When I tell people I work in advertising, the most common response is, “Like Mad Men!” Yes, I tell them. Exactly like Mad Men. I get a similar reaction when I tell people I’m Italian. “Like The Sopranos!” they say. I’ve had numerous conversations—all of us have—where the most readily available access point is television or movies. Even historical events are more impactful with a cinematic gauge. Tell someone about D.B. Cooper and you’re apt to get a blank stare. Mention the part about him parachuting from an airplane with bags of stolen cash and suddenly your audience is enthralled, their eyes wide as they imagine a dogged FBI agent, played by Keanu Reeves, jumping out of the airplane after him.
In our hearts we know that real life can’t compete with the Hollywood version, but that doesn’t curb the disappointment when it falls short. In the last few years there’s been an unusual amount of Great White shark activity off of Cape Cod. Naturally we New Englanders were delighted. “Finally, it only took forty years! Will they close the beaches? Who will they hire to kill the thing?” I tuned in all summer, looking for a crackerjack team that included a hippie marine biologist and a salty old fisherman, only to be heartbroken when I learned that the matter was in the hands of professionals, learned men and women with high-tech gear and no intention of killing anything. Once it was clear that the shark would be monitored with an electromagnetic device, and not blown up by throwing a scuba tank in its mouth, I shut off the news and got on with my life.
The myth surrounding advertising is one of glamour, beautiful models, heavy drug use and office orgies. This may be true in some places, but where I work the ads are wholesome and family-friendly. I spent all of Thursday writing billboard copy for the Tallahassee Bureau of Tourism. Nine hours racking my brain for a clever headline to accompany four alligators playing golf.
Lately my job has consumed much of my time, so it seems appropriate to look back on where it all began: my first day in this business, before I realized there was more to this job than presenting storyboards to a conference room full of suits, like the opening scene of Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
I’d returned home to Boston in the summer of 1999, after a failed eighteen months as a producer’s assistant in Los Angeles. I lived at home with my parents, waited tables at night, partied until sunrise and by day searched for a new career in the Boston Globe’s Help Wanted page, anyplace that would hire a 24-year old with a year and a half of experience and a portfolio of college newspaper film reviews. Every day I scanned past jobs I’d never heard of, vague and ominous positions like underwriter or controller or estimator. There were several postings for pharmaceutical sales, auditors, restaurant managers, analysts, machinists, even drivers, but nothing for “Entry Level Ad Agency”. Then finally there it was, in bold lettering, tucked away at the bottom of the generic PROFESSIONAL section.
CHAMPIONSHIP ADVERTISING, a sports marketing firm, is looking for ambitious, motivated self-starters to join our team. Exciting opportunities! Earn up to $1,000/wk! Applicants will be screened by phone. Call 781-XXX-XXXX.
Sports marketing? I imagined myself behind a camera yelling “Cut!” while Pedro Martinez posed with a stick of deodorant. I called the number immediately and left a voicemail. Two hours later, while in the backyard smoking a joint, dressed in my Terrycloth robe, the phone rang. I ran inside and answered. A woman introduced herself as Susan Bowen from Championship Advertising. She sounded husky yet articulate and spoke with a thick Boston accent. I pictured Mary Tyler Moore sitting next to a box of merlot.
First she asked about my experience as a producer’s assistant. Then she asked if I had a car. Then she asked how soon I could start. I told her I could start right away. “Okay,” she said. “I just have one more question.” It sounded like she was shuffling papers, looking for something. “Oh. Right. How would you describe yourself in one word?”
“Hm,” I said, rubbing my lips, my fingertips smelling like cheap marijuana resin. “I guess…in one word…I’d have to say…um…” I had no idea what to say. What would she want to hear? I scratched my head and looked over at the living room mirror. There I was, at four in the afternoon, unshowered, wearing a robe and boxer shorts, tufts of bedhead sticking out like a missile silo, my eyes watery and bloodshot.
“In one word…I’d say I’m ambitious. Yeah, ambitious. Or maybe smart. No, ambitious.”
“Well congratulations. Why don’t you come in tomorrow at nine, and we’ll see how you do in the field?”
“Do I have the job?”
“Looks good so far. Come in tomorrow, meet some of our staff, sit in on a couple meetings, and we’ll take it from there.”
She gave me the address to the home office in Woburn, along with directions from I-95. I thanked her, hung up the phone and fist-pumped my reflection in the mirror. Then I realized I forgot to ask about health insurance, which I need due to my chronic bowel disease. I also forgot to ask about starting salary. And vacation time. And what exactly the job entailed.
No matter. I’ll find out tomorrow.
Since I didn’t have any friends, I celebrated alone that night, at Golden Star, the Chinese restaurant in Newtonville. There were always one or two familiar faces there, as well as Huey, the skinny Asian bartender who never spoke. This led me to believe that he was hiding something, like an inventory of Gremlins stashed in the back. At the bar that night was Roy Carbone, a city worker I knew from the neighborhood. In front of him were two packs of Marlboro Reds, five Keno tickets and a bottle of Bud Light. The beer bottle’s label was peeled off and torn into a pile of tiny shreds that sat next to his ashtray. “Hey buddy,” I said, slapping Roy’s back and taking the stool next to him.
He turned slowly to me, squinting through a plume of cigarette smoke with eyes that were set far back in his square head. “Do I know you?”
“It’s Danny. Pellegrini. I used to work at the restaurant next door.” I had hung out with Roy about sixty times over the past three years. What I should have said was “we snorted a gram of coke in the alley behind Pizzeria Uno last Sunday”, but I thought that might have been too forward.
“Oh yeah,” Roy said. He reached out to shake my hand. His fingers were thick and shaky, like four Jimmy Dean sausages on a frying pan, popping in their own grease.
I pulled out seventy-three bucks—my entire nest egg—and set it on the bar. Then a flash of prudency hit me and I tucked a twenty back into my pocket, just in case. I bought Roy a beer and ordered myself a Dewar’s—a taste I had acquired from my father’s liquor cabinet. Huey dropped off the drinks with a nod.
“I got a new job today,” I told Roy. “Advertising.”
Roy exhaled smoke across the bar. He swallowed forcibly for a moment, as though battling a severe attack of heartburn. “You want a job? Go up Church Street, up the fire station. Go see Dicky Iacuzzo, ya know, Joanie’s father. Tell him I sent ya, tell him you wanna take the firefighter exam. He’ll take care a yas.”
I nodded and tapped my finger on the rim of my rocks glass. “That’s an idea,” I said.
Roy continued, mumbling about how he was going to kill someone named Tommy. I drank my glass of Dewar’s and watched the Red Sox game on the TV above the bar, thinking about my new career in sports marketing.
We were the last ones to leave Golden Star that night, at a few minutes past one. I drank six Dewar’s and bought three of Roy’s beers. We also split an order of Teriyaki chicken and Peking dumplings. I spent all of my money, even the emergency twenty I was saving for gas.
I threw up twice on the walk home. When I finally got to my parents’ house I laid down in the front yard, smoked a cigarette and stared up at the moon. And that’s where I woke up, four hours later, to the smack of the Boston Globe landing on the front walkway, right next to my head.
* * * *
The traffic on 95 was slow moving. My head felt like it was in a vise grip. I was queasy and on the verge of heaving, as though my stomach was an oil drum, sliding around the back of a van, filled with watery refuse that spilled over the rim at every bump in the road. With every gag reflex came the burn of cheap scotch and the aftertaste of Asian beef. Even with the air conditioning on full blast I was brined in sweat. My neck was slimy underneath my shirt collar, my armpits and tailbone were damp, my butt crack felt like it was leaking. Droplets of melted hair gel trickled down my forehead and stung my eyes.
