Sweet Talk by Cara Bastone
“Hey, you still up?”
I nearly choke to death on the humongous bite of dry chocolate cake in my mouth. It’s almost 2 a.m., I’m sitting cross-legged on the kitchen counter in my dad’s apartment, and I’m pretty sure I just got drunk-texted by the man I have a debilitating crush on.
Only, that wasn’t just a text. That was a voice message he texted me. I was not expecting to suddenly hear that movie-star voice in the middle of the night, in the middle of this shoebox kitchen, in the middle of a slice of bad cake that will seriously not budge an inch down my throat. I try to swallow the bite again, and when it still doesn’t give up the ghost, I spear my fork into the center of the cake slice for safekeeping and lean over to drink straight from the faucet.
Water runs down my chin, over my ear, and into my hair, and I’m a soggy, gasping mess by the time I give my phone my full attention again. I play the voice message that was just texted to me one more time.
“Hey, you still up?”
This has to be a mistake, right? He’s never texted or called me before. Not even during daylight hours. I glance at the clock on the screen of the ancient microwave and even though it’s missing most of its pixels I still confirm that it is, in fact, the middle of the night. It’s officially booty o’clock and he definitely just you up?ed me.
The question is whether or not he knows who it is he just propositioned. This has to be a misdial?
So, where do I go from here? Pretend I didn’t get it and leave him to discover his mistake on his own? That’s probably best . . . but . . . the thing is . . . this guy is so cute. Like, stupid cute. And cute isn’t even usually my bag. But he’s got this big, handsome puppy thing going on that just really . . . makes me wanna . . . Look, there’s no way I’m not texting him back.
I’m sure this was a mistake on his end, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an opportunity on my end and it’s the middle of the night, and I just wanna talk to him.
I text back Yeah? with a question mark.
It’s kind of brilliant if you think about it.
A moment later another voice message pops up and his voice fills the kitchen again.
“I didn’t wake you up, did I?”
No, I text back. I was just eating chocolate cake.
I get another incoming voice message almost immediately. “Chocolate cake? At 2 a.m.? Weirdo.”
I laugh and text him back.
What did you expect?
“At 2 a.m.? That you’d either be sleeping and we’d just talk in the morning, or that you’d be racing to meet a shipping deadline,”he responds.
Who is this person that he thinks he’s texting? The middle of the night “you up?” text immediately points toward someone he wants to hook up with. But nothing else has been especially flirty. Not even his tone. In fact, I don’t think he’s drunk.
No work tonight, I text. Just cake.
“Ugh. Why are you making me read at this time of night?”
I blink and listen to that voice message one more time. He doesn’t like reading texts? I guess that explains why he’s voice-messaging me. I type a few replies, but I delete each one. Because each one is a lie or evasion, and that’s not really my style. Instead I press down on the voice-record button. No way out but the truth.
“Because I figured once you heard my voice, you’d realize that you were texting the wrong person.”Whoosh, I send the message.
I get another voice message almost immediately.
“Oh, my God. I’m so sorry. I texted the wrong person.”
“Yup. I figured. Have a good night.”
I send that last voice message with a sigh. Well, that was fun while it lasted. Four minutes of tepid texting with a guy who has me confused with someone else has unfortunately been the highlight of my month.
The sad thing is that not only do I want to talk to him, I really just wanna talk to anybody. Before that voice message, it had been almost twelve hours since I spoke a word aloud, and that was a simple “thank you” to Miss Laura in 5C when she dropped off the chocolate cake that almost took my life a few minutes ago. With Pops in the care facility, I’m alone almost all the time. Well, except for work, but that doesn’t count. My general demeanor doesn’t exactly foster small talk, and I don’t know anyone well enough for them to actually check in on me.
I hop down and dump the rest of the cake in the trash, because if I don’t, I’ll just keep eating it, and it tastes like a sponge someone used to wipe up some cocoa powder. I think she forgot the sugar.
I’m sudsing up the plate when my phone dings from the counter. I blink.
