In the early 2000s, it would be the flashing of the bottom-most light on our intercom — my personal line, indicating a call — that would set my heart to racing. Only a handful of people ever knew that number for the thirteen years it existed, and for the life of me, I can’t remember why my parents even gave me my own landline to begin with when the advent of cell phones had already begun. But it would be that light, blinking, and I’d know there was a conversation ahead with someone who meant something to me.
I can no longer remember what it was like to talk for hours upon hours on the telephone, like I used to almost daily for years. Nobody does that anymore. What did we talk about, when we still used to talk?
Ten years later, advancements in technology changed the art of communication completely and my landline went mostly unused, partly because smartphones and the Internet made messaging more efficient than long chats on the phone, and partly because I had parted ways forever with the person who last used that number.
I use R2-D2 ringtones on my iPhone for receiving messages because I am a proud nerd, and also because so few other people do that I almost always know it’s my phone ringing.
The first is a frantic string of beeps and bloops — Artoo sounding adorably panicked — that I’ve set specifically for members of my immediate family. ‘R2-D2: Curt,’ it’s called. It’s the perfect choice for them, because they typically only text me when it’s important, and theirs are the messages I can never miss, never ignore, and never not reply to unless I want to get into more trouble than I’m already in, so the sense of urgency I’m immediately launched into upon hearing that particular tone is ideal. It puts me right in the “Oh shit, what have I done now?” mindset — I am instantly ready for action, or snap into the creative writing zone I need to be in so that I can come up with a logical, reasonable explanation for whatever it is I’ve done wrong. (Usually it has something to do with my curfew, which I believe has finally been abolished.) I remember when my brother still had a BlackBerry, and the indicator light in the corner would flash in multiple colors every time it was Mom messaging or calling, like mini disco lights. “It’s so I know it’s you and I can start freaking out,” was the logic behind it, just like mine, though I get the feeling he received far more angry text messages typed out in capslock than I ever did. (And probably still does.)
The second is a fairly standard series of R2-D2 chirps; cute, brief, and cheerful. ‘R2-D2: Happy.’ It’s the tone I use for everyone else, and it is what it is: functional, pleasant, and nondescript. It could be anyone, it could be anything.
And there is a third one that I only used once, and have not since. It is called ‘R2-D2: Tri-tone,’ but the name doesn’t do it justice. It is three happy notes, bright, excited, and thrilled; precisely the way I would feel every time I would hear it. The only time I ever used it was for a boy, and the sound of it would send a jolt up my spine. I imagine I must have had the dumbest smile plastered onto my face every time it would beep from my purse or pocket, but I just loved hearing that tone and knowing that there was something waiting for me from him, even if it was only a hello or a how are you? It made me light-headed, like a schoolgirl with a crush. (I certainly wasn’t a schoolgirl, but I did have a crush.) “O, who is that? It’s him, no?” Raymond or Milan used to say in the office on closing days, when I’d zone out of work and zoom onto my screen with a self-satisfied little smirk on my lips, fingers tapping out a snappy reply. I would just smile back at them after hitting send.
The last time that tone beeped was when I got The Message from him — the digital equivalent of The Talk, the one every girl dreads, the formal apology and the ending of the affair. And after that, I set his tone to the same one I used for everyone else, and he became just like everyone else again, too. Anyone, anything. No one, nothing. I didn’t realize how much that small action would hurt until I actually had to do it, but it hurt, like having hopes dashed, like defeat, like potential gone kinetic, then come to an abrupt and unexpected stop.
And the silence afterwards was deafening.
I briefly toyed with the idea of using that tone again for the next one who seemed like he was serious (for some reason, it’s when you transition from online messaging applications to actual text messaging — even though iMessage is essentially the same thing — that things start to feel a little more serious), but I had since learned caution, and in the end, that lesson paid off. It was one less hurt to handle when that, too, came to a sudden, unforeseen end.
It has lain dormant among my selection of sounds for almost two years now. Part of me thinks I may never use it again. But the smaller part that still knows what it is like to hope is just quietly waiting for someone who will deserve those three utterly delighted notes, that much joy.
(Illustration: Ralph McQuarrie)
3 thoughts on “Signals”
Thank you for your words. I have been a fan/reader/lurker since your Tumblr days and I need to tell you how your words have stayed with me and how I’ve held on to them for all sorts of reasons.
I don’t write, but keeping a journal and reading a lot taught me that words crafted in a way that makes you empathize without condescending, or makes you want to reach out and simply touch that person’s hand, these words can only come from experiencing things, immersing one’s self in all the feelings, loving and hating people, and being in all those places yourself. This is why your words are able to move your readers, Regina. Your words are really pieces of you that you string together so sincerely, generously, and humbly.
You are strong. And beautiful. And talented. Kind. Humble. Alive. And FREE. It is the most important thing. As someone who can read and happens to love to read, I am grateful for you!
I don’t think I’ll ever stop being overwhelmed when I receive comments like this one. Thank you. I can’t express it enough, thank you. I’ve only ever written for myself because it’s been a lifelong compulsion, but to know that my stories still resonate in some way or another with other people is always going to be an honor. I am so grateful for you, too.
I also used to assign ringtones back then, and I remember how it made me feel when that special tone rings, same thing you mentioned, bright, excited, and thrilled. And how sad I felt when I stopped hearing it because that specific phone and model got stolen. LOL. And the boy got stolen too. Oh well…