“Clo? How you doin?” Luke says. I take a deep breath. “I’m okay, just getting ready,” I venture.
“Where the hell are you?” he slurs.
I am in Forbes’ dungeon-like art room in Princeton, NJ. Luke is outside a sports bar in Washington, D.C.
“I’m right where you left me, baby,” I purr.
* * *
I have never met Luke. I do not know what he looks like, nor what he sounds like when he is not blackout at 2 am, when the background noise is not aggressive dubstep or a shitty 80s cover band.
I started talking to Luke because, two years ago, I got a new phone number. I was excited to finally have the same area code as all my friends, just as we all went our separate ways.
Then the strange calls started. Hurricane alerts. Campus police updates. Drunken fraternity brothers seeking companionship. Drunken sorority sisters, just as lonely.
Spam calls, too. Telemarketers sought different things from someone they called “Chloe.” They wanted her to sign up for surveys and claim Bahamian cruises and reassess her mortgage, immediately. They urged her to act now or all this would be given to another winner. Maybe me.
Apparently, our phone lines had twisted. Even though they pressed Chloe’s number, they reached me. This happened to a friend of mine in middle school: calls to her phone would go to a middle-aged Turkish man who was not interested in “coming over tomorrow” when I asked.
At first, it was a fun distraction. If I was bored or curious enough, I would pick up. I added Luke, the most frequent caller, as a contact. I added the Georgetown campus police.
But it quickly became annoying. I was getting twenty calls a day, or more. I kept my phone on silent and missed actual calls from my parents. “Didn’t you see that I called?” my mother would ask. I hadn’t; hers was lost among so many numbers I did not know. Chloe’s life was slowly eclipsing mine.
And as the months went on, our case of confused identities turned from annoyance to uncomfortable intimacy. I received voicemails from grandparents, happy songs from little cousins. Employers called to ask why Chloe was late and which shift did she prefer and had she remembered to lock up afterwards. Doctors asked her to follow up with test results.
The final straw came late one Saturday night. “Chloe, where are you?” a girl named Lauren sobbed into the phone. “I need you to get me. He did it again.”
* * *
Sometimes the callers sounded familiar, as though I was watching a film and couldn’t quite place the actor. They mentioned events from my hometown, snippets of people I could have gone to school with.
This seemed to support the first hypothesis I’d had, at the start of the calls, one that seemed so impossible that I immediately dismissed it. The first time someone called me “Chloe,” I thought about a girl from my high school. She was in my physics class senior year, and on the yearbook with me. Once, she told me I had beautiful eyes. She was deciding between two schools down South, though I couldn’t remember which. I did some Googling. Chloe had gone to Georgetown.
* * *
I wasn’t certain it was her until the bank called. “Is this Chloe ____?” the teller asked, stating her full name. “No,” I said, in absolute shock. I pleaded, apologetically, “It’s really not.” He was convinced, but it was surprisingly hard for other people to tell. They refused to believe that I was not Chloe, since it appeared that they dialed the right digits, but somewhere along the way the numbers scrambled and led to me. Luke was particularly difficult. “Chloe, I know it’s you,” he would say. I would reply that I was not her. “Put her on,” he would insist, getting angrier. “Why are you pretending?”
Once, Chloe’s mom called me and launched into a detailed breakdown of her day. I couldn’t bring myself to interrupt, so I waited until she was done. When I finally tried to correct her mistake, she asked, “Honey, are you sick?” and launched into advice about staying healthy on campus.
I got calls from taxi services, saying they were outside. “I think you have the wrong number, ” I said, reflexively. “I have little English,” the man said. “Come or I go.” He hung up, leaving me with an image of Chloe stranded somewhere in the city at an ungodly hour. I checked the D.C. forecast. It was raining. I held myself back from checking rates of violent crimes against women around Georgetown.
* * *
It went on for months, having turned from fun game to dreadful secret. AT&T kept promising to fix it—but maybe they thought it was funny, too. I stopped fielding calls. I didn’t want to know more about the life I held an accidental key to.
