Forum — From the December 2014 issue

Beeper World

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The jellyfish life cycle, we were taught in school, involves a sessile state and a period of radiant flight. As polyps, jellyfish are rooted to the seafloor by fleshy stalks. As medusae, they swim freely, contracting the bright umbrellas of their bodies to whoosh around the ocean, migrating by luminous conjunction: and and and. In this anchorless state, the jellies are labeled adults.

But there is also an intermediate stage: the ephyra. Ephyrae are goofy, adolescent beings. They develop at the tops of polyps; for a while, it looks as though the organism is dreaming of a baby jellyfish. Then they detach, like mutinous mushroom caps. Away they float, disk-shaped and aglow. This is sometimes referred to as “blooming.” Newborn zeros, they are tumid with light. They swarm into fleets — hundreds of thousands rising through the dark sea — but their movement is wobbly, desultory; their trajectory has a temporal, and not a spatial, destination: the future, when they will be old enough to mate with one another. Just by virtue of swimming forward through time — and avoiding the mouths of predators — they develop into medusae. They locomote in the dark via golden pulsations.

For my fourteenth birthday, I got a purple Motorola beeper. It was a twinkling cartridge, the trendy fluorescent model. It cost $60 at the Beeper World kiosk at South Florida’s Dadeland Mall. Other colors were played out, we were told by the persuasively disdainful concierge, a friend’s terrifying older brother, on whom we all had dutiful crushes. He wore silver jewelry on parts of his face that did not strike one as load-bearing — there was a green gem levitating on his chin scruff, for example. He didn’t have to work hard to convince us that we needed those beepers.

An untitled photograph by Curran Hatleberg, from his series The Crowded Edge

An untitled photograph by Curran Hatleberg, from his series The Crowded Edge

The beeper, for a certain kind of Miami teenager in the Nineties, was an essential evolutionary adaptation. You simply couldn’t survive, socially, without one. A visit to Beeper World became a retail rite of passage. It usually occurred around the time that your older friends obtained their driver’s licenses and thus achieved vehicular autonomy, budding off the polyp of a South Florida carport. Somewhat motile, you sought liberation from the terrible bondage of your parents’ landline. So you lassoed your eyes and your lips in spooky-dark pencil, you strapped on Miami’s regulation platform heels, with cork soles that added five inches to your height, and you queued up at Beeper World to receive your tiny occult device.

The beeper is a palm-size plastic grenade set to detonate anytime someone punches your ten-note conjuring spell into a telephone keypad. When this happens, your beeper shakes and emits two staccato squeaks. Unlike a ringing phone, you cannot answer it; the beeper merely alerts you to the fact that someone, somewhere, is bent on communicating something to you. It’s an antique magic, of course, in the era of the Android. The beeper is a primitive thinker: it contains only the rudiments of its successors’ intelligence. Numbers, not words, appear on its screen. A secret message squints itself into view.

You return the page from a landline. If you’re out with us teenagers, in 1996, in Coconut Grove, you return the page from a pay phone mere feet away from the gusting mist of a pink mall waterfall, so close to this cascade that your arm hairs shine with chlorinated dew. To stand inside the phone booth makes you feel like the vibrating needle at the center of a compass — on a weekend night, all Grove traffic will be moving in a chrome blur around this booth. Cars shake with bass like lovesick bullfrogs. Whoever beeped you will have to shout into their phone to be heard over Ini Kamoze.

I was always amazed by the line at this booth. On a Saturday night, it could be forty minutes long. This made trying to use the greasy public phone feel like waiting for Space Mountain. Queued up with my doppelgängers, other Miami girls wearing Gap perfume samples and the diaphanous ghosts of clothes (shirts that looked like pure foam with zippers, white thong-revealing denim), I read and reread the message on my beeper and rehearsed what I was going to say when it was finally my turn at bat. I remember the wait as a happy one, albeit nerve-racking: we stood shoulder to shoulder in the Florida heat, perspiring even at midnight, cupping the glowing screens of our pagers like little haunted limes.

