“Can you hear me?” Felice, my girlfriend of four years, asked.
I shifted my cell phone to my other ear and backed away from the window, thinking maybe the reception would be better in the kitchen. I was a junior at Penn State, majoring in English, and it was the first cell phone I had ever owned.
I asked Felice to say something.
“Can you hear me now?” she said.
She was being cute, mimicking the latest Verizon Wireless commercials, which had turned that common question into a popular slogan for reliable cellular service. I wasn’t playing along.
Though I no longer remember what we were discussing that late October afternoon in State College, I clearly remember the apartment—a six-story eyesore tucked behind a Citgo station. It was fully furnished, though the windows had no curtains and the sofa was nothing more than a dozen two-by-fours overlaid with mismatching patio chair cushions. My bedroom overlooked an all-night mini-mart, and beyond that, the intersection of College Avenue and Atherton Street.
I also remember the phone. A bulky, silver Samsung. It was enormous by today’s standards. Only slightly smaller than an eyeglasses case. Its buttons glowed neon blue when you pressed them. I’d purchased it for one reason: it had a slide up display window that you triggered by pressing a button on the side—an unusual design feature I found stylish, even masculine, at the time. When receiving a call, you answered by pressing the button, and the top half of the phone sprang up, revealing the microphone. Its design let everyone know you were in demand. It made you feel like a business executive or James Bond.
The phone had flaws, however. For one thing, the sliding display didn’t cover the keypad. So you had to remember to activate the number lock, or it would accidentally speed dial your loved ones’ every time it rubbed up against the loose change in your pocket or the textbooks in your bag. But that wasn’t its most prominent idiosyncrasy.
It also picked up the conversations of strangers.
Felice paused long enough to give me the opportunity to respond, to laugh or to mock her for her lame joke. When I didn’t say anything, she said, “I crack myself up.”
“Well, at least you crack someone up,” I said, trying to sound amused.
She hummed, and I imagined her in her apartment across town, her eyes shrinking into little crescents, her lips tightening into a thin band of pink. Even after four years, neither one of us was quite sure what to make of the other. We had been friends long before we dated, but I knew her parents still harbored doubts about me.
As I moved around my apartment, searching for clear reception, I heard the low clamor of two people fighting. At least, I assumed it was two people fighting; I could only hear half of their conversation.
“So you haven’t changed at all then? You’re still the same person you were five years ago? Oh my God, I’m so sick of being the only one who works at this.” The strange voice was no louder than a whisper, but even so, it was clear that somewhere a woman was making an effort to keep her composure.
“Is it better now?” Felice said.
“I can hear someone else’s conversation,” I told her.
“What are they saying?” she asked.
The next morning, at the Forum building, Felice paused while jotting notes about the life cycle of stars. “You know, if some rapist jumped me at night, I’d stab him in the eyes with my keys,” she said. “Then I’d run. And scream for help.”
I didn’t ask why, in the midst of a lecture about supernovas, her thoughts had turned to sexual assault. It was a more innocent moment in time at Penn State, a time before the Jerry Sandusky trial. I knew the answer would have to do with the string of rapes that had taken place on the University Park campus and in the town of State College since the start of the semester.
A recent story printed in the student newspaper, The Daily Collegian, told of a woman who had fought back against her attacker on Calder Way, an alley that ran parallel between the two main streets downtown. It wasn’t really an alley. There were narrow sidewalks and old buildings with iron scaffolding that had been renovated into fancy boutiques—a cheese shop, a chocolatier, a florist where I bought bouquets of carnations for Felice on Valentine’s Day, and a small bakery where I ordered her birthday cakes. The woman was a psychology student. She had been taking a shortcut at night from one basement bar to another, or to her apartment, or to campus, when a man stepped out from the shadows of one of the doorways and grabbed her from behind. According to the newspaper, she’d struggled free and ran until he stopped chasing her. She didn’t know her assailant and couldn’t describe him beyond his approximate height and his race. But she’d been lucky.
That fall, the climate on Penn State’s campus changed. People spoke of a serial rapist, using the pronoun “he.” Crude police sketches of the attacker cropped up in the newspapers—white male, early- to mid-twenties, chin and forehead smaller and wider than any chin or forehead I’d ever seen in real life, eyes two sizes too small. The university installed extra lighting between buildings. At night, blue-light emergency phones shone like little beacons all across campus—freshmen followed them home like a trail of breadcrumbs from the fraternity houses on the west side of campus to the dorms and stadium on the east side. Various women’s rights groups rallied at the main entrance of the HUB student union and passed out “night maps” of the campus, which used gradient shading to show which areas were well lit. Red “Rape Free Zone” signs appeared in dorm room windows. The university sponsored lectures and colloquiums on sexual assault awareness, and when a former conservative columnist for The Daily Collegian wrote a letter to the editor suggesting that the “hype” about rape was nothing more than a feminist scare tactic, I was one of a dozen readers who crucified him with a response letter.
