by Nijiiro Sumi (虹色 墨)
There are millions of signals passing through you right now.
They’re invisible. They have no mass and no weight, and yet they’re real, they have significance. They do not cause you any harm–probably. We’ve been using them as a form of communication for over a hundred years. I can decipher them with a very simple piece of equipment.
–you give loooove a bad naaaame–
–today’s guest is Reza Aslan, author of–
–what, who cares if, we all know that–
–and I will wait, I will wait for you–
I’m talking, of course, about radio. But the world of AM/FM radio, which most–or all, since you’re listening to me on the radio right now, unless of course you’re listening to the podcast version–which most of you are familiar with, is only a very, very tiny part of the radio spectrum. A grain of sand on an infinite beach, if you will. For the rest, you will need a shortwave radio, or a scanner, or something of the like.
–at the 1400 block of 29th Ave, can I get a plate–
–need assist at 829 Hearst–
–Bravo. Niner. Zero. Zero. Bravo. Foxtrot. Golf–
And all of these signals are passing through us, all the time, every day. Some of them are passing through you right now. They’re flying through your living room, passing through your chair, your floor, or pet, if you have one.
Which was why it seemed perfectly reasonable to Alex Ross that he monitor them. After all, they’re in his space, his life, his home, his body. He feels a sort of ownership of them, or at least a feeling that they don’t belong to anyone else. They’re, well, they’re free. So he listens to them. He started out with an AM transistor radio that his father gave him for his sixth birthday, then moved on to a scanner that he purchased with carefully saved allowance money. Now he has all kinds of doodads and gadgets: flea market walkie-talkies, shortwave radios, police scanners–anything that can pick up a frequency beyond the AM/FM spectrum, he’s got it. Although he has a regular radio, too.
But that’s not the story we’re bringing you today. Or at least, it’s not the whole story. This is a love story, actually, made possible through radio. And radio monitoring.
From KQED San Francisco and Public Radio International, I’m Irene Steele. Most weeks on our radio program, we choose a theme and bring you a variety of stories on that theme; this week, however, we’re devoting our entire program to just one story: the unusual love story of Alex Ross, brought to him through the very waves that are bringing you this show now. This is Our Ordinary Stories, and our program today, Love is in the Air. Act One, Love Connection. Act Two, Over and Out. Note that this story does contain explicit sexual content, so if you’re listening with children, well, you might want to reconsider that.
ACT ONE. LOVE CONNECTION.
Alex Ross doesn’t really strike you as the kind of person who’d go in for espionage or radio monitoring or phreaking-with-a-ph or anything like that. He’s a skinny white guy with a receding hairline, of average height, with brown hair and brown eyes. He’s near-sighted and usually wears glasses. He works as a dentist at the Kaiser Permanente in Walnut Creek, California. He’s a good dentist, the patients like him, his coworkers like him. He doesn’t give people guilt about not flossing enough, which is a big one.
But when he goes home, that’s when the fun starts. The first thing he does when he gets home, usually, is turn on the radio. Not for music; the shortwave radio.
ALEX: I keep one by my bed. Well, I keep one in every room in the apartment, actually, some kind of radio, and when I get home I’ll turn on the one in the kitchen and keep it on while I cook dinner, eat, do the dishes, whatever, and if I go into the living room then I’ll turn on the one in there. The only room where I don’t have one is the bathroom. I used to, but then I felt like, well, I should draw some kind of boundary, right? [laughs]
And that’s how Alex spends his evenings, usually. Instead of watching TV or reading a book or a magazine, he sits next to a scanner or a shortwave radio. He has a book of frequencies to choose from, if he feels like listening to something specific–emergency response, maybe, or pirate radio–and other times he’ll just sit and turn the dial back and forth, trying to pick up something new. Channel surfing.
The day our story begins, one day in the year 2000, he decided to try something new. Or something old, rather: that scanner that he’d purchased with his allowance money all those years ago.
