"The Secret Life of Laura Townsend" featured in the On the Brink anthology can be downloaded in e-book form to your Kindles, I-Pads etc.
Recently I changed my cell phone number. It was kind of like spring cleaning but instead of tackling the unopened mail, overstocked goodwill pile and let’s face it you will never fit into those 1995 jeans again portion of my closet, I opted to hold my breath, fold myself into my 501 levis, and call AT&T to change my cell phone number instead.
The overly upbeat customer service rep named Wendy, told me there was a thirty-dollar fee and asked whether I was sure that I wanted to go forth with the change. Like the satirical MasterCard commercials that end with “priceless” as the tagline, I took a moment, counted up the cost and decided:
“A new cell phone number = thirty dollars.
Having to update certain people with my new number = pain in the ass!
Being able to fend off unwanted calls from the Ghosts of Lovers Past = PRICELESS!”
“So mam, would you like to go forward with making this change because if so, the old number gets cancelled immediately?”
“Sounds to me like we’re wasting precious time even talking about this, Wendy. Push the button.”
I don’t know that there is such a button, but in my mind there should be. I would like an “are you kidding me?” button for the amount of taxes taken out of my paycheck each month. Then I would like a “for the record” button” that I could push every time a man hits on me with the derivative “hey you” opener as if that’s the romantic line of my dreams. The button factory should also create a “you weren’t kidnapped it’s called marriage” button for those select spouses who seem to wake up confused one morning and leave by night never to return. In the absence of these buttons, Wendy should at least have a button that can turn area codes into antiquity.
After her version of a brief hold time, the duration of three advertisements and a jazz ensemble likened to music played at the dentist office, Wendy returned to reveal that my old number was a thing of the past. She then gave me a unique opportunity that I haven’t had since I was twelve. I was able to choose the city I wanted my new number to be affiliated with. Memories of the childhood game MASH came flooding back. Mash stands for Mansion, Apartment, Shack and House and in addition to your places of residence, the names of four boys you would like to marry, four careers you'd like to have, and four cars you'd like to own are also listed with childlike anticipation. While you look away, your BFF begins to draw a spiral line until you give her the go ahead to stop. Starting from the top of the spiral she counts the amount of lines that have been drawn. From there your fate is sealed. Where you will live, what you will drive, how you will make a living and who you will live happily every after with, all determined by pen markings in a hello kitty journal.
There was no time to do Mash. Wendy gave a polite cough yanking me from my reverie and I quickly reflected on the various cities in the greater Los Angeles area. From the coastal 405 drag between Long Beach and LAX, to the 10 freeway stretch spanning the Downtown LA skyline and the Santa Monica pier, my new number has the destined chance to dwell where only I can dream. 1990 flashbacks of Pretty Woman and the teenage angst of Beverly Hills’ Dylan and Brenda made choosing my new number a no brainer.
“Push the Rodeo Drive Button, Wendy.”
“I’m not sure I follow.”
“I want a 310 in 90210.”
“Well I have a number near Beverly Hills in 90211.”
Cleary Wendy was manipulating the spiral lines in my game of Mash.
“Okay Wendy, good enough. Beverly Hills adjacent.”
For weeks I took pleasure in the silence of my phone. Only a select few people had the number. Some family members were convinced I simply ran into a financial hiccup. Oops she forgot to pay the phone bill, they presumed. One aunt even sent me twenty dollars. By way of my windfall of money I visited Jamba Juice four times and it was on the third visit my phone rang from an undisclosed number.
With my old number, private calls were dangerously taboo. From college loan creditors to last Friday’s failure of a date, answering the phone could be equated to the Vegas odds of 3 to 2. There were three chances it would be someone I didn’t mind talking to, but two not worth the risk chances that it would be someone I’d regret. It took me a while to remember this was my Beverly Hills adjacent phone and on the last ring I nonchalantly picked it up.
“Is Laura Townsend available?”
“This is she.”
My reply just slipped out and before I knew it I was being invited to a fundraiser for animal rights.
“Yes, sound goods. Thanks. Got it.”
I pretended to jot down the information and pledged 700 dollars toward this noteworthy cause. While sipping my Jamba Juice in blue jeans and animal slain leather boots, in a matter of minutes the secret life of Laura Townsend was born.