The hangover would wear off soon; the glory of a career in advertising, however, was infinite.
According to the site map in the office park’s lobby, Championship Advertising was located in suite 3C. The names of the neighboring businesses were stenciled in gold leaf lettering; Championship Advertising was written in black Sharpie on a piece of white paper that was taped over the previous occupant. A wave of nausea came over me. I rested my hand on the site map and took a deep breath to steady myself.
I arrived at suite 3C, my shirt sticking to my torso after walking up two flights of stairs thanks to an elevator that was OUT OF SERVICE. The smell of Golden Star’s barroom—a mixture of carpet mold and cigarette ash—seeped from my pores. A swell of diarrhea rose up from the pit of my stomach and then quieted. I knocked and walked in to the office.
The reception area was the size of a standard tollbooth. I introduced myself and was told to wait in Susan Bowen’s office at the end of the hall. On the way I passed a half dozen cubicles and saw two men and four women, all in their twenties. They sat at their desks and appeared to be hard at work, but something was missing. That something was computers and phones. And though they dressed professionally, in skirts and slacks and neckties, they were gaunt and ratty-looking, something about them slightly off, the incongruous white socks, the pencil-thin beard, or the prison tattoo creeping up from under a collar. They looked back at me as I walked by, their eyes straining to send a non-verbal message, one that I interpreted as either “help us” or “run”.
I arrived at an office with SUSAN BOWEN on the door. It was written in Sharpie and scotch-taped over a placard that read STORAGE. A moment later Susan walked in with a young woman in tow. “Hi, Danny. Susan Bowen. Nice to meet you.” We shook hands. There was a rip in her pantyhose and a lipstick stain on one of her front teeth. The smell of makeup and polyester was so pungent I almost gagged. She gestured to the young woman behind her. “This is Heather. You’ll be shadowing her in the field today.”
Heather was roughly my age but dressed for her seventies, with a double-knit blouse, knee-length skirt and boxy high heels that were a size too small, making the tops of her feet look like loaves of bread rising out from two baking tins. She had puffy, chipmunk cheeks that were spotted with constellations of acne. It looked as though she’d just ate 100 mg of prednisone for breakfast.
“What exactly will we be doing today?” I said. And then, as an after thought: “…in the field.”
“Well, Danny, Championship Advertising is a direct marketing firm. We present local businesses with the opportunity to connect with and support some of our hometown professional sports teams, and in doing so gain awareness on a much broader level. For instance: last month PepsiCo hired us to promote a sweepstakes among local real estate offices. The winner got a one month free billboard on one of the Fleet Center’s loge sections.”
“Wow,” I said. “That sounds exciting.” It did. Sort of.
Susan continued. “Today, of course, you and Heather will be working on a different initiative, but you get the picture.” She turned to Heather. “All set?”
Heather nodded, and the two of us were off, into the field.
* * * *
“Do you mind if I turn this down a bit?” I said, reaching over and lowering the volume on Jammin 94.5. “It’s a little early for Brittney Spears.”
“Sorry,” Heather said. We inched along interstate traffic in her Honda Civic. “And sorry about the air conditioning. I’m gonna fix it once I get the hundred and forty bucks.”
I nodded and leaned my head against the passenger-side window. The glass was hot against my temple. I felt faint. The edges of my vision blurred.
“What’s that smell?” I said.
She sniffed the air. “It could be exhaust. There’s a hole in the floorboard. I need to fix that, too.”
It definitely wasn’t exhaust. Something smelled sour, like spoiled milk. I looked toward the back seat and saw a menagerie of empty McDonald’s containers. One of them had the crust of a cheeseburger still inside it.
My mouth filled with saliva. I rolled down the window and leaned my head out. Heather asked me to roll it back up—apparently the sounds of the highway distracted her.
“So, where are we going?” I said, trying to be cheerful.
I waited for Heather to say more but instead she picked her nose and flicked away the debris.
“What are we doing in Billerica?”
She pointed at a three-ring binder wedged between the two front seats. I picked it up and opened it in my lap. Inside were sheets of pre-cut coupons, clipped together in packets. I flipped through one of them. The text and images and limited-time-only deals whirled past my eyes, but two things stood out:
Subway and Domino’s Pizza.
“What is this?” I said, barely audible.
“This week I’m meeting with businesses to discuss enhanced value lunch opportunities.” She nodded toward the binder. “For $19.99 a month they get premium access to Subway and Domino’s Pizza’s benefits program.”
I opened the packet again and examined one of the coupons: One large, thick crust pizza with any choice of topping, two large sodas and a bag of Lay’s potato chips. All for four dollars.
“There’s seven hundred and ninety dollars’ worth of food in there. We’re selling it for two hundred and forty. We’re giving these businesses over five hundred dollars.”
I was speechless. Heather mistook it as awe and continued. “I know what you’re thinking. Commission, right? What’s our end? Six percent. Well, I get six percent. But you will too, once you’ve completed your training and built your own client list.” She turned to me and smiled with a sinister overbite.
Suddenly it was hard to breathe. I looked out the window. We had gotten off the interstate a few minutes before and were now on a rural highway, in a remote area, far away from anything.
* * * *
The main commercial street of Billerica looked like a quaint Cape Cod neighborhood after a nuclear holocaust. The sidewalks were pitiful strips of dying grass. The businesses looked like residences: one-story, flat-roofed houses set back from the road, their windows barred and front yards overgrown with weeds. The late-morning heat approached ninety degrees, causing the air to hover in waves and turning the horizon a sickly pink, the color of a faded scab.
Heather and I walked along the sidewalk of dead grass. She eyed the offices for prospective sales while I struggled to remain conscious. I was dehydrated. My clothes stuck to me, especially my boxer shorts, which were crammed into my butt crack like a sumo belt, chafing my scrotum. I walked peg-legged in an effort to minimize the pain.
“Let’s try this place,” Heather said, pointing at one of the shitholes on our side of the street. We turned up the front walk.
“Can I ask you something?” I said. “What does any of this have to do with sports?”
She sighed, opened up her binder and held it in my face. I looked at the top sheet of coupons. Printed underneath the Subway logo was: “The Official Sandwich of the Boston Red Sox.”
“Does that answer your question?” she said.
“Yeah,” I said, my right hand unwittingly forming into a fist.
We reached the door. Heather rang the doorbell and we entered into the foyer of a Russian dentist’s office. A woman with a surgical mask around her neck quickly approached us looking alarmed. “What is matter?” she asked in a thick eastern European accent.
She seemed relieved once Heather explained our business there. I half listened as Heather fumbled through her sales pitch, repeatedly referring to the binder, gushing about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a yearlong membership to a fast food chain. From my other ear I heard fax machine transmissions, drilling, and some screaming.
“Ma’am, as a premium member you not only get great deals on all Domino’s Pizza and Subway products, you also get all food made to order. Like, if you want extra cheese, or extra mayo, all you have to do is call this toll-free number and create a…hold on…” Heather flipped through a few pages in her binder. “…a custom profile.”
I felt like crying. The woman shook her head. “No. Not interested.”
Heather held up a finger. “Also there’s a cookie of the month club…”
“I don’t have time for this. Now you leave please.”
Heather nodded, thanked the woman, and we left. To her credit, she was resilient. She clutched the binder against her chest like a schoolgirl and marched down the sidewalk. “It’s okay. One down, forty-nine to go.”
I dropped my head in my hands.
Next up was an animal hospital. Before we turned up the walkway a pickup truck drove by. Half a dozen guys, shirtless and sunburned and drinking cans of beer, were packed into the back. They honked and whistled and shouted at Heather.
“Yeah, sweet ass! Wanna jump in the truck with us?”
