Messages in a Bottle: Listening to an Old Answering Machine
A few years ago when my parents moved from their five-bedroom suburban home at the edge of Silicon Valley to their retirement condo nearby, my siblings and I went through three decades’ worth of junk to throw away. To my surprise I found, among many other things long forgotten, an answering machine in a box that held memorabelias from my college years at UC Berkeley.
I tinkered with it, and after few false starts, it worked. So I listened.
Muffled voices of long ago came echoing through.
“…seafood with me,” said an old friend’s voice. His is among many other voices- some half-erased, some taped over- that I have heard for years.
“Hi! I need to see your biochem midterm. This is [some inaudible name],” announces a young woman’s high-pitched voice, slighty touched with a European accent. I could not for the life of me recall who she was. “Thanks,” she says.
“Come home,” ordered my mother in Vietnamese, right after that unknown young woman. “Your uncle has passed away.” My mother’s voice was deep and sad.
An array of voices then – a groan, giggles, wrong numbers, even a dirty joke – moments from my college years came spilling out from across the gap of time, thanks to the scratched up tape.
What does this answering machine about my past, I wonder, and about my generation?
That my college life, and for that matter the large part of my youth, could be summarized on a cassette tape seems now fitting, living here in technologically sophisticated, constantly changing America. My father used a fountain pen about his experiences as a soldier during the Vietnam War. My mother recalled going to school as child in the late 30s being pulled in the family rickshaw in Thai Binh, Vietnam. She studied by lamplight. My older brother, as a foreign student from Vietnam, kept old letters from from home to remind himself of who he was. I used to send postcards when I traveled as an American journalist until emails took over.
I bought my first apple computer at 20 when it was available at Cal for a steep discount, and because I was disenchanted with biochmestry, started writing, and I haven’t stopped. In my box of college things, there are dozens of floppy disks whose contents contain amateurish writing of a broken hearted young man, but that, as they say, is another story.
The answering machine was a novelty when I went to college in the mid 80’s but has now become a relic, an oral journal of sort, going on history’s shelf next to old postcards and the hand written letters.
“…seafood with me,”
“I need to see your biochem midterm.”
It is disjointed and, at places, incoherent, yet at the same time, deeply personal.
Listening to it, I searched my memories — I tried to probe into that young immigrant’s life. What kind of person was he, really? How did he feel? That is to say, who was I?
Here then is what it is:
“..seafood with me” an invitation from a high school friend who lived in San Francisco. We would sometimes go out to dinner when he had time off from his family business. I remember going to meet him through the October rain. I ended up losing my beautiful lacquered-handle umbrella on the way back to Berkeley. But his is a reassuring voice. After all these years it is still full of promise, of good intention. We have, however, since lost touch.
Still, “…seafood with me,” means one delightful dinner. We ended up in a North Beach Italian restaurant eating crab and clams and planning future trips to Thailand and Europe.
Sometime after that dinner – a week, a few days? – I was home with my parents for my uncle’s funeral. I played the dutiful Vietnamese son playing tribute to a very close family member in time of sorrow.
In my mind’s eye, I see my father sitting on a pew looking awkward, trying his best to conceal his tears, saying goodbye to his last brother. I hear my aunt-in-law and cousins crying somewhere behind me.
Faded memories returned, incidents that might otherwise have been lost forever became once more vivid. Another message sounded: a friend down the street. She might be pregnant, she whispered into the tape. Her boyfriend did not know. She didn’t want him to know. “Call me,” she said, her voice urgent.
As it turned out, she was not pregnant; a false alarm. But didn’t I spend the whole night talking with her? Didn’t I panic, as if I were the male responsible? Then I sang some stupid song to make her laugh.
I listened, too, to the voice of my first love, giggly and excited about the weekend drive to Napa. And I felt intensely nostalgic, and a tenderness toward our lost youth.
They all came back: ordinary moments captured from my college life that are now full of mystery. And, slowly, in these voices, I began to recognize myself, a young man whose optimisc outlooks and sense of humor, I’m happy to report, have more or less, despite the pitfalls and travails, survived into middle age in tact.
Some years ago I visited my own alma mater just when the libraries were in middle of throwing out reference card catalogues along with their cabinets, and some kids were throwing the cards up in the air to see them flutter down like autumn leaves. It was a poetic marker of sort for me, a moment when information stored in physical space found passage into the electronic ether, rendering things like library reference cards and answering machines obsolete.
But i keep the cassette tape in my writing desk’s drawer anyway, and I’ll listen to it from time to time.
“Hi, Andy’s not available right now, but you know he’ll get back you. So leave him a message after the beep…”
After all these years…
Andrew Lam is an editor with New America Media and author of “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora,” and “East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres.” His latest book is “Birds of Paradise Lost,” a short story collection, was published in 2013 and won a Pen/Josephine Miles Literary Award in 2014.