Did he text again? But I just have a good nighted him. I let him off the hook. There’s no reason for him to keep texting after that. I wipe my soapy hands on my sweats and pick up my phone.
“Okay, this is humiliating. But . . . would you mind telling me who you are?”
I gape at the phone for a second before jamming my finger on the voice-record button. I assumed he would have looked at the contact information and at least figured out who I was from that. Did he not save my last name or something?
“You still don’t know who I am? Then how am I saved in your phone?”I send the message.
A thought occurs to me, and I inwardly cringe. What if he did save my last name and that’s not the problem? The problem is that even with a first and last name he has no memory of who I am. This is . . . disheartening. Here, I’ve spent the last two months daydreaming about his dimples, and he can’t even put my face to my name. Ouch.
“I accidentally saved your contact as a bunch of mixed-up letters. I guess I wasn’t looking when I was typing it in. You’re right next to the person I meant to text in my contact list,”he messages.
Okay, so not quite as bad as I thought? I think back to the night he got my number from me. It actually makes sense that he would’ve mistyped in those circumstances. It was a pretty crazy night. He definitely wasn’t in his right mind. I guess I can forgive him this.
And now that I’m mulling it over, if he knew who I was, then we would have to stop texting because this would just be super awkward. But as it is, he has no idea who I am. So, I guess I can reply?
“Wow,”I send. And just like that he’s replying. “Okay, yes, I definitely deserve that judgmental wow. Like I said, this is majorly humiliating. I . . . take it that you know who I am?”
“Yes, Eliot Hoffman, I know who you are. I saved your name in my phone properly,”I send.
“Okay . . . I deserve that, too,”he replies. “All right, let me think. I recognize your voice, but I can’t place it. But I’m saved in your phone by both first and last name, right? Which I’m guessing means that we’ve met a few times but don’t know each other that well.”
I stare at my phone again for a long second. That assessment is scarily accurate. But that’s not the reason my heart has banged its way up into my throat. Is . . . is Eliot Hoffman chatting with me right now? I have a good nighted him at two in the morning, yet here he is, continuing to text me. I nearly take my thumbnail off in one nervous bite.
I thought the name of the game was going to be how to get out of this conversation with my pride still intact. But no. The name of the game is now chatting with a cute guy in the middle of the night without being the one to accidentally end the conversation first.
Let’s see . . . how to explain my overthinking. Ah. Okay. I’m not exactly known for my gentle touch with anything, but especially with guys. I’m one of those girls who punches the guy she likes too hard in the shoulder. If I think someone is cute, I don’t blush or bite my lip. I roll my eyes and mildly insult him.
But chatting with Eliot Hoffman right now is like realizing there’s some mythical creature standing in my kitchen next to me. If I freak out and rush him, he’s going to skitter away, gone for ever, no one would even believe he’d been there in the first place. This is a delicate dance. I clear my throat and think of how to reply.
“Ding ding ding. You get ten points,”I send.
He replies immediately, and my blood pressure skyrockets. I probably look like a weightlifter right now. Veins bulging, eyeballs bugging.
“I get points for this? I can’t believe you haven’t subtracted a million points for not knowing who you are. You’re a generous and forgiving soul.”
“Good point,”I message. “Minus ten points for not knowing who I am. You’re back to zero.”
He messages back right away. “Ha! I shouldn’t have said anything. Shot myself in the foot. How many points do I get if I outright guess who you are?”
“How many of these fictional points that mean nothing and literally exist only in our brains?”I respond.
“Yes, exactly. Those points.”
“Umm. Two hundred.”
“Okay, deal. If I guess who you are outright, I get two hundred points. But also, if I build up to two hundred points with good guesses, then you just have to tell me.”
“Considering the fact that you’re currently at zero, I’m not concerned. So, deal.”
“Fair warning, though. I’m very competitive.”
“So let’s hear a guess, then.”