I looked at Heather. Her hair was frizzy from the humidity and sweat streaked down her face. “I’m used to it,” she said. “I just ignore it.” She walked up to the animal hospital’s front door.
As soon as we walked through the door my stomach leapt into my throat. The hospital was one dingy room filled with cages. The stench assaulted me: animal food, animal feces, animal entrails, animal cadavers…all mixed together to form a potpourri of diseased wildlife. A man in a white smock came out from behind a row of cages, adamantly shaking his head. “No. No. You were here two days ago. Please…”
That was all I heard. Before Heather could respond with her irrefutable sales pitch, I was outside, in the front yard, vomiting.
Two down, forty-eight to go.
“I might be coming down with something,” I said on the way to our next stop, a pawnshop called Billerica Buy & Sell. “I’m gonna hang out here for this one, get some air.”
“Okay,” Heather said. She looked confused for a moment, then promptly turned on her heels and marched toward the pawnshop, determined to close the deal.
I walked to the corner and leaned against a mailbox. The noontime sun drilled into me. I peeled off my sport jacket and undid my necktie. My shirt was soaked. For a second I thought I would die right there, in Billerica, on a Wednesday afternoon.
A ’64 Chevy Impala convertible pulled up at the intersection. The driver was a muscular black man with a doo rag and sunglasses. He turned to me. I waved hello and smiled. He smiled back.
“You are one pathetic motherfuckin’ white man,” he said. “You have yourself a lovely day now.” The Impala drove off.
A few minutes later Heather walked out of the pawnshop. She shook her head and clicked her tongue. “Not interested,” she said. “Oh well. You wanna grab some lunch?”
“Where?” I said, wiping tears from eyes.
She shrugged. “McDonald’s?”
I convinced her to drive me back to the Championship Advertising headquarters. She was weary, citing the mid-day traffic as a potential hazard. I assured her there would be no traffic in that direction at this time of day. I was wrong. Construction had closed down two lanes and it took us an hour and forty minutes to get back to Woburn. With the return traffic, she wouldn’t be back in Billerica until the close of business. I apologized for the inconvenience and wished her luck, then slammed the door shut. She drove away, the tailpipe of her Honda Civic scraping the pavement behind her.
I never went back to Championship Advertising, and they never called. Something told me this kind of thing happened all the time.
* * * *
Today I sit in an air-conditioned office, one furnished with a computer and a phone. I call composers and tell them I need a music track, something “uplifting and approachable, but still unique and with a bit of an edge.” I make videos that depict a world where everybody smiles, where product is the hero, where flaws are retouched and where life casually coexists with glaring brand logos. I write commercials about people who feel great and look slim. I help sell the tools that will equip you for the happiest, most fulfilling life imaginable.
Is it like Mad Men? Not exactly, but it’s not terribly different, either. And that’s not the point, anyway. Make-believe is not a gauge for reality. I remind myself of that whenever I get frustrated and existential at work, those times when I regret leaving the movie business, or the disappointment I feel when I argue with a co-worker and our banter lacks the machine-gun tempo of All The President’s Men. The best we can hope for in this life is happiness. And the only gauge for happiness, like it or not, is misery.
So if you ever find yourself stranded in Billerica on a sweltering July day with a vicious hangover and no quarter, consider it an investment.
In the spring of 2012, after ten years of relative calm, I was hospitalized for a severe Crohn’s Disease flare-up. Who knows what brought it on, but the usual treatment of antibiotics, steroids and fasting was ineffective. The disease had gotten so bad, in fact, that parts of my colon sprung leaks, like a garden hose that’s been run over by a lawnmower. Bacteria had seeped out and formed an abscess inside my abdomen. Not the cute, pimple-sized abscess. This was an abomination, so big that it pressed against my stomach wall and leaked out through my belly button. One night I awoke to a shiny trail of pus running down my naval. “Nurse, is this normal?” I said, pulling back the sheet.
“Better it drains out of your body rather than inward,” she said, gently cleaning the area with a wet rag. “The last thing you need is blood poisoning.”
“Well, I can thank my lucky stars for that,” I said, watching the yellow syrup ooze down my stomach.
There was an inflamed ball of pus inside my belly, the size of a large grapefruit. And this wasn’t even the main problem.
“It’s complicated in there,” the doctor said, illustrating the mess on his notepad. “A large piece of your digestive tract has become tangled with the abscess, causing some obstructions.” This accounted for the excruciating pain, as well the nausea and the sickly green wax paper that passed for my skin. “See what I mean?” he said, holding up his sketch. It was illegible, just a circle with a bunch of angry slashes through it. My internal organs now resembled a kindergarten project drawn by a deeply disturbed child, one who spends her nights conversing with an unplugged television.
“At this point we’re looking at one option: removal of the entire area,” the doctor said, bracing himself for my emotional collapse.
He seemed surprised by my response. “How soon can we do it?” I said. At that point I would have let him cut off both legs and replace them with hockey sticks, if it meant I’d be any closer to a meal. I hadn’t digested solid food in two months. Every time I ate, the food got stuck in my colon and then burst through the intestinal wall, and then dripped down into the abscess. That flaming ball of pus, it turned out, was stealing all of my nutrients. The pain would soar, I’d spike a fever and then wind up back at the emergency room, where I’d gotten to know the entire staff on a first-name basis.
“Six weeks should be enough time for the area to calm down,” the doctor said. Operating before that, he explained, could pose a significant risk. In the meantime a line was inserted through my belly and into the abscess, puncturing it like a straw into a carton of milk. The abscess would siphon through the line and into a plastic bag that dangled freely by my side. The output was staggering: at first it was a half-gallon a day, this vile mixture of blood and bacterial tendrils. It looked like a side dish my mother made when I was a kid: stewed tomatoes thickened with chunks of Wonderbread. “I need a picture of this,” I said, searching for my phone. The nurse was a recent college graduate, trying to do things by the book, but she humored me and held the container of drained abscess next to her face, as though posing in a Woolite ad from the 1950s. I asked her to smile, then snapped a photo and sent it to my mom. “All we need are sliced hot dogs,” I texted.
Since eating was forbidden until after the surgery, a feeding tube was inserted into my chest. Two thousand calories a day pumped directly into a major artery. Add that to the drain in my stomach and the two IVs, one in each hand, and you have the torso of a human marionette. The doctors encouraged me to take walks around the hospital floor to regain stamina, but with all the wiring it was too complicated. Even reaching for the TV remote was an ordeal, so I happily considered that my daily exercise. “You need to get up and walk around,” my mom said, “or you’ll get bedsores.”
“Bedsores?” I said, shaking out my drain into the plastic container. “Please don’t bore me with your luxury problems.”
The doctors kept me for another two days, to monitor my temperature and make sure I responded to the IV nutrition. I spent that time sulking, imagining life without a colon. How would I cope with this? Surely no one else in history had dealt with such a thing, so I prepared myself by staging a make-believe press conference, broadcast live from my hospital bed. I acted out all the roles: me, Barbara Walters, old girlfriends who dabbed their eyes while regretting their lack of understanding. Even a few celebrities chimed in. “A true inspiration, a true American.” This from Denzel Washington, who, along with Axl Rose, presented me with an honorary Oscar for heroism. I graciously accepted the award and then dedicated it to the real hero: Matt Damon, for his fearless portrayal of me in the film.
To my surprise, life in the outside world carried on without me. I checked the news regularly, expecting to find my health updates on CNN. Instead I watched a different saga unfold. While I faced mortality from the luxury of a hospital bed, the real battle was happening in the streets of America. Thousands were united in defiance of insidious evil, an existential threat that crept into the fold of our great nation, sure to annihilate our way of life. It was called the Affordable Care Act.
