He was still talking when she put the phone down. The sound of the receiver slamming home sounded as loud as a gunshot. The silence surprised her. It had been only ten minutes since he had called, but she had forgotten, somehow, that the silence was there as well. Waiting. Now that it reasserted itself, she didn't know what to do with it. She fingered it absently, the way one fingers a tablecloth when one is thinking. She kept her eyes shut for a minute, then it occured to her that he might call back and she opened them suddenly, stared at the phone. Watching it carefully the way one watches a freshly killed animal for signs of life, afraid that it will leap out at us, attack.
She realised she was trembling. Her breathing was quick and shallow, like the breathing of someone who has just climbed a steep cliff and stands panting at the top, too exhausted to take in the view. Why did she do this to herself, she wondered. Why did she keep trying to speak to him when it always ended like this, with her at once humiliated and guilty, standing in a room made peaceful by contrast, staring at the phone. Even this thought was not original, she recognised, it was the same thought she had after every phone call, but she still kept on making them, still kept answering when his number flashed on the ID screen. Why? Didn't she know how it would turn out?
The pattern was unvarying now. Five minutes of polite platitudes, then a few fumbling attempts to be genuinely kind, efforts (on her part mostly) to be grown up about this; and then the accusations would start. They were always the same accusations - that is to say, the specifics were different each time, but the tone of desperate belligerence was always the same. And the main message never changed - she was too demanding, she had too many issues, she didn't understand him, she wanted too much - it was all HER fault. In her lighter moods, thinking back on these conversations, she would imagine them as a game for children, a sort of pin the blame on the donkey. She had a mental vision of him, blindfolded, holding a long paper tail (with the legend "Your Fault") in his hand, trying to make it stick to a wall size picture of her.
Why did she keep calling him back then? Did she really believe that one day, one of these conversations, she would say the magic word and he would be instantly transformed into the person he used to be - that kind, generous, sensitive friend she once treasured enough to fall in love with? Or was it precisely the ghost of that friend she was trying to banish through these phone calls, using them to remind herself (when memory failed her and the old longings began to return) that the man she used to know was dead, and in his place she was left with this snivelling, self-righteous impostor?
Why does one go to visit the grave of a loved one?
The silence was becoming oppressive now. It had been ten minutes since she slammed the phone down. Surely he wouldn't call back now. She forced herself to relax a little. Music! That's what I need, she thought. Something to calm my nerves. She opened her cassette drawer, pulled out a tape at random. She was already starting to take the cassette out when she saw the handwriting. She almost thrust it back in the drawer. Then she thought: No, I am not going to do this. I am not going to let this sinking wreck of a relationship take all my (our) other favourites down with it. I am not going to let him ruin the music I love for me. He isn't worth it.
She flipped the tape into the stereo, pushed play. Ah! Joni Mitchell. "I am on a lonely road and I am travelling / Looking for something to set me free". She let the music wash over her, drown her. She shut her eyes for a moment and when she opened them again she was in a sort of underwater world, a world made liquid by the sound of that voice, by its aching honesty, its calm, unflinching loneliness, its unspoken promise of being forgiven. She felt cleansed and pierced at the same time, she felt as if she was soaring, not sinking, into the blue depths of her own feelings. She listened to the words and it was as if the song were reading her mind, as if the song were saying all the things she meant to say to him, to herself, to the world.
Halfway through the tape she noticed a note stuck into the flap of the cassette cover. She didn't remember that being there before. She took it out. It was his handwriting, all right. She steeled herself and began to read.
By the time you read this, you will hate me. You will be upset, you will cry (or at least so I flatter myself to believe). It is ironic that having spent years protecting you from the world, I shall find myself unable, when you most need it, to protect you from the worst enemy of all - myself.
By the time you read this I shall probably regret having protected you, regret having being there for you. I may even hate you a little myself. But old habits die hard, and there is a part of me that still wants to be there for you in the crisis that I know, now, is bound to come. That is why I am leaving you this tape - in the hope that Joni will find a way to comfort you when I cannot. People cannot be trusted. Hearts and minds are traitors, flesh is frail and will turn against you. But things, objects last and the song will always be faithful.
I do not expect this to excuse what is, by now, my recent behaviour. (By the time you read this, I will no longer need, or want, your forgiveness). I would like you to think well of me, but I have no real hope of that. By the time you read this it is already too late to try to regain either your love or your trust (or to give you back mine). But trust Joni, trust her music, believe in her words. They are the one true thing that I leave you.
Love (no longer)
As she put the note down, she realised that she was crying, and the realisation made her tears come faster. She sat on the carpet, letting her tears fall onto the paper, watching the blue ink of the note dissolve and start to run. Ink is nostalgia, she thought, and my tears, seemingly so pure, are salt with indignation now.
"I wish I had a river
I could skate away on"
By the time she finished crying, the note, that critical piece of evidence, had been completely erased.