Paul didn’t know what the music was at first, only that it woke him up. His half-conscious mind had run through a few possibilities – something from a dream, or from his clock radio, customarily turned up a few notches too loud and tuned to a rock station, all the better to shock him back to life each morning – before it registered that this was in fact the tinny bleating of his cell phone ring. He began to fumble for the phone in the darkness. Given the time it took him to grope for the slippery silver plastic phone on his nightstand and clumsily unfold it, he was mildly surprised that he hadn’t missed the call. As he lifted the phone to his ear he blearily glimpsed the time on clock radio. 2:35AM.
“Paul? I’m so sorry to call you so late. It’s Margaret.”
“Margaret?” There was a momentary lag. “Hello Margaret! Is everything all right?”
Margaret was not someone that Paul would ever expect to be calling him after 2 AM. He could see her in his mind: pale blue eyes and long, dark brown hair that looked black in the right light. They had seen each other time and again at clubs and parties but really only shared a relationship as friends-of-friends. She had always been there with Christopher.
“Yes – well, I mean, no, but nothing’s happened or anything.” She laughed uneasily. “God, I’m not even really sure why I decided to call you. I’m sorry.”
Paul adjusted the phone and sat up on his futon. “Um, no, it’s alright.” He was trying to decide if Margaret was drunk or not.
“I just haven’t been able to sleep,” Margaret continued. “I got up at 4 AM last night and started baking chocolate chip cookies. Which I know is weird. And now I’m calling you in the middle of the night. I was never like this before.”
Paul decided that she wasn’t drunk.
“What you really need to do is bring me chocolate chip cookies in the middle of the night,” Paul joked.
Margaret laughed faintly.
Margaret’s boyfriend – and Paul’s friend – Christopher had died three months ago. He hadn’t been sick or anything like that, just had the misfortune of being struck by a car when he was working as a bike courier downtown. He died after two days in the hospital. Paul hadn’t even had a chance to go see him.
“I also cleaned my bathroom the other night.” Margaret said.
“You can clean my bathroom,” Paul replied generously.
Her laugh was a little stronger this time.
“Thanks a lot.”
There was a pause.
“I actually don’t even like chocolate chip cookies,” Margaret sighed.
“No? How can you not?”
“Eh. I think it’s the texture. The texture is kind of weird, especially when the chips are all gooey.”
“No, no, no,” Paul insisted, “That’s absolutely the best kind of chocolate chip cookie that love or money can buy.”
“I think I’m more of a sugar cookie type,” Margaret said.
“To each their own. I would accept late night sugar cookies, by the way.”
“Excellent. Good to know.”
There was another pause.
“I really should be sleeping,” she told him. “I’ve been dropping the ball at work lately, and I keep wondering why I can’t focus. Then I remember – because you stayed up all night scrubbing the grout!”
Paul ran a hand over his short brown hair. “Eh, just bring them in some of those cookies, you’ll be in their good graces for months.”
Margaret gave a chuckle, then after a moment Paul heard her draw in a deep breath.
“Look Paul, you’re really sweet and I’m sorry to have bothered you. I think maybe we should both get some sleep.”
As baffled by her sudden decision to end the conversation as he had been by her decision to start it in the first place, Paul had nothing to do but assent. “Sounds good to me. Good night, Margaret. Take care of yourself.”
“Good night. And thanks.” There was click on her end of the line.
Christopher was a friend of Paul’s from college, one of the few who’d stayed in town and kept in touch. He was a soft-spoken, genuinely nice guy, the kind you could always call up. For the first month of so after he died Paul would forget – just for a second, sometimes – that his friend was gone.
It was two nights later, after a Friday night out for Paul, when the phone rang again, this time a little after three.
“Yeah. How are you?”
“Um…fine. I actually just went to bed a little bit ago. I was out seeing this band. Um, Voxtrot? They were at the Middle East.”
“Oh cool. How was that?”
“Neat, really neat. You know, I always think I’m too old to go to shows, and then I go to one and have a really kick ass time.”
“Yeah. Well that’s great.”
“And what about you? Things any better at work?”
Paul squinted into the darkness that surrounded him in the apartment. Everything had taken on a slightly unfamiliar look, the television a hulking and vaguely menacing cube. He might have flipped on the small lamp perched near his clock radio on the nightstand, but he made no move to. This felt like the sort of conversation best suited to darkness, a pair of voices and nothing else.
“Ugh. Not really. My boss is cool but some of my other co-workers are brutal. I heard this one woman whispering about me the other day and…Well, I didn’t appreciate it. I guess I should have said something to her. And I’m still making dumb mistakes. As cool as my boss is, I sometimes find myself tuning her out for no good reason. Lack of focus, I guess.”
“Lack of sleep.”
“Yeah. That’s still a problem. And I’m out of ingredients for cookies.”
“My roommate doesn’t mind any of this. She’s a really heavy sleeper and likes waking up in the morning to find random cooking and cleaning done.”
“I’m sure she’s worried about you.”
“Oh I guess. I dunno. I mean, I answered an ad. We aren’t that close, really. I kind of wish we could have late night chats. Like on Golden Girls.”
“Like you and me.”
“Yeah. Me and you are the Golden Girls.”