The legislation had passed two years earlier, and the backlash was just then hitting a fever pitch. The news showed mobs of angry protesters intercut with politicians who publicly condemned the law as mortal sin. “This is real, folks, and the consequences will be felt for generations,” exclaimed one senator, his face trembling as he addressed the press corps. Judging from his delivery you would have thought an asteroid was hurtling toward earth. But he was talking about free mammograms, and that doesn’t quite pack the same punch.
I watched the coverage all day, taking breaks only to empty my assorted bedpans. As a courtesy to my roommate I kept the volume low and thus missed most of the talking points, but thankfully many of the protesters held signs, so I was able to piece together the overall message. It was simple: we don’t want government healthcare. This was not how the founders envisioned it when they drafted the Constitution, over two hundred years ago, a time when the entire population fit inside a barn and most illnesses were treated with leeches.
Among all the signs, the most common was “NOBAMACARE”. Some used the O from Obama’s logo; some used the classic circle with a line through it. Some used Obama’s face, but with big ears and brown fur drawn in to resemble a monkey. A step up from this was “OBAMACARE = OBAMA FASCISM”. It was stenciled onto a sandwich board propped beside a middle-aged gentleman who grilled steak tips on a hibachi. Remove the swastika from his t-shirt and he could have passed for any urban hot dog vendor. I admired him, not because of his political stance, but because he looked so well fed, what with his drooping stomach and barbecue sauce smeared on his lips. I wished I could have been there with him, fighting the fight, gnawing on an ear of buttery corn while pumping my fist in solidarity.
Elsewhere, an older gentleman held a sign that read “GRANDPA AIN’T PAYIN THE BILL”. I’m not sure what this meant, but I felt bad for his grandkids. Did they get this everywhere they went, even Pizza Hut? Next was a photo of a young woman with long braided hair. The camera slowly zoomed in on her sign, which read “UNINSURED BUT AT LEAST I’M FREE.” So that’s what this is about. Freedom, our God-given right. I swelled with emotion and imagined myself ripping the tubes from my body and marching into the street, in a hospital johnny and slippers, weighing 135 pounds, leaving behind a trail of slick pus. I wouldn’t last twenty minutes, but at least I’d be free.
I heard them loud and clear. Government healthcare was bad. Mandated healthcare was bad. Affordable healthcare was bad.
Two days later I was discharged. I sat in front of the hospital, in a wheelchair, waiting for my mom to pick me up. I hadn’t been outdoors in two weeks, so I closed my eyes, listened to the chirping birds and enjoyed the June sun against my pale face. This was what the protesters meant by freedom. The unbound, unencumbered vivacity of not having health insurance. Because the right to be uninsured is what makes this country great. Take it away, and then what? Gone is the rugged individualism. Gone is the desire to seek out new frontiers. With a healthcare mandate shackled around our necks we’re nothing but a flock of soulless factory workers, toiling under the government’s boot heel.
I spent the next six weeks at my mother’s house, resting up for the surgery, yet still the healthcare debate haunted me. Most of it came from Justin, who lived across the street and spent most of his life in the front yard, yelling at squirrels. Justin was unemployed and staunchly opposed to what he called “socialized medicine”, which, ironically, was healthcare designed specifically for him. “I’m not paying, and that’s final,” he said. “They can tax me, penalize me, whatever. The state cannot decide what’s best for me. Period, end of story.”
For Justin, it was a matter of principle. He would rather go to jail than have health insurance. I admired his passion, but wondered what he would do if he ever got sick. “I’d figure it out!” he said, now yelling. “If it was really bad, I’d go to the hospital, sure. But most things we can fix ourselves. That’s my point! We live in a nanny state, where we’re just these helpless little baby chicks that can’t do a goddamn thing without the government pampering us!”
Justin had been fired from his last four jobs. The most recent was a liquor store, where he stocked shelves. Before that he was let go from a telemarketing gig, selling vacation packages to strangers, a commission-based job that didn’t even pay an actual salary. Yet somehow he felt skilled enough to suture his own flesh wounds or reset a broken bone.
I told him I was conflicted on the issue. Part of me felt that universal healthcare was important, essential even, but the other part liked being free from tyranny.
“Well, for you, healthcare is probably a good idea,” he said, nodding at the catheter that dangled from my chest. “But when the government gets involved, that’s when things get scary. I mean, aren’t you the least bit worried?” He had just informed me of Obama’s newly commissioned death panels, which, according to him, were convening at that very moment, in a secret room hidden inside the earth’s core. Their job was to weed through files of sick and elderly people and decide who was worth keeping alive and who should be put out to pasture.
This seemed far-fetched. Even so, that evening I drafted a letter to the death panel, something to read in case I was called upon to defend my life. I gathered together documents: tax returns, a college transcript I found in the basement, and some little league clippings from the local paper that my mom had saved. Proof that I was a worthwhile American. I searched for anything else that could lend value to my existence. There was an 8x10 photograph of Telly Savales, pointing at the camera. The inscription, which was dated just after my birth, read: Who loves ya, Dannyboy! Best Wishes, Uncle Telly. I’m not sure how or why my father ended up with this picture, but he mentioned it at least once a month when I was growing up, as though it were a family heirloom I would one day inherit. I hesitated, then placed it in the folder, thinking an endorsement from Kojak certainly couldn’t hurt.
In the weeks that followed I made an effort to relax and watch less news, but when the day of my surgery arrived, I caved. On the drive to the hospital I listened to talk radio, where the topic—you guessed it—was Obamacare. The callers were enraged, like Steve-o from Quincy, who predicted that emergency rooms would soon become savage arenas, just like the movie Mad Max. “I’ll paint my face like an Indian and go in there with a baseball bat, you know, the kind with spikes on it, and be like ‘fix my friggin toe’. Right? That’s what it’s comin’ to.”
“That’s what it’s comin’ to,” the host echoed. “Let’s go to Barbie from Medford. Barbie, who’s gonna fix Steve-o’s toe? Not President Obama, not unless Steve-o’s on welfare.”
The next caller was a soft-spoken man who identified himself as Joseph from Andover. Immediately I placed him as a snob. No one goes by the proper “Joseph” anymore, at least not since the death of Christ. At first his argument made sense, with his insights on price control and Medicaid expansion, but he quickly veered into a theory that vaccinations were a form of mind control. This dovetailed into an apology for “something big that was going to happen”, and then the line went dead.
“God bless you, Joseph,” the host said, blithely. “Folks like you are what’s keeping this country honest.”
Given the hysteria, I expected the hospital to be abandoned when I arrived, the halls littered with dirty forceps while the doctors—those lucky enough to avoid capture—fled to Canada through an underground tunnel. But inside it was business as usual: polished floors, bustling professionals, the smell of stale Au Bon Pain coffee. In fact, it seemed more like a museum than a hospital. I’d never noticed the glass prisms high up on the ceilings. They shifted around almost imperceptibly, creating a subtle kaleidoscope reflection. In the center of the lobby was a twenty-foot granite sculpture, a bequest, according to the plaque, from the artist to the medical board of directors. The walls were decorated with text: short biographies of industry pioneers and their medical breakthroughs, things we take for granted today, like the stint, or the prosthetic limb. The entire building was a testament to science and knowledge, a pursuit so ingrained in our bedrock that no amount of political chatter could crack it.
In pre-op the nurse made small talk, as they often do to distract a patient when the needle enters a vein. “Yeah, the Sox definitely need a middle reliever,” I said, “but how about this whole healthcare thing? Seems like it’s all anyone talks about lately. I mean, how’s the surgeon feel about this? Is she bitter?” I thought of a story a friend recently told me about his house. He bought it on a short sale from the bank after they foreclosed on the original contractors, who ran out of money, two months before construction was complete. Rather than graciously handing over the keys, the contractors trashed the place, tore out electrical sockets, poured cement down the drains, and spray painted FUCK YOU and I BE BACK on the walls. How might a surgeon react if, moments before a procedure, he or she was told of a massive pay cut or an undermining new malpractice law?
