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Authors: Jonathan Tropper

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BOOK: Plan B
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“How’s Jack?” Sarah asked.


“I saw it on the news last night.”

“Oh, yeah. Well, then you know as much as I do,” I said.

She had never cared for Jack, or any of my friends for that
matter. She was just asking because it was the proper thing to do. Sarah was always concerned with what the proper thing to do was. She was the kind of person who was adamant about using chop sticks when eating Chinese food, claiming that it just didn’t taste right with flatware. She insisted on using a French accent when pronouncing words like
Les Miserables
Gérard Depardieu
, and copiously studied the op-ed page every day, convinced that at any point there might be a surprise test on it. Remembering all of that calmed me down a little.

It was this borderline neurotic calculation that had drawn me to Sarah in the first place. She always seemed to have everything planned out to the last detail, was so completely sure of her direction. So when she determined that it was me she wanted to spend the rest of her life with, I knew that it was something she’d thought through, and that, unlike Lindsey, she’d never second-guess her decision.

Lindsey had treated life as an open-ended adventure where anything was possible. I loved her for the way she embraced the unknown, how she opened herself up to every experience. When I was with her she opened me up, too, stirred my passion and heightened my every sensation. Which was great, until she left me and all my heightened senses to deal with the heartache of losing her.

Sarah’s outlook was that life was a course to be carefully plotted, with speed and direction calculated toward an ultimate, predetermined destination. It was like a book, where she could sneak a peek at the ending and plan accordingly. She knew where she was heading, and exactly what she’d have to do to get there. After what I’d gone through with Lindsey, Sarah’s measured certainty was a welcome promise of stability and if that meant sacrificing some passion in the overall scheme of things, that was fine with me. Passion was dangerous anyway, and not conducive to stability. And so I cast my lot with Sarah, a well-intentioned, textbook case
of rebounding. Of course, I didn’t consciously recognize any of this at the time. I actually managed to convince myself that Sarah was very much like Lindsey, amorous and adventurous, but more prone to commitment. I reinvented Sarah in my mind, and it was like one of those posters with a hidden illusion that you can only see out of the corner of your eye. Once you looked directly at it, the illusion was gone.

It didn’t take very long for me to start suffocating. I think it started going downhill shortly after our first anniversary. The same certainty that had first attracted me to Sarah was now threatening to stifle me. My life lay stretched out before me with utter clarity and it held no mystery, no hidden potential. Everything was completely scripted and there was no room for improvisation, no chance to say “what if?” Just an alarmingly increasing sense of what might have been.

And so I began to rebel. Quietly at first, almost imperceptibly, as if to test my own resolve, and then more aggressively. Maybe I wouldn’t be ready to have kids by year four. Maybe I would quit my job at
and write full-time, weekly income be damned. Maybe I did want to buy a house in the suburbs instead of buying and selling our way into an Upper East Side co-op. And don’t you think we ought to get a dog? There was no shortage of issues to choose from. I met with resistance from Sarah almost immediately, as I knew I would, and reacted to it with surprised hurt, as if it was she, and not me who was suddenly changing the terms of our covenant. The marriage quickly deteriorated into a continuous barrage of petty arguments, memorable only for their escalating viciousness.

Afterwards, I would sometimes try to remember what was going on in my head during that awful time, to see if I made any attempts at reconciliation, but I can’t seem to locate myself there at all. I was already gone, just another piece of furniture waiting for the movers. Our situation eventually became so adversarial that when
Sarah finally threw her battle-fatigued arms into the air and gave up, I actually felt elation, a sense of victory for which I was instantly ashamed. What made things worse was that from the minute we agreed to get divorced it was as if the bone of contention had been removed, and we instantly rediscovered our affection and respect for each other, which served to greatly magnify my already immense guilt and perfectly underscore the tragedy of the whole damn thing. Just in case I’d missed it.

“This feels weird, doesn’t it?” she said, as the elevator doors opened and we stepped into the lobby.

“It just doesn’t feel like anything,” I said. “I always thought a divorce would feel more, I don’t know, momentous.”

She smiled sadly at me. “Your problem is that you always want everything to be so clear cut. You always want the situation to define itself in absolute terms. Otherwise you’re scared you won’t know how to feel.”

It was true. That was one of my problems.

“Didn’t I just sign something that says I don’t have to listen to criticism like that anymore?”


“We just got divorced,” I said, trying to keep any trace of bitterness out of my voice. “Pay attention.”

We stepped out onto Madison Avenue, into the world in which I was suddenly single again. Not only single, but a divorcé. I was suddenly less substantial than I’d been an hour ago. I had a scar to show for my travels, a mark on my permanent record. There was something oddly appealing about being damaged. I needed to get drunk in the worst way.

“Well,” I said, thinking that there should be something more to say to her after having shared a bed, a bathroom, a bank account, and the occasional toothbrush for almost three years. A family of blond people in T-shirts and sneakers walked past us,
holding hands and smiling like the Brady Bunch as they looked around. Tourists.

“Wouldn’t it be nice,” Sarah said, “if after a marriage didn’t work out there was a place you could go, once in while, to just see the person, see how they’re doing, and just kind of touch base with them?”

“That would be nice,” I agreed.

“I mean, it’s kind of hard to shake the notion that we are, in some way, still family.”

We thought about that for a moment. There was still a sense of togetherness to us, in the way we were standing and talking, and both of us were having trouble breaking away. The aroma of sauerkraut came wafting over from a hot dog vending cart on the corner. I knew that now divorce would always smell like a hot dog. I would have to avoid barbecues for a while, which, given my social calendar, wasn’t looking like it would be a huge problem.

“I’m sorry if I caused you any pain over all of this,” I said.

