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The Wait Is Over

Before there were cell phones and widespread Internet, we knew how to wait for moments of satisfaction.

computer screen with picture of two men pulled up on it illuminates desk loading bar loads over the picture
Illustration by Aina Seerden

The place I’ve lived that I remember most wistfully, with the most painful pull of nostalgia, is a place where I was always waiting. For the three years I lived there, I waited, not only for the large questions to be answered — who I would become and who I would love, (because I was young then and knew little) — but also for my smallest desires to be satisfied. I waited all week for my Sunday long-distance call to my mother. I waited three months for Thai spring rolls, first identifying a person who might be willing to drive me the two hours to the nearest Thai restaurant (I didn’t have a car), then befriending him, and finally suggesting the trip.

Mostly, I waited for music. Since the nearest record store was hundreds of miles away, I waited six months to be chosen by the public radio station as a volunteer DJ. Each Wednesday, I’d bike down the mesa, the Milky Way pulsing above me, and from 6 to 9 a.m., I’d listen to, and submit the early-waking ranchers to, my favorite songs (by Liz Phair and Pavement and Dusty Springfield). When my shift ended and I headed to my paying job, I could feel the songs leave me, feel myself waiting for them again.

You might be wondering where this place was. What purgatorial abyss? It was a small town in the Mountain West, where I’d moved in order to write for a newspaper. It was 1995, which meant the Internet was a museum where the exhibits rarely changed. At the time, I had a crush on an Israeli man whom I’d met when he was visiting a local farmer. He’d returned to Jerusalem, but one night I found him again while searching through the farmer’s personal website (the first of such I’d ever seen). The two of them were tan, with wry smiles, in white beach chairs at the Dead Sea.

I looked at this picture most evenings, once everyone left the office and I could access a computer with the Internet. Alone, I felt a voyeuristic thrill from sneaking up on their photo, but it was a neutered prowl, the way a house cat stalks and pounces upon a stuffed animal. While the photo promised connectivity to the faraway world, it gave me no actual connection. After I stared for a while, I would find myself neither sated nor distracted, but lit up in my loneliness. The office would have grown dark by the time I shut down the computer and walked out the door. I’d bike home thinking about the fact that nobody knew where I was. It would be days before my mother called again. I didn’t have the money to call my friends back in San Francisco. What were they doing? Where were they eating? Who were they seeing?

In the cabin I rented, three miles away from the office, I ate chickpeas from a can. There were no lights outside, no other houses, just the mesa and a mountain. Inside my house, spaghetti-sauce stains dripped down the wood paneling. From my boom box, Dylan sang “Blood on the Tracks” over and over, his the only voice I heard.

When I think about that time, I wonder how I bore such silence. No signals came toward me from the world, no news, no chatter. These days, I can’t sit for five minutes on a bus without checking my phone. How did my brain work? That person is a stranger to me now.

I’m not trying to romanticize a slower pace. I’m not advocating a regressive purge of the computers and phones that keep us so connected, our small desires so quickly met. But I’d like to remember what it felt like when we tried to touch the outlines of our waiting and there were no outlines. When our waiting stretched as far as the night sky.

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In that mountain town, all my romantic relationships were with objects. In addition to the photo of the Israeli, I was in a relationship with a CD at the radio station by a singer I’d never heard of before. His witty and angry lyrics, which revealed him to be the horny son of Holocaust survivors, seemed the perfect antithesis to the pastoral cheerfulness of Colorado, the constant “Rocky Mountain High.”

This was just before Christmas, which I spent back in California, learning how my friends had moved on without me. Where nobody had heard of my folk singer. When I returned to Colorado, snow covered the mesas like a white ocean under blue skies, and it stayed until April. One Wednesday morning, I was absentmindedly reading a list of announcements on-air and I found myself saying the folk singer’s name. He was coming to perform in our town. Nobody performed in our town — it was as if I’d conjured him with my longing.

