Ruth Ann Dailey: The phone rings, and Peter's destiny's on the line

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The dog days of Au­gust ha­ven’t been ter­ri­bly hot, but I still sense a gen­eral de­sire to es­cape and loll about. Or am I pro­ject­ing?

Either way, some­thing light is in or­der. So let me share with you the “Tale of the Wrong Num­ber.” Per­haps you can res­cue a star-crossed cou­ple.

Or you can laugh at my in­ep­ti­tude and feel bet­ter about your­self. Either way, the reader wins!

Early one morn­ing a cou­ple of weeks ago, the land­line rang. If it’s the land­line, it’s ei­ther my mom, a sales pitch or a po­lit­i­cal robo-call.

If the voice is fe­male and the ac­cent Texan, it’s my mom. If the ac­cent is ge­neric Amer­i­can but the tone al­most or­a­tor­i­cal, I’m go­ing to be hang­ing up on a po­lit­i­cal fund­rais­ing ap­peal.

If it’s un­in­tel­li­gi­ble, it’s a sales pitch from some aw­ful over­seas call cen­ter.

This time, the ac­cent said “call cen­ter,” but the speaker im­me­di­ately iden­ti­fied him­self as “Peter” and rushed head­long into some per­sonal, friendly chit-chat.

When he asked a ques­tion and paused for an an­swer, I said, “I’m sorry — who did you say you are?”

“Peter! From the con­fer­ence…?”

OK, I par­tic­i­pate in a non­profit group we all re­fer to as “The Con­fer­ence,” and I fig­ured it was my gen­eral grog­gi­ness at fault here, not enough caf­feine ab­sorbed yet, so I strung to­gether some non­com­mit­tal but cheer­ful words and tried to fake it till I fig­ured this out.

“It was so great to meet you,” he said.

“You, too,” I said, cast­ing my mind back through the last few months’ meet­ings to try to re­trieve a man named Peter. How had he got­ten my num­ber? Maybe the sign-in sheet?

“So what’s new with you?” he asked.

Since I thought we were talk­ing about The Con­fer­ence and thus com­mu­nity re­de­vel­op­ment, I gave him a light, brief up­date on what’s go­ing on in my neigh­bor­hood — a big prop­erty suc­cess­fully sold (al­most) and grant ap­pli­ca­tions just fin­ished.

All the while I’m still think­ing, Who the heck is this?

So I fished for in­for­ma­tion by po­litely ask­ing, “And what’s new with you?”

“Well, I’ve moved to Brook­lyn!”

“Really!” By this point the wrack­ing of my brain was so loud it drowned out what­ever ex­pla­na­tion he gave for the move.

Then he must have thrown out some kind of in­vi­ta­tion — I’m not sure be­cause, again, the chaos in my syn­apses was over­whelm­ing — but what­ever kind of open-ended feeler it was, I failed to no­tice and re­spond.

Peter’s voice took on a muted tone — a lit­tle hurt and per­plexed but still gamely try­ing. “Well, it was re­ally great to meet you at the con­fer­ence, Katie —”

Katie! What?

“ — and (some­thing some­thing) —” He said good­bye and hung up while I was still reg­is­ter­ing that he thought I was some­one else.

He hadn’t met me at The Con­fer­ence, he’d met Katie at a con­fer­ence, and he’s try­ing to re­con­nect, and I’m such an id­iot that I’ve ended a bud­ding ro­mance!

Now the caf­feine was kick­ing in. I’d call him back and ex­plain — some­how with­out blam­ing his non-na­tive ac­cent — why it had taken me so long to re­al­ize he’d reached a wrong num­ber.

I di­aled *69 tri­um­phantly, but alas! His phone blocks re­verse call­ing.

How could I pos­si­bly fix this? How could I not have un­der­stood? Well, be­sides the ac­cent, there was the gen­eral em­bar­rass­ment — well-known to me — of for­get­ting peo­ple’s names al­most as soon as I’ve met them.

Maybe he’d try again in a cou­ple of weeks — he sounded like the plucky sort — and would dial the cor­rect num­ber and Katie would be thrilled to hear from him.

They’d meet for din­ner, and he’d say he had been wor­ried that she wasn’t in­ter­ested be­cause she was so stand-off­ish dur­ing their first call, and she’d say, “What first call?”

Then they’d get the whole wrong-num­ber thing and laugh about a be­wil­dered mid­dle-aged lady some­where still try­ing to fig­ure out who Peter is.

Maybe he di­aled just one wrong digit. I could try all the pos­si­bil­i­ties. 212-322-…, 312-322-… What is that — 90 pos­si­ble num­bers? A mil­lion?

I can no lon­ger do such math.

In fact, maybe Katie gave him a wrong num­ber on pur­pose, and I’ve ac­ci­den­tally done her a fa­vor.

If you know a Katie in Pitts­burgh who re­cently at­tended a con­fer­ence, you might ask her or just laugh at my pre­dic­a­ment. Any­thing to while away a few of sum­mer’s wan­ing min­utes.

Ruth Ann Dai­ley: ruth­an­n­dai­ley@hot­

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