ALEX: And back then, you could actually use those scanners to listen to cordless phone conversations. Like, it was actually in the instruction manual and everything. And I did that, of course, when I was a kid, listened to the neighbors gossiping about their marriages or whatever. But it wasn’t very exciting to me as a kid, and it’s still not terribly exciting to me as an adult. It’s not like the movies, you know, people mostly have really boring conversations, and that’s not the point of, of monitoring for me. So I hadn’t listened to anyone’s phone conversation in, oh, years. Years and years. But that day, for whatever reason, I guess maybe I was feeling nostalgic or something, and I was like, yeah, let’s do this, let’s see if it still works. And to my surprise, I picked something up right away.
IRENE: And you knew it was a neighbor?
ALEX: It had to be, because the scanner would only pick up cordless phone signals from within, like, 300 feet or something like that. So it had to be someone in the same apartment building.
IRENE: And what was he saying?
ALEX: He was having phone sex.
IRENE: [laughs] No way!
I did warn you, by the way, that this would have explicit sexual content.
ALEX: Yes, way! And I knew I should change the channel, but I–well, it was just so shocking, and it was hot, okay. He had this really deep, sexy voice, and he was saying things like “Yeah, baby, fuck me harder, like that, unh, god you feel so good.” Okay, it sounds totally stupid when I do it, but it was hot at the time, it was practically right in my ear. It was like having the guy in my own apartment.
IRENE: So you…?
ALEX: So I ended up listening to the whole thing, although there wasn’t a lot of it left. He was pretty close to, to coming. I tried to imagine where he was, in bed maybe, sweating all over the sheets? Was he doing it in the dark, or did he have the lights on? What did he look like? And then he came, and that was, that was super hot, and then there was a little bit of sleepy goodnights, you know, goodbye, I miss you, that sort of thing that people do with their lovers on the phone, and I was so turned on I had to run to the bathroom and jack off.
IRENE: [laughing too hard to comment]
Alex wrote down the frequency in his little book, but as soon as he did, he was a little stumped. And to understand why, there’s something you have to know about people who do radio monitoring as a hobby: they’re not after power. They’re not even after knowledge, necessarily. That’s the main source of confusion for anyone who’s not into radio monitoring; that was the main source of my confusion, for instance. I can’t imagine knowing, for instance, that an emergency is happening somewhere close by, hearing it on the radio, and not wanting to be there. I can’t imagine hearing a classified military transmission and not wanting to know what it says. But Alex hears this kind of stuff all the time and doesn’t feel particularly moved to do anything about it. It’s enough for him to just be able to keep track of all the signals flying around his space, through his body. It’s enough for him to be able to hear it going on and feel like he’s there, to just be part of this secret, invisible world of radio frequencies. Until now, that is.
ALEX: See, the thing was, I could hear both sides of their conversation, you know? And so I could hear that it was two men having phone sex, and I knew that meant there was another gay man in the building. Which, I mean, not like we’re aliens or something, it’s not like it’s hard to find gay men in the Bay Area. [laughs] But this was Walnut Creek, not like, the Castro or something, and also, I am the worst gay man in the world, like, I don’t have a lot in common with other gay men, I was never into clubbing, I like reading comic books and watching crime procedurals, I’m a dentist for Chrissake! So it was just kind of, I dunno, it meant something, that there was another gay man in this building.
Of course, he had little to no way of finding out who this mysterious neighbor was, so Alex more or less gave that up as a lost cause. But it was hard to resist the temptation. He’d get home, turn on his scanners and radios, and then he’d find himself twisting to that frequency that had allowed him to listen in on his neighbor’s call. Nothing, of course; the chances that he’d be on the phone again were incredibly slim. But then it occurred to Alex that if this were some kind of long-distance relationship, then they might schedule their calls to be at the same time every week, or even every day. So Alex tried tuning in at around eight o’ clock, which was when he’d caught the call last time.
But unlike last time, this time they were having an argument.