I am instantly and completely consumed with hatred for Laura Hepburn. Whoever she is, I hope that she, um . . . what are the worst things that could happen to a person? Ah! I hope she has a lifetime of sneeze tickles that never actually turn into a sneeze.
“Minus twenty,”I message.
I would make it minus a million if I didn’t think it would scare him off.
“What?! Minus twenty for wrong guesses? That’s way harsh, Tai.”
Either he’s bored, or secretly he’s just as lonely as I am, because he just quoted Clueless to a near-stranger that he has absolutely no obligation to be talking to. Why isn’t he sleeping right now? Why did he reach out in the middle of the night to whoever he thought I was at the beginning of this conversation? Why does he seem to be just as down to chitchat as I am?
“Plus five for the Clueless reference. Now you’re at negative fifteen,”I send.
“I’m moving up in the world. So, not Laura, huh? Well, that’s a blessing considering the last time I saw her she threatened to report me to HR for wearing Chucks to work.”
“She’s a work friend?”
“Ha! Friend. No. She’s a former work associate who thought my job was completely superfluous.”
There’s clearly no love lost between them, and I internally rescind my sneeze curse on Laura Hepburn. She sounds unpleasant, but my ire for her has dissolved – miraculously – in the face of Eliot’s distaste. What a cavewoman I apparently am.
“I thought you were a freelancer?”I message.
“So, you know a little bit about my work! Which means either we’ve worked together or we must have at least had surface small talk in the past.”
“One of those things is true.”
“Does that earn me five points?”
“Sure. You’re obsessed with the points.”
“I told you I’m competitive.”
“You’re the only one playing.”
“That means it would be even more pathetic if I lose. I’m at negative ten now. What are other ways for me to get points?”
“Besides guessing who I am?”
“Yeah. How about if I make an accurate leap in logic then I get points. And . . . if I make you laugh I get points. Just for funsies.”
Remember what I said about how he’s just a big, handsome puppy? Well, this is officially the only time in my life I’ve ever had a crush on someone who said stuff like funsies. But somehow it works on him.
I’m currently sitting on my kitchen counter in a ball, balanced perfectly, about to roll off in a heap if he texts me one more cute thing. I’m going to have to stick to one-word answers here if I don’t want him to know that his playfulness actually has me grinning like the Joker at my cell phone.
And then, because I’m terrified of him getting bored, I add a quick:
“So ominous. It’s like you know for a fact that I’ll never be able to successfully make you laugh.”
Little does he know that for the past fifteen minutes I’ve been giggling like a maniac every time my cell phone buzzes. It would probably be cooler if I remained aloof. But like I said before, I’m nothing if not honest. So . . .
“I never cheat when I play games. So, in that case, I’m going to have to award some retroactive points and bring your total up to zero.”
“To what do I owe the honor of these unexpected points? Wait! That means I already made you laugh at some point. Right?”
“It was Clueless, right? Or no. Funsies. I definitely got you with funsies.”
“Minus two points for arrogance.”
“Crap! Good call. Good call. You’re tough but fair.”
“Gotta stay humble, Hoffman.”
I instantly regret last-naming him. Is there anything that says you have a crush on a guy more than spontaneously last-naming him? If we were in high school, I’d be drawing a picture on the ground with my toe and twisting my hair around one finger. I’d be asking to wear his letterman’s jacket. He’s going to realize that he’s accidentally texted his secret admirer and block my ass before his bunny gets boiled.
But he doesn’t block me. Instead, he texts me back.
“Good advice, JD.”
“JD? Is that someone you know? Is it an official guess?”
“No! You just used my last name so I wanted to use yours, but obviously I don’t know yours so I used the last two letters of the way you’re saved in my phone. Officially, your name according to me is Vplkjdjd. Or JD for short.”
This little development has me hopping down off the counter and pacing from one side of the kitchen to the other. I’ve gotta move. I step into the living room and immediately backtrack into the kitchen. The sight of my blankets folded up on the couch makes me grimace.
My phone buzzes again in my hand. He’s texted me again.
“Hey, I’m not keeping you up too late, am I? I don’t want to be a bother.”
