Dorothy Parker's Short Story 'A Telephone Call' Is Still The Most Relatable Piece About Dating Ever
In many ways, we're in a terrifying new era of dating. Romance is increasingly app-based. It seems like we're always hearing about how the kids today are having too much sex, or not enough sex, or how the cultural institution marriage has been replaced by think-pieces and avocado toast.
But in many ways... this is just the same old crap wearing a technologically advanced hat. Tinder didn't invent ghosting, or casual sex, or emotionally repressed men. That stuff has always been around. Dating has always been a carnival of human misery. And that's where Dorothy Parker comes in.
Dorothy Parker is the patron saint of cynical young women. She's not the writer to read when you want to make the world a better place (although she was quite the activist in real life). She's here to make the world a bitter place. You don't read her writing to feel inspired or to tap into the better angels of our nature. You read her writing to wallow. Parker's acerbic poetry and devastatingly witty stories do not show romance as it should be, but as it is: a sexist mess of power inequality, anxiety, and crying over your silent telephone.
And few pieces of writing nail that sense of dating desperation better than her story, "A Telephone Call":
Please, God, let him telephone me now. Dear God, let him call me now. I won't ask anything else of You, truly I won't. It isn't very much to ask. It would be so little to You, God, such a little, little thing. Only let him telephone now. Please, God. Please, please, please.
The story's "plot" is fairly simple: our narrator has been seeing a man, and he's promised to call her at five o'clock. It is now 10 minutes past seven. This has caused our hero to spiral into a full-on anxious meltdown, during which she pleads her case with God, attempts to think of something else ("If I didn't think about it, maybe the telephone might ring. Sometimes it does that"), and reviews every moment of their previous encounter in a stream-of-consciousness soliloquy:
"He said he would telephone at five o'clock. 'I'll call you at five, darling.' I think that's where he said 'darling.' I'm almost sure he said it there. I know he called me 'darling' twice, and the other time was when he said good-by. 'Good-by, darling.' He was busy, and he can't say much in the office, but he called me 'darling' twice. He couldn't have minded my calling him up. I know you shouldn't keep telephoning them — I know they don't like that. When you do that they know you are thinking about them and wanting them, and that makes them hate you."
It's strange to think that the politics of the telephone have changed so much since this story was first published in 1930 (who calls people anymore?), and yet every word remains horrifically real. This is precisely the experience of going on 20,000 dates, finding one person you might actually like, and then waiting in agony while they don't text you back.
"He was busy, and he was in a hurry, and there were people around him, but he called me 'darling' twice. That's mine, that's mine. I have that, even if I never see him again. Oh, but that's so little. That isn't enough. Nothing's enough, if I never see him again."
It's rarely a good sign, when you find yourself cataloging every tiny kernel of affection from an indifferent partner, in order to cobble together some semblance of being loved. But most of us do it anyway. Most of us have also tried to convince ourselves that being ghosted is not a real problem, in the grand scheme of things, a tactic which has never succeeded in making anyone feel even remotely better.
"I must stop this. I mustn't be this way. Look. Suppose a young man says he'll call a girl up, and then something happens, and he doesn't. That isn't so terrible, is it? Why, it's gong on all over the world, right this minute. Oh, what do I care what's going on all over the world? Why can't that telephone ring? Why can't it, why can't it? Couldn't you ring? Ah, please, couldn't you? You damned, ugly, shiny thing. It would hurt you to ring, wouldn't it? Oh, that would hurt you. Damn you, I'll pull your filthy roots out of the wall, I'll smash your smug black face in little bits. Damn you to hell."
Then of course, there's the bargaining. As our narrator puts it, "If he doesn't telephone me, I'll know God is angry with me." But if he does call, she'll repress all of her feelings, ignore her own emotional needs, and be perfectly delightful on the phone.
"I'll be so sweet to him, if he calls me. If he says he can't see me tonight, I'll say, "Why, that's all right, dear. Why, of course it's all right." I'll be the way I was when I first met him. Then maybe he'll like me again. I was always sweet, at first. Oh, it's so easy to be sweet to people before you love them."
Parker's narrator is far from the perfect a role model for feminist self love. She's real, though. She, like so many of us, is willing to disregard her own unhappiness, because unhappiness is not sexy or fun.
"Maybe he isn't going to call—maybe he's coming straight up here without telephoning. He'll be cross if he sees I have been crying. They don't like you to cry. He doesn't cry. I wish to God I could make him cry. I wish I could make him cry and tread the floor and feel his heart heavy and big and festering in him. I wish I could hurt him like hell. He doesn't wish that about me. I don't think he even knows how he makes me feel. I wish he could know, without my telling him. They don't like you to tell them they've made you cry. They don't like you to tell them you're unhappy because of them. If you do, they think you're possessive and exacting. And then they hate you. They hate you whenever you say anything you really think. You always have to keep playing little games. Oh, I thought we didn't have to; I thought this was so big I could say whatever I meant. I guess you can't, ever. I guess there isn't ever anything big enough for that. Oh, if he would just telephone, I wouldn't tell him I had been sad about him. They hate sad people."
She runs through all the usual stages of waiting for a return text: she wonders if he's dead, she wishes he was dead, she feels bad about wishing he was dead, and she even considers calling him herself (maybe he even wants her to call him?), except that of course she would never do that.
"I won't telephone him. I'll never telephone him again as long as I live. He'll rot in hell, before I'll call him up. You don't have to give me strength, God; I have it myself. If he wanted me, he could get me. He knows where I am. He knows I'm waiting here. He's so sure of me, so sure. I wonder why they hate you, as soon as they are sure of you. I should think it would be so sweet to be sure."
If he was just a friend, she reflects, it'd be perfectly easy to call him up and ask what the hell happened to their plans for the evening. But he's not a friend. He holds the power in this exchange. He wants to keep her in a state of desperate confusion, to keep her wanting him without the security of knowing he wants her back.
And so, in a move that will surely horrify any modern daters out there, she decides that she is going to call him. To hell with all these games, she's just going to call him up herself.
"I'll count five hundred by fives. I'll do it so slowly and so fairly. If he hasn't telephoned then, I'll call him. I will. Oh, please, dear God, dear kind God, my blessed Father in Heaven, let him call before then. Please, God. Please.
Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five."
She's going to take charge of her life. She's going to be "so easy and pleasant" and find out where she stands with him, once and for all.
...as soon as she counts to five hundred.