Until one day, I picked up the phone again. I was two hundred pages into a Churchill biography and desperately bored. So when my phone lit up (the ringer has not been on since this saga began), I picked up. “Hello?” I said, already readying my wrong-number spiel.
“Hi,” the girl on the line said. It was Chloe.
* * *
“I think you’ve been getting a lot of calls that were meant for me,” she continued.
“I have,” I replied, in disbelief.
“Is it really annoying?” she asked.
“Yeah, kind of,” I offered. I wanted desperately for her to recognize my voice. I wanted to ask if she had been receiving my calls as well. I wanted to ask her if she remembered me.
I didn’t. “I’m gonna call Verizon and figure this out,” she assured me. “Don’t worry.”
It was too late for her warning. “Nice to talk to you, Chloe,” I slipped. I think she was shocked that I knew her first name. She hung up without saying goodbye.
* * *
I wonder what I could have done, given the chance to repeat our only interaction. I want to forward her all the voicemails and missed calls and transcriptions of conversations I had when I picked up—“Your big called and she was pissed that I didn’t know who she was, she called you a bitch,” or, “Your grandma wants to know why you never write back.”
The thing is, I don’t have Chloe’s number. She’s lost touch with a lot of her friends at home, and they were never my friends to begin with. I don’t have a Facebook. I think it’s better that I’m anonymous anyway—I’ve convinced myself she would be happier thinking that I was a stranger, rather than someone who could put a face to the voices coming across the line. The truth is that even though I get her calls, I don’t really know her.
What I would tell her is this: Chloe, your mother loves you and I know you don’t talk to her enough because I can hear the jump of excitement in her voice every time I pick up the phone. Chloe, if you’re really friends with Lauren you should make her dump her shithead boyfriend. Chloe please tell your sorority sisters where you’re going beforehand because they seem to be scattered across every bar in the Capitol on Friday nights. Chloe, last year your grandparents sang you happy birthday on my voicemail—I was in a very dark place, it was midterms week—and when I listened to it I started sobbing on the C floor of Firestone library. And Chloe, I know Luke seems like another sloppy bro but I think he truly misses you, he always asks if you’re okay and with someone and happy. I don’t know what you did to him but I think he always refuses to believe that he has the wrong number because the real you has stopped picking up his calls. I’m all he has that’s left of you.
* * *
What I didn’t realize until the other day was that it might be a reciprocal relationship. Maybe Chloe’s been getting my calls, too. Maybe that’s why I don’t get tons of drunk dials anymore. Maybe that’s why an internship never called me back. Maybe there’s a whole mass of drunken and sober love and hate that got mixed up in their journey from one metal device to another. People like my parents would obviously keep trying to reach the real me, but others might not have followed up. What have I missed out on? Has Chloe taken as much from me as I have from her?
Though this seems like a cause for alarm, I realize that it’s just a magnification of a problem that we’re all complicit in when we communicate through second-party technology. We can’t be certain (twisted phone lines aside) if we’re reaching the intended person. There is a degree of uncertainty in every non-human interaction. Text messages can be read and deleted by a friend holding a phone, or heartfelt emails caught in a spam filter. Even if received, sarcasm can be misread or message misinterpreted.
We’ve broken down our relationships to one-sided serves because we’re afraid of the response, but this means that some interactions go flying past unnoticed. One-on-one, we can be certain we are reaching the right person, but the tradeoff is that we have to respond in real time, our faces can reveal secrets, we can stumble over words. In person, it is certainly you—not a sanitized and digitized version. And this, for many of us, is terrifying. This is why we fervently hope to reach voicemail, why we send texts apologizing for ignoring someone we saw and avoided ten minutes ago. We will continue to lobby balls over the net, praying they are returned.
* * *
My appeals to AT&T are useless. I’ve memorized every D.C. area code, and I ignore most of the other ones anyway. No more of the gun alerts or bank balances or messy vocal ephemera that make up the life of someone I barely knew a long time ago.
A few days ago, I was sitting on Alexander Beach when my phone began buzzing. “Aren’t you going to get that?” a friend asked.
“No,” I said, slipping my phone back into my pocket. “It’s for Chloe.”
* Name, school, sorority, and other personal details have been changed.