ALEX: It didn’t sound like typical long-distance stuff. Not that I know what that’s like, but this was more like, deep stuff, stuff that I think they would’ve argued about when they were in the same room. Things like, you’ve changed, we don’t have the same conversations anymore. And my guy–I thought of him as “my guy,” okay–would say things like, I’m still the same person, I just think about some things differently, and the other guy, his boyfriend I guess, would say something back like, I never really understood why you wanted to do this in the first place, I don’t think I can deal.
IRENE: And it didn’t feel voyeuristic at all, listening in on their argument like this?
ALEX: [brief pause] Well, you have to remember that I’d been listening to police scanners and emergency response for a while, so this wasn’t any more or less voyeuristic than that. What made it different was knowing that one of these guys was in my apartment building. That made it–I don’t know, that made it more real, I guess.
The next day was Saturday, and Alex went about his business. He went to the grocery store, cooked his next week’s worth of meals, and did his radio thing. Because it was Saturday, he wasn’t sure whether or not his neighbor would be having his usual phone call, and sure enough, he didn’t. Alex shrugged it off, figured he’d catch up on Monday, and did his laundry. And ran into the guy in the laundry room.
ALEX: The funny thing was–or I guess it’s an obvious thing now–is that I’d seen him around. Like, just around, like I’d pass him in the hallway or whatever, and I’d be like, oh, there’s that guy, I think he’s new to the complex, he’s so dreamy. Just, tall dark and handsome, you know? The muscles, the shaved head–mmm!
IRENE: You found him very attractive.
ALEX: Who wouldn’t? But it never occurred to me that that was the guy, until we met in the laundry room.
IRENE: How did you know it was him?
ALEX: The voice. We’d never spoken to each other before, just passed each other by the mailboxes or whatever, but that day I took my laundry downstairs and he was already there, sorting his whites from his darks or whatever, and I put my laundry down and he said, “Oh, you don’t want to use that machine, it ate my quarters earlier,” and I knew that voice. I knew that voice! I thought I was going to get a hard-on in the laundry room from that voice!
IRENE: [laughing] So what did you do?
ALEX: Nothing! Well, I mean, I think I thanked him or something, probably sounded like a stammering idiot while I did it, and I moved my clothes…and I think I probably took longer than I needed to about it, you know, just trying to spend more time in the laundry room with him. He started his laundry and he went upstairs, and it was so hard not to follow him up.
IRENE: To find out where he lived.
ALEX: Yeah, to like, stalk him to his apartment. I kind of argued with myself about it for a few minutes, and it’s a good thing I did because he came down pretty quickly, with a piece of paper that said OUT OF ORDER on it, like just a piece of printer paper written in pen. He put that on the broken washer and went upstairs. And I didn’t follow him.
IRENE: But you were tempted.
ALEX: Oh, I was so tempted.
But as you can imagine, Alex kept monitoring after that. It became part of his routine, almost, to come home, make dinner, monitor a few other channels maybe, but at eight o’clock he’d get out the old scanner and tune into his neighbor’s phone conversation. Sometimes it was sexy, and Alex responded the way a red-blooded man might when listening to a sexy phone call. Other times, they were arguments.
IRENE: When do you think you fell in love with him?
ALEX: I don’t know. There’s no, like, one moment, one phrase or sentence that I can point to and say, “This is it, this is when I realized that I was in love with him.” It was just, listening to him talk about how his internship was going, the things he was learning, the things he missed about Cambridge and the things he loved about the Bay Area. He always sounded really…genuine, I think was the big thing. Like, I remember once he talked about going to Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39, which I hate by the way. It’s just so touristy and there’s nothing really interesting there and it’s all just souvenir shops selling sweaters and overpriced crap. But this guy, he was like, I went to Fisherman’s Wharf and it was such a beautiful day except for the wind, it was kind of cold, but I had clam chowder in a bread bowl and that was so good, it kept me warm. And another time he talked about some racist comment that someone had made to him, which he would’ve had every right to be really angry about, but instead he was just like, I feel bad for that man who has to live with such anger in his heart. He seemed kind of unreal, really, too good to be true. And he said really sweet things to his boyfriend too, like, the usual things like I love you and I miss you, but also things like, I’m so grateful to have you in my life, I know things have been really difficult. Things like, thank you for supporting me, and I hope you know that I’ll always support you too, or even just random compliments, like, you’re really good at this thing, XYZ, da-da-da. Like, he didn’t suffer from that usual guy problem of being really unable to talk about his feelings. And all these things I was getting to know about him, it was kind of like, I’d found a cheat code for getting to know someone. I didn’t have to do any work, ask the right questions or anything. I just had to turn on my radio and listen.
