Gretchen didn’t need a reason not to answer the phone. Sometimes she just didn’t feel like it. That particular night, however, she was busy. Her studio apartment was not what one might call plush, and in fact, was probably in violation of several health codes. She had learned long ago that when looking for a place to live in the Bay Area, she had to automatically rule out all ads that featured the words “cute,” “cozy,” and “charming.” Cute and charming were not in her price range. She knew to go for listings that said things like “extra low ceiling,” “cement floor,” and “do not apply if allergic to mold.” So, Gretchen’s apartment was small, so small that the window fogged up when she turned on the coffee maker. She didn’t mind that the shower leaked water into the kitchen area every morning, and she'd given up trying to stop the roaches from entering through the holes in the walls; they kept her cat busy, and she thought that was worth something. The only household maintenance that Gretchen consistently performed involved the freezer, and that was what she was attending to when the phone rang.
The freezer wasn’t a separate unit on the top half of her refrigerator. It was enclosed in the refrigerator, a small compartment about the size of a breadbox. It had never worked properly. She didn’t know exactly what the problem was, but she knew that whatever it was caused the inside of the freezer to form ice on all sides, until it eventually got to the point where a pint of Ben & Jerry's would no longer fit in it if standing upright. To combat this problem, the first Thursday of every month, starting at 6:00 p.m. when she got home from work, Gretchen chipped away the ice that had built up on the inside of the freezer. It was a mindless task, but mindless tasks granted a pleasant solitude, and therefore should not be interrupted by telephone calls.
The answering machine came on after the second ring, and Rachel’s voice started speaking.
“Hey, are you there? . . . I need to talk to you, please pick up . . . Okay, call me when you get a chance.”
Gretchen could have picked up the phone. She had just started gathering the necessary tools for her monthly project, so it wasn't like she was up to her elbows in ice at that point. But Rachel shouldn't have called. She knew it was the first Thursday. Rachel was like that. She didn't think the rules applied to her. There was a time, early in their relationship, when she was right, but things had changed.
Gretchen laid the drop cloth on the mustard colored linoleum in front of the refrigerator and propped open the door with a metal folding chair. Then she opened the freezer compartment and tied it to the refrigerator door with a piece of old speaker wire so it wouldn't close. From her toolbox, she took a hammer, screwdriver, a pair of safety goggles, and a set of gardening gloves. She put on the gloves and grabbed a metal slotted spoon from the utensil rack on the counter.
The process of chipping the ice away had, like most things in life, gotten easier over time. Each month she refined the process and figured out new ways to make the job go faster. The first time she had used a butter knife. A butter knife! It took seven hours, and she never did get it all scraped off. The second time she tried a different method. She took the water bottle from her bike and filled it with hot water, squirting it into the freezer to melt the ice. The result was the formation of a thin, slick layer of ice over the existing ice, which made it impossible to scrape with her knife.
Gretchen set the timer on her watch for four hours and six minutes. As long as she finished de-icing before the timer went off, she would have a new record. It was her personal goal to complete the task faster each time, and she hadn’t failed at this yet.
The phone rang, and again the answering machine picked up.
“It's ice night; I know you're there . . . Don’t be like this. Not this time . . . I'm just going to keep calling.”
Rachel slammed the phone down particularly hard. In person, she had a very nice voice. It was fairly deep and scratchy, sexy, but something happened to it when it traveled across the phone lines. A horrible distortion took place and by the time it reached the answering machine it was grating and abrasive. Gretchen noticed it the first time Rachel left a message, two years ago. She thought surely it would improve, or she would get used to it. Neither was true.
Gretchen scraped the side of the slotted spoon across the bottom of the freezer. That was the easiest way to start; the bottom had the least amount of ice on it, and most of it could be removed with the edge of the spoon. It was a good 30-minute warm up before the real work began.
“Can you please just pick up the phone. I don’t want to play this game tonight . . . I know you think you have everything all figured out, but trust me, you’re not as smart as you think . . . Fine, have it your way!”
But Gretchen did have it figured out. Their fight last night was like all the others. The inciting incident varied. Sometimes it was because they weren’t spending enough time together, or they didn’t make each other feel appreciated, or whatever. Last night it was because Rachel tried to initiate a conversation about “the future,” or more specifically, moving in together. However the touchy conversation started, it always ended in them having a fight. Or, more specifically, Rachel had a fight, which she directed at Gretchen, but that was the extent of Gretchen’s involvement. Gretchen didn’t like to get wrapped up in arguments. Arguing led to yelling, and yelling made her feel like she had lost control of her emotions, so she preferred to just keep quiet and let Rachel work it out herself. Had Gretchen picked up the phone, they would have had what Rachel would call a “discussion,” and what Gretchen would call a “one sided self-therapy session,” which would have, after many incarnations of Rachel’s angst-filled monologue, resulted in them patching things up.
