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Slow Burner
Author: Laura Lippman

 

Hi, it’s Phil. New phone, who dis, ha ha. I got a second phone.

Pourquoi

Going to use regular # for business, this # for trying to bring you up to speed on seminal films of the 1980s and ’90s. Welcome to the friend zone, matey.

Funny

No parking in the friend zone—remember when I showed you the movie Airplane! that time in Santa Monica?

Yeah

Thrilled to be working with you again. You are absolutely aces, the best in the biz. Would have been devastated if you didn’t want to work with me again but not surprised. I’m really sorry I crossed the line. Crossed the streams, if you will.

?

Ghostbusters reference.

Loved the new one. Never saw original

Opposite for me.

Misogynist

Hey!

JK

I’m in SF next month, maybe dinner?

Lemme check date

Liz is gathering the laundry when the phone slides out of Phil’s khakis’ pocket. It’s a cheap basic model. It looks like a toy, but why would Phil have a toy? Liz and Phil don’t have kids; they don’t even have friends with kids.

She looks at the phone on the bathroom floor. What to do with it? It seems natural, innocent even, definitely innocent, to pick it up and manipulate its buttons until this text thread comes into view. Liz has found several lost phones in their Logan Square neighborhood over the years, and she has always done her best to reunite them with their owners. She assumes Phil has found someone’s phone while walking their dog, then didn’t follow through on finding the phone’s rightful owner.

Only—Phil is the not-so-rightful owner, hiding behind a Utah area code. His correspondent—San Francisco area code—appears to be the contractor, HW, who almost wrecked Liz and Phil’s marriage eighteen months ago. That was the code Phil used for her in his contacts, HW. A private joke, one Liz never sussed out.

Now what? Liz cannot put the phone back in Phil’s pocket and then put his pants in the wash, because the phone will be destroyed and he will replace it with another phone, one he will safeguard more carefully.

Yet she also cannot ask Phil about the phone, much less the text. She promised she would never spy on him again. It was an easy promise to make and keep because she believed they were happy again and there would be no reason, going forward, to doubt him.

She believed they were happy until a strange cheap phone clattered to the bathroom floor.

It is early April in Chicago, and the only thing predictable about the weather is how unpredictable it is. Phil left his denim jacket slung over the sofa when he came home last night, a habit of long standing, and headed out the door this morning in a peacoat. He had to walk ten steps past the hooks in the vestibule to avoid hanging up his jacket, but he does that almost every day. Liz has tried everything to encourage Phil to hang up his jacket. Finally, at great expense—Phil’s expense, to be fair, but he runs a venture capital firm and she’s a private-school teacher—she hired a carpenter to come to the house and restore the vestibule that a previous owner had dismantled, the final renovation in their home of almost twenty-five years.

Their house was built in the early twentieth century, a sturdy stone home for one of the financial whizzes of that era, then divided into apartments in the 1970s. The Kelseys rented the first floor as newlyweds, bought the house fifteen years later, and eventually began to restore it, floor by floor, room by room. One now enters a toasty vestibule with a mission bench, hooks for coats, cubbies for wet shoes, and an antique umbrella stand. Almost every day, Phil sits on the mission bench and takes off his shoes; he puts his umbrella in the stand—then pushes open the heavy oak door with the stained glass window and throws his jacket on the sofa.

Liz puts the phone in the denim jacket’s right breast pocket. Phil is a man who is forever losing keys, wallets, phones. (This absentmindedness is deemed proof of his genius.) Clearly, he is not in the habit, not yet, of taking this second phone everywhere he goes. He won’t remember that he left it in his khakis. All he will feel is relief at finding it.

Later that night, she notices him roaming the house, fidgeting, picking up piles of magazines and newspapers, poking under the mission bench in the vestibule.

“Are you looking for something?”

“I thought I left . . . my keys in my pocket.”

“I hung your keys by the front door.” There is a charming iron arrow by the front door with multiple hooks for keys. Phil never uses it.

“Oh.” He continues to pace, poke, search. At some point, he must slide his hand into the pocket of his denim jacket and find his new friend waiting for him. At any rate, he comes into the den, where Liz is reading, suddenly jovial and relaxed.

“Do you want to watch a movie?”

“Sure,” she says, although she doesn’t. She curls into his side on the sofa. Their pug crawls into her lap, snuffling wetly. Phil chooses Ghostbusters, the all-female reboot.

“How old were we when the first one came out?”

“I was ten, you were nine.” She has never minded being older than he is. It’s only a year, and Liz knows she looks good for her age.

She also knows the old saying that cautions men to remember, whenever they meet a beautiful woman, that somewhere, someone is tired of her.

Throughout the movie, Phil’s fingers twitch as if yearning for purchase, the feel of the new phone. Who you gonna call? Who you gonna text? He will write about this later. The movie, his memories of the original.

 

You were right about Ghostbusters. I love the original, but the all-female reboot is better.

<Thumbs up emoji.>

I can’t believe all the misogynist crap it had to withstand. Not to mention the racist stuff. You were right. Sometimes, I’m so embarrassed to be a man.

Love Kate McKinnon!

 

“No bread for me,” Phil says at dinner. “And no potatoes.”

Dinner is roast chicken, with carrots and potatoes roasted in its pan juices, homemade cheddar biscuits, and a salad. It’s a perfect meal for the blustery night. Phil eats only white meat chicken and preempts the salad course.

“Are you doing . . . keto?”

“Nothing that formal. Just cutting out bread, starches. They make me logy. And you know I’m never really off the clock because I’m working with people across time zones. London’s six hours ahead, San Francisco is two hours behind. I have to keep a clear head. Been reading this book, Grain Brain. It’s interesting.”

“You used to say that all diets were frauds, that every eating plan was, at bottom, just a gimmicky way to reduce caloric intake.”

She liked that Phil. She misses that Phil.

“I still think that. But I also find my head is so much clearer now. Giving up alcohol helps too.” He takes a sip of La Croix.

Liz pours herself another glass of wine. It’s a pinot noir, which pairs better with chicken than most white wines. There’s no way she’s going to give up alcohol right now.

 

I ran five miles today.

Ouch

Started again a few weeks ago. Gotta get fit. I’m an old man in a young man’s game. Gotta keep up.

You’re not old

Says the 29-year-old who looks like she’s 22. You can’t imagine being old. But you know what? I can’t imagine you being old either. You will never be old.

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