Authors: Jonathan Tropper
Thirty. . . shit
. Older than my parents were when they had me. I used to play basketball because I enjoyed it. Now it’s just one more thing I do to stay in shape. Soon they’ll have to start sending an annual search party up my rectum to check on my colon. When Mozart was my age he’d already written the bulk of his work. When Kurt Cobain was my age he’d been dead for two years.
What was Bill Gates doing when he was thirty? What was John Lennon doing when he was thirty? What was I doing two weeks ago? I can’t even remember.
Thirty. . . shit!
Two nights after our botched intervention I was home watching an old Stallone movie on HBO when Lindsey called.
“Didn’t recognize me?”
“It’s been a while since we talked on the phone,” I said.
“I never really felt comfortable calling when I knew Sarah was there. I don’t think she really approved of me,” Lindsey said.
“It was a case of retroactive jealousy,” I said.
“I know,” she said. “I had it too.”
“Sure. Most women would like to see their ex-boyfriends dead and buried before they see them with someone else.”
“Most women should have thought of that before dumping said boyfriends on their asses.”
“Uh-huh,” Lindsey said slowly, acknowledging the dig. “You’re not going to get into all of that now, are you?”
“Sorry,” I said, already regretting the remark. “I just felt like blaming someone for my current woes.”
We observed a brief moment of silence in honor of our ill-fated past, our breathing resonating through the mild static of the phone lines. Staying friends after a breakup is fine in theory, but in practice it’s a constant funeral, a sublimely tragic combination of wistful remembrance and perpetual regret. “I’ve missed talking to you,” I said.
“I missed you, too,” she said lightly. “That’s why I called.”
“So, when will you be officially divorced?” she asked.
“The lawyers have already drawn up the papers. We’re getting together tomorrow for a signing party.”
“I’m really sorry, Benny. She doesn’t know what she’s losing.”
“She’s got a pretty good idea, I think.” Did you? I thought to myself, but thankfully managed not to say it out loud.
“Would it be bad timing to suggest dinner tomorrow night?” she asked. “Kind of celebrating your new status as a free man?”
“It would be excellent timing,” I said. “But I don’t think I should be out with a woman the night after my divorce. At least
not one I care about. In that vulnerable state, I think my intentions might be misconstrued.”
“By me,” I said.
“I was just talking about a fucking dinner, Ben,” she said, insulted.
Call waiting beeped. “Hang on a second,” I said, grateful for the interruption.
“Turn on Fox News,” Chuck said after the click. “Quickly.”
I grabbed the clicker and flipped to channel five. And there was Paul Seward, Jack’s agent, talking to a gaggle of microphones. I clicked back to Lindsey and told her to turn on the news.
“. . . a minor incident that has been blown out of proportion,” Seward was saying. “Jack Shaw does not have a drug problem. Everyone is entitled to an occasional bad day. I fully expect him to be out of the hospital and back to work within a few days.”
The voice-over of a news correspondent came on. “Jack Shaw, whose last three movies have grossed a combined total of three hundred and forty million dollars domestically, became a major star after appearing in
, an action film in which ironically, Shaw played a rehabilitated drug addict out to avenge the death of his family . . .” The voice droned on as they ran footage of Jack in
, firing a gun as he ran between moving cars on the California freeway.
The program then cut to the scene of what appeared to be a car accident on one of those winding roads in the Hollywood hills. According to the nauseatingly earnest news correspondent, Jack Shaw had driven his Range Rover into a tree at over sixty miles an hour, bounced back into the street and narrowly missed a school bus full of children before coming to a rest in a small gully by the side of the road. Predictably, the news was playing up the school bus angle.
“Shaw’s car missed the school bus by inches, barely avoiding what could have been a major tragedy,” the correspondent was saying. “Local police have released a statement saying that Jack Shaw was booked at the scene for driving under the influence and for possession of a controlled substance.”
“Oh shit,” Lindsey said.
The camera was now on the correspondent, who was standing outside of County Hospital in Los Angeles.
“Shaw is listed in stable condition at County Hospital, and his doctors expect to release him within forty-eight hours. But his legal battles are just beginning. For Fox News in Hollywood, I’m Rick Brian.”
“I’d better call Alison,” Lindsey said.
“Bye.” I clicked back to Chuck. “Holy shit,” I said.
“You missed the part where they interview the school bus driver. He gave this whole song and dance about how, if he hadn’t jammed on the brakes, Jack would have taken them all out.”
“Do you think he’s okay?”
“They say he’s stable. I’ve got a friend who’s doing his OB-GYN residency over there. I’ll call him and see if he can find anything out.”
“Maybe this will shake Jack up a little,” I said. “Convince him he’s got a problem.”
“Yeah,” Chuck said. “Don’t count on it.”
By the time I’d gotten off the phone, I no longer had the patience to watch Stallone and his abs take on the Vietcong. I flipped on my computer and scrolled through the first few chapters of my latest literary attempt. I must have started half a dozen novels in my tenure at
, all of which were really the same novel told from different points of view, none of which were working. I just couldn’t seem to sustain a tone, the sense of emotional desolation I was trying to convey. I would read guys like Jay
McInerny and wonder at the ease with which he imbued his characters and the city itself with such a dark sense of casual futility. I wasn’t trying to be McInerny. I knew I hadn’t been to enough night clubs, dated enough models, or stayed up enough nights doing drugs with overeducated, preppy friends to even get near his subject matter. But I envied him his range of life experience and his ability to effortlessly draw upon it and make you feel you could relate, even when you couldn’t. Not being part of any obvious subculture, I couldn’t seem to find a setting in which to frame my characters. My failure to locate a context from my own life in Manhattan, even a dark dismal one, often left me feeling isolated and depressed. What the hell had I been doing for the last eight years and how was I going to write anything worthwhile without being able to access any significant pathos from my experiences?
