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PRIVATE LIVES

Laying It on the Line : Contending With Unwanted Telephone Calls Leaves Her With a Big Hang-Up

May 13, 1990|MARGO KAUFMAN

SOME DAYS IT JUST doesn't pay to answer the phone. I don't know whether the Telephone Planet goes retrograde or I unwittingly send out "call me" signals to every crank in the universe. But suddenly, out of nowhere, I'll get this rash of irritating calls.

If it's not a heavy breather, it's a relative announcing a last-minute change in plans (which usually means I'm supposed to drop everything and drive across town in rush-hour traffic). Or worse, it's one of those effusive computer-generated voices saying, "Hi, there. Your home has been selected to win a fabulous vacation in Las Vegas. If you'll just stay on the line . . ." (Why would anyone in her right mind stay on the line?)

Still, the most troublesome callers are the humans who catch me completely off guard (which is why I've changed their names). "You don't know me," chirped a voice on the phone a while back. "But you know my ex-husband, Neal."

So you're June, the woman who broke down his door at 4 in the morning, the woman who had an affair with his cousin, I thought nervously. But all I said was, "Neal and I used to be next-door neighbors."

"Yes, I know," she said. "Neal told me all about you." What was there to tell?

Beatrice, my sweet matchmaking ex-landlady, had rented an apartment to Neal because it saddened her to see me living alone. "I've found you a nice Jewish doctor," she gleefully reported as soon as she had his signature on the lease. "He drives a BMW, and he just left his wife."

"I already have a boyfriend," I replied. Granted, at the time, Duke and I were in the throes of the Commitment Wars. But men--even doctors--who have just left their wives are aboutas safe a bet as a $25 Piaget watch for sale in the supermarket parking lot.

"It can't hurt to get to know him," Beatrice argued. And she was right. You'd be surprised how quickly a boyfriend's ambivalence can turn to ardor when you begin receiving symphony invitations from the eligible young doctor next door.

"Neal told me you got married," the phone voice said. "Congratulations!"

"Thank you," I said. "Is Neal back?" The last I'd heard, he was abroad doing research on exotic diseases and women.

"That's why I'm calling," she explained--finally! "He's in town for a few days, and I'm giving a brunch." Before I could spit out the words "Sorry, I'm busy," she continued: "Bring your husband. Bring champagne. Neal and I are getting back together."

If only I'd screened my calls that day. My machine could have spared me such pain.

"I'm so glad you made it," June exclaimed as she embraced me at the door of a spacious house in one of those gated residential communities with poetic street names. I shuffled uneasily. Neal had once said that she had forced him to buy this house. My husband and I followed her into the guest-filled living room. The last time I saw so many doctors in one place, I was having surgery at Santa Monica Hospital.

"We're the only ones not wearing beepers," Duke pointed out. He picked up a Sony remote control and hooked it on his belt.

June, an internist, introduced us to an ophthalmologist wearing thick glasses who was celebrating his 1,000th radial keratotomy. There was an MD with an alarming collection of herky-jerky mannerisms who, after not quite finding a niche in two technical specialties, had decided on his real vocation--pediatrics. He scared me. But maybe he wouldn't scare a child.

In the corner, a group of Neal's colleagues were discussing the latest breakthroughs in tax-shelter research while they eagerly waited for the reconciliation announcement.

"I want us to be friends," June said to me, adding that after she and Neal ended post-divorce relationships, they realized they couldn't live without each other.

"Your garden is beautiful," I stammered, hoping to head off further confidences.

"That's why Neal wanted the house," she said. "You probably didn't know that he had to talk me into buying it."

I probably didn't know a lot of things. I excused myself to go outside and admire the deck. I found Neal by the flower beds, anxiously weeding the pansies.

"Congratulations," I said, giving him a hug. "I hear you and June are getting back together."

He stared at me like a liquor-store owner staring at the muzzle of a pistol. "No!" he said. "Who told you that?"

"June," I said.

"I'm going back to Europe tomorrow morning," he said with growing resolution. "I'll call you from Zurich."

Just what I need, I thought. Another phone call.

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