Things might have gone on like his indefinitely, except that then the neighbor and his boyfriend broke up. The neighbor’s name is Jamal, by the way–Alex had learned it by then–and the boyfriend’s name was Gary. Not that Gary’s name is very important.
ALEX: I didn’t hear the breakup itself, actually. They must have broken up at a different time, or maybe it happened via email or I don’t even know what. But the eight o’clock calls just, like, stopped all of a sudden. I thought it was me at first, like, maybe something was wrong with my scanner or the frequency had suddenly changed. I tried different channels for a while, and I almost gave up, but then one day–it was a little earlier than usual, I think–I tried it and Jamal was talking to his sister, explaining how yeah, they broke up, and then he said that things hadn’t really been the same ever since he went back to school, blah blah blah. And then his sister asked, “So are you going to ask out that cute guy you’ve been talking about?” And I of course was like, what cute guy? And Jamal was like, no, I don’t even know if he’s gay, and the sister was like, you should just ask him out! Worst thing that happens is he says no or he’s straight or whatever, and you don’t have to wonder anymore.
IRENE: So what did you feel?
ALEX: Well, that was kind of when I realized that I was being pathetic. Like, I realized then that I’d been kind of secretly hoping that they would break up and I would swoop in and ask him out and we’d live happily ever after. But the reality was nothing like that. The reality was, he’d just ended a very long-term relationship–like, they’d been together for at least three years, because that was how long he’d been back in school–and we didn’t actually know each other, and I’d been secretly listening to his phone conversations. I knew all these really intimate things about him, like what he and his boyfriend used to fight about, that his boyfriend’s name was Gary, the noises that he made when he came, which coworkers at his internship he secretly disliked. That was a huge invasion of privacy, and it wasn’t like I could keep that a secret from him forever, even if by some freak chance we did end up going out. So I didn’t have a chance with him, really, and I shouldn’t even listen to his conversations anymore. So I turned off the scanner right then and I just, like, lay there thinking about my life for a while. And then the next day I joined a gym and got a haircut.
ALEX: Well, not the next day, because the next day I had to work. But, like, that weekend, I got a haircut and I joined the gym and I hired a personal trainer and everything. It wasn’t like I’d never had the money for it. I mean, I’m a dentist, and I don’t have any kids or dependents or anything. I was just suddenly tired of listening to someone else’s life and not really being in charge of my own.
And to prove it, Alex made himself a profile on an online dating site. He got a few messages from people who obviously just wanted casual sex, which he deleted. He accepted a coworker’s invitation to a birthday party that he would normally have blown off. The party was boring and nobody he knew was there. He even went out, one weekend, with a few college friends who still did the whole clubbing thing, and he even successfully picked someone up. But even that didn’t go as planned, but I’ll let Alex tell you in his own words, when we get back from our break. And it is explicit. Let me repeat that: explicit. So if you’re listening with children, please bear that in mind. There will be genitals, and those genitals are going into orifices.
MUSIC: “I JUST CALLED TO SAY I LOVE YOU” – Stevie Wonder
Coming Up, Act Two of our radio show, Love is in the Air. Alex and Jamal finally meet in person…and what happens after that? That’s in a minute. San Francisco Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.
ACT TWO. OVER AND OUT.