The sonic burr of a beeper on our teenage flesh was exotic. It was the purr of someone wanting you. It was violent: a spur digging into your side. The most common message came loaded with potential, an opaque command behind the glass window: “423” (“Call me”). I’m sure it was no accident that we all carried these things in our pockets, or clipped against our pelvic bones.

To those messages you added your own tag, a sort of self-chosen varsity number — mine was 22 — to identify yourself. “423–123–22” = “Call me, I miss you, it’s Karen.” The argot of the beeper was not subtle. In its concision, Miami beeper-speak resembled the dialogue of Hemingway, or a Spanish parody of the dialogue of Hemingway, or a terse, perverted robot. Much of what we beeped to one another was either blunt declarations of love or blunt declarations of horniness.

Recently, I asked my best friend, Karina, for the codes she remembered:

123 i miss you
143 i love you
193 miss me?
23 te amo
26 te quiero
42 fuck me
43 fuck you
423 call me
07 just kidding
303 stop playing
606 bitch
345987 i’m horny
99 night night
45 goodnight
56 sweet dreams
911 emergency/call me now!
77 friends forever
477 best friends forever

And then there were the codes that resembled words when held upside down:

07734 hello
14 hi
50538 besos
7735 sellout
35006*17715 silly goose
304 hoe

Apparently there were regional variations to the beeper code, numeric dialects that evolved in Los Angeles and Houston, where kids used slightly different numbers to candy-heart each other affectionate demands (“Come over”; “Kiss me”). Now the code strikes me as innocent, even at its lewdest — a refuge from the frightening flexibility of the English alphabet. We had a system that let us reduce a thousand streaming, volatile feelings into these digitized grunts: paint-by-number insults and flirtations, heat-and-serve proposals. Punch a few buttons, and you could kiss anyone goodnight, or tell him off. It was a common lexicon, and it also saved you from the real burden, at that age, of having to know what you felt, what you might actually want.

If text messages have permitted today’s youth to write out their fantasies with Joycean bloat, 1996 was another era entirely — strange days populated by characters out of Cormac McCarthy, when your avatar might be “8,” and what you could say, as “8,” was limited to autistic haikus. Yes. No. Fuck You. So much ungovernable longing got compressed into integers.

One day, I’d love to write a story about two goony guys, ZP and JP, who are accidental savants of the beeper code. They are Florida boys in Clorox-white ball caps and black jeans with pant legs the width of tepees. Friday looms, and the phone banks are silent. No girl they’ve beeped is calling them back. None of the plans they’ve suggested, possibilities that were in turn suggested to them by the prix fixe menu of the beeper code, seem at all likely to come to fruition. “This buffet needs more options,” ZP complains.

Even though they are both failing out of precalculus, they start fiddling around with numbers, swapping 2s and 4s, dividing by pi, using weird functions on that ninety-dollar graphing calculator we were all forced to buy. Eventually, JP and ZP invent an entirely new code — a programming language for teenagers who want to design alternate realities together. Maybe something wild happens next, something far in excess of any of the finite set of Saturdays that the old beeper code could generate: people gather and drink on the beach, people gather and drink in a club, people stay home and drink in a cloud of self-pity and confused arousal. It’s a real breakthrough in the tropical science of coming of age. ZP and JP’s codes show up on beeper screens across South Dade and spontaneously combust in their classmates’ brains. Entirely new vistas appear — places to go that make the mall seem like a tomb. Minds are daisy-chained together, all of them translating ZP and JP’s numbers into the strangest pictures. If the former beeper code was a tram tour with twelve stops, this new code goes off road.