“You have nothing to worry about,” the nurse said, assuring me that I was under the best care, in one of the best hospitals in the country, and that no one—not democrats, not republicans, not even Steve-o—could threaten the integrity of our healthcare system.
Immediately I felt relaxed. Nurses have that magic power, as did the twenty milligrams of Fentanyl and Valium that had just hit my nervous system.
I awoke from the surgery with a colostomy fixed to my abdomen. This would double as my anus for the next three months, after which time the surgeon would reattach the small intestine directly to my last few inches of viable colon. Outside of the medical world, this procedure is known crudely as “getting the bag”, which makes an already unpleasant situation sound trashy and even more humiliating, as if I had the choice to replace my broken intestine with a brand new model but instead went for the cheaper option. It also heightens the dread, referring to a complex apparatus by an everyday household name. Death row inmates take their last breath inside “the chair”. Medieval criminals were pulled apart in an intricate torture device known simply as “the rack.” Now I’d be wearing “the bag”, which, in spite of its medical ingenuity, sounds like a burlap sack worn over one’s head to publicly shame them.
A colostomy is actually more basic than it seems. While most organs have multi-faceted, interdependent functions, the colon is really just plumbing. And surgically it’s treated as such. My small intestine was diverted through my stomach like a runoff pipe—there it was, right out in the open, a curled tongue poking through my skin to catch some snowflakes. The bag itself was made of thin, durable plastic—nothing that couldn’t be purchased at any Home Depot. When empty it pressed flat against my waist, but as it filled—which it did four to six times a day—it bulged out like a bag of microwaved popcorn. At the bottom was a clasp. To unload the bag I’d simply undo the clasp and lean over some kind of receptacle. Ideally I’d use a toilet, but when that wasn’t available I disposed of my waste in any outdoor location. I tried to be discreet, but sometimes it’s hard when you’re on a busy commercial street, hugging a trashcan.
The bag was fixed to my abdomen with an adhesive gasket, no stronger than those felt pads that stick onto the bottoms of chair legs. Obviously it couldn’t be cemented onto my skin, but it was frightening how easily the thing peeled off. When the bag was empty, this wasn’t an issue, but the pressure mounted as the bag filled, and there was only so much the gasket could take. At least a dozen times my colostomy reached capacity and then ruptured and spilled down my leg. Usually this happened when my mind was elsewhere, those rare instances when I felt like a normal, healthy person, one without a bag of shit glued to his stomach. Fortunately the spills occurred beneath my clothes, and I learned to keep a stellar poker face, able to carry on any conversation without alluding to the fact that bile was trickling into my shoe.
Twice the bag burst while I slept. The waste was like corrosive acid, staining through the sheets and deep into the mattress of my mother’s guest bed. But even as I scrubbed the next morning, a bandana around my nose to curb the putrid smell, it was hard not to be grateful. Two months ago I couldn’t even stand up straight, and now I had the strength to clean a bile stain, and do so with vigor. Afterward I’d eat some scrambled eggs and toast without worrying if the food would get lodged in my gut. And then I’d take a walk, which was especially nice without that portable nutrition pump to lug around. After four months in and out of the hospital, chained to IVs, catheters and drains, I finally felt free. Just like the uninsured, I thought as I emptied my colostomy down a sewer grate on the side of the road.
In October of 2012 I had my follow-up operation, called the “reversal surgery”, where the colostomy is removed and the two ends of intestine are reattached. The first time I used my new, sleeker colon, I was nervous. It had been three months since I moved my bowels, and I didn’t know what to expect. I approached the toilet reluctantly, like a racecar driver getting back into his car for the first time since a near-fatal crash. The surgeon warned me that the sensation would be odd at first, and she was right. I felt an abrupt suction in my stomach, like those pneumatic tube systems that transport things throughout office buildings. Aside from that it was painless and satisfying, so much that when I finished, I leaned against the bathroom doorjamb and wept.
“I’m glad you made it through this, Danny,” Justin said in a dubious voice, implying that his happiness came with some conditions. “But imagine the care you would have received had you not been able to choose your own surgeon? What if you had to go with some kid fresh out of medical school because, I don’t know, he’s cheaper and in your network? You get my point now?”
Any doomsday scenario was possible, but I was tired of debating, so I shrugged and took a bite of my apple. Justin carried on about socialism while I slowly chewed, savoring the tartness, enjoying my newly functioning digestive system and quietly thanking the surgeon who repaired it. My theory on healthcare is simple: I need it. Beyond that, I don’t know how it works. I’m sure the system is flawed, but fixing it is beyond my comprehension. I can barely assemble a bed frame from Ikea.
I’m lucky that, for the last fifteen years, I’ve been covered through my employer. When I was hired, the HR rep gave me three choices, and I picked the most expensive without even reading the one-page summary of benefits. I’m not even sure how much my plan costs because it’s deducted directly from my paycheck. All I know is the bill for two colorectal surgeries and everything in between came to a hundred and sixty grand, of which I owed ninety bucks.
“You just wait,” Justin said. “Your premiums will go up, and your healthcare will be compromised. The only ones who benefit from Obamacare are the deadbeats.”
“Good,” I said, reminding him that I am one of those deadbeats, currently masquerading as successful, and that someday my charade will end. When that time comes I’ll be on my own, uninsured, or free, if you will. And who’s going to insure a loss leader like me? I can’t imagine many healthcare providers will be clamoring for my business. In free market terms, I’m a bad investment. But when you think about it, who isn’t? Nearly half of Americans have at least one chronic disease. One in three will get some type of cancer, and—here’s an alarming statistic—three out of every three will die at some point in their lifetime. In a perfect world we’d go like cats, or Yoda. Curl up on the bed, close our eyes and sail off peacefully to the hereafter. But we all know it doesn’t work like that. There are surgeries, and bedpans, and pacemakers, and counselors, and overpriced prescriptions. There are bronchial infections and fractured vertebrae and ruptured ovaries. You may think you’ll sidestep all that. You may say, “When it’s my time, I’ll go naturally.” Something tells me that when the end comes, though, we’ll all be grasping for that one extra breath.
* * *
In the fall of 2013, a year after my surgeries, I went back to the hospital for a follow-up colonoscopy. The procedure isn’t so bad if, like me, you enjoy sedation. Of course, since my colon is one-tenth the length of yours, it was over before I really started to enjoy the buzz. The results were good—no active Crohn’s Disease. Afterward I celebrated with a pizza and the nightly news. The lead story, once again, was the Affordable Care Act. Opponents of the law had tried to stall its funding with something called a filibuster. This sounds like a grooming device for dogs, one sold on television late at night, but it’s actually a key ingredient in today’s legislative process. In the standard filibuster, someone gets behind the podium and speaks for as long as possible. After six hours they drift into madness and recite anything that crosses their mind: song lyrics, grocery lists, what have you. That evening’s report showed a twenty-three hour filibuster. In the final hour the senator, still upright behind the podium, read Dr. Seuss’s “Green Eggs and Ham”, a last-ditch effort to sway the hearts and minds of the American people.
This is the damage that affordable healthcare has left in its wake. A grown man dressed in a suit and tie, reading children’s literature to an empty room.
One can only hope his insurance plan covers mental.
