Books on Tape
By Cortney Phillips
The first time was an accident. He said it made him last longer and I didn't mind having something to listen to. Before long, a new cassette signaled foreplay; the removal of the cellophane wrapper happened alongside the removal of clothes. That last time it was Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, acquired at a garage sale for fifteen cents. He'd held it up and shrugged, as if to say it's worth a shot.
Joe had just started a new job as a traveling textbook salesman, the first job he'd had in years that didn't pay by the hour. He shuttled his books from university to university for two weeks before he started to complain about the long drives. The CD player in the Toyota hadn't worked since our freshmen year of college—a prank played by his roommate with a slice of waxy Kraft cheese—leaving his only company to a static-spliced radio. I was mostly joking when I suggested books on tape.
"I don't read," he said.
"Exactly," I said.
Our cohabitating was in the early stages where the bed in my apartment went un-slept in for weeks, but I still clung to my separate lease. He followed me after college when I took that magazine job and four years later I was still carrying clean underwear in my purse and keeping nothing more in his apartment than a toothbrush and a stick of travel deodorant. That night, I sifted through my book collection and found an old set of To Kill a Mockingbird on cassette, the case cracked down the middle.
"Never read it," he said when I presented it to him over spongy fettuccini I let boil too long. I thought of my paperback copy—dog eared and creased with notes—and wanted to ask how that was possible.
"Who even owns books on tape anymore?" he asked.
I caught him slipping it into his briefcase alongside a hardback copy of The Philosophy of Science the next morning and didn't say anything. "Just in case I get bored," he said.
Back then, I was still working the dinner shift at Carol's Crab Shack while trying to find something degree-worthy after the magazine job fell apart. I'd come over after work butter-stained and smelling of shellfish to find Joe, melted into the couch and snoring to a sitcom laugh track. Summer was the busiest time in both of our fields and most of our quality time lately had taken place during REM cycle. But that night there was some problem with the freezer's electrical connection and I got off early on the technicality that breaking the seal on the door would cause the piles of "fresh-from-the-sea" crab legs to defrost and spoil. Rather than call and share my good fortune, I decided to surprise Joe and stashed two pieces of lemon pie in a Styrofoam to-go container before hanging up my apron and heading home.
I made my way through most of the apartment before I found him, stretched out on the bed, freshly showered with a towel still wrapped around his waist and the ceiling fan on high. It was his favorite way to follow up a shower and I hated it; he never dried himself off enough before lying down on the bed and left a wet hair print on the pillows. Plugged in on the bedside table was an old, oversized stereo, vibrating with the low chug of a cassette.
"Is that—" I asked, pointing, but Joe held up and hand and shhhed.
"Side A was almost done when I was pulling into the driveway," he whispered. "I was just going to wait until tomorrow to finish it, but then I was in the shower and couldn't stop thinking about what had happened…"
Joe trailed off as the reader on the tape finished and it chimed for Side B.
Placing the lemon pie beside the stereo, I punched the eject button and rotated the tape. Pressing play, I smiled down at him. "Well let's finish it," I said and scooted next to him on the bed. The pillow was damp against my cheek. I could feel the wetness of Joe's arm through my shirt. As the recording filled the room over the buzz of the fan, I moved closer to him.
The whole time it happened I could tell that he was still listening, even noticed that he changed rhythm with the context of the story. Afterward, we laughed about it—"I've never been so turned on by tenth grade curriculum"—and ate pie with our fingers. I remember thinking that it was the kind of thing I wanted to tell someone, passing along the moment of spontaneity to a girlfriend in a low tone, portraying us as sexually charged and mysterious. But I didn't. It had seemed like a fluke thing, like the time in the dressing room at the department store, something to remember but not make a habit of. Jokes popped up in the days following ("You can Scout me out anytime") and even then, it still seemed normal.
It was the first time After the Tape that I really knew things had changed. We finished and lay apart from each other with only our toes touching and Joe kept alternating between drumming a hand on his stomach and pulling stray hairs from the pillowcases.
He exhaled long and slow. "Well, I don't know about you," he started.
"It's okay," I said. "I had a long day too."
His hair was thinning and I saw it for the first time. I knew even then that weeks later I would reveal this fact to him as a trump card in an argument, saving it for a time when I would really need it.
Joe shook his head, "No, it wasn't that. It was just…"
"Quiet," I finished for him.
I tried leaving the television on, volume raised, to see if that would help, but caught him switching positions that allowed a better view of the screen. When he came home with a motivational sales tape from work I just went along with it, even the way he tried to make it seem spontaneous again. I wasn't sure what it said about me, but I was surprised by how much more enjoyable it was when I could simultaneously learn how to approach a customer. Multi-tasking, I told myself. From then on, it just seemed to spiral.
We started stopping at yard sales and making day trips to book fairs. Some classics, some children's books, some step-by-step how-to guides. To make it seem more romantic, we agreed to only use cassettes—CDs and podcasts were a technological advancement we weren't willing to stoop to. It became about the hunt, our near extinct aphrodisiac.
"Check it out, ten tape set," he said one time during a search through a consignment shop and held up Moby Dick.
I laughed and took the box from him. "Just don't ask me to call you Ishmael."
"What?" he said and I just shook my head and told him it wasn't worth the six bucks, putting the box back on the shelf next to a collection of VHS aerobics videos.
We never talked about the transition. At some point, it just became normal for me to see an unopened cassette tape alongside a box of condoms in the bedside drawer.
