Family

“Hi Donald, How Are You Doing?”

Years before he died, my husband interviewed Trump for a golf magazine. As I struggled to process my grief, I went looking for that tape.

Illustration of a woman holding a microcassette tape of her husband and Donald Trump in an interview.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

I knew it was going to be tough to hear my husband’s voice. And where was the tape anyway? I had already looked through the cassettes of his interviews hoping to find the one labeled “Trump.” My husband’s handwriting was nearly impossible to read, so I was trying to make out anything that even vaguely resembled a T or had five letters or might have ended in a P. I wondered if he might have half-jokingly labeled it “The Donald,” but, no, I couldn’t find that either.

I might have been thinking delusionally, but it did cross my mind that it might actually be a matter of national importance for me to locate this tape. Yes, it was a phone interview for a story about golf from a decade ago, but still. What if Trump had dropped an incriminating detail about money laundering or about a connection to Russia? I found myself daydreaming about my late husband bringing down the Trump administration from beyond the grave. Wouldn’t that be something?

Is procrastination one of the stages of grief? I ought to have been highly motivated to find the tape, but I was feeling overwhelmed and tired. It took me more than two years to start sorting through his closet. To touch and handle his clothes was a lot for me. I was sorting them and folding them very slowly, because it felt like this was as close as I was going to get to him ever again. I cry a lot anyway, but I cried more, and cried on the clothes, and wiped my nose on a few of his running T-shirts. I had to wash, dry, and start folding and sorting them all over again. And then, when I was finally done, I understood why it had taken me so long to get started. It was because I must have realized that eventually I’d be staring at an empty closet.

I could still hear the sound of his voice anyway. I could hear his intensity and the joy he took in language as he read so many Harry Potter books out loud to our son and daughter when they were little. He would get very animated. No wonder the kids had such a hard time falling asleep. When it came to liberal causes like social or racial or economic injustice, his volume went up, and he didn’t have much of an off switch. He read the Nation and kept a photo of Malcolm X by his desk. He made sure to keep a paper donation stub in his wallet so he could say he was literally a card-carrying member of the ACLU, yet he always insisted on keeping an eye on Fox News to “understand how the other side thinks.” I would lower the volume on the TV whenever I came into the living room, and one day I was doing just that when I saw his name and our hometown scrolling by under Bill O’Reilly’s face. He’d written in with a question: “Bill,” my husband’s text read, “I can’t understand why you are so opposed to gay marriage. Who does it hurt?”

My husband died at age 59 in the spring of 2015, approximately two weeks before Donald and Melania set foot on that escalator. My husband has been absent for every moment of the campaign, the election, the inauguration, the presidency. For me, knowing that he missed seeing his children graduate high school and then make their way to college has been painful. Knowing that he missed Trump getting to the White House has been absurd.

It’s very strange to feel angry at someone who has died. It seems unkind. Grief has felt so draining and passive, but anger is a kick. Why in the hell did my perfectly healthy husband get cancer and leave us alone? There are so many ways he could have hurt us, but dying? I’m in a rage at him for missing our daughter’s high school graduation by five days. Really? I’m in a rage at him for missing that she majored in English just like he did. I’m in a rage at him for missing that our son now runs cross-country in college just like he did.

He was such a big presence and now he is an absence. He made so much noise and now he makes none. Where did he go? He would have blown a gasket over Trump. Not to be able to hear him blowing this gasket has been the strangest silence I have ever heard.

I remember the day he interviewed Trump. He was working as a freelancer writing about anything, really, for any magazine that would hire him. At a certain point that afternoon, he knew he was going to be getting the call on the landline, and before that he was explaining to the kids why they shouldn’t pick up the other extension during the interview. Our son must have been 9, our daughter 11. For some reason, they got very excited that their dad would be speaking to someone as famous as Trump. Their excitement worried us: Did we really mess this up and raise kids who cared so much about fame and television? We were only slightly relieved to find out that they seemed to be confusing Trump with Lou Dobbs. Lou Dobbs? We looked at each other and smiled. Wow, we really did mess this up. Then he closed the door to his office. A few moments later we heard the phone ring and resisted the urge to pick it up and eavesdrop.

When my husband emerged later, he was shaking his head. It wasn’t like talking to anyone else, he told us. Trump had bragged and crowed and sounded like a press release for himself. We shrugged, my husband wrote his story, the kids forgot about it, and life closed up around that experience. And we had lots of good years where the idea that this healthy husband and father would get lung cancer would have seemed ridiculous. Then he started coughing and it was a strange-sounding cough. And then he was diagnosed with adenosarcoma and we all thought if anyone could get the better of this disease it would be him, and for a little while he did.

