The Blue Phone

by Ghazala Datoo O’Keefe | A private line.

The Blue Phone

The phone sat against the wall next to the kitchen, the curved plastic firm but smooth, the perfect size to hold in an adult hand. My mother’s left hand, which looked so much like my own does now, would wrap delicately around the light blue receiver as she pressed the buttons with her thumb; in her right hand, a wooden spoon glistened with a film of red from the tomato she was sautéing to add to the daal. She would cradle the phone under her left ear and wait for someone on the other end to pick up, then wait again to be connected to his room, and as she waited some more, the sound of the ringing echoing through the earpiece, she would walk back to the stovetop, the cord uncoiling, stretching almost too far as she gave the thickening tomato a stir and added a dash of red chilies, the dark red powder settling over the erupting bubbles in the sauce, melting away as she scraped the edge of the pan, the red sauce clinging to the sides, unwilling to let go.  

Then my father’s voice would come through, and she would drop the spoon in the nearby steel pot filled to the brim with steaming yellow toor daal that she was preparing for our dinner, and run back to the cradle on the wall, suddenly aware, perhaps, that the cord had stretched too far. As though in the instant she heard his voice, the light blue tether that connected him to her suddenly became more fragile. And she laughed to cover the relief that threatened to overcome her after waiting for so long, and asked how the flight was, and whether he had slept, and had he eaten?  

I sat at the kitchen table, swinging my legs, working through math problems, watching her pace back and forth on the white tiled floor dotted with little red diamonds like islands in a vast ocean, watching the long cord coil and uncoil as she walked toward and away from the base.  

My father travelled frequently for work. My mother stayed home with us, cooking, cleaning, hanging the laundry out to dry on warm summer days, helping with homework, ironing while watching her favorite show, talking with her family on the grey cordless phone, but mostly waiting. Waiting for the little blue phone to ring, or waiting, receiver in hand, for the ringing on the other end to turn into a voice. Waiting to see if he was back from his meetings, memorizing the time zones he was travelling through, waiting at the airport gate to pick him up.  

Like this they passed the first ten years of my life, him travelling and her waiting. Coiling and uncoiling. When that phone rang it could only ever be my dad calling.  

It has been thirty years now since we left that home, thirty years since he died and the waiting came to a deafening halt. It occurs to me now that I still do not know what that number was. Only my parents knew it; it was a secret they kept to themselves.  

Ghazala Datoo O’Keefe is an immigrant, physician, and mother. Born in India, she grew up in London and Mumbai, and currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband and twin girls. Her work has been previously published in Isele Magazine and the Bangalore Review, and is forthcoming in Under the Gum Tree and River Teeth’s Beautiful Things. She is currently working on an essay collection on the themes of identity, immigration, and belonging. Follow her on Instagram @ghazala.datoo.

This essay is a Short Reads original.

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