“No. I’m a night owl. If I weren’t talking to you I’d probably be—”
Unfortunately my finger slips and I send the voice message before I finish it. And honestly, maybe it’s a good thing my finger slipped because I was about to get real chatty.
“You’d probably be what? You can’t just cut off mid-sentence!”
There’s no way I’m telling him.
“Take a guess, then. It’s an opportunity for points.”
“Ah. Okay, okay. I see where you’re going with this. Okay, let me think. If you weren’t talking to me you’d probably be . . . watching cringey dating shows on Netflix?”
I jolt when I hear his message and stupidly glance around me as if he could magically be standing in my kitchen with me, observing my every move without me having previously noticed. I cannot believe he guessed it in one. It would be great if I was more into lying because I’d love to save face right now but . . .
“That’s . . . some serious psychic shit right there,”I message.
His entire message just consists of his hysterical laughter. I’m laughing, too. It’s impossible not to. He texts again a moment later.
“You’re kidding. I was right? That’s amazing. Gotta be worth at least fifty points, don’t you think?”
I make a valiant effort to swallow down my laughter.
“I’ll give you twenty-five points. Twenty for the guess, and five for the laugh.”
“I am smoking this game. I’m gonna get to two hundred in an hour. Tops.”
I sink down, my back sliding along the kitchen cabinets, and breathe deeply. There’s no chance in hell I’ll ever let him actually figure out who I am, but . . . he’s down to do this for another hour?
“Seriously, though,”I message. “How’d you guess that about the dating shows?”
“Isn’t that what everyone does when they can’t sleep?”
“Is that what you do when you can’t sleep, Hoffman? Watch reality television?”
“Lately. Are you watching the dating show where they’re handcuffed together or the one where they’re in masks?”
“Handcuffs. The masks one is trash.”
“Really? Why? I liked the masks one!”
“Because after their faces were revealed they all ended up being hot anyway. It’s like, if you’re gonna make people fall in love without seeing each other, why not cast normal-looking people, you know?”
“Good point. Yeah. Now that I think about it, the show would have been way better if they’d been regular people. I guess nobody wants to see regular people fall in love.”
“I do! And, I wouldn’t exactly call what they did on that show ‘love’.”
“Another good point. You’ve got a remarkably discriminating eye for reality television, JD.”
“Okay, considering you watched Blinded Dates in its entirety I’m going to take an educated guess based on viewership demographics and say that you’re between the ages of twenty-five and forty.”
“Boom! Okay, I can now eliminate the middle-aged to elderly contingent of women in my life.”
“You’ve got a lot of middle-aged to elderly women saved in your phone?”
“I’ve got my mom and aunts. Most of my mom’s friends. An old boss or two. A couple neighbors from my building. All in all, yeah. I’d say I have a very respectable number of older ladies saved in my phone.”
“You sound proud of that.”
“I mean, I’m not NOT proud of it . . . Hey, JD?”
“You said you’re a night owl. Is that a code word for insomniac?”
“Maybe. Probably. I’ve never slept very much. Even as a kid.”
“So, you spend a lot of the night awake?”
“Most nights. Yeah.”
“What’s your trick for getting through it?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, usually I’m a champion sleeper. Like, asleep in under thirty seconds and don’t move until my alarm goes off nine hours later. But lately . . . I guess I’m just wondering if you have any tricks for passing the time at night.”
“Sure.”I think for a second and then message again. “Let’s see . . . there’s the usual—reading, meditating, listening to podcasts. Those are if you’re trying to coax yourself into sleep. But if you’re at the point where you’ve completely given up on sleep . . . well, there’s pedicures, dying your hair another color, trashy television, working out, chatting with some random dude over voice message . . .”
“Random dude, you say? I’d be offended if you hadn’t just given me another hint. This conclusively means that you’re not Marta, my tailor, or Sarah from the wine shop because I’m omnipresent enough in their lives for them to never just refer to me as a ‘random dude’.”
