Authors: Jonathan Tropper
“Yeah. If I begin my hangover now, maybe I’ll be okay by tomorrow night when I’m on call.”
I got up to walk him to the door. I was dismayed to discover that my brief nap had destroyed my buzz. “You going to be okay?” Chuck asked.
“Nothing’s changed,” I said. “It was just paperwork.”
“Well, you two had some good times,” he said weakly. “You shouldn’t have any regrets. Do you?”
“None,” I said. “Except I wish to hell I’d never gotten married.”
He looked at me, not sure whether I was joking or not. I couldn’t have said for sure myself. “Let me know when you’re ready to get out there again,” he finally said. “I’ll hook you up.”
Chuck paused at the door. “My idea would work,” he said. “Just think about it.”
“Okay,” I promised. “But I think it will sound a lot less reasonable without the benefit of alcohol.”
“Bounce it off of Lindsey or Alison.”
“I’ll run it up the flagpole and see if they salute.”
With Chuck gone, I set up shop on the couch and began the tedious work of reclaiming my buzz. Vodka in hand, I put the television on channel two and began a fresh wave of channel-surfing. Infomercials, Gary Coleman on the Psychic Friends Network, a movie from the early seventies about a prison break, the life cycle of the manatee on Discovery, fuzzy shots of body piercings on public access, a B-movie about radioactive high school kids with neon sweatshirts and bad haircuts on USA, stand-up comedy on the Comedy Network, an old
episode on Nickelodeon.
Finally, I found a
rerun on one of the local stations. Lieutenant Stephanie Holden was being held hostage in one of the lifeguard towers by an evil lunatic with a bomb. You could tell he was a bad guy because he didn’t have a tan. Hasselhoff had to get under the tower undetected, so he was tunneling through the sand in his wet suit, digging out the sand in front of him and depositing it behind him with some gizmo he’d kept from his days as a Navy SEAL. He looked like a giant earthworm.
I was suddenly very lonely. For Sarah, for Lindsey, for a party to be named later—I didn’t know. I had told Chuck that nothing
had changed, but that wasn’t true. Being an official divorcé brought late-night channel-surfing up to a staggering new level of depressing. I just wanted to belong to someone already. Thirty . . . shit.
The night before I got married, I ate dinner at my parents’ house and afterwards spent some time in my old bedroom going through my drawers and bookcases, looking at all the stuff I’d accumulated growing up. Photos, birthday cards, ticket stubs, pocket knives, mix tapes, notes from old girlfriends. The bedroom was like a time capsule of the first eighteen years of my life, everything perfectly preserved as if I’d just left it the day before. As I went through my drawers, I was struck by how many items were still in the random positions they’d landed in when a younger me had discarded them to be dealt with at a later date. So many things I’d assumed I would revisit, oblivious to the hot breath of time on the back of my neck.
I sifted through all of my artifacts, feeling the need to touch every single one of them, to establish a tactile connection to my past. I found a green, elastic headband that belonged to Cindy Friedman, my ninth grade girlfriend and the first girl I’d ever seriously made out with. I held it to my nose and thought I could still detect the faint scent of her perfume. We’d climbed under my covers that night, quivering with anticipation, and she’d pulled it out of her hair and put it under my pillow. A little while later she had let me take off her shirt. I could still remember the sweet copper taste of her skin, the flawless texture of it against my lips. The next day I’d tossed the headband into my top dresser drawer, where it had remained undisturbed until that night before my wedding. Holding it again, I felt overwhelmed by a sense of desperate yearning, not for Cindy Friedman, but for the quivering.
At some point that night, while wishing that I could go to sleep in my childhood bedroom and wake up in high school again, I
realized that I didn’t want to marry Sarah. I’d actually realized it weeks before, but there, surrounded by the innocent souvenirs of my youth, I finally admitted it to myself. I loved Sarah, but I couldn’t remember a single time I’d quivered for her. I must have sat on my old bed for over an hour that night, running through the different ways I could call the wedding off, all the while knowing I never would. High drama had never been part of my repertoire. I was terrified of facing Sarah, who would go ballistic, and my mother, who would have a coronary, but all of that was secondary to my primary fear, which was the knowledge that when the dust settled, I’d be waking up alone again. How long could you hold out for someone who made you quiver before the loneliness devoured you? My marriage might be tainted by pragmatism, but there was something almost reaffirming in precisely that. Almost.
And now I was divorced. I was waiting for the final feeling. The one that would come after the drinks wore off, after the depression and fear faded to faint background noise. The feeling that would stay. I wondered if I’d be elated or sad, liberated or just filled with regret. I had no idea, but I knew it was in the mail. I looked at a picture of Sarah and me dancing at the wedding of one of her friends. She was looking up at me with this wise and loving grin, as if I had just said something to her that only the two of us could ever understand. I wondered what I could have said to make her look at me like that. I was looking right back at her, but my expression was inscrutable, as if the camera had caught it in the middle of forming.
The booze wasn’t doing anything for me, so I got up from the couch, scrambled some eggs, and thought about getting a dog.
A few hours later, as the first rays of sunlight came slinking into my bedroom, my mother called. I can always tell it’s her before I
pick up, as if there’s a slight difference in the timbre of the telephone ringer when my mother’s on the other end. This small psychic gift is matched only by her uncanny ability to call at the exact times when I really don’t want to speak to her.
“Hi Ben, it’s your mother.” As if she’s talking to an answering machine. Not “it’s Mom” or even just a “hi” with the omission of identification that comes with familiarity. Always “it’s your mother,” as if we were strangers in need of introduction.