She waved away the apology. “I guess it’s just a good thing we did this now, while we’re still young and there are no children. We’ll be able to look back on the good times, you know?”

“I guess so.”

She extended her hand and I shook it, and the absurdity of the gesture suddenly brought the whole scene crashing from the realm of the surreal back into reality. “Well,” she said. “I wish you all the happiness in the world.”

“Me too,” I said. “And I hope you do okay, too.”

“Ha ha.”

“Take care, Sarah.”

“You too, Ben. See you around.”

“Yeah, see you,” I said, but what I was thinking was, eight million people in the naked city, fat chance.

Chuck came over that night to get drunk with me. We sat on the floor with our backs against the couch doing shooters, two parts Sprite and five parts vodka, while watching the “News at Eleven.” Sue Simmons had just told us about Louis Varrone, a twenty-three-year-old man in Brooklyn who had committed a sensational suicide. He had set up a lounge chair on the tracks of the elevated train, then listened to Beck on his Walkman and drank beer until the D train came in and pulverized him. His mother, who was not available for an interview, nevertheless sent word to the reporters that Louis had become increasingly despondent ever since the cancellation of
Star Trek: The Next Generation
a few years earlier.

“What a nut job,” Chuck said. “Can you imagine what kind of loser that kid must have been?”

“I don’t know,” I said, letting out a burp that was two parts Sprite and five parts vodka. “I remember being pretty upset when they canceled
Battlestar Galactica.”

“Well, for Chrissakes,” said Chuck, who was not quite as inebriated as me, but getting there fast. “It’s just a damn show. You don’t go and kill yourself.”

“I know. But I guess for some people, it’s all they’ve got.”

“Well then they might as well kill themselves anyway.”

The news went on to show a fire that killed a family of five in Elmhurst.

“Have you ever noticed that the news is really just a glossy, overproduced body count?” I said. “I mean, why is it that death is all they think we really want to hear about?”

“It’s human nature,” Chuck said. “There but for the grace of god go I, and shit like that.”

“They may as well just come on at the beginning and say, ‘thirty-two people died today,’ ” I said. “Then do the weather and sports and be done in ten minutes.”

“Yeah, and then they could show
Gilligan’s Island
or something,” Chuck said.

Star Trek

“Or more
,” said Chuck.

“We could always use more
Bay watch
,” I agreed.

Chuck leaned back and closed his eyes. “There should be a Baywatch Network.”

The secret vice of the nineties man. A mindless one-hour pictorial with no depth to speak of, yet every man I knew occasionally watched it. You didn’t plan to watch it. You didn’t look at your watch and say, “Hey, it’s six o’clock, time for
,” You just invariably found it while you were channel-surfing, and there you stayed, your finger poised over the clicker, as if you might change the channel at any moment. There was something undeniably comforting about the show, especially at one in the morning when the emptiness of your life was keeping you awake. Endless sunny days, beautiful women, so accessible in their tight red bathing suits,
clearly defined moral situations, weekly heroics and long romantic walks on the beach set to eighties-style love songs. Everything life wasn’t.
was how your eyes massaged your brain.

At some point I dozed off, and dreamed that I was sitting somewhere outdoors with Lindsey. The air was the color of faded vermilion, and a soft breeze was blowing against our faces. I was holding her hand, but she didn’t realize it. It seemed very important to me that she say something to me to show me that she knew we were holding hands, but all she did was talk about a temple in Luxor she’d once visited. As I grew more frustrated I tried squeezing her hand, but she remained oblivious. It was like I wasn’t there at all, which didn’t strike me as fair since it was, after all, my dream. Right before I awoke I thought to myself wistfully, maybe it’s not my dream. Maybe it was her dream that I’d somehow ended up in, and that’s why I wasn’t having any effect.

I rolled over, seeing every fiber of the carpet with a drunken clarity, and looked up to find Xena, the Warrior Princess, scowling at me from the television and Chuck looking at me, cup in hand, a triumphant smile on his face. I could see a patch of stubble in the fold of his neck, where his razor had missed. “I know what we should do about Jack,” he said.

Chuck’s idea was simple in its premise, and damn near impossible to execute. What it amounted to was this: We would kidnap Jack, one of the most recognized movie stars in the world, take him to a secluded place where we could keep an eye on him, and stay with him until he kicked the habit.

“It would take forty-eight to seventy-two hours for his blood to be completely free of coke,” Chuck said. “After that, we would just need to keep him there for a while to stop him from getting more. I don’t think he’s been on it long enough to have a full-blown addiction.”

“What are we going to do, tie him up?” I said.

“If we have to.”

We thought about it for a minute. “How do you kidnap Jack?” I asked. “He’s always got an entourage with him.”

“Don’t fuck me up with details, dude,” Chuck said. “I’m still talking big picture here.”

“You’re talking felony, my friend.”

“I open people up every day,” Chuck mumbled irrelevantly, closing his eyes and rubbing his temples. “I open them up and fix them.” He suddenly looked up at me, as if he’d forgotten for a minute that he wasn’t alone. “We can do this,” he said. “It’s not so crazy.”

“You’re talking about taking someone against his will—”

“Not someone. Jack. Our friend.”

“Our friend who isn’t speaking to us,” I reminded him.

“Details,” Chuck warned.

“The devil’s in them,” I mumbled. “Or is that god? I’m always getting those two mixed up.”

“The devil’s in the shit going into Jack’s blood,” Chuck said.

“I think we’re both too drunk for melodrama.”

“Fuck you. It’s a good idea.” Chuck heaved himself to his feet, groaning from the effort. “Jesus, I’m hammered.”

BOOK: Plan B
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