Read Plan B Online

Authors: Jonathan Tropper

Plan B (3 page)

At a party the day after our graduation, Lindsey and I were dancing, as usual just a wee bit closer than the legal limit for just friends, when she asked me, “So, Benny, what are you going to do now?”

“I told you the plan,” I said. “I’m taking off a few months to write, and then I’ll start interviewing at some publishing firms.”

“No,” she said, her lithe body coming to a complete stop as she pulled back to look me in the eye. “I mean, what are you going to do about me?”

We were together for two perfect years, the kind that would get a sixty-second montage of film clips set to a Harry Connick Jr. song like in
When Harry Met Sally
. Walking through the park, kissing in the rain, clowning around at a street fair, et cetera. Two years, which was long enough for me to believe it would never end. Of course it did, though, when Lindsey panicked and decided that at twenty-four she was much too young to be settling down and it was time to get out there and see the world. She quit her job as an elementary school teacher and launched her world tour,
facilitated by a brief stint as a flight attendant, and I eventually rebounded into Sarah, who had a career, goals, and a more highly developed nesting instinct.

Lindsey moved back to Manhattan around the time I got married. Over the next few years she was in a constant state of career flux, from advertising, to diamond trading on Forty-seventh Street, to teaching aerobics classes at Equinox. Mostly she temped as a receptionist while she was between jobs. Whatever it was she’d been looking for when she took off for parts unknown, she hadn’t found it, which should have made me feel vindicated but only made me sad. I saw her periodically, when all of us went out, but we never got together one-on-one. Lindsey never would have suggested it since I was married, and I was scared of being alone with her because it would make it harder to deny that I’d married the wrong person. So we met in the safety of our little group, stayed in touch intermittently, and tried not to see the tragedy in the casual acquaintances we’d become.

“Ben?” Lindsey asked, bringing me back to the present.

“Yeah?”

“You’re crying.”

“I’m just drunk,” I said.

She put her head on my shoulder and wrapped her hands around my arm. “Poor Ben.”

The next day I got a call at work from Alison.

“Hi, Ben, is this an okay time?”

Alison was an attorney, and probably a damn good one, although she wisely chose not to be a litigator. She has too peaceful a nature. Still, she was about five years away from a partnership at Davis Polk, so it was nice of her to ask me, an articles editor and chief list maker for
Esquire
, if it was an okay time.

Whenever I wanted to indulge in some quality self-pity, I would recall painfully how excited I was to get hired at
Esquire
. How on my first day I sat down in my pathetic little cubicle with its unfettered view of the wall, put my legs up on the Formica board suspended between the two front walls that served as my desk, and smiled to myself at how I’d made it to the big time. I was so sure that it would only be a matter of months before I blew them away with my writing and was elevated from my proofreading and issue compilation duties to loftier writing assignments. Maybe I’d even get them to publish one of my short stories. By the time I
finished my novel, I would have no trouble snagging an agent and the interest of major publishers based on my solid credentials as a writer for
Esquire
. Even after I learned that most of the serious articles weren’t actually written by employees but by contributing writers, I was confident that my abilities would eventually be recognized.

It took me a few years to realize that nothing was happening for me. Nothing doesn’t happen all at once. It starts slow, so slow that you don’t even notice it. And then, when you do, you banish it to the back of your mind in a hail of rationalizations and resolutions. You get busy, you bury yourself in your meaningless work, and for a while you keep the consciousness of Nothing at bay. But then something happens and you’re forced to face the fact that Nothing is happening to you right now, and has been for some time.

For me it was a short story I was asked to proofread about a man driving through Florida with his younger brother to attend the funeral of their estranged father. Their car breaks down at an alligator farm and while they sit there watching the locals wrestle and herd the alligators, they review the dissolution of their family and the demons that drove their father to abandon them.
Esquire’s
fiction editor Bob Stanwyck, known throughout the office simply as “The Wyck,” favored literary narratives with travelogue sensibilities and little if any ultimate resolution, and this selection was perfectly typical of him. It was also emblematic of why he consistently returned my own short stories to me through interoffice mail with courteous rejections scribbled on yellow sticky note papers.

After finishing the story I happened to glance at the author’s bio and discovered with a start that he was twenty-six years old and this was the third story he’d published. I was twenty-eight at
the time, and all I had to show for my efforts was . . . Nothing. Suddenly the gray, threadbare, carpeted walls of my cubicle seemed ridiculously small, and the foam dropped ceiling with its tiny brown craters seemed lower than before. That was the day I realized I hated my job. It would still be a few months before I came to understand that realizing it and doing something about it were two very different things.

When Alison called I was sitting in my cubicle, considering the metaphorical implications of
Star Wars
action figures for an article that would never be published. I was reworking the assortment of figures that adorned my overhead file cabinets to include a new Luke Skywalker with Yoda attached to his back (thank god for office accessorizing, the last playground of the reluctant adult). I was nine years old when
Star Wars
came out, and like so many of my peers, I never outgrew it. And now, twenty-two years later, with the release of
The Phantom Menace
, they had come out with a line of reengineered action figures from the original trilogy that I felt a strong, posthypnotic urge to buy.

It seems to me that action figures have come a long way in twenty years. Their colors are brighter, they’re made with greater detail, and in some instances they actually resemble their actor counterparts. They have better accessories, they’re slightly larger, and they’re more anatomically correct. Real people, on the other hand, seem to lose color and detail as they get older, and after they hit middle age will sometimes even begin to shrink. Luke, Han, Leia, and even Obi-Wan seemed to be aging much more gracefully than the rest of us.
Thirty . . . shit
.

I told Alison that it was a fine time to call.