“Best news I’ve heard all day.” Paul was smiling as he sat up in the dark. “You know what I like to do when I can’t sleep? I like to watch MTV. If you hit that at an hour that’s odd enough, you can actually see music videos. There’s something comforting about that. I get this weird feeling of solidarity with the other insomniacs in the world, knowing we’re both watching the same Foo Fighters video.”
“Cosmic.” Margaret said.
Paul smirked. “Yeah, and eventually I pass out and wake up in my own drool.”
They continued in conversation that would seem foggy and dreamlike to Paul in the morning, coming back to him in vague snatches of words or a passing feeling during the day. A crack in the ceiling and Margaret’s negligent landlord. The watering and care of Paul’s cactus plant. The weather yesterday. The weather tomorrow. A good forty minutes had passed when Margaret broke off the conversation with a weak quip about having some important music videos to watch. When she hung up, Paul sat for an extra moment with the phone still pressed to his ear.
Paul’s most vivid recollection of Margaret before the accident was at Christopher’s birthday party maybe two years prior. Her long dark hair was swinging behind her as she stood in the kitchen with a few other friends, laughing and arranging broccoli and baby carrots on a wide platter, in a ring around the onion dip. Christopher had snuck up behind her, wrapping his arms around her waist. She screamed at first, then she realized who it was, and laughter lit her face. She whirled around and kissed him. Later, after the cake (which was rather dangerously aglow with twenty-five candles teetering on the edges of the melting chocolate frosting), the three of them had sat outside a while on the front porch of the house where Margaret and Christopher had been renting a few rooms on the top floor. The guest of honor sat on the porch swing with his girlfriend in his lap. Paul sat on a plastic chair leaned up against the wall, and he was absently blowing into his open beer bottle when Christopher started into a rendition of “Tiny Dancer” ala Almost Famous. The three of them had sung until they trailed off, forgetting the words and degenerating into fits of laughter instead. A light across the street had turned on.
Paul had wiped his eyes and said they should do it more often.
The calls kept coming for the next month or so, sometimes they were short and sometimes they were long, always after midnight but never at the same time. Once when she called Paul was on the last subway home, swaying slightly with the rhythms of train and nearly nodding off in an otherwise empty car.
“You caught me on the train,” he’d said in lieu of “Hello.”
“What were you up to?”
“Not much. A movie and a few drinks with some of the guys.”
The train squealed. “What were you up to?” Paul asked her.
“Nothing at all.”
The car shook as the train took a hard corner.
The last call came comparatively early, just after 1 AM on a Monday, with Paul still awake and watching Late Night with Conan O’Brien in his pajamas when the phone began its familiar ring. He read Margaret’s name on the small call ID screen and muted the television as he brought his cell to his ear.
“Hi. It’s me again.”
“I still don’t even know what I’m calling about.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Paul’s eyes followed the silent beer commercial on his screen as he spoke to Margaret. As Margaret’s calls increased in regularity, his level of surprise with them had rapidly faded. It was becoming normal. What was odd, he thought now, was that he hadn’t seen Margaret face-to-face since Christopher’s funeral, where she’d looked pale and exhausted and older than she was. At the wake her face had been streaked with tears, but by the funeral she only seemed spent.
“Hey, Margaret,” Paul began. “There’s an all-night coffee place near me. It reminds me of that painting, Nighthawks? Would you rather we talked in person?”
Margaret scarcely let a beat pass. “I couldn’t do that.”
Paul offered an understanding nod that Margaret couldn’t see. “That’s alright. How have you been?”
“A little better, maybe. I slept through the night last night.”
“That’s great. And what about tonight?”
“I haven’t been to bed yet. Maybe I’m not tired because I’m used to running on much less sleep. On no sleep, some days. But I did feel a bit better today. You know how it was kind of sunny today, but rainy too?”
“Yeah it was weird.”
“Yeah, well, I was walking home from work, I’d just gotten off the train, you know, and I thought to myself, ‘This is rainbow weather.’ That’s what me and my brothers used to call it. So I thought that I might see a rainbow, and that might be like a nice little sign or whatever…And I – didn’t see one. I looked around in the sky, and I almost bumped into this woman who was coming up the other way with one of those little Welsh corgis, but I didn’t see anything.” She sighed.
Paul took in the cognitively dissonant sight of some gorgeous young actress making her entrance on the talk show, smiling and looking incredible in a black dress with a strappy, open back. What should he say? That he was sorry? He didn’t know, so he remained silent.
“But then as I kept walking, and the rain had stopped, and I felt the air on my face, I felt really good anyway. I don’t know.”
She paused, and Paul still said nothing.
“I’m sorry.” Margaret said, and it must have been her hundredth apology during one of these calls. “I probably sound insane, as usual.”
“No,” Paul broke in. “No. That sounds really nice.”
“Yeah, it was.”
The line went quiet. The actress on TV was laughing and clapping her hands together.
Margaret let out a breath. “I think I’m going to try and get some rest. Thank you Paul, I mean it.”
“Anytime. But I’m still waiting on my cookies.”
Her gentle, tired laughter was the last sound he heard before she hung up.
After that, Paul would sometimes wake in the night and think he heard the phone. He’d reach for it, check if there was a missed call, a voicemail, but there never was. He would lie back down and listen to the pinging of the radiator, staring at the ceiling and the unfamiliar black shapes that crowded his apartment.