Love on the Line (Salon.com)

ON THE ROAD, THE REST OF THE WORLD CAN BEGIN AND END IN A STUFFY PHONE BOOTH.

June 18, 1999 | 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.

Love on the Line

“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 hung 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.

salon.com | June 18, 1999

About the writer

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.