“It’s about Jack,” she said. She sounded nervous. “I think he’s really in trouble.”

“I’ve been thinking about that, too,” I said.

“He’s addicted, Ben. He needs help.”

“Did you discuss it with him?”

“You saw the shape he was in,” Alison said. “As soon as we got back to the hotel he fell down on his bed and went to sleep. I checked his shaving kit and found two bags of coke and flushed them down the toilet. He was so furious when he woke up, Ben. It was like he was another person. He tore the room apart looking for drugs and cursed at me. He said I . . .”

Her voice broke there and she couldn’t go on. Sweet Alison, who never had a bad word to say to anyone, who had loved Jack selflessly for almost a decade, had to listen to him curse her out as he came down.

“You know he didn’t mean anything he said,” I told her. “It’s the drugs doing the talking.”

“Then Seward came in,” she continued, struggling to get control of her voice. Paul Seward was Jack’s agent and an absolute control freak. To hear him tell it, he’d conceived and delivered Jack and single-handedly nurtured him to stardom. “He practically pushed me out the door, told me to wait in the lobby and he’d get Jack straightened out.”

“So what happened?”

“I waited down there for an hour and then I called up to the room. No one was there. Paul must have taken him out through another exit.”

“Bastard.”

“Yeah. He is.”

“Did they go back to LA?”

“I guess so.”

She seemed to be waiting for me to suggest something, but my mind was a blank. I picked up R2-D2 and began absently twisting his domed head around, a long-standing habit of mine. The clicking
the ratchets made as the droid’s head spun soothed me. “I’m not sure what you think we ought to do,” I said.

“I don’t know either,” said Alison, and I could hear the weariness in her voice. “But I know that agent won’t do a damn thing for him. Jack’s his meal ticket.”

“Maybe if we spoke to Paul and tried to make him see the larger picture,” I said. “Jack might make a lot of money for him now, but at this rate he could crash and burn at any time. If he takes him out of circulation to get him cleaned up, he’s investing in a longer future.” Even as I said it, I realized the fallacy in my approach. Hollywood was not a place where you bought futures in anybody. Jack was a star here and now, and if you were his agent, you struck while the iron was hot. Next year, if Jack’s career went to shit, Seward would have a substantial nest egg to live off of while he searched for the next Mr. Thing.

“We’re his friends, Ben.”

“I know.”

“All of his friends out there have a piece of him, you know? We’re his only real friends.”

“So what do we do?” I asked.

“I think maybe we should have an intervention,” said Alison.

An intervention. The surprise party of the millennium. Pick a place and time, invite the guest of honor, and have all of his friends waiting with light refreshments and some tough love. Surprise! You fucked up and we all know it.

“Do you think Jack will really respond to something like that?” I asked, returning R2 to his spot next to C-3PO, his golden sidekick.

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “But we have to try something. I could never forgive myself if we just stood by and something terrible happened.”

“An intervention, huh? Aren’t we supposed to have a professional drug counselor do it with us?”

“Probably,” Alison said. “But whatever slim chance we have of Jack being receptive to us will disappear if he sees we brought in an outsider.”

“You’re probably right.”

“What? What are you thinking?”

“It just sounds so . . . dramatic. Like a made-for-TV movie starring some has-been sitcom actor, or one of the
90210
girls.”

“If you can’t get dramatic for a movie star,” Alison said, “then who?”

I had to concede that she had a point.

“So this guy is dating three women, okay?” Chuck was saying. “And he knows he needs to commit to one of them, but he isn’t sure which one to run with.”

“Why do all of your jokes sound autobiographical?” I asked.

“Because his life is a punchline,” Lindsey said.

We were on a conference call, arranged by Alison, to discuss the viability of a friendly intervention for Jack. Chuck, Alison, and I were at work, and Lindsey was in her apartment. Alison had to put us on hold for a minute to handle another call, which gave Chuck the opportunity to treat us to this latest installment.

“You’re both just jealous,” Chuck said. “Anyway, he decides to give them each ten thousand dollars, and based on how they use the money, he’ll make his choice.

“Perfect,” Lindsey said.

“So the first woman comes back and she’s used the money to buy him a new motorcycle. The second woman says, I can’t take so much money from you, I’ll just take five grand, because that’s all I need to pay for the cruise we’ll be going on. You with me so far?”

“Unbelievably,” I answered.

“The third woman takes the ten grand and invests it in an I.P.O. for some dynamite Internet stock. A few weeks later she’s got eighty grand, which she splits with him, forty a piece. So,” Chuck paused for a moment. “Who does he marry?”

“I give up,” Lindsey said instantly.

“Me, too,” I said.

“The one with the biggest tits,” Chuck announced triumphantly.

“Oh, lord,” Lindsey moaned.

“I knew it reeked of autobiography,” I said.

There was a click and then we all heard Alison’s voice. “I’m back.”

“And better than before, hey la hey la,” Chuck sang.

“Okay,” Alison said. “I’ve pretty much had the same talk with all of you concerning an intervention for Jack. We all agree that it seems to be the best course of action right now.”

“Best course?” Chuck said. “It’s our only course.”

“Which makes it the best,” Alison snapped.

“Okay,” I interrupted. Chuck and Alison tended to rub each other the wrong way. It had always been like that, even back in college. Chuck’s brash and often crude manner didn’t mesh with Alison’s quiet, refined nature. He viewed her tacit disapproval of his often inappropriate behavior as a challenge, prompting him to even further extremes, which in turn made her feel every outrageous thing he said or did was a personal attack on her. Once they started in on each other, there was no stopping them, so the rest of us had learned over time to interrupt them as soon as they began to disagree. “So how do we go about doing this?” I asked.

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