It’s Our Ordinary Stories, and I’m Irene Steele. Today on our program we’re devoting the entire episode to one radio-related love story, that of Alex Ross and his neighbor, Jamal. Alex likes to monitor radio waves for a hobby: not just the AM/FM radio waves that you and I know about, but everything from encoded military transmissions to emergency dispatchers. He has all kinds of gadgets and doodads to help him with this, including an old scanner that allows him to listen to his neighbors’ telephone conversations. He’s been listening to the phone conversations of his neighbor, Jamal, whom he’s maybe fallen a little in love with. Jamal did just break up with his boyfriend, which you might think would be a prime time for Alex to swoop in and declare his feelings, but then there’s the whole problem where he’s been invading Jamal’s privacy by secretly listening to his phone calls. You see how that might be an obstacle.
Instead, Alex started going to the gym, made an online dating profile, and even went clubbing with some old friends. The year is 2000, and this is how that night of clubbing turned out.
ALEX: Clubbing was never my scene, not even when I was a teenager, not even when I was a college student. But I was like, heeeyy, let’s get back out there, stop being pathetic and listening to your neighbor having phone sex with his long distance boyfriend, you know, have some fun. So we were dancing, drinking, dancing some more, and there was this one guy who was probably, like, ten years younger than me, I don’t even want to think about it. He’s all blonde and twinky with these big plush lips made for sucking cock. We danced together for a while and then we went out back.
IRENE: To have sex.
ALEX: Yeah. There were a couple other guys out there already, mostly giving each other handjobs, but this guy just dropped to his knees and opened up my pants like he did this every night of the week, which maybe he did. That was pretty hot, and I was drunk and starting to get really into this, like yeah, I can go out and have a good time and get sucked off in an alleyway, I can get behind this. And he got my cock out and he was sucking on it, and it was so good, I’d forgotten what it was like to get a really good blowjob, with just the right amount of suction and wetness and what have you. Like, I’m sorry, you’re a woman, you don’t know what it’s like. [laughs] Anyway, it was really, really good, a little bit rough, little bit of teeth, and he could take it down really deep, like all the way down, like a porn star. I felt like a porn star, like I’m living the gay man’s lifestyle, Showtime-style. Then he reached up and like, dug a knuckle in right behind my balls, where it feels really good, and I went off like a rocket and fell on top of him.
IRENE: [laughing] You actually fell?
ALEX: Bam. Like, my knees just gave out. I apologized, of course, apologized a lot, and he didn’t seem injured or anything, but it was clear he was pissed at me. I didn’t even get a chance to touch him or get him off or anything, he just went back inside, probably to find someone who wouldn’t come early and then break his ribs by falling on top of him.
IRENE: And then what did you do?
ALEX: I pulled up my pants and went home. I kind of wanted to go to sleep.
That was the last time Alex went clubbing with his friends. And this whole time he was on this self-improvement kick, Alex kept monitoring, too. That’d been his hobby Before Jamal–imagine that with a capital B and a capital J, if you will–and it was still his hobby. He still wanted to keep tabs on all those signals and waves flying around in his space, through his body. And for a while that was enough, to listen to his usual emergency channels and pirate radio channels and everything. But he knew that his old scanner was in the closet, the one that could listen in on his neighbor’s phone conversations. He wondered how Jamal was doing, if he’d asked out that cute guy. Or if he’d gotten back together with Gary.
So then, one evening maybe a month or two after he’d turned over a new leaf, he dug the scanner out of the closet. He told himself he was finding someone else’s phone conversations to listen in on, not Jamal’s, but that was a lie. He twisted over to Jamal’s frequency like it was a compulsion, like he couldn’t help himself. But there was nothing. Jamal wasn’t on the phone. Why would he be? He didn’t have regular phone conversations with Gary anymore, and he was unlikely to have such regular phone calls with his sister.