In September of 2006 I bought a condo in South Boston. This was before the housing market collapsed, when banks handed out mortgages to anyone with nine digits in their social security number. Back then “pre-qualified” meant you had a job, or at least imagined yourself someday having one. I had no money to put down, and my credit score was in the low 300s. I couldn’t even afford the closing costs; in fact, if memory serves, I received around $1500 in buyer credits when the deed was transferred. So, in effect, I was paid to own property in Southie.
Soon after I moved in The Departed was released and, seemingly overnight, South Boston was en vogue. Every viable square inch was harvested into condominiums. Old buildings were torn down and new ones sprouted from their ashes. “Luxury Housing”, their signs boasted, but from the outside they looked flimsy and homogenized, as though they were built from kits, the kind you might find advertised in the back of Parade Magazine. With their perfect angles and level floors, these modern structures seemed cold and lacked the charm of my sagging triple-decker.
My house had been around since the Great Depression, which might explain why I felt sad whenever I looked at it. The exterior was rotted and painted a yellow-brown disease color, jaundice perhaps, or maybe cirrhosis. Still, there was pride in owning something original. It entitled me to complain about the new construction. “It ain’t like it used to be around here,” I said to my neighbor, Johnny, a Southie local who spent his golden years chain-smoking on his front steps. Whenever I came home from work we’d commiserate. “The yuppies are coming in droves, Johnny,” I’d say, a rolled-up yoga mat hidden behind my back.
Johnny swore that no amount of money would drive him out. “Biz my buckin home,” he’d say, a cigarette in one hand and his upper teeth dripping from the other. While his friends and relatives cashed out and fled to the south shore, Johnny stood in defiance until he could stand no more. The official cause of death was prostate cancer, but I knew it was a lack of purpose that did him in. With the influx of security cameras and the decline in street crime, there wasn’t much need for old men who sat on their stoops all day, cursing at the world.
The locals weren’t the only ones displaced. The reconstruction also spurred an exodus of mice. Many sought refuge in my house, an obvious choice considering the rotted clapboard siding. At first I only heard them, whispering and plotting behind the drywall. I learned just how pervasive they were by the volume of their excrement. Every morning I found more droppings, like trails of caraway seeds, leading to the corners of my floor, my bookshelves, even my kitchen countertop. I sympathized with their basic need for food and shelter, but taking a dump on my soap dish seemed a bit unnecessary, not to mention disrespectful.
I hired an exterminator, the cheapest one I could find. I had expected someone resembling a Ghostbuster, a man or woman wearing goggles and a gray jump suit. Instead I got the discount version, a scruffy dude in his forties who reeked like an ashtray and introduced himself as “Steve”. The closest thing he had to a uniform was a knitted cap with a Patriots logo on the front. He had no weapon, no backpack, no rodent-detecting gadgetry, just a garbage bag filled with mousetraps, slung over his shoulder.
To me, setting traps means meticulously arranging a slipknot under a bed of leaves, or fastening a razor-thin tripwire across two trees. To Steve it meant tossing a cardboard box filled with poison behind my fridge. “The secret is keeping the place as clean as possible,” he said, handing me his invoice. I thanked him for his expertise and showed him the door.
The traps had little effect, if any. Apparently mice are like humans, in that both species tend to avoid coffin-sized boxes. Every morning I swept up more droppings, and every night I lay in bed, tormented by a chorus of squeaks and the marching of tiny feet. “Please God make it stop,” I’d whisper, covering my ears as I slipped further into delirium. I stuffed the cracks in the walls with S.O.S. pads, only to find them the following day shredded into flecks of steel or pushed neatly to the side. I even considered a laser device I saw advertised on TV. It plugged into a wall outlet, like a carbon monoxide detector, and emitted radio waves that triggered in the mice a suicidal impulse, like The Manchurian Candidate, prompting them to leap out the window to their death.
Nothing worked. I was outmatched. There were millions of mice in this city; trap five of them and the next day twenty more gnaw through the plaster.
Hopeless, I turned to the one person I could rely on in times of despair: my drug dealer. “You’re wasting your time with all that nonsense,” he said. “Only one thing can stop a mouse, and that’s a cat.”
It was so obvious I hadn’t even considered it. Still, I resisted. “Yeah, but then I’ll have a cat. A dog is one thing, but a single guy with a cat seems a little weird,” I said, forgetting that my only friend was a fifty-year old drug dealer who lived with his mom, and that I spent every Saturday night in his living room, taking painkillers and eating Elio’s Pizza.
“Nah. Cats are the best,” he said. “Don’t listen to anyone. They’re like miniature lions that patrol your house at night.”
“Really?” I said, scratching the skin off my legs while my heart rate ticked up to a thousand beats per minute. “That sounds awesome!”
The next day I took a handful of pills and drove to the animal rescue hospital. I knew if I were sober I’d have second thoughts, so I timed the drugs perfectly. They kicked in just as I approached the front desk. “I’d like to buy a cat,” I said through my gritted teeth. The vet looked at me warily and then led me to the feline kennels. I prepared myself for a heart wrenching experience, something out of Oliver Twist, all these poor cats sticking their paws through the cages, begging me to take them home. To my surprise, none of them seemed to care about the prospect of a warm home and unconditional love. Most of them faced away from me, and as I passed they lifted their heads off the cage floor and looked back in contempt, as though I’d interrupted something. “Can I help you?” their annoyed eyes said.
All ignored me except one. Near the end of the aisle was a kitten, pressed against the back of the cage, her paws and feet tucked under her body, making her look like a tiny loaf of cream-colored fur. Her head was motionless but her eyes were wide and flittering and terrified. “Can I see this one?” I said. The vet opened the cage and I held out my hands. At first the cat recoiled, but then she leapt into my arms.
“That’s Noel,” the vet said. “We named her that because she was brought in on Christmas Eve. Some nice man found her on his back porch, in Andover.”
I could feel every bone in the cat’s emaciated body, like a feathery sack of Popsicle sticks squirming against my down jacket. Finally she relaxed and looked up at me. A tiny head and big ears, and eyes so crystal blue they looked like matching bottles of aftershave.
“I’ll take her,” I said.
Noel was spayed and given the appropriate shots, and two days later I brought her home. She was drowsy from the anesthesia and had a neat square shaved into her belly from the surgery. I felt guilty leaving her alone at first, especially given the respiratory infection she caught at the shelter, so I stayed home as often as possible—a reasonable task given the light demands of my non-existent social life.
At work, while the 20-somethings recapped their drinking adventures and the 30-somethings gushed about their children, I updated people on my cat, who by then I’d renamed “Dixie”. “Well, her chest cold cleared up, and she’s finally taken to her wet food,” I’d say, unwrapping my burrito at the kitchen table. Soon Dixie was all my coworkers asked about. The general assumption was that I had no life or dating exploits to speak of, only the daily progress of a housecat.
“What’s up for the weekend, Danny? Hanging out with your cat?” This from Angela, an attractive young project manager.
“Yup,” I beamed.
Dixie demanded constant attention. She was content only when sitting on my legs, pinning me to my couch. If I went to the bathroom, she pawed at the door until I let her in. When I got out of the shower I’d find her lying face up on my bathroom rug, wagging her tail, waiting for a belly scratch. On the rare occasion I made a phone call, the cat became angry and confused, hearing my voice directed at something other than her. If the call lasted more than five minutes she would scratch the nearest piece of furniture while glaring at me. As soon as I set the phone down, she’d casually walk over and sit on it. Anything that took away my focus became a threat, so she began preemptively smothering things out of habit—books, laptop, TV remotes, car keys. I’d hear my text alert chime and see her belly glow as the phone lit up underneath it.
