, with the virus I only heard of from him on its way. Mikey’s against me keeping the baby in, but when he said this last night, I went for one of his veins—he’s only a foot doctor, and what does a foot doctor know? I admit I only know a little. These women have wondrous names. These cities have wondrous names. Number 6’s mother is named Mary, and Mary, who I have loved, doesn’t remember me. I let that flow through my body. For once, I’m trying to feel it there, let it rush through, open a new canal, rise up to my head, and then I’m here, I’m here, I’m somebody.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Olivia Clare is the author of a book of short stories, Disasters in the First World, and a collection of poems, The 26-Hour Day. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Southern Mississippi. A few lines in this story are indebted to Lucie Brock-Broido’s poem “Soul Keeping Company.”


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up