Two weeks later, I arrived early at the yoga studio where he was to perform. I claimed a folding chair in the front row. Everyone I knew filed in. The newspaper staff and the Forest Service employees and the hippies who’d built houses out of straw or tires. Not the ranchers, though, or the coal miners. The folk singer told stories in a drawl that I decided was an affectation of an affectation. He was doing Bobby Zimmerman becoming Bob Dylan, and in my crushed-out solipsism, I believed that only I noticed the layers of irony. At the end of his set, he said that he needed a ride to the nearest Greyhound station, an hour and a half to the north in Glenwood Springs. Then the lights came on, and everyone filed out.

Waiting is wanting, plus time; it’s that ache beneath the rib cage. If I lived in that town now, and the folk singer came, there’d be so many ways to ease that ache. I might ask to take a selfie with him and post it, waiting for the Instagram hearts to warm me up. I might tweet to him the next day. Great show! I’d hope he might follow me back. I wouldn’t ask for more.

But back then, without such options, I lied. I approached the folk singer as he unplugged his amp. I told him I was headed to the Roaring Fork River in the morning to kayak, and it would be no problem to drop him off on my way.

“Wow,” he said. “You kayak?”

I didn’t really. I had one friend in this town, a gregarious, brilliant woman named Lisa who kayaked with the ease she did everything. I’d been spending my Saturdays driving an hour to a public swimming pool where kayakers were allowed to practice on the waveless waters. I’d sit in her boat, attached to it by a neoprene skirt. She’d push me into the water and then, screaming from the side of the pool, try to coach me to roll over, returning upright, as kayakers must do when a rapid pushes them under. It was a forced drowning, and I hated it. Each time, I used the emergency strap and released myself from the boat, swimming madly to the surface.

“Sure, I kayak,” I told the folk singer, “so we’ll need to leave really early.” I don’t think I slept that night. I was outside Lisa’s house before 5 a.m., tying her kayak to the roof of her car for verisimilitude. When I drove to the mesa where the folk singer was staying, I found him waiting in the blue dawn with his guitar — a winsome pose all folk singers are contractually obligated to make. As we drove away, he rolled down his window and shouted into the emptiness, “Let it be known that I love it here. I love it!” I loved it there, too. I’d loved it since the day I’d arrived, but I hadn’t fully realized it until that moment, when someone was there to witness my love and to share it.

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One thing about living in a state of prolonged waiting is that you know when it’s over. The drive to Glenwood Springs offered a series of delights. We drove up a mountain pass cluttered with aspens dressed in their new greens, descended into a valley presided over by giant peaks, skimmed alongside the Crystal River. Impulsively, I pulled over and led the folk singer through the brush to where, along the river, sulfuric water burbled up. We’d been talking the whole drive, finding commonalities like beachcombers searching for shells, and it seemed now like anything could happen. We could rip off our clothes, plunge into the river. But it was riotous with snowmelt, overflowing the rocks where I usually found hot water. Still, the possibility of adventure glimmered around us. I mentioned Glenwood Springs’ eponymous hot springs, a vast pool of mineral water. The folk singer said he’d happily take a later bus, but what about my friends waiting by the river for me?

I stopped at a pay phone and pretended to call my made-up friends. The trip, I reported back, was fortuitously postponed! I have no idea whether he believed me, but a short while later, we were renting bathing suits and lockers amid the fug of chlorine and baby powder, the cement wet under our bare feet.

What is a happy ending but a true cessation, however brief, of waiting? Like starvation before a meal, all the waiting I’d done heightened the joy I felt that day. We didn’t even make out. But we carried each other on the water, through clusters of old ladies and babies in their water wings. He held me, and then I held him. I remember the way my pubes, climbing around my rented bathing suit, reached for the water’s surface like sea plants. I remember the bumps on his back. We were kind to each other, unembarrassed in each other’s arms. It was a kindness dependent on our understanding of transience. We had no camera, no chance of being seen by my friends or his fans. Everything about this day would slip away.

Late that afternoon, I finally drove him to the Greyhound, and we exchanged addresses. He disappeared as he’d appeared, a nod from the universe, telling me: You do exist. Driving home, I knew what lay ahead. I had only a few glorious hours before I parked at Lisa’s house and untied her kayak and began waiting for a letter to appear in my PO box. I would check the mail two or three times a day, although it was delivered only once. But I knew how to wait.

Heather Abel, a writer living in Massachusetts, has just published her debut novel, The Optimistic Decade, which takes place in a small Colorado town in a time before the Internet.