One of my favorite short stories is “A Telephone Call” by Dorothy Parker. I’ve always admired Dorothy’s writing style but this piece in particular enchants me. With every diction she takes me deeper inside this obsessive woman’s thoughts. That’s what the story is: a monologue of a woman waiting on a call. Quite simple but the way she’s written it, she’d have anyone relate to the story even if they have never waited on a call.
“Please, God, let him telephone me now. Dear God, let him call me now. I won’t ask anything else of you, truly I won’t. It isn’t very much to ask. It would be so little to you, God, such a little, little thing. Only let him telephone now. Please, God. Please, please, please.”
The pleading and praying opens up the story by letting the reader know just how obsessed this woman is. She’s also aware that the call is “such a little thing” but that doesn’t stop her from obsessing over it. Having read other works of Dorothy, I can see a lot of underlying sarcasm in the piece.
“If I didn’t think about it, maybe the telephone might ring. Sometimes it does that. If I could think of something else. If I could think of something else.”
She uses repetition perfectly to show how restless this woman is, you can see her pacing and fidgeting. We see in this woman the very human impatience and one-track-mindedness everyone experiences.
“I’ll call you at five, darling.” “Good-bye, darling.” He was busy, and he was in a hurry, and there were people around him, but he called me “darling” twice. That’s mine, that’s mine. I have that, even if I never see him again. Oh, but that’s so little. That isn’t enough. Nothing’s enough, if I never see him again.”
The dilemma of wanting so little from lovers but not having enough. Also shows us how some women focus and read into small things. While it’s universally accepted that desperation is unattractive, we sympathize with this woman because her struggle is internal.
“I’ll be so sweet to him, if he calls me. If he says he can’t see me tonight, I’ll say, “Why, that’s all right, dear. Why, of course it’s all right.” I’ll be the way I was when I first met him. Then maybe he’ll like me again. I was always sweet, at first. Oh, it’s so easy to be sweet to people before you love them.”
Here we have a similar concept to the modern “cool girl,” and how women find it hard to be themselves around potential partners. The woman’s fluctuation represents her unease, you can see her bipolar thoughts jump from one idea to the other.
“Are you punishing me, God, because I’ve been bad? Are You angry with me because I did that? Oh, but, God, there are so many bad people –You could not be hard only to me. And it wasn’t very bad; it couldn’t have been bad. We didn’t hurt anybody, God. Things are only bad when they hurt people. We didn’t hurt one single soul; you know that. You know it wasn’t bad, don’t you, God? So won’t You let him telephone me now?”
This woman fears that god is punishing her because she had sex with the man, but behind this godly fear she fears that the man she loves isn’t interested anymore because he got what he wanted. By the way it’s phrased, it seems like the woman is trying to convince herself (and not god) that what she had done wasn’t “bad.”
“He’ll be cross if he sees I have been crying. They don’t like you to cry. He doesn’t cry. I wish to God I could make him cry. I wish I could make him cry and tread the floor and feel his heart heavy and big and festering in him. I wish I could hurt him like hell.”
This is where the thoughts get darker and the woman becomes even more obsessive. This also embodies society’s stance on crying: Men don’t cry. Women cry but it’s undesirable.
“He doesn’t wish that about me. I don’t think he even knows how he makes me feel. I wish he could know, without my telling him. They don’t like you to tell them they’ve made you cry. They don’t like you to tell them you’re unhappy because of them. If you do, they think you’re possessive and exacting. And then they hate you. They hate you whenever you say anything you really think. You always have to keep playing little games. Oh, I thought we didn’t have to; I thought this was so big I could say whatever I meant. I guess you can’t, ever. I guess there isn’t ever anything big enough for that.”
She acknowledges that he doesn’t want to hurt her on purpose, he’s just merely uninterested. We have to relate and sympathise with this woman because everyone has experienced what she’s experiencing: untold feelings. This is a small moment of her realizing that maybe this relationship isn’t as great as she thinks.
“Maybe he is coming on here without calling me up. Maybe he’s on his way now. Something might have happened to him. No, nothing could ever happen to him. I can’t picture anything happening to him. I never picture him run over. I never see him lying still and long and dead. I wish he were dead. That’s a terrible wish. That’s a lovely wish. If he were dead, he would be mine. If he were dead, I would never think of now and the last few weeks. I would remember only the lovely times. It would be all beautiful. I wish he were dead. I wish he were dead, dead, dead.”
The story takes a darker turn again. She’s so obsessed with this man she wants him dead so that no one else could have him after her. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the woman actually wants him dead but since it’s a monologue, a lot of the dark phrases are justifiable because human minds always wander to dark thoughts. She also acknowledges that wanting him dead is “silly” in a later paragraph.
“I won’t telephone him. I’ll never telephone him again as long as I live. He’ll rot in hell, before I’ll call him up. You don’t have to give me strength, God; I have it myself. If he wanted me, he could get me. He knows where I am. He knows I’m waiting here. He’s so sure of me, so sure. I wonder why they hate you, as soon as they are sure of you. I should think it would be so sweet to be sure.”
She wants to call him but her wounded pride won’t let her. She thinks he’s not interested in her anymore because he’s sure of her love for him and men want what they can’t have not what they’re sure they can.
“It would be so easy to telephone him. Then I’d know. Maybe it wouldn’t be a foolish thing to do. Maybe he wouldn’t mind. Maybe he’d like it. Maybe he has been trying to get me. Sometimes people try and try to get you on the telephone, and they say the number doesn’t answer. I’m not just saying that to help myself; that really happens. You know that really happens, God. Oh, God, keep me away from that telephone. Keep me away. Let me still have just a little bit of pride. I think I’m going to need it, God. I think it will be all I’ll have.”
Most of us have been there, comforting ourselves with lies even when we know the truth because we don’t want to let go. Being rejected destroys women’s egos and she doesn’t want to call him because she doesn’t want to face rejection.
“Oh, what does pride matter, when I can’t stand it if I don’t talk to him? Pride like that is such a silly, shabby little thing. The real pride, the big pride, is in having no pride. I’m not saying that just because I want to call him. I am not. That’s true, I know that’s true. I will be big. I will be beyond little prides.”
Even when she knows how it will go, deep inside she still has hope. She thinks that if she’d try harder she could make the relationship work.
“I’ll think about something else. I’ll just sit quietly. If I could sit still. If I could sit still. Maybe I could read. Oh, all the books are about people who love each other, truly and sweetly. What do they want to write about that for? Don’t they know it isn’t true? Don’t they know it’s a lie, it’s a God damned lie? What do they have to tell about that for, when they know how it hurts? Damn them, damn them, damn them.”
She wants to snap out of this thought spiral she’s in but she’s reminded of what she wants to have. Like movies today, books used to draw unrealistic ideals of love and relationships and this woman is one of the people that believed in them.
“I’ll count five hundred by fives. I’ll do it so slowly and so fairly. If he hasn’t telephoned then, I’ll call him. I will. Oh, please, dear God, dear kind God, my blessed Father in Heaven, let him call before then. Please, God. Please.
Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five.”
The story ends without closure, and that’s perfect, because it leaves the story open to possibilities, like the woman’s future.