I couldn’t tell if the cat loved me, depended on me, or simply enjoyed toying with me. “Dixie, come here, come sit with me,” I’d say, pounding the sofa cushion. “Who’s a pretty girl? Come on, Dixie, come here.” But the cat would just sit upright on its hind legs, watching me, perfectly still. After five minutes of my shameless pleading, the cat would turn and walk away. Was she deliberating that whole time? Or had she no intention of jumping on the couch, and just felt like watching a grown man beg? Her demeanor was impenetrable yet calculating, and as time passed I came to not only love it, but to admire it. In a society filled with hurt feelings, the cat’s utter lack of emotion was refreshing.
Oh, and there was the mice. As soon as Dixie arrived, they vanished. Not a squeak, not a scurry. No climactic showdown, no negotiation. The cat’s presence alone had warded them off for good. I admired that, too.
Months turned into years, and with the exception of a couple brief romances, life consisted of my cat, my living room, and a menu of prescription drugs. By the summer of 2012 I was strung out on pills and hospitalized for an acute Crohn’s Disease flare-up. I’d whittled away to 135 pounds, living off IV nutrition and shitting into a colostomy bag. Yet the cat had doubled in size. Her neck disappeared into her shoulders, and her butt took on the ill-defined shape of a ham hock. When she walked her belly swung from side to side, as though she were a four-legged dinner bell. As my world grew smaller the cat got fatter, feeding not only on her wet food, but on my future as well.
One night I was curled up in a ball on my kitchen floor, detoxing from Xanax, when I heard glass shatter. I looked up and saw the cat, sitting atop my fridge, staring down at me. She had knocked an empty wine carafe onto the floor, sending bits of glass everywhere. My first instinct was to scream at her and then collapse further into my own self-pity, but something in her ice blue eyes stopped me. They were remorseless and deliberate, as if they said, “Yes, I broke that glass. Now stop crying and pick it up.”
Shaking from withdrawal, I got up and picked each shard of glass from the floor. The cat looked down from the fridge, making sure I got every last one.
That moment was my “white light experience”, as we call it in recovery. A month after the broken glass incident I checked myself into rehab. Two years later and I was in a serious relationship. It felt good, this healthy adult life, but with it came a nagging guilt. While I split my free time between AA meetings and a new romance, my cat was left home alone, confused, wondering why I wasn’t laying on the couch with a glass pipe resting on my chest.
When Amanda moved in, Dixie responded like she did with most visitors: by hiding under the bed, in a vigilant crouch, waiting for the person to leave. Two days later she finally came out, slinking low to the ground, sniffing and inspecting Amanda’s luggage. She looked up at me as if to say, “Did you have something to do with this?” I kneeled down to pet her and she screeched and pulled her head away, then squeezed her giant ass back under the bed.
After a couple weeks it was clear that Amanda was staying. Her bags were unpacked and she started redecorating, and soon the condo looked eerily like the home of two self-respecting adults. Gone were my personal touches, like the Nerf basketball hoop mounted on the bathroom door or the Batman action figure sitting on the television. “But they give the place character,” I protested, handing over my plastic AK-47 water gun. Furniture I’d owned since the nineties was brought to the sidewalk and replaced by sleeker, more contemporary models. “This has sentimental value, you know,” I said as we carried my high school bureau down the stairs, its ornate brass handles dangling from the drawers.
Dixie spent most of this transition period under the bed, though occasionally she’d come out for a cautious stroll, as though leaving a fallout shelter to survey the destruction. “Someone wants to say hello,” Amanda would say, giddily, unaware that the cat was not saying “hello”, but rather “I’m going to kill you in your sleep”.
“Hello, Dixie!” she said in that singsong tone people use with pets. “Aren’t you a pretty girl?” She bent down to pet her and the cat swatted at her hand and hissed, a whip-crack action similar to a cobra striking its prey. “Jesus!” Amanda jumped back, clutching her chest. “I think my finger’s bleeding,” she said. “Danny? I said ‘I think my finger’s bleeding’.”
I heard her, but my attention was on the cat, waiting for her response. She licked her right paw, sucking the DNA evidence from each claw, and then walked back under the bed. Doom welled up inside me as I thought, Oh no. This is just the beginning.
“She just needs some time to get used to this,” I said, knowing it would likely get worse before it got better.
The cat’s habits changed, a red flag for animals that are so firmly grounded in routine. She no longer slept at the foot of my bed and instead spent her nights camped out in the building’s main stairwell. I’d find her lying on the welcome mat outside the second floor unit. I’d call to her, but she wouldn’t even look at me. She just stared at my downstairs neighbor’s door, as though imagining a better life inside with a more subservient set of humans.
“I don’t think Dixie likes me,” Amanda said one morning as she showed me her new Marc Jacobs tote bag, the smooth black leather covered with scratch marks.
“She doesn’t like anyone. Don’t take it personally,” I said. Then I suggested she hang all of her belongings from hooks, just to be safe.
We consulted PetMD for advice on how to best integrate Dixie into a new household dynamic. The website listed “10 Things to Make Your Cat Feel Welcome”, small gestures that went a long way, such as “Give cat undivided attention as soon as you come home” and “Keep respectful distance when cat is moody”. Each item ended with “…and be sure to show them LOTS OF LOVE”. Absent from the list were the essentials, like food, shelter, and freedom from a cage.
Gradually, Dixie’s cool demeanor began to thaw. We’d be in the living room and the cat would saunter casually up to Amanda and sniff her. Whenever this occurred we both froze, as though hiding from a predator whose vision was based on movement. “Just let her do her thing,” I’d say, my lips barely moving. The cat would climb onto Amanda’s lap and knead into her leg, the nails of her front paws piercing through cotton sweatpants.
“That means she likes you,” I said. Amanda nodded, her jaw trembling from the pain.
Sometimes a cat is loving, sometimes distant and aloof. Some nights Dixie would flop down and roll on Amanda’s feet, other nights she’d hiss at her for coming within five feet of her domain. Cats are known for their peculiarities, so when Dixie began walking at a tilt and dragging her leg I chalked it up to her “trying out new footwork.” When she fell to the ground and began convulsing, I thought she was working on a new trick. “She’s just showing off,” I said, while the cat writhed on the floor in the kind of rapture one might find at a Pentecostal tent revival.
“That is not normal, Danny,” Amanda said. “We need to take her to the vet.”
“Nah, that’s how she plays around,” I said, watching the cat stagger off, her head drooped awkwardly to one side, her eyes vacant and disoriented, like a punch-drunk fighter.
According to PetMD and other animal care websites, cat seizures are fairly common and can stem from any number of causes. There is no remedy, except of course to show the cat lots of love.
These “spells” became regular, occurring every two months or so. I’d put on a brave face and reassure myself that the cat was fine, but I couldn’t help think that these seizures came from a deeper place. In my own melodramatic narrative, they were induced by the stress and anxiety of losing me to someone else. I couldn’t tell Amanda this, but I did occasionally mumble things whenever I passed her, incoherent non-sequiturs like “Happy now?” or “Cat murderer.”
One morning in June, Dixie had a bad episode. I only caught the aftermath: her walking across my living room, lopsided, her left leg dragging behind her like a wooden peg. In the past she’d gradually straighten out, but this time her gait seemed to get worse, like she was winding down, the movie hero who’s been shot and crawls to the enemy stronghold out of sheer will. We brought her to the animal hospital where she underwent a series of blood tests and an ultrasound. “Possibly a stroke,” the vet said, “but it could also be a swelling of the brain, caused by a tumor.” The only way to know for sure would be an MRI, which would bring the total cost of this visit to $4,500.
“We’ll need to talk this over,” I said, and we brought Dixie home. When I opened the carrier door she limped her way under the bed, where she remained that night, her ice blue eyes staring out from the darkness, fearful and ashamed.