ALEX: And after that, it felt safe, kinda, to start listening again, figuring I was gonna catch dead air every time. So I did, and yeah, I didn’t really hear anything much. And I saw him in the building every now and then, usually from a distance. We ran into each other once again in the laundry room, no big, just a “hi” there and I took my stuff upstairs feeling pretty proud of myself. And then I turned on the scanner, so that I could find something to listen to while I was folding my laundry, and he was talking to his sister, telling her about how he’d just run into the “cute guy” in the laundry room again and he’d taken one of his shirts.
IRENE: Oh my God, the cute guy was you.
ALEX: It was totally me! [laughs] I never would have guessed, I mean, I don’t think of myself as cute at all, you know? But thank God he goes for the skinny, nerdy types, I don’t know. And there he is telling his sister that he knows which apartment I’m in now–because he’d followed me, when I took my clothes upstairs–and that he’d taken my Green Lantern t-shirt and was going to claim that it accidentally got mixed up in my laundry somehow as a pretext for knocking on my door. Even though we hadn’t been sharing machines at all. It was a totally crazy idea.
IRENE: And this whole time you thought you were the only one with crazy ideas.
ALEX: Yeah! But a few minutes later, the radio was dead and someone was knocking! I knew it had to be him, so I ran around and turned off all my scanners and radios real quick, because I just had this really intense panic that he was going to hear my radio monitoring stuff and realize that I’d been listening to his phone conversations. And then I thought, oh no, what if he sees them and knows what they’re for? So then I had to shove them all the closet. Really far-fetched, I know, but I wasn’t exactly rational at the time. So when I answered the door I was probably kind of out of breath, and meanwhile he was standing there looking like a god or something. An Adonis. And he was like, “I have your shirt,” and I was like, “I know,” just blurted that out. He looked kind of startled, but he handed me my shirt and then I was more like, just blurting stuff out. “Do you want to go out sometime?” He said yes, thank God, and without even making fun of me.
And so began their dating life. But Alex, as you can imagine, still had to be very careful. He never invited Jamal into his home, for example, making up excuses that it was very messy, when really he didn’t want Jamal to find his monitoring equipment–which, remember, was in every room. He was deathly afraid that Jamal would see it and somehow deduce what it was for, or ask awkward questions.
ALEX: But the really hard part was not saying anything that I wasn’t supposed to know. Because I knew everything. I knew the name of his last ex-boyfriend and his sister and what he was doing at the internship, and on these dates I had to pretend like I didn’t know, and I had to ask the right first-date questions. What do you like to do, where are you from, where did you go to school, what kind of music do you listen to, when in reality I wanted to ask him about his big thoughts. Like, what kind of difference do you want to make in the world? Why did you get with Gary in the first place, that guy sounds way not good enough for you. What’s going on with your mom that your sister never really wants to talk about on the phone? But that’s not first date stuff. What’s not even third date stuff. That’s like, been dating for four months stuff.
IRENE: So why did you keep going through with it? Why didn’t you tell him right away, why did you keep up this farce? Or why go on the dates at all?
ALEX: Well, I couldn’t just not go. I was the one who asked him out after all, and I…I really wanted to date him. He was smart, and funny, and kind, besides being really hot. He was the total package, and I just wanted some of that for myself. For a while. For as long as it lasted.
And Alex did mess up. Once, he called Jamal and asked if he wanted to get lunch at a Mexican restaurant that he knew Jamal liked, but Jamal hadn’t told him about it yet. Another time, he made a reference that Harvard that he wasn’t supposed to know about. And he knew that Jamal was allergic to eggplant.
ALEX: Each time I was able to make up some kind of reason, like oh, lucky guess, or saying that he’d forgotten that he told me, but it just. Kept. Happening. I was starting to wake up in the middle of the night, it stressing me out so much. I kept drifting off in the middle of the day. I couldn’t even really enjoy our dates because I just kept thinking about how it was going to end.
IRENE: Did you ever think about ending it first? Just to get it over with?
ALEX: I did. A lot. The longer it went on, the more I started to fantasize about just having it out. It’d just be such a relief, to have him just…punch me and walk out.