Still, come the weekend, few people seemed to remember the threat. From Thursday nights until Sunday nights, College and Beaver avenues teemed with students making their way to the bars or to fraternity row. I saw them from my apartment window. It was business as usual.
Sitting in our Introduction to Astronomy class, I didn’t ask Felice what she would do if her self-defense plan failed—what she’d do if she couldn’t struggle free like the girl in the paper, if the rapist grabbed her from behind and didn’t let go, if he chased her down before she reached the end of the street. I knew she wouldn’t have had an answer to those questions.
Instead, I said, “Be really careful, okay?”
I realize now that it was a stupid thing to say. Patronizing in its assumption that she wasn’t careful enough already, that carelessness was even the problem. But I said it anyway. To fill the silence.
Later that afternoon, waiting in the Thomas building’s seven-hundred seat auditorium for my Sociology class to start, I overheard two guys in polo shirts and baseball caps talking about what they would do if they stumbled on a rape in progress. They agreed they would tear the rapist’s testicles from his body and feed them to him.
Everyone had a plan.
In John Cheever’s famous short story, “The Enormous Radio,” one of the protagonists, Jim Wescott, purchases a radio for his wife, allowing them to tune into the private conversations of everyone in their apartment building. In spite of my quirky cell phone, which frequently intercepted other people’s calls, Felice and I weren’t much like Jim and Irene Wescott. Cheever’s Jim and Irene share a moderate income, two children, and a marriage of nine years: “they lived on the twelfth floor of an apartment house near Sutton Place, they went to the theater on an average of 10.3 times a year, and they hoped someday to live in Westchester.” By contrast, Felice and I were college students and had no income. There were no children in the picture. We lived separately.
However, we did have one thing in common with Jim and Irene: we went to the theatre at least ten times a year. On those nights, we dressed up and dined in the banquet room at the school for Hotel and Restaurant Management. The future-chefs there prepared dishes like grilled salmon and shallots in sweet Vouvray sauce and duck confit with green beans almondine, at prices even a college student could afford. Then we walked to the Eisenhower Auditorium, a three-tiered Arts complex, where we watched Gregory Hines or Savion Glover, Compañía Nacional de Danza or the St. Petersburg Ballet. We heard the Kirov Orchestra and The Royal Philharmonic, The Mikado, Madame Butterfly, La Bohéme. We sat in the front row for Ragtime and for Othello, close enough to see little bits of spittle whenever the actors turned their heads into the stage lights and enunciated, and we pressed ourselves against the balcony of the Grand Tier to get a better look at Wynton Marsalis when he blew the house down with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.
Irene Wescott had striking attributes, “a wide, fine forehead upon which nothing at all had been written” and “a coat of fitch skins dyed to resemble mink.” On the nights that I remember best, Felice wore a tan suede jacket and a pink cloche hat. She smiled a lot, even when her teeth chattered on our brisk walks home in the cold.
I didn’t take Felice out to celebrate on her birthday that year. It fell on a Thursday and I needed to wake early the following morning for a midterm. Instead, we made plans for the weekend: I’d cook her dinner, and we’d settle in on the sofa with a four-pack of Jack Daniel’s Country Cocktails and watch the Audrey Hepburn movies she’d asked for as a present.
Her friend, Mel, was taking her on a birthday bar hop. They planned to hit the G-man, and Phyrst, and the Rathskeller, and others. “It’s a good old-fashioned girl’s night out,” Felice said, but from where I sat between classes on the steps of Paterno Library, her voice sounded far away. I caught snippets of someone else’s conversation, someone else with plans to hit the bars. The intrusions persisted even when I stepped down into the quad below.
“I don’t know; the usual places probably. Arena, you know. . . .”
“Why would you go to Arena?” I asked.
“We aren’t going to Arena,” Felice said. “Haven’t you been listening?”
Jim and Irene Wescott’s supernatural radio picks up mundane conversations for the most part. However, after a while, the most routine scraps of their neighbors’ lives strike them as inhuman, base, depressing. In the heat of her addiction to eavesdropping, Irene overhears “demonstrations of indigestion, carnal love, abysmal vanity, faith, and despair.” She eventually comes to realize that her own life is every bit as sordid.
