A Phone Call from Heaven : Magazine : A Public Space

A Phone Call from Heaven

Fiction Sandro Veronesi
Translated from the Italian by Michael F. Moore

He had lost his ticket, found it at the last minute, but then forgotten it at the hotel and had to turn around to pick it up, missing his plane by the time he made it back to the airport. Before leaving him behind, Italo, his boss, snarled, “Work your bullshit!” (It was so windy outside the San Diego airport that Guido couldn’t make out whether he had added “asshole.”) So when he got to the check-in counter, bag in one hand and ticket in the other, he was all alone with a ticket that was no longer valid. Work his bullshit? That was the one thing Guido knew how to do. And after sucking up shamelessly to the airline clerk, his expired ticket became valid again. With a magic—and free—thump of her blue stamp, the woman’s dark, tapered hand bestowed upon him a seat on the last flight to San Francisco, practically saving his life without realizing it. Because if he hadn’t managed to make it to the hotel lobby by the next morning to be at Italo’s beck and call, Guido would have lost his job and consequently been demoted back down to the cutting room, dismembering porn movies to assemble anal sex compilations.

When he boarded the plane he was amazed by its luxury: it was no ordinary plane but rather a special Airbus, filled with lawyers tapping away on their laptops. There were two fax machines for passengers, one at either end of the fuselage. And a telephone for every row of seats. Apparently it worked with a credit card. Guido didn’t have a card, never felt the need, but right then and there, six thousand miles from home, misplaced amid the one-percenters and suddenly pained by the thought of the great opportunities he hadn’t been able to waste since they had never even presented themselves, he regretted that he couldn’t use the phone. In Cagliari it was four o’clock in the morning, he figured. And he imagined Livia asleep in bed, amid the silence of the alleyways where they had rented an apartment together, ensconced in a blanket of warmth that he could feel himself missing as never before. At least he had Livia, he thought: far away, maybe, but she was still there, and it would be wonderful to hear her voice. He consoled himself by thinking that maybe the phones didn’t work, or if they did then not during the flight, or not for an intercontinental call. If someone had told him they were there for decoration he wouldn’t have doubted it for a minute.

He had just about perfected his rationalization when the yuppie sitting next to him swiped his credit card through the phone and called someone. A woman, Guido imagined, studying the expression on the man’s face while he spoke—or actually, a girl: obviously very different from Livia, but obviously every bit as loved and every bit as necessary to the everyday ups and downs of the poster boy sitting next to him as Livia was to his own schlepping of camera stands for Italo. Without her, he imagined, the man would have spent sleepless nights in his luxury apartment and in the morning been unable to make it to the office. His boss would have humiliated him in front of everyone, and in no time at all his life would have fallen apart. That’s why he was phoning, Guido thought: because he loved her.

The phone call lasted a while: until the plane started to fly over the phantasmagorical lights of Los Angeles. On the display Guido saw the charge for the call, $36.35, and with a flash of instinct, the very moment the idea popped into his head, he asked: Would you mind letting me use your credit card to make a phone call if I pay you in cash? The yuppie looked at him and during that endless moment when the eyes were bearing down on him, Guido thought intensely about Livia, as if to wordlessly convey the reason for his request without having to explain it. We’re both going through the same thing, he thought: we love a woman, we miss her, we are equals.

The man said yes. He went one better and performed all the steps needed to operate the phone: he took the number, dialed it, and with a smile passed Guido the phone when it was already ringing, like a hotel concierge. Only then did Guido truly grasp the extraordinary thing that was about to happen thanks to the same technological progress against which, having voted for the Green Party three elections in a row, he had believed he was fighting. He was in the skies above California and into his ear arrived, crystal clear, the ringing of his home phone, in their moldy basement apartment in the Castello district of Cagliari, waking up Livia. One, two, three rings—Livia was a heavy sleeper—and suddenly the emotion exploded in his chest.