IRENE: And how long did this go on?
ALEX: Two or three months? Three months, I think. Yeah. Three months. Maybe four.
Of course, their relationship had a tentative due date anyway, which was the end of Jamal’s internship. Alex thought if he could just hang on until then, he could let that take care of things. Jamal would move back to Massachusetts, and things could go back to the way they were before. He’d just have to be more careful. But then Jamal got a job offer in Oakland, just a few miles away from Walnut Creek.
ALEX: And that was when I knew I’d have to do something. Say something. Because there was no reason for Jamal not to take that offer–he really liked California, his sister lived in Los Angeles, the position was very close to something he wanted, and it wasn’t like he had Gary to hold him back anymore. He came to me with this excited news, and on the outside I was excited for him, but on the inside I…I wanted to cry, really. Because I saw the end, it was here.
IRENE: So how were you going to break it to him?
ALEX: It sounds dramatic now, but I decided I was gonna finally have him over and show him the monitoring stuff. If that didn’t creep him out in itself–because some people do find it creepy–then I’d show him how I could listen in on neighbors’ phone calls. And he’d put two and two together and realize that I’d been listening to his phone calls, and that was how I knew so much about him.
IRENE: Did it work?
ALEX: More or less, yeah. I showed him the radios, the scanners, the book of frequencies. We listened to some emergency dispatches, basic stuff. He seemed interested, but in that polite kind of way that people get when they really are interested, but not burning with curiosity. Then I was just about to go and get the scanner, to show him how I could listen to neighbors’ phone calls, when he got to a certain page in the book and froze. I didn’t notice at first, because I was talking and I’d been just about to get up, but then he was like, “This is my name.”
IRENE: You’d written his name in the book.
ALEX: I’d forgotten about that, actually. And I was like, “Uh, yeah?” or something dumb like that, and he gave me this strange look and showed me the page, and he was like, “Why?” But he knew why, I could tell from how he got angrier and angrier, and he said, “You’ve been listening to me?” And at first I was like, “No!” which was just knee-jerk and–well, actually, I hadn’t listened to his calls since we started dating, actually. That just seemed like…crossing a line, I guess. But that was obviously a lie, so I then I was like, “It was before we started dating.” That hardly made things better, but I knew it wouldn’t, and Jamal just…he gave me this really long look, didn’t say anything, and then just stood up and walked out the door.
IRENE: And you didn’t try to stop him.
ALEX: No. I mean, what would’ve been the point? There just would’ve been arguing, screaming maybe. I knew I deserved it, and this was what I’d wanted to happen when I invited him over to see my equipment. So I didn’t stop him, and I didn’t try to call him or anything either. And he didn’t try to call me. And then he moved.
IRENE: Back to Massachusetts?
ALEX: I guess, or maybe to Oakland, to be closer to his new job. The rent’s cheaper in Oakland anyway.
IRENE: And how did you feel, at this time?
ALEX: I was a mess, honestly. Not sleeping, not eating, crying a lot. I was pathetic. [chuckle] But it hurt, even though I knew it had to happen, that it had always been going to happen. Jamal was the best thing to ever happen to me, but I’d never had a chance with him because of the way we’d met.
IRENE: And by “met” you mean that you’d first encountered him through listening to his phone calls.
IRENE: But it’s sort of like…you didn’t have any control over that. That was just a confluence of events; you happened to be in that place at that time and happened to catch his phone call. And maybe it was invasive to keep listening, but it seems kind of unfair that that first “meeting,” as you called it, ruined any chance of a relationship with Jamal when you had no way of knowing that at the time. Or having any control over it, really.
ALEX: Yeah, but as you said, it was unethical of me to keep listening, right? Maybe if I’d never listened again after that first time, I could date Jamal with a clear conscience. Then again, if I’d turned it off after that first time, I would never have fallen in love with him, either. So who can say?