“Your father and I just wanted to see how you’re doing.” This was also part of her script, an apology of sorts for my father’s poor communication skills. Not that he wasn’t interested in my well being because he was, but in a passive, general way that didn’t require details. As long as I was fine, that was all he needed to know, and he barely required confirmation. He was happy to assume it, unless he heard differently. A hard-working engineer his entire adult life, my father was a quiet, disciplined man, utterly unskilled when it came to showing affection or concern. I didn’t take it personally, which isn’t the same as saying I was thrilled to grow up with it.
“I’m fine,” I said. “How’s your leg?” My mother had recently begun suffering from arthritis in her left knee, an ailment that had taken on a much greater significance than it should have because to her it signaled the beginning of her old age.
“Yesterday was a killer. Today I took some Motrin and I’m getting by.”
“How’s Sarah?” she asked. Although she knew we’d been separated for over eight months, she refused to recognize it for what it was, choosing instead to view it as an indulgence common to couples of our generation that we needed to get out of our system. Every time she called she determinedly asked after Sarah as if
everything was completely fine, which somehow helped her maintain the illusion.
“She’s good,” I said, mentally gritting my teeth. “I actually saw her yesterday.”
“Oh!” my mother exclaimed, surprised in spite of herself. “Is she back?”
“Uh, no. Mom, we got divorced.”
“What do you mean you got divorced?” she demanded, as if I might be mistaken.
“That’s it, it’s over.”
“You signed divorce papers?”
“Hers and mine.” The lawyers seemed to quiet her for a minute. I heard an electric whoosh as she put her palm over the phone and called out for my father. “Herb, get in here!”
“When were you going to tell us?” she asked, which wasn’t really the point, but she was reaching out for something to pin her disappointment on.
“We just signed the papers yesterday,” I said.
“Yesterday,” I heard her mouth to my father. I could picture her saying it, comically exaggerating every syllable so that he could read her lips, although he didn’t need to since she was patently incapable of whispering, a failing that had embarrassed me in my youth on more than one occasion.
“Did you tell Ethan?”
“I haven’t really felt like sharing yet, Mom.”
“So what? He’s your brother.”
I willed myself to ignore the silent accusation in her mention of my older brother. She almost certainly didn’t mean anything by it, but still I felt the familiar resentment rise unbidden, a bitter-tasting
dryness in the back of my throat. Only four years older than me, Ethan was a partner in a small, highly successful venture capital firm. He was also married with two children and a third on the way, all of which added to his luster as the successful son. Basically, he was fulfilling all of her dreams and I was the screw-up. She never said anything like that to me, never even hinted at it. She loved us both and would never consciously try to hurt either one of us. But still, it was apparent to me in the way her voice changed, ever so slightly, when she mentioned Ethan, in the subtle deference she paid him at family gatherings, usually in his immense house in Hewlett, Long Island. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the pride she felt in my brother’s accomplishments, but I always found myself struggling against petty jealousy whenever I intuited that pride. Whatever I wanted for myself, I couldn’t help feeling a filial obligation to be successful for my parents’ sake, which may have been a silent factor in my decision to marry Sarah in the first place.
My mother had never been able to muster any real enthusiasm for my job at
, and who could blame her? It was a steppingstone that had mushroomed into its own pathetic plateau. But Sarah had been my saving grace, because not only was I married, but I was married to an architect, and that was something my mother could sink her teeth into. My daughter-in-law the architect. My son the . . . husband. And now I wasn’t even that anymore. I briefly wondered if speaking to my mother made me feel like a failure because that’s how I appeared when I saw myself through her eyes, or because I projected my own feelings of failure onto her, and she was just an innocent bystander. Either way, I had to admit that my state of affairs had certainly plummeted to new depths if I was reduced to trying to figure out who thought I was the bigger fuck-up, me or my mother.
I sighed deeply into the telephone, telling myself that I was being too harsh. My mother was worried about me, that’s all. Now that she understood the situation, some words of comfort would no doubt be forthcoming.
“Is she with someone else?”
Oh, Christ. “Mom, it was nothing like that,” I said. “The marriage was just a mistake.”
“Well you didn’t think that three years ago.”
“Obviously, or I wouldn’t have gotten married then, would I?” I shot back, although I had my doubts about the veracity of that statement.
“Well,” she said, after a bit. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Then don’t say anything,” I advised.
“We just want you to be happy,” she complained, as if it were my sole intention to deny her that simple desire.
“Then really don’t say anything.”
“I’ll put your father on.” There was a minute’s fumbling with the phone as they exchanged muted whispers, and then I heard my father’s low slightly raspy voice. “Ben?”
“Hi . . .” I could picture him in his chinos and an undershirt, sitting at the kitchen table with his bran flakes and the
, which he’d still be absently looking at through his bifocals as we spoke.
“Mom okay?” I asked, to give him something to say.
“She’s a little bit upset right now.”
“Are you going to be okay?” he asked, clearing his throat as he did.
“I’m fine, Dad.”
“Okay, well you know, if you need anything . . .”
“I know, I’m fine.”
“Okay, very good,” he said, not because it was true but because that was how he ended all conversations.
“I’ll speak to you soon,” I lied.
“Very good,” he said again. I waited to hear the click of his phone before I hung up mine, which didn’t click into place correctly, so I banged it in with my fist, hard enough to ring the bell. Two long cracks appeared in the plastic next to the number pad and I heard something small and metallic fall onto the floor and roll away. Very good, I thought.
Alison thought that kidnapping Jack was actually a practical idea. “We could use my parents’ place in the Catskills,” she said. “We all take off a couple weeks from work, and stay up there with him until he’s better.”