ZP and JP, sitting goggle-eyed in JP’s bedroom, staring at the telephone and then the sapphire-blue Motorola pager, share an Alexander Graham Bell moment of nerdy euphoria. The boys bump fists. Maybe they chest bump, maybe they risk a hug. Who knows? Maybe they can now beep each other something that is a more efficient relay of astonishment and joy than any of these gestures. Verbs that never occurred to these kids suddenly rear before them in their imagination — verbs that make the typical Saturday routine of ingesting fruit-flavored poisons and attempting to undress one another seem timid by comparison. Teenagers all across America begin to beep one another messages with this rogue code.

Say “143” to anyone from Miami who came of age in the Nineties, and watch a strange glow flood his or her eyes. Today the beeper is a tech shibboleth for me, in much the same way that velocipedes and gramophones and Betamax videocassettes must have been for our forebears. “What was your beeper code?” I’ll ask if I want to find others of my generation: the first wave of South Floridian high schoolers (and the last) for whom the beeper played a critical role in courtship, aggression, the coordination of liquor-store runs. We were crude engineers, clumsily trying to input emotions into one another. The futures that we were actually trying to create? These were too grandiose to admit to one another aloud, or even to ourselves. We wanted to make strangers fall in love with us, we wanted to perfume distant rooms with our absence, to launch our loneliness into suburbs as remote as Davie and West Kendall. In fact, what we wanted as fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds must have been largely unutterable. Who knows what dangerous confessions we might have wound up making without the corset of this script? “45,” we could beep a stranger, and be done with it.

True confession: I never wanted a beeper. I feared the telephone, and other humans. The beeper confirms the presence of another mind in the roaring universe and summons you to it. You would think this would be a reassuring compliment. Somebody is thinking of you, wishing for the uniquely fricative properties of your voice. Yet in my experience, to be beeped by a non-parent was dreadful. Decoding the numbers was a stressful affair, and I brought a level of fear to the translation project that would have made my Navy father roll his eyes. Friends could beep you, but so could total strangers. “Call me, hoe!” an unknown number might request of you, from the wilds of Broward County, and how would you respond?

Before acquiring a beeper, I spent most nights hidden in my bedroom, barricaded from the unpredictable voices of the living by big square books. I communed with the dead and the imaginary, to whom I drafted responses that were always wordless, and absolutely private. During the day, I was an anxious kid who liked to disappear into Miami’s mangrove jungles on my bicycle, alone. By fourteen, I was beginning to understand, to my horror and elation, that I would have to figure out a way to stay “in touch” with other people. Solitude of the kind I’d enjoyed in the deep July of childhood had already gone extinct — and I can remember staring at a white heron from my bicycle seat along Biscayne Bay, feeling my beeper go off. Using the beeper code, I found that I could actually program certain desires into myself. “555,” I punched into the keypad: “I want you.” Somehow the mechanical act of entering these codes into the phone increased the strength of my ambivalent wish, and suddenly I did want a friend to call me back or a boyfriend to come visit.

My female friends beeped and responded to beeps with the same efficient urgency as the surgeons at Baptist Hospital. Now we could always be on call for one another. Our telepathic net was externalized, formalized. “911!” Carla or Alexis would beep me. I will spare you a description of the situations that, at fourteen, we deemed emergencies.

We were tidaling ephyrae: translucent bubble creatures, cartwheeling through space, illuminating in electric pulses our own quietly panicked trails as we drifted through the black seas of nocturnal Miami. Back then, I clipped the beeper to my belt loop and read it like a tiny glowing book. 50538–69–07. I’m cringing now, remembering all the messages I had stored on that miniature record — it housed my first love letters, it was the closest thing I had to a high school diary. You could scroll through them backward, those algebraic proofs of longing, and all our ridiculous and earnest declarations composed of 7s and 1s. I really believed I’d save them for all time, encrypted on a shitty Motorola pager, the black box of adolescence. 123, 143, 56, Miami.

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is the author of the novel Swamplandia! (Knopf) and the story collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove (Vintage), now out in paperback.

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