Time passed, and Jamal did move out. Alex was able to relax a little, get back into his usual routine. He didn’t listen in to phone conversations anymore, just sticking to his usual scanning habits. And if Jamal did move to Oakland, well, the Bay Area was a very large place. They’d probably never run into each other. Alex even went on a few more online dates, figuring that as long as he was back on the boat, he might as well see what other fish were in the sea.
But of course, this story has a fairy-tale ending, otherwise we wouldn’t have devoted an entire show to it.
ALEX: One day, a year later, I got this knock on my door. And I had no idea who it might be, it wasn’t like I’d ordered a pizza or anything.
IRENE: But it was Jamal, of course.
ALEX: Yeah, I checked the peephole. And then I almost didn’t open the door, I was so freaked out. I’d just started putting this behind me, moving on, getting back to normal, and then here he was on my doorstep. What, was he coming to yell at me some more? Or to reconcile? But did I really want to reconcile?
IRENE: Did you not want to reconcile?
ALEX: I don’t know! I mean, at the time I was just so scared, I’d just started getting back to normal and then here he was. But I looked through the peephole again and it looked like he was getting ready to leave, so I opened the door. He looked at me, looking kinda surprised, and I looked back at him, and finally he said, “I have your shirt.”
ALEX: And he did! I guess it was a shirt I must have left at his place, I hadn’t even missed it. But he was holding it in his hand, and then he said, “I wasn’t sure you’d still live here.” And I said something dumb in response, something like, “Yep, here I am,” and we stared at each other some more and finally he gave me my shirt. And I blurted out, “Do you want to come in?” And he was like, “I’d love to, actually.” So he came in, and we, well, it was awkward, actually. A lot of standing around all like, “You look good” and “How’ve you been?” and then finally “Well I’m sure you’re busy, I’d better get going” but fortunately someone asked the other one out to dinner. And then after that…well, you know the rest of it.
And the rest of it is that Alex Ross and Jamal Warner are still together, almost 15 years later. They even got married, so their names are technically Alex and Jamal Ross-Warner. The story of how they met, how they got together, has become a story that they tell at parties, which is how I heard it. Alex still monitors radio waves. Jamal doesn’t, though he indulges it as a quirky hobby of Alex’s. Alex doesn’t listen to phone conversations anymore, although he’d be hard pressed to, since many people don’t even have a landline anymore.
IRENE: Is there a way to listen to cell phone conversations?
ALEX: If there is, I don’t want to know about it! I got in enough trouble the first time. [laugh]
IRENE: [laugh] Okay, so, if there’s one thing you learned–about love, about radio monitoring, anything–from this experience that you want to share with our listeners, what is it?
ALEX: [long pause] I dunno. I dunno. [pause] I mean, I want to say that I learned that love will always find a way, or that the ends justify the means, but the truth is, well, that’s not the truth. I know that I was stupid lucky with this one. Jamal had every right to find me creepy and weird. Hell, he could probably have sued me or called the cops on me. It’s like, some idiotic romantic comedy ending that I got here, and I don’t advocate that for anyone in real life. So I don’t know that I’ve learned anything I want to pass on other than, count your blessings. Be grateful for the people you have in your life.
MUSIC: “LOVE IS IN THE AIR” – John Paul Young
Our program was produced today by Whitney Bishop, with Leslie Ashmann, Reynard Whitledge, Teresa White, Jessica Chang, Shelly Snow, and Kazuo Yoshihashi. Our senior producer’s Persephone Nia. Seth Reynolds is our director of operations. Emile Cox is our production manager. Production help from Ashlea Knight. Scouting help from Kelly Green. Music help from Abha Batra, Mandy Stowell, and Miguel Garcia.
Our Ordinary Stories is distributed by Public Radio International. You know, after that really long interview and putting this episode together, all I really wanted to do was:
ALEX: I pulled up my pants and went home. I kind of wanted to go to sleep.
I’m Irene Steele. Back next week with more of Our Ordinary Stories.
PRI. PUBLIC RADIO INTERNATIONAL.