The interesting thing about cell phone companies is that they recycle old numbers but charge you for a new one. As you pay to erase your past life, you’re given someone else’s unwanted identity. Cellular provider’s claim this industry known practice is due to the fact that there simply aren’t enough new numbers to go around. Corporatist conspiracy theories aside, I actual believe them. On a daily basis someone, somewhere is longing for a fresh start. The cliché of a clean slate is synonymous with a clean call log. The theme song of “Cheers” loses its fervor and eventually the last place you want to be is “where everybody knows your name.”
The enchantment, however, of someone else’s name is an entirely different discussion. Like a modern remake of the Prince and the Pauper, Laura Townsend gives a new wardrobe to my static like a mannequin life. My friend’s say I am in a rut. My parents worry they will be grandchild less forever. I simply hope for something to feel excited about again. That Christmas Eve sensation a new love, a big project or a long awaited vacation can provide has departed almost permanently. My remedy: abscond this life and get another.
With each ring of the phone I hope to get more clues into Laura’s charmed world. Custom made furniture awaits her pick up. A personal shopper has located “the dress.” What dress? These were the phone calls I missed. Very few personal calls come in for Laura. Clearly she gave the important family and friends her “new life” number. Instead, rings of repeated requests for her contribution, her attendance, her stamp of approval flood my phone. There are far more calls for Laura than there are for me. I’m equally excited the dress has been found. According to the consultant, it took a week’s worth of day trips to find it. I share the news with a passerby as we bump grocery carts in an overcrowded canned food aisle.
“I am sooooo sorry. I was distracted because I just got the best news.”
“Oh, no problem.”
The harried shopper doesn’t ask for details but I give them to her anyway. “My personal shopper just found “the dress” we’ve been looking for.”
She replies with a halfhearted congrats, but I am not deterred. Daydreams of red carpet galas where “the dress” is featured in the “who wore it best “ section of the style magazine consume my thoughts.
Being Laura starts to feel more intriguing than being me. The question that lingers is what made her change her number? For me it was classic boy meets girl, girl likes boy, boy likes girl too, but boy has an attention deficit style to his dating. Focusing on one woman for too long could be impossible without medical intervention; a lobotomy may be in order and worse off when caught in an ADD outbreak with a coworker, mine not his, the barrage of apologetic phone calls begin. He calls, she calls, and periodic reprimands from my student loan corporation ignite violent images of me pummeling faces with the backside of my phone. The less hostile and more law-abiding approach was to change my number.
On the surface of ones Smartphone Laura seems to have an idyllic life. For her birthday a slew of unsuspecting admirers, who clearly didn’t make the cut, text their gushing adoration. I ignore most of them applying my WWLD (“What Would Laura Do?”) philosophy but one particular text from a 212 area code commands my attention. Closing with nothing more than the letter “J” the texts reads like a trivia question that only Laura, or in this case the daughter of a soul music aficionado, can decipher.
If Otis Redding were to ask you to try something, what would it be? Similar to the first phone call, now two theatrical months ago, I instinctually reply with, a little tenderness.”
Like rapid-fire ammunition we exchange a few more rounds of our song lyric jeopardy. Then, as abruptly as our match began, he puts an end to our chat with a revealing “I’m sorry.”
Sorry for what, I wondered. What did you do to me? To Laura? Are you the cause for my hand-me-down number? Yet, who am I to grant absolution?
Silence seemed to be the only proper retort, but proper also went out of style the day alter ego’s emerged and a new cell phone number became a temporary escape from my reality. My potential reply to “J” consumed me. The fluttery tickle in my stomach and the obstructed air in my chest felt like an 8th grade dance where the boys were too scared to take lead and the girls were affixed to the ground by the stickiness of their jelly shoes. Dreams of dirty dancing and, “nobody puts baby in the corner,” would give some girls dramatic courage. Today I would be that girl.
I picked up the phone to text “J” my take on his sorry; a homily on heartbreak texted for all women worldwide. Despite my attempts at enacting justice, another 80’s movie emerged to life. In the spirit of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure some, "strange things are afoot at the Circle K." No sooner than I scrolled through my text history did the phone begin ringing in my hand.
“Laura?” Laura is that you?”
This tone doesn’t reflect the esteem and concern others seem to hold of my, well of Laura’s, social stature. This woman is pissed.