Not surprisingly, I didn’t feel like writing. I stripped down, briefly checking out my naked torso in the bathroom mirror, for what I don’t know. I did a few perfunctory stretches and flexes, then caught my own eye and, suddenly bashful in front of myself, retreated to the shower. Showers for me are more than simply a place to clean off the accumulated grime of yet another day in New York City. They’re more like those sensory deprivation tanks that Michael Jackson supposedly sleeps in. Put me in a bathtub, and I’m itching to get out after five minutes, but I can spend an hour in the shower. It’s where I do my best brooding.
I thought about Jack and I thought about Lindsey. I wondered if there was anything I could do about either one. I thought about Sarah and wondered if I was sad because she was gone, or just sad because one more thing that was supposed to last hadn’t. Was I grieving? Or was I just depressed that I wasn’t? Friendship, love, youth, and fulfillment. All these impermanent things. When I finally stepped out of the shower, the tips of my fingers were shriveled like prunes, like the hands of an elderly man.
The first time I spoke to Lindsey was at a party at Aces and Eights in the winter of our freshman year. By then I’d been watching her for weeks, not so much frustrated by my inability to approach her as resigned to it. Every time I saw her around campus she was talking to one guy or another, always someone taller and edgier than me. I categorized them. Boris, the Film Student. Cyrus, the Anorexic Guitarist. Matt, the White Guy with Dreadlocks. Theron, the Stoned Poet. I fervently brainstormed for an oddball gimmick to make me something other than Ben, the Normal Guy, but inspiration never struck. They were hardcore rock and roll and I was a Bryan Adams guitar solo.
It was an utterly typical undergrad shindig. Strobe lights, pounding music, everyone blowing smoke into their drinks. Chuck and I were sitting in a corner doing vodka shots with these two girls I knew from one of my lit surveys but whose names I’d forgotten. Next to us was the requisite table of beer-soaked rowdies quoting Monty Python scenes verbatim, shouting to be heard
above the music. “It’s just a flesh wound!” “I’m Brian and so is my wife!” “Say no more, say no more. Nudge nudge, wink wink!” Chuck was arguing with one of the girls about what a dumb career move it was for Shelley Long to have left
. The other one was telling me about some paper she’d written with the questionable thesis that Edith Wharton was the Danielle Steel of her day. I earned an impatient look for ironically suggesting that Henry James might likewise be compared to Sidney Sheldon. “Radio Free Europe” was blasting on the club speakers and I was getting progressively more nauseous. A “slammer girl” wandered into the vicinity wearing a bandolier that held dollar Jell-O shots in little test tubes. The Monty Python guys attacked her and in the ensuing chaos I managed to slip outside for some fresh air.
I walked to the corner and sat on the hood of a battered Honda, savoring the cold December air even as it made me shiver, breathing deep and slow to fight off the nausea. It was well past midnight and Broadway was fairly empty. The door to Aces and Eights flew open and Lindsey came out and began striding up the block in my direction. I was too buzzed to employ my usual discretion, so I just stared at her as she came toward me. She was wearing jeans and a black, fuzzy sweater, her face flushed and sweaty from dancing. It was the first time I’d seen her alone. I was drunk and she was alone and my chances wouldn’t get much better than that, so I got off the car and said, “Hi, I’m Ben, I don’t think we’ve met yet,” or something equally witty, and she threw up on my shoes.
She threw up twice more on the way back to her dorm, and passed out before she could tell me which one she lived in, so I brought her back to my room. Carrying her down my hallway, I passed Jack and some girl heading outside. “Way to go, Ben,” he said with a smile. “Maybe soon you’ll work your way up to live girls.”
“Shut up and help me with the door.”
I laid her down on my bed and considered taking off her sweater, which had some dried vomit on it, but I didn’t know what she had on under it and I didn’t want my motives questioned, so I just rolled her up in my comforter and rinsed her face gently with a damp washcloth. She groaned once, then rolled over and fell asleep. I took a quick shower, popped a few Tylenols and sat down in my desk chair to watch Lindsey sleep. I spent some time considering some of the things I might say to her when she woke up, but when I opened my eyes in my chair the next morning, my neck knotted and my throat dry, she was already gone.
I didn’t see her for three days after that. For a while I entertained the notion that she might call to thank me, but then I realized that I’d never even gotten the chance to tell her my name, which meant she couldn’t get my number from the school directory. I didn’t know her last name either, which saved me the bother of having to wimp out of calling her. I tried to hang out in all of the places I’d seen her before, but she never showed up.
It was a Sunday morning and I’d all but given up on parlaying our sleep over into anything when I looked out my window and saw her sitting in the snow. It was the first storm of the winter and by the time I’d woken up Washington Square Park was already buried under a few inches. The streets were covered, parked cars submerged, and the snow was still coming down, hard and thick. The park was deserted. Then I noticed her, on a bench beneath my window, just sitting and staring out across the park. Even from six stories up and without a full view of her face, I knew it was Lindsey. I threw on a jacket, some jeans, and Docksiders and ran downstairs, desperately afraid she’d be gone before I got there. When I got down to the lobby I looked out and she was still there, in black corduroys and a black and red ski jacket, her blond hair tied in a loose ponytail. I was horribly under-dressed,
both for the occasion and the weather. My resolve started to waver, more from habit than anything else, but I reminded myself that I’d watched her puke her guts out, and if puking wasn’t enough of a social equalizer, nothing would be.
“Hi,” I said, approaching the bench. “Remember me?”
She looked up and said, “Hi,” which didn’t exactly answer my question.
“We shared some puke?” I said. “You spent the night?”