When Livia picked up, the emotion came rushing out of him: Livia, it’s me, I’m flying, it’s fantastic, I love you, I’m flying, and under me is a sea of amazing lights, and I love you, I’m flying, and I want to marry you . . . He didn’t realize the strangeness of the words he had never spoken before and was now almost shouting to a girl awoken in the dead of night. At first he was disappointed by her reaction—she mumbled and yawned—but then he became frustrated when he realized she wasn’t taking him seriously: What are you on, Guido . . . ? Enough, already, I’m sleeping . . . He insisted, swore he was telling the truth, repeated that he was flying and that he loved her, but Livia sounded impatient, and the moment of grace was consumed before she was fully awake. After Livia hung up, Guido sat in silence for a bit, shocked, unable to imagine a remedy for such a misunderstanding. Here it was, a lost opportunity: and here he was, assailed by an anguish he had never felt before, and something very clear from deep inside told him that now he didn’t even have Livia. Then he noticed the yuppie giving him an amused look, and he tried to get a hold of himself: he checked the screen for the charges—$13.75—and started to pull out his wallet. But the man, smiling, said there was no need. At the San Francisco airport, a little later, the man wished him a cordial good-bye, right before disappearing into the embrace of a blond girl. The one he had spoken to on the phone, no doubt.

Back in Cagliari, one week later, Guido discovered that Livia had left him. He had tried calling her every day from San Francisco, even late at night, but she never answered, and at home he found a letter in which the word good-bye was not cushioned in regret. Not a trace of Livia remained, there or elsewhere, and for him the days turned into weeks of an emptiness that was completely new to him because it had opened up so suddenly. Time hardened into a single unbearable block, turning his life upside down. He locked himself in the house and didn’t want to see anyone or join in the life of his neighborhood, which was so full of history and had been the realm of marquesses and viceroys in the past and was now inhabited only by poor families and penniless young people like himself, behind whom, day after day, the splendor and glory of the centuries literally crumbled along with the stone and marble, making it an ideal place to let yourself fall to pieces and die of a broken heart . . . He started shooting up again, after all the trouble he had taken to quit. He didn’t even try to scrounge up a job, and when Italo called to say he had something for him in Turkey, he acted like he was too busy. Actually it was true: Guido was busy grieving because Livia had left without a word, and with her she had taken every hope he had of keeping his head above water in this miserable life.

But three months later, out of the blue, Livia came back as if she had never left. She put her arms around him and started to cry on his shoulder. She told him she had made a big mistake and asked his forgiveness. She told him what had happened. While he was in America, she had met an English guy. A cellist, he played the basso continuo part for an ensemble that had given a series of baroque music concerts in the cities of Sardinia. He was taking a few days off in Cagliari before going back to England. Even now it was hard for her to understand how it happened, but she had thought she was in love and decided to go live with him, in London. So she made up her mind and left. She went on to say, sobbing, that from the start, she hadn’t been happy for a single day, a single minute. On the contrary, she was already regretting it the morning she left: because that very night, the night before she left, she had had a dream, strange and sweet, in which he, Guido, had telephoned to say that he was in the heavens, that he was flying over a sea of lights, and that he loved her. A beautiful dream, in which Guido appeared to her as he never had, serene, filled with enthusiasm, and radiating love for her. That morning, while she was putting the last things in her suitcase, with the English guy waiting for her in the taxi, at the end of the alley, to go to the airport, the dream was still echoing in her head—and later, in London, it would never leave her, so the whole time there all she did was try to find the courage to come back. In the end she found it, and now she was here, asking him if he still wanted her. Guido said yes, he did, and they made love. Then, smoking a cigarette in bed, before Guido could find a way to tell her that she really had received the phone call, Livia went back to talking about her dream, about how vivid it had been and how it had changed her life. A phone call from heaven, she repeated, and she started to tell the story again.

No. 19

No. 19

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