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Life

Phone a Friend

What talking on the phone has taught me about the power of intimacy.

What Talking on the Phone Has Taught Me About the Power of Intimacy
Illustration by Kati Szilágyi

Is Alex home or traveling? Kids in bed?” Vera texted me.

No, I’m not having an affair. Vera is a friend, recently displaced to the West Coast, and she was texting me to see if I’m free to talk on the phone. I am a phone person: part legacy from a family of talkers, part habit honed in the pre-smartphone years of my adolescence and early adulthood. When I was younger, the phone was my lifeline to family and friends and romantic partners; I tied up the line because my friends and I did not have the freedom to leave the house and see one another. Now in our 30s and 40s, many of us live time zones apart, and even if we are in the same city, having our own kids keeps us from being able to meet up in person. We call because we want a break: from creative projects, from talking to children, or being around children. We call because we feel alone but don’t want to be left alone. We call because we need space for joy and connection; talking makes that space.

For me, talking on the phone is a full-body activity that prevents me from doing more than the most basic of multitasking. I’ll pace my apartment or pet the dog or, if I am feeling ambitious, wash the dishes or straighten up. Anything that requires thinking doesn’t last. Too often these days, my phone connects me to what can feel too difficult to bear — news of the latest horror from our inhumane administration, a fresh revelation of a sexual assault, a preventable shooting: my screen is a cascade of events I can’t fix. But when I talk on the phone, it feels more like a blissful locking of a door behind me, shutting out the world the way I used to close the literal door to my adolescent bedroom for privacy.

My friend Brian in San Francisco and I talk about our art. I talk to Paige, who I’ve known since I was sixteen, twice a year, on our birthdays. KC is in Queens; some nights we drink wine together, but she’s a single parent, so we do it in our respective living rooms, a few miles apart. Brit is in Texas. Mika is in Michigan. Neela is in Los Angeles, the city that won’t stop stealing my friends. Calls are as much about the big stuff in our lives — our relationships and accomplishments — as they are about nothing at all.

I talk to Vera most frequently. We begin by spilling our rage over the news, over how fucked the world is. We move on to projects we’re working on, to what we’re reading or watching. We talk about the deep mysteries of the sleeves on women’s clothing these days, about that one horrible job we used to have, or how lucky we are to not have met at eighteen, when our politics and life experiences meant we would have never been friends. Sometimes we talk for only ten minutes but often well over an hour. When it’s time for school pickup or feeding a child, we say “Love you” and “More soon.” When I hang up with Vera, it feels like taking a break from an ongoing conversation; her voice reminds me that not everything around me is falling down, and the stuff that is, I can always yell about to her. “I’m here if you want to talk,” I know one of us will type at the next sign of distress.

These days, it’s easy to avoid phone calls; there are so many other ways — more efficient, less awkward ways — to communicate. But there’s something we miss in our habit of predigesting our feelings before we hit send on a text or post on social media. There’s something we can give each other, and ourselves, in speaking with no filters or in carefully considered takes. There’s room, suddenly, for the stories we don’t feel like typing out or might not even know we want to share. Sometimes on the phone, I say something I didn’t know was coming: a story from my past that I’ve buried, or haven’t ever shared with my friend, or that I’ve just realized all these years later is part of what makes me who I am. Sometimes I’ll let slip some worry or fear that feels foolish, but in sharing it, I’ve lessened its hold on me — I’ve admitted to something I was trying to pretend wasn’t eating me up, handed it over to someone I trust.

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When a woman is in labor, midwives will often ask to speak to her on the phone; they listen to how the pain changes her voice to help gauge how far along she might be. You can’t hide on the phone — and there are definitely times when I haven’t picked it up (my best excuse was when I was giving birth to my second child in the backseat of our Subaru and couldn’t even pick up the call from my midwife — seriously), or when I’ve picked it up and failed to mask my unrulier feelings: annoyance at a family member, lack of enthusiasm for someone else’s news, unsure of what to say when you can hear someone is hurting or angry with you. Phone calls have taught me about the power of this intimacy, how to be present in an emotional space with another person. It’s good to hear joy and anger and sadness, to receive it in your body, and to be heard in all of these states, too. This is what we mean when we say “It’s so good to hear your voice.”

Even the most mundane conversations can feel cathartic because I’ve shared and been shared with. It’s an hour of being tethered to someone I love. And even though there’s no record of the call when we hang up, it leaves me with a high I can ride on for hours — the sensation of actually connecting to someone else, the way telephone lines used to work and still, in other ways, do.

Danielle Lazarin is the author of Back Talk: Stories.