I can’t claim to have had such an epiphany; I only overheard the kinds of things people are willing to say to one another over a cell phone—stories about getting drunk at tailgates, cooking questions, baby talk, and the occasional death throes of a young relationship. I didn’t have the luxury of tuning in whenever I wanted—the phantom conversations came and went of their own accord—and most of the time, I wandered my apartment looking for spots where I could avoid eavesdropping. I’d move to and from the window. Sit on the edge of my bed. On the couch. On the kitchen floor. Even in the bathroom, though the echo made it difficult to hear.
I didn’t share Irene Wescott’s fear of being overheard, but I did experiment a few times to see if my phone’s prying was a two-way street.
“Hellooooo,” I would call into the phone. “Is there anyone out there? You—the woman making stuffed cabbage. Yes, you brown the beef first. I can hear you. Can you hear me?”
But I never got a response. No one ever said, “Yes, we can hear you, already. Now shut up.”
When my cell phone rang on the night of Felice’s birthday, it startled me awake. I recognized her ringtone. My digital alarm clock read 12:38. I had to be up in six hours for my midterm.
The springs of my bed were so soft I’d had to jam a sheet of particleboard between the mattress and the frame, and still I sank toward the floor as I leaned across to the nightstand and struggled to grab my phone. Groggy, I wrenched my feet around and pressed them both flat on the ground; then I fumbled with the slide-up display. Felice’s name appeared. I said, “What’s up?” trying hard not to sound irritated.
I heard a half-dozen different noises. A muffled, scratchy sound. Heavy wind or someone breathing directly into the mouthpiece. A loud scraping. The clatter of the phone being jostled or dropped. Garbled human noises that sounded like people yelling. Distorted whooping. And every so often, I caught a word or a phrase. It was like listening to a warped cassette tape or a record played backwards.
“Hello?” I said. “Felice?”
“Please, don’t,” said the voice on the other end. At least that’s what it sounded like to me. I heard crying and the words repeated again, the imploring phrases, “No, don’t. Please, don’t.”
“Felice, are you all right? Where are you?” I said.
But there was only static.
My hands shook, and I tried to keep my voice calm and steady, but it felt like every nerve in my body was struggling to fire at once.
“Felice, if you can hear me, press one of the keys,” I said, using a trick we’d developed—a way for one person to tell if the call had been dropped or not. I hoped to hear a touchtone—some indication that Felice was still there with me on the line—and yet I dreaded what it might mean. I repeated the command a half-dozen times, but got no response. The line was quiet.
When the connection broke, I tried to call her back, but my call went straight to her voicemail. I pulled on a pair of sweatpants and rushed to the door. Then I walked back to the living room and sat down on the couch. I didn’t know for sure that the noises in my receiver were the sounds of Felice being raped. It wasn’t the kind of thing I could call the police for—what would I have said, I believe my girlfriend is being attacked somewhere in the vicinity of downtown State College? There was no way to know where she was—not in a town of eighty-thousand people. I remembered some of the bar names, but there were at least fifty bars in State College, and if she was attacked, it would likely happen somewhere in-between them on one of the side streets, anywhere in the tight grid of downtown or the sprawling nine-mile campus.
I told myself the noises had been a figment of my imagination, my ears misleading me. I tried to rationalize the foggy, half-heard call. She’s with Mel. There are thousands of people out tonight. It’s not even that late yet. It’s probably just another case of interference. My mind generated plenty of explanations that didn’t include rape, but I didn’t believe any of them. I couldn’t go back to bed. I stood up and sat back down. I’ve never been prone to hysterics, but I kept imagining Felice struggling for her phone, and I began to wonder if she had held down her speed dial button in hopes that I would figure out what was going on and find her.
Then I was out the door, running down the stairwell and out into the night. I had no plan. I sprinted past the glass and brick water tunnel building where the university tested torpedoes for the government, and I cut between a Kinko’s and the low concrete laboratory that housed the weather station. A heat-pump whirred to life. Steam rose from the grates in the pavement. I didn’t know what to do. Even running flat out, it would have taken me fifteen minutes to cross town, and then who knew how many hours to comb every side street.
I kept trying to call Felice, but the line went straight to her voicemail every time, her sing-song voice saying, “You’ve reached Felice’s phone; I’m not here right now. Hit me up after the beep. Thanks.” I tried not to panic.
When people talk about near catastrophes, they often say, “It was the not knowing that was the worst part.” They would rather receive confirmation that tragedy had struck the people they loved than wait in limbo. There must be something comforting in letting go of hope and resigning yourself to recovery. But I didn’t feel that way. Not knowing for sure that Felice had been raped was the only thing that kept me from falling apart. Combing the streets made little sense, but in some small and selfish way, running made me feel better, less panic-stricken. It was a rescue attempt, but only for my psyche.