It’s December of 2017, and for some reason, I am ready to find this tape. I feel a little stronger. Maybe it’s because there’s a new year on the way. Maybe I finally have the energy to pull myself together. I find a microcassette player, change the batteries, put in a few tapes, and hear a blank fuzz. It’s been a while since I’ve used a tape machine, and it’s not working. Are all the cassettes blank for some reason? I wonder if I am somehow erasing them when I press play? Is this player broken? I discover that they still sell microcassette players on Amazon and a day later there’s the sound of the package being dropped on the doorstep. I take out the unopened player, a fossil preserved in molded plastic, remaindered from an old RadioShack somewhere. I unpack it, put in fresh batteries, pop in a tape, press play, and simple as that I hear my husband. His voice is clear and energetic but the recording makes it just a little lighter, a little tinnier. My first thought is: I should have listened earlier. My God, he has been here all this time. What was I waiting for?

I get through 10 tapes, each an interview for a different story. On the 11th I press play and I hear my husband leave a message for a golf pro named Craig Harmon. I write the name down. He mentions Links magazine. I write that down. I hear him hang up. Then there is some blank fuzzy space on the tape. Then I hear, “Hi Donald, how are you doing?”

Donald’s voice is a little lighter, a little tinnier too, but it is unmistakably Trump. He gives my husband a breathy compliment, “I love your magazine. I think it’s great.” It’s as if he’s batting his eyelashes. Now he directs the flattery toward himself: “The only thing I’m really waiting for is for you to do a cover story on my Bedminster course ’cause I’ll tell you something,” and here Trump doesn’t quite get the idiom right: “that place is … is … knocking the socks off, you, I guess you’ve been hearing about it.”

And just like that, I’m in the echo chamber. The familiarity of Trump’s voice is slightly surreal. I know the kinds of things he says so well. I recognize his little conversational nudges this way and that. I know how he takes a breath, how he pauses, how he runs fragments together awkwardly. I picture him jutting out his chin, tightening his jaw. What have I been doing since my husband died? I have been listening to Donald Trump. I am intimately acquainted with him. I know his voice by heart.

To Trump’s line, “I guess you’ve been hearing about it,” my husband answers that, yes, in fact he has been hearing about Trump’s Bedminster course because he just wrote a piece about Trump’s new and exciting chef there for Golf Connoisseur magazine. My husband and I went there together one night for an elaborate tasting menu paired with pricey wines. We were both dressed up and on our best behavior. After the meal, we hung around behind the scenes in the kitchen and interviewed the chef. I still remember the chef talking about the pride he took in making an honest caramel sauce. My husband asked, “How would you make a dishonest caramel sauce?” And the chef answered, “If I went out and bought a jar at the store.”

Now Trump is telling him that the chef no longer works at Bedminster. “That was quick,” says my husband with a hint of a laugh. Trump can explain the chef’s departure: “I knew that was going to happen,” because when golfers “come off a golf course they want a frankfurter … ’cause fancy as you and I are—” And here my husband interrupts and says, “Well, uh, you, you speak for yourself there. I’m not quite that fancy.” That’s true. He really wasn’t.

The conversation moves to construction and Trump says, “When I was over there with the top guys at Winged Foot, who were old friends of mine, they had, like, seven different sand traps with seven different kinds of sand.” And my husband says, “Hmmm. Wow.” Then Trump says, “When I built my course I was able to rip out almost 3 million yards of earth, much of it through rock.” And my husband says, “Right.”

Then Trump mentions his parents and how they never would have been members at a club like Winged Foot. He hints that their lives were very different from his. If only my husband had known that even a little self-reflection coming from Trump would one day be fascinating. But my husband is impatient and is looking for a useful quote, so he brushes past Trump’s musings. I can tell he is ready to get this interview over with when Trump starts talking about the future. “I just bought a thousand acres of land in Scotland.” Trump says. It’s “going to be the greatest links course anywhere in the world.” My husband says, “That sounds wonderful.”

After he died, it felt like time stopped and would only go in reverse, to moments in the 30 years we were together. There was plenty of life to return to, to play back. The kids didn’t much want to play the tape back with me. It was too painful. Everybody has a different way of dealing with loss. And their lives were just starting. It was only three months later when our daughter grabbed some of his flannel shirts, rolled up the sleeves, and took them with her to college. That winter our son started wearing a few of his sweaters. It was like their father could still put his arms around them and protect them in some way. It made me smile to see them moving forward.

The way I folded and refolded the clothes, I listen and relisten to the tape. These two men are stuck together forever in amber. I know both of their futures. There will be so much less of my husband and so much more of Trump than I could have ever imagined when the phone rang that spring afternoon. I transcribe the interview word-for-word, stop, rewind, and start again.

Eva Mantell is an artist and a teacher.