“Laura, I know it’s you and what’s worse is that you can’t even be woman enough to keep our agreement. It was simple. No communication with Julian. No more communication with anyone. We did it. Job well done. I have the life. I can take it from here. Did you think I wouldn’t see your texts? I live with him. I have too much to lose. You can have your choice of all the others. You can stew in your silence all you want, but don’t push me.”
My stunned and wide opened mouth swallowed the click of the phone as the female adversary hung up on me. What others did she mean? There is “J,” now revealed as Julian, this angry other woman, my mixed up game of MASH and me.
Over the next few weeks Julian would text me his apologies and appeals to talk. I ignored his texts as the warnings of Laura’s nemesis repeated in my head. Eventually my own indignant personality crept in. Who is she to tell me whom I can and cannot talk to? “Don’t push me,” she cautions. Clearly she is unaware that buttons and pushing them, albeit through an AT&T customer service rep, is how we got to this moment of “truth.” Julian’s most recent text, however, provided extra filling for our multi-layered cake.
“I was the one lied to, yet I am the one saying sorry. I thought it was you I was getting all along. Every conversation, every email, everything but the picture was you. I fell in love with your heart but it was she who stepped off the train. She is not you, but she and I make the most sense. All of us are partly to blame.”
That was my opening. A profession of mutual responsibility. I texted to the 212 phone number associated with Laura’s femme foe: “All of us are partly to blame.”
This coast to coast three-way became the focus of my day. Checking my phone in between work duties and my dwindling real life associations ranked highest in my mental “to do” list. There was something curative about righting the wrongs of these strangers as if that would nurse back to health my own ailing heart.
My blame casting had little effect because it took four days for her to give me the decency of a one-line response:
“U pretended to be me, I pretended to be u and he chose between the two.”
I couldn’t contain myself. My texts triggered like tickertape:
“But it’s me that he truly loves.”
“And it’s me that he’s seeing. I’ve tried to be nice. I’ve refrained from doing the one thing u know u don’t want me to do. I have our old college pictures. None showing you in a flattering way. The neck up shot you gave me no choice but to show Julian last go round, is nothing compared to these.
“I am more than the body I live in.”
“Well I am glad to see the positive self affirmation is working. You hardly sound like the Laura I knew in college. What’s confusing though is why we are even communicating at all. We had a deal and agreed to work our deal until your debt was paid off and my life was secured. We’re even.”
“And you’re a fraud of the worse kind. A con artist in matters of the heart.”
“Don’t you mean “artists” as in plural? WE were a unique pair. Randomly assigned roommates known as the two Laura’s. Mine spelled Lara without the “u” yet when we were combined we were an unstoppable duo. Me, the tits and ass with commentary falling on dead ears and one-track minds. You, The fat girl with the pretty face. The black girl pretending to be blond and blue eyed. You, the scholarship recipient churning out well-written words, but I always the face people want to see saying those words. It was my image on Julian’s on-line dating profile, and besides, you had no problem cashing your monthly payments. All’s fair—you know the rest.”
This notion that the rules of fair play don’t apply in love or in war explain the dismembered hearts strewn about city streets. Laura, pretending to be Lara who lives with Julian who is apologizing to me because I wanted to elude the past voices on the other end of a cellular tower, all combine to form a mirror of broken glass. Superstition suggests it’s bad luck to break a mirror. Supposedly, the mirror has the power to confiscate part of the users soul. Can a soul be as fragile as shards of glass?
When I am on my cell phone I am hanging from an imaginary net in the sky. The net strings of radio waves connect me to other cells and I pass from cell to cell to cell until I reach the person I am actually trying to call. I pick up the phone to text back Lara without a “u”, but it dawns on me that I have nothing left to say. All’s not fair but for the first time, in quite sometime, all is clear. The mirrored reflection on my I-Phone shows my pug nose, curt lips, deep-set eyes and brown skin. Closing my eyes I pray for the confiscated souls of both La(u)ra’s, Julian’s and mine. When I changed my number passing from cell to cell to cell I was trying to change me, but in the secret life of Laura Townsend I found Tameka Moore. In Hebrew Tameka means twin, but I am one of a kind. No more double sided mirrors for my soul. A bright light shines directly on my surface and the opening behind the glass is brilliantly revealed.