I’m torn between laughing and face-palming. Of course he’s on familiar terms with a tailor and wine-shop lady. These are two types of establishment I’ve literally never set foot in once in my life. I’ve got the light beer in the fridge and the tattered hemlines to prove it. For the first time in this conversation, I really, truly, try to picture him in this exact second. I’ve been in his apartment a few times and the details come back to me with alarming clarity. I hadn’t realized I’d been paying such close attention. But I can say with certainty that he’s either lounging on that fancy gray couch in his living room or on his bed that’s so high most people would need a step stool and carabiners just to hoist themselves onto it. His life is basically sponsored by Pottery Barn.
He wears three-piece suits for meetings with clients.
He drinks wine electively.
Once again my crush on this guy utterly baffles me. He couldn’t be further from my usual type.
And I’m sure I’m a million miles away from his, but, as it’s the witching hour and the only thing he needs to know about me is what my voice sounds like, does that really matter?
“How do you know you’re the random dude I was referring to?”
“Ha. Are you having more than one late-night voice message conversation right now?”
“Maybe. I could be.”
“You’re two-timing me already? Dang. And here I thought we had the juice to go the distance.”
He’s obviously joking as much as I am, but even so, his words have me pressing a smile into my kneecaps as I sit scrunched on the kitchen floor. For the first time in months, I’m actually glad that Pops isn’t around. If he were, he’d be razzing me into next Tuesday over this cheesy grin of mine. This is the kind of smile that gets its way. I try to forcibly pull the corners of my mouth down but as soon as I let go, they’re boinging back into a crescent moon.
“What can I say, Hoffman? I’m in high demand.”
“Well, I’ll just have to find a way to distinguish myself from these other losers. How many points do they have?”
“You realize you just referred to them as ‘other losers’. Meaning that you yourself are also a loser, yes?”
“I’m nothing if not honest with myself.”
“Hoffman, you’re not a loser.”
“JD, I was messaging my little sister in the middle of the night because I couldn’t sleep. That makes me at least twenty percent loser.”
Sister, he said? My brain immediately takes that little piece of information and strips it for parts. Was he just chatting? Or was he intentionally letting it slip that it was his sister he’d meant to message and not another woman? Does he want me to know that he wasn’t booty-calling someone?
“No way. You’re wrong.”
“You don’t think that makes me a loser?”
“No, I just think twenty percent was a little too high. I think it makes you fifteen percent loser.”
“You’re a kind and benevolent god.”
“I do my best.”
I’m staring at my phone, waiting for another message to pop through and give me a happy little coronary when a distant—and unfortunately familiar—sound catches my ear.
It’s next door’s smoke alarm.
Oh, my God. This is literally the fourth time in two months that Mr. Sawyer has set off his alarm in the middle of the night. Apparently the man takes sleeping pills that knock him out but also give him a hankering for nighttime toast. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve reminded him to unplug his toaster before bed. It’ll be T-minus thirty seconds before tiny, balding Mr. Sawyer is knocking on my door in slippers and a bathrobe, rubbing his eyes and telling me he has no idea what happened but there’s smoke in his kitchen.
I consider going into the back bathroom and locking the door, letting Mr. Sawyer figure out his smoke alarm on his own for once. But then I think of Pops, hopefully getting a good night’s rest in his care facility, trusting me to take care of the people around him. Pops wouldn’t hide from Mr. Sawyer. Pops would already be pulling his boots on.
With a pained, disappointed sigh, I drag myself up off the kitchen floor.
“Hey, Eliot,”I message him. “Unfortunately I have to go help somebody with something right now. It was nice talking to you, though. I hope you can get to sleep soon.”
“Oh! Sure. Yeah, it was nice talking to you, too. Good luck with . . . whatever you’re doing.”
Mr. Sawyer starts knocking on my door right on cue, and I look mournfully at my phone one more time. I can’t help myself from saying one last thing.
He messages back immediately.
All right. Back to real life. I slip my phone in my pocket and answer the door.