The operator’s voice was politely sweet and welcoming, wishing me a good morning, reminding me that the telephone company was entirely at my service. Could she help me?
“Yes, Ma’am. I’ll like to speak to someone in Italy, please”. “O.K. Sir. Number, please.”
Italy was six hours away. My German-made, battery-powered clock gave the time as twelve-forty in the morning in Washington D.C. Then it had to be six-forty in the morning of the same day in Central Europe.
The day was a Sunday. A lousy late hour film on television. Stacks of paper and books that so badly needed some order all over the floor of my room. That bloody cockroach peeping at me out of a crack on my wall. All I could see were its tiny head, its needle-like eyes at the foot of antennae it kept positioning and repositioning to monitor the wave of danger in my room. I knew that if I were to make the slightest noise, it would rush back shrieking in terror to its hideout. Stupid, nasty roach!
My call hollowed away in the distance. I could hear it brushing aside whatever obstacles there were on its way. My heart beat picked up speed. Then below my window-sill, a car began to blare its horn loud and angry as voices wove a violent quarrel in the background. That was probably a stolen car and its occupants were loudly registering their disagreement over the share of the loot they might have plundered earlier in the evening.
My call kept clicking away.
From the adjacent room, a woman’s ticklish laughter filtered out accompanied by a heavy, laughter-laden, baritone of her male companion; an indication that tentative promises were being planted on the chart of passion. Promises, which dawn, would no doubt erase. I am no stranger in that territory either.
In the distance, my call kept beeping on. Pressed down to my ear, the receiver continued to transmit the varied noises made by the call as it chained the necessary connections into place.
Outside my window, the city droned and hummed away. Washington D.C. was blinking and winking into the early hours of the morning as my call beeped its way into the distance.
Then the call stopped for a second as it was deciding whether to ring or not to ring. Then I heard a small click sound and the ringing began. With the first ring my heart gave a violent jerk in my chest and I hastily answered “Hello!” before realising that the ringing had not yet been silenced at the other end.
From the crack on my wall, the roach ventured out, timidly at first but receiving no challenge, it stared unbelievingly and mockingly at me for a few seconds before racing triumphantly toward the kitchen. It must be dinnertime for the roaches in my room, I thought. Others would be waiting for it there and together they would feast the time away. I was in no mood for roach-hunting at all. Roaches could go to hell.
Meanwhile, the ringing at the other end seemed to go on for ever. Then a clink-clonk sound as the Italian receiver silenced the ringing. A sleep-coated voice, no doubt angered by so early a call, murmured something in Italian.
What? Who? Oh! You! I don’t believe this!
Recognition. Expressions of disbelief. Screams of joy.
Long afterwards, I sat there all alone staring at the dancing antennae of partying roaches on my bare wall. I listened but paid no attention to the groans of ecstasy from the neighbouring room, or to the roaring din rising from the street below. I even thought I heard some gunshots down there. Wasn’t that animal-like shout of pain from a man punctured by a bullet? The loving couple next door must have heard it too for they seemed to call a momentary truce their noisy lovemaking war. The loot sharing in the car seemed to be spilling out onto the street. Whatever it was, I couldn’t care less. My frolicking neighbours seemed to have decided that it was none of their business either for they were soon backed at their game with renewed vigour.
How long had I been there staring at my wall? I couldn’t say for sure. Before I knew it, dawn was already fingering the walls of my room through the light blue-curtained window. The riotous roaches were now fleeing to their hideouts. They knew that with dawn I would not give them the free reign they had in the dark. They were like guerrilla fighters who would emerge from nowhere under cover of darkness, unveil sheets of terror all over the land and then “melt” away with the approach of dawn. Here in my room, the roaches would creep out in the dark, feast leisurely in my kitchen and then disappear, leaving their droppings behind to remind me of their eternal presence. Nasty roaches.
At one time, I had put up a violent resistance to what I then saw as an unacceptable roach-invasion of my room. Armed with cans of insecticides, I would flush them out of their hideouts and watch with sadistic delight as they lay kicking their tiny legs as violent spasms of death rocked their tiny abdomens. But they all seemed to be multiplying at an incredible rate. Insecticides began to take a heavy toll on my budget and I grudgingly admitted defeat. During the day, the room was mine. At night, it was theirs. That seemed an acceptable modus vivendi between me and the roaches in my room.
As dawn chased the roaches away, it also dampened the passions in my neighbour’s room and chased off the loot-sharers in the street. It then occurred to me that once dawn opened its wintry eyes and peeped into my room, it would not hesitate to whip my thoughts away as well.
So I hastily picked up my pen to record the delight in making a long distance telephone call from Washington D.C. to a dear one in Italy on a dreary winter morning.
Washington DC, December 10, 1978.