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November 21, 2019

#YEG: Wasted and Wasteful

A pay phone plays an important role in this writer’s love story.

Illustration Olivia Mew

There’s a beat-up orange pay phone outside the Army & Navy, near the corner of Whyte Avenue and Calgary Trail. I have no idea if it works. The receiver is so grungy, I wouldn’t dare put it near my face. It stands alone there on the edge of traffic and obsolescence, covered in graffiti and faded, half-scratched-off stickers.

But that phone and I have a history. We got together back in 2002 for one expensive phone call after a night of drinking and dancing. I didn’t even live in Edmonton, then. And I would have never guessed I’d end up calling this city home. I was “in between” – in between school and work, in between single and married, in between Canada and England, where I’d just finished my master’s, where my boyfriend lived.

With my childhood friend, Alanna, we made merry in the Attic Bar & Lounge, a bar that isn’t there anymore, and in my state of intoxication I decided I had to call my guy. I didn’t have a Canadian cell phone, or a husband, or a child, or a mortgage. Just a series of digits etched on the walls of my mental attic: A telephone number my lovesick fingers itched to drunk-dial. Because why NOT call England collect in the middle of the night? It was morning over there.

I told him I loved him, spittle spraying the mouthpiece, while Alanna giggled at my elbow, and stroked the furry purple purse hanging from my arm. “Come back to England,” I heard him say, and I said I would, said I was sorry for reversing the charges, for being wasted and wasteful. He laughed and said he didn’t care, and we carried on. But he cared later, when his flatmates got the bill and told him he’d have to pay up for our two-hundred-dollar conversation. I went back to England, forgot Edmonton for a while, but ended up back here two years later with the same guy, in what would be the end of the “in between” and the beginning of the real deal.

Whenever I’m near that corner, now, I think about that pre-beginning, and how what starts as a phone call can turn into a decade. I think about how some things come and go, while other things stick around. Pay phones, childhood friends, Englishmen, cities you visit and leave and don’t ever plan to call home that somehow manage to find a home in you. I haven’t made a collect call since. And I still owe my husband two hundred bucks.

Elizabeth Withey is a writer, journalist and artist based in Edmonton. She has been on staff at the Edmonton Journal for a decade and has earned a National Newspaper Award citation of merit for arts and entertainment writing, among other prizes. She is the creator of One Hundred Widows (onehundredwidows.tumblr.com), a project about single earrings and solitude, which she transformed into an installation at Latitude 53 in the fall of 2013. Withey is presently working to publish a memoir about her father, who died in a plane crash when she was a teenager, a project she began under the mentorship of Charlotte Gill at the Banff Centre. An excerpt of the story appeared in the December, 2013 issue of Eighteen Bridges.

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