He still doesn't know it, but Joe was the first guy I'd ever been with for more than one night. There were only two, total, before him and I only knew one of their last names. In our beginnings, we were so busy being infatuated that we made the conscious decision not to do the obligatory listing of past lovers, telling ourselves that only the future counted.
It was the second night of college that I ended up in his dorm room after being dressed in clothes more fashionable than my own and dragged to a fraternity party by two hall mates who decided to make me their "project."
I've made jokes since that Joe fell for me on a night when I was playing a part but he claimed the look had nothing to do with it.
"What's your major?" he'd asked and handed me a Solo cup filled with red liquid.
"English," I told him, trying not to make a face when I sipped.
"Well hey." He was better looking than me and I knew it. The kind of guy who had never looked at me in high school. "I speak English, so it looks like we're a perfect match."
I returned the clothes to my hall mates the next morning and they squealed and grabbed my hands, issuing praise and demanding details. We were linked before I knew it and I was suddenly a girlfriend, Joe's girlfriend, and we were completely wrapped up in each other.
"You're so lucky," they told me, all the girls who were suddenly jealous of me. "We'd kill for a guy to look at us like that."
I asked him once what it was about me and he said he liked that I was so smart. He didn't elaborate, but it felt like in some way we validated each other; I was the witty banter to his winning smile.
College ended and we never even talked about it, he just moved with me and everything was the same.
The tapes went on for six months before Joe asked me to move in with him and I said yes because I knew what saying no would mean. He grabbed me like it was the answer he'd waited his whole life to hear and handed me a copy of 501 Best Love Poems.
"I thought we could make a game of how many we could make it through," he said with a wink.
It was on the eighth poem that the ribbon caught and twisted and we froze, our movements jammed with the tape.
"Wait, no, ouch—"
We tried to move together, my hips tilted, his arms stretched, but the stereo was out of reach and we fumbled, breaking apart. Joe held the mangled tape up for evidence, the ribbon drooped and looping.
"It's okay." He stuck his pinky finger into one of the small wheels and twisted, winding the ribbon back inside. "I can fix it."
I pulled the sheet over me and watched him, slowly, methodically, repairing the tape. The ribbon twisted into itself and tangled, causing him to start over. He smiled, apologized, said to just give him a second. Everything was quiet and I wished for the sound of the ceiling fan, or the television, or a car horn outside.
"There," he said. "All better." His body looked different now that it wasn't on mine—holding up the tape like a victory—and I had the sudden urge to snatch it from his hands and jerk the ribbon out with my teeth.
That weekend, we collected boxes from the liquor store and set about packing up my apartment. I loaded my bookshelves into boxes alphabetically, writing labels like "Atwood-Eliot," while Joe dissembled my collection of do-it-yourself furniture.
"This is perfect," he said, holding up a small wooden bookcase with shelves that tilted upward in a forty-five degree angle. "I've been wanting something like this."
"Really?" I asked, unaware that he owned any books, much less enough to fill a bookshelf.
"Yeah, for the tapes. This may even hold all of them."
Our stash had grown to fill two shoeboxes under the bed. Sometimes we double dipped, returning to the same story over again in hopes of recreating something that had been really great. To Kill a Mockingbird had come back more than once and I could now recite the first twenty or so opening lines. I hated that we had favorites.
They weren't even stories anymore. I saw bent knees and sweaty shoulders in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, heard sheet scuffles and sticky skin in Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. I could see the top of Joe's scalp from where I was standing, peeking through a grid of hair. We were too young for hair loss.
"Come on," he said, hoisting the bookshelf under one arm. "Let's take over the first load and see how they look all laid out."
I followed him out and left my box of A-E books half full on my bedroom floor.
We ate dinner at Carol's for Unlimited Legs Night that evening to celebrate the beginnings of moving in together and cracked open shells while a bluegrass band played on the small stage platform nearly adjacent to our table. Joe was animated, filling my glass with beer from the pitcher he'd ordered and making jokes with Marta, our waitress and one of my least favorite co-workers. My bookcase was now set up in Joe's bedroom—our bedroom—and our collection nearly filled both of the short shelves.
I was halfway through my second plate of legs when Joe said he had a surprise for me and pulled Frankenstein out of his jacket pocket.
"Didn't you tell me it was one of your favorites?" he asked, holding the set of tapes up proudly.
"What you got there, Joe?" Marta said loudly as she came up behind us to clear shells.
Joe looked at me, then back at the tape, and shrugged. "A book on tape," he shouted back at Marta over the banjo twang. She laughed, called him a charmer, and moved onto her next table. I grabbed his wrist and pushed his hand under the table. My cheeks were hot.
"What are you thinking?" I was hissing. I never hissed.
Joe rubbed his wrist. "What? It's only a tape," he said.
"Just put it away." I tried to breathe slowly, laugh it off. It was the novelty of a cassette that made her laugh; it wasn't like she was onto us. The tape went back into his pocket and we went back to our plates and the music.
The old familiar shellfish smell followed us home and I pushed buttons on the radio to avoid commercials and talking about it. Inside, the apartment was quiet and nothing belonged to me.
He seemed surprised and excited when I took it from his pocket, expecting a fight, but instead I removed the wrapping and slid it into the tape deck. Even as I did it, I knew—knew I would never move in, knew we'd never finish this tape. I looked at him, waiting on the bed. He'd been right; it was one of my favorites. And that last time it was me that did it; I pressed play.