According to the vet, Dixie’s condition would either get better over the next few weeks, or get worse. Improvement meant her seizures could be congenital, whereas decline confirmed something severe. I studied the cat closely those first few days, looking for positive signs. She mostly hid under the bed and came out only to eat and go the bathroom. When she walked, that stiff hind leg no longer dragged but overstepped, as though it was moving over something large while the other three carried on normally. Although it looked grotesque, I viewed it as progress. Any positive change in her attitude, however subtle, gave us hope. We rejoiced when she started licking her paws again, and that first time she wagged her tail—more like dragged it from left to right, once—Amanda and I held each other in celebration. “She’s gonna make it,” Amanda said, wiping away tears.
I was cautiously optimistic and still considering the alternate outcome, preparing myself, you might say. If the cat had something seriously wrong with her, how far would I go to save her? The testing alone would cost close to five grand, and then there was the treatment. Not to mention the physical and emotional toll it would take. It was a chore just to feed her heartworm pills, how would she respond to chemotherapy? Even if I could save her, buy her another three or five years, should I? Is it my place to interfere with the course of life? How is an animal’s life any more or less valuable than my own? I took long walks and deliberated the existential implications. But really, it came down to the money.
Dixie’s follow-up was on a stormy Sunday morning in mid-September. While I waited to check in a young couple came in pushing their dog on an industrial-sized dolly. I wasn’t sure the breed but it was big, which made its agony seem all the more palpable. She whined softly with her eyes closed, her belly protruding out. An intestinal issue, probably. A vet rushed out to meet them and wheeled the dog into the ER while the couple stayed behind. The woman cried. The man was stoic, but he wiped away tears and then covered his eyes while he wept. I had to bite my lip and close my eyes or else I would have wept, too.
By the time I reached the intake desk the vet came back out to update the couple. She asked for permission to use the defibrillator if the dog slipped into cardiac arrest. The couple cried harder. I tried not to listen. My palms began to sweat, my breathing grew short and my teeth got a numbing sensation. I blinked away tears.
I went back to the cat waiting area, where Amanda sat next to the carrier, comforting Dixie in a soothing voice. Next to us, in the canine waiting area, was a man, early sixties. He was dressed for construction type work, with a Carhartt jacket and a baseball hat, so I assumed the pickup truck out front was his, the one with SULLIVAN WOODWORK stenciled on the side door. I saw no wedding ring on his hand and wondered if he was single, if all he had was his dog, and now maybe the dog was old and near the end. My mind often goes to the worst-case scenario. It’s not that I wish ill upon people. Sometimes I just look for sadness.
“Dixie Pellegrini?” the intake worker called out to the waiting area. It was the first time I’d heard my cat’s first and last name together, which was cute, but also creepy. It made me think of my cat dressed in a suit, sitting in a probate lawyer’s office, arguing over the details of my will.
The neurologist was a pleasant man dressed in a sweater vest, collared shirt, jeans and penny loafers, an ensemble that struck the perfect balance between brain doctor and house pet. This made me comfortable and confident in his abilities. He examined Dixie in a non-scientific way, by watching her walk and then moving his finger slowly back and forth across her eyes. “She hasn’t got any worse, and that’s very good news. To me that says that her issue is congenital, not degenerative. She was probably born with a defect in her brain, and her spasms are simply her way of adapting. In a way, they’re like growing pains.” He ruled out a stroke or brain tumor and deemed any further testing unnecessary. In his opinion the cat should live a long, happy life. “She won’t be doing any Sudoku puzzles though,” he said. A dumb joke, but I laughed all the same.
On the way out, I stopped at the front desk to pay. The bill was $450. “For a follow-up?” I said.
“It’s neurology,” the intake worker explained with a shrug. Yes, neurology: the science of moving your finger back and forth in front of a pair of eyes.
I got my receipt, picked up the cat carrier, and Amanda and I walked to the door. As we passed the waiting area the man in the Carhartt jacket argued with one of the veterinarians. The vet spoke quietly, trying to calm him, but the man was loud, reminding her that he paid eleven hundred dollars and he demanded to see his dog. His surly voice cracked with a timbre of fear and desperation, as though arguing against the tide of inevitability. That will be me someday, I thought. Whether it’s with the cat, or something else. That time when I have to let go, move on, but simply cannot.
Dixie has not had a spasm since. She is still moody as ever—one moment she’s curled up on my lap, purring; the next she has a claw hooked into my neck. When I call for her she ignores me, yet once I hunker down to write or read she will sit on my laptop or swat the book out of my hand. If those efforts are unsuccessful she will stand next to me, stubbornly, meowing, blowing into my face a horrid blend of plaque, bile and canned salmon.
Her placid moments are what I find most fascinating, particularly when she sits on her hind legs in an unusual spot and looks around. Her neck and head move in a jerky fashion, almost animatronic, and her eyes still flitter left to right, bewildered, as though she’s caught in a state of sudden awareness. The neurologist says this is normal, a consequence of her congenital brain defect. She is not in pain, is not even aware anything is amiss. This is how she adapts. How she grows. How she compensates for a missing prefrontal lobe, or, say, a new person sleeping in her bed. Animals are resilient creatures, perhaps because they’re not accustomed to self-pity. Fear of change is normal, but any living thing is capable of adapting. The old-timers in South Boston. The mice in the walls. The forty-year old who sells his condo and moves to the suburbs. We hang in there and come out stronger on the other side. There is no special prescription or remedy that makes it easier for anyone.
Except, of course, lots of love.
A few years back I was having lunch with a friend, trying to lift her spirits after a breakup. The relationship hadn’t lasted long, maybe a couple months, but she was excited about it, certain it was headed for marriage. Then out of nowhere the guy stopped calling, and my friend was devastated. Were this an isolated incident she may have taken it in stride, but as she saw it, this was yet another in a string of doomed romances, once again proving that she would never find love. “He was perfect,” she said, wiping the corners of her eyes. “Now what am I going to do?”
She picked through her salad and shook her head. “I need a change. Maybe a new job.” She looked out at the Charles River. It glistened red in the autumn sunlight while a fleet of scullers rowed by. “You know what the problem is? This city. There’s nothing here. It’s time I move to New York.”
I asked what she intended to find in New York that was missing from Boston. Her response was thoughtful and precise: “Everything.” I pressed for at least one specific. “Gee, I don’t know. How about art?” she said, inferring that I must be a rube to ask such a thing. In the six years I’d known her she’d never once shown an interest in art, much less mention it in a sentence. Now it was a vital part of her personal growth.
This is a common sentiment among many of my friends. When life fails to satisfy them, they blame Boston, and then declare New York the answer to all of their troubles. In A.A. we call this a geographic, the idea that people can locate happiness on Google Maps and then just up and leave their worries behind, like an unpaid cable bill. “I figured if I moved somewhere warm I could quit drinking and start over,” said one alcoholic, “but in hindsight, maybe Miami wasn’t the best choice. I heard they had great A.A. down there. Guess what? They also have great cocaine.”
Of course, there’s no denying that New York is in a class entirely its own. I just don’t believe it’s capable of nourishing my soul in some extraordinary way. “You can get anything you want at any time of day,” proclaims one friend. Since I no longer indulge in drugs and alcohol, I’m forced to wonder what else besides mini blinds I could possibly need at four in the morning. A grilled cheese? A 24-hour poetry reading? Tickets to Hamilton?
Maybe I’m biased. And bitter. Between 2000 and 2010 I had three serious relationships, all of which ended with the woman moving to New York. In each one I saw similar behaviors: the restlessness, the dissatisfaction, the vacancy in their eyes as they stared out of restaurant windows, a look that said, Help. I’m trapped in an Ihop on route 128. Perhaps it was the type of partner I looked