Gretchen had accepted this pattern as part of life with Rachel, but recently she had stumbled upon a new approach for dealing with confrontation--complete avoidance. The first time she utilized this method was purely by accident. She and Rachel had a fight and the next day Gretchen had to go out of town for work. Rachel didn’t know Gretchen was gone and left a series of messages over the course of three days, the last one being an apology for over-reacting.
Gretchen had knowingly refused to answer the phone, ignoring Rachel’s pleas to talk things out, for the last three fights. And, like clockwork, after several days the anger blew over and things were fine between them. This method wasn’t a quick, one-night fix like the phone conversations of the past, but quicker, Gretchen had come to realize, was not necessarily better. At first it took a lot of restraint to keep from answering the phone, but Gretchen was committed to the continued success of their relationship. Patience and determination always win in the end.
She scooped the mountain of ice that she had produced from the bottom of the freezer and dumped it into the sink, then she put on her goggles and grabbed the hammer and screwdriver. She glanced down at her watch and was pleased to discover that, after the first stage, she was thirty seconds ahead of her best time.
Chiseling, or Phase Two, was the most time-consuming part. It was also the most difficult part because there were hard-to-reach places, but that was where most of the progress took place. There was also an element of danger. The first time Gretchen used the chisel technique, a piece of ice shot out at her face. It didn’t hurt when it collided with her cheekbone, but it startled her. It was a small piece so it melted almost as soon as it hit her skin, but it came dangerously close to her eye. She stopped everything and went to buy safety goggles. One could never be too careful when one’s eyesight was at risk.
“This isn’t like the other times. Your ride is coming to an end . . . I’m serious, this is it . . .”
The double slam, Gretchen knew it well. The first time Rachel did it was after they had been dating for six months. They had been at a bar to celebrate Gretchen’s promotion at work. Gretchen had a lot to drink and she got a little wild. At the end of the night, Rachel caught her messing around with an ex-girlfriend. Rachel left the bar and took a cab back to her apartment, but she called Gretchen repeatedly that night. The more Gretchen tried to apologize, the more hurt Rachel sounded, until finally Gretchen gave up defending herself and sat silently while Rachel got it all out of her system. One lapse in judgment and Gretchen thought she had lost her for good. Gretchen cried that night. That’s how she knew that she loved Rachel.
Gretchen thought it was amusing that Rachel used the double slam even when she didn’t answer the phone. There was something about the predictability of it that she found endearing.
The highlight of the chiseling came when Gretchen managed to knock off a really big chunk of ice. This was a rare occurrence because she didn’t use a lot of power. She had learned that when dealing with tricky angles, it wasn't about power. Consistency and precision were more efficient. When she did break off a big piece though, it changed the course of the rest of the chiseling. A large hole exposed angles that weren’t there before, and it required her to step back and reassess the situation.
“I didn’t want to tell you this on the machine, but you’re not leaving me a choice. You think your silence is somehow valiant. I see it as stubborn. I don’t think we should see each other anymore.”
Rachel had threatened a break up before, during their last fight. Gretchen had thought about reaching for the phone to talk to her, but Rachel called back almost immediately and left a message saying she didn’t mean what she had said.
Gretchen set the hammer and screwdriver on the counter and removed her goggles. Most of the work was done. She stretched her arms toward the ceiling, then shook out her hands and flexed her fingers. After a few hours, the muscles started to get stiff (the cold didn’t help) and it was important to keep the circulation going for the final phase.
She took the slotted spoon and scraped along all of the edges. Last month she had bought a new, larger spoon and it made a world of difference. Before, it would take at least fifteen minutes to finish the job, but now she estimated it would take just under ten. As she steadily pulled the side of the spoon along the ice, forming a mound of snow in the middle of the freezer, she waited for Rachel to recant her breakup, but by the eighty-seventh stroke of the utensil, she still hadn’t called.
Gretchen set the spoon in the sink and crouched down next to the phone to wait. Several minutes passed and her eyes started to glaze as she watched the red light blinking on the answering machine. The sound of the phone startled her when it finally rang.
“I hate you.” Rachel’s voice was soft and subdued. All the anger that had infused the previous calls was gone.
Gretchen pulled the receiver to her ear, just in time to hear the click of the phone landing quietly on Rachel’s end. Her watch beeped and she glanced down to see that the timer had wound down to zero. She looked over at the open refrigerator door and the heap of ice still in the freezer. Her streak had ended.
Gretchen took off her goggles and gardening gloves and dialed Rachel’s number. When she heard the machine pick up, she let the phone fall back on the hook. From her seat on the linoleum, she watched the ice melt and drip down into the refrigerator below. A small puddle formed on the bottom shelf and Gretchen knew it was just a matter of time before the water would spill over, leaving a sprawling mess on the floor.