The potstickers and fried duck had been devoured, the umbrella drinks guzzled, the fortunes cracked and read aloud. The man with the sandy hair started to tell a story.
I missed the first part, having slipped past dense-packed tables and chattering servers to make my way to a bathroom so filthy it qualified as “disturbing.” He was already full steam by the time I slipped back to the big, round table.
“She dialed the same number, got the message, made the sound and hung up. She kept doing this,” he said to the other seven of us.
The group questioned him, picking up details along the way. He had seen the woman on two separate occasions, both during peak commute hours although she wasn’t dressed like she was going to a job.
She would do the same routine incessantly. Dial a number, get a message, make a frustrated half-squeak, half-grumble sound, hang up, then immediately dial the same number again. Every time he had seen her, every moment of both times.
He and his friends – few of us at the table had met before that night, the birthday girl our only connection – had considered this at length. It was that perfect level of odd. Not normal enough to pass unnoticed and not insane enough to be written off, this earworm of bus behavior was just right to get stuck in his mind.
His friends had come up with two options.
“The first is that she’s calling someone who died.”
She couldn’t admit her mother was gone. Or her sister. Or her friend or lover or little lost daughter. So she called. A soothing comfort, maybe? An unthinking tic? A sad flagellation, reminding herself of the pain over and over during her commute?
“So she was calling to listen to her voice,” someone at the table said, the words hanging sadly in the air.
“No,” the man with the sandy hair corrected. “She was getting the automated message.”
We in the group looked around at each other skeptically. No one would call over and over for the joy/pain of hearing a robot voice say “You have reached 7-7-3 …”
We moved on.
“The second is that she has OCD.”
The chords get tangled if she doesn’t call. Something bad will happen if she doesn’t check with Suzie. The man with the sandy hair was talking real OCD, not Hollywood cute counting or claims of “I’m so OCD” if a person makes a point to separate whites and colors in the laundry.
In this option, the woman on the bus is in dread. She’s overwhelmed by the absolute emotional conviction that her habit, her routine is what’s keeping terrible things from happening and mocked by the absolute knowledge that the world doesn’t work like that. Driven by anxiety and ridiculed by knowledge, she dials, over and over, a number she knows won’t answer.
We moved on from this option quickly.
The man with the sandy hair then turned the question to us. What else could it be?
We considered, some calling out suggestions to the table, others vetting their theories in whispers to the people immediately to the left or right. If the earworm lady was stuck in the sandy man’s head, he was in ours now too.
I suggested she had been the victim of a scam, her pittance lost to the Irish lottery representative or Nigerian prince she could no longer get on the phone.
The bearded man to my left interrogated the storyteller about the exact spots he saw her. He happened to know there was a clinic nearby that provided services for schizophrenics.
The symptoms sort of fit, he said.
Among dense-packed tables where servers whisked steaming plates to families chatting happily in Mandarin, a table of mostly strangers considered a woman we had never met.