When Felice finally called me back twenty minutes later, I was standing alone in the dark on Calder Way. “Hey, babe, you called?” she said.
Nine years later, and I still don’t know what I heard that night. We figured out that her phone must have jammed against something in her purse and accidentally speed dialed mine—there’s even a term for it: pocket dialing. I was so relieved when I found out that Felice was safe, and I felt so sheepish, that I didn’t bother to consider the fact that I might have intercepted someone else’s call, that I might have heard someone else being raped, until a few days later when Felice said, “So, who did you hear then?”
It’s the kind of question that sticks with you.
According to Penn State’s annual crime reports, there were over two hundred known forcible sex offenses on and off the university’s main campus during the two years that I owned my first cell phone. Still, the older I get, and the farther I am from the immediacy of it all, the more skeptical I am about my former self. Now I wonder if the rash of rapes and assaults at the time didn’t color my perception, if I didn’t project that onto whatever I heard with my ear pressed to my phone. Or maybe the frequent rapes lend credence to what I heard. It depends on what you want to believe.
I don’t want to believe that I heard a rape. I’d like to think it was only the ambient sounds of college kids having a good time at whatever bar Felice and Mel were at, the sounds of chapstick tubes and apartment keys brushing against her phone. I want to believe that I fabricated the better part of that story, and that everyone went home safe that night. And yet, if I did hear an attack, if I heard the worst moment of a woman’s life, her pleas and her struggle, then I don’t want to pretend that nothing happened. I don’t want to stuff fingers in both ears and hum.
Hindsight is not always 20/20, no matter what other people might think or say. I am still convinced that I heard a rape, as unlikely as I know it to be. I don’t have a choice. I know how afraid and helpless I felt when I thought I heard Felice calling for help, and I suspect that on that night, somewhere in State College, someone else answered a phone and heard the same things I did. Even though the memory has faded some, I can’t get that voice out of my mind. I wake up to it some mornings. “No, don’t. Please, don’t.” It’s too clear to be anything else. What I want doesn’t matter.
In November, a year and half before my graduation and the expiration of my two-year cellular service plan, I purchased a new cell phone with money I had been saving toward a vacation with Felice to Plymouth, Massachusetts. We’d broken up that summer, and instead of going to Plymouth, I stayed in State College. During that time, the reports of stranger rapes at Penn State stopped. (Presumably, the person or persons responsible had graduated in the spring.) Today, Felice and I no longer keep in touch, but the enormous Samsung sits hidden away in the drawer of my old desk at my parents’ house, and I don’t overhear other people’s conversations anymore.
Jason Kapcala lives in northern West Virginia along the Monongahela River where he finds inspiration in the frozen industry of Appalachia. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in journals like Blueline, The Summerset Review, Santa Clara Review, Cleaver Magazine, Saw Palm, The Good Men Project, and elsewhere. He is currently shopping a novel Hungry Town, and is working on his next project, a novel tentatively titled Welcome to Accident about a small-time rock band from a ghost town in Pennsylvania. His website is www.jasonkapcala.weebly.com.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: I think the biggest surprise was probably just how much I remembered of this experience. I had been nine/yen years, and (of course) it was the kind of incident that sticks with you, but generally I’m not someone who has a very sharp memory, which is why I don’t write a lot of nonfiction. Still, when I sat down to write about this, it came back to me in an especially vivid way, and so I didn’t find myself “filling in the blanks” very much.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: The best advice I ever got came from a mentor Darrell Spencer who said that when you think you know what your story is about, you should work to make it be about something else. The point being: don’t write with blinders on, don’t write to preconceived endings. He was speaking about fiction then, but there remained an element of this even in working on this essay. Obviously, I knew where the events ended already, but the way I structured the piece (the parts about the Cheever story, for example)—I didn’t have any of that in mind originally. It just sort of came out, and then I worked to develop it as I revised.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: An impossible question! Ethan Canin’s Emperor of the Air, and Kent Haruf’s Plainsong have both been really influential, but beyond that there are just too many writers/books to choose from. Clint McCown. Jennifer Egan. Phillip Meyer. I’m omitting way too many writers here. I keep a big list on my website that I keep updating every time a new book hits me hard.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: I’m not real great about writing in public. I can do it, but mostly I get a lot of work done in the morning and at night, at the desk in my apartment where it is quiet. I keep a lot of mementos on the desk—some pictures, beautiful postcards from a writing friend, little trinkets I’ve accumulated over the years, and a toy Jacob’s ladder, which was given to me by one of my first teachers Joan Connor after I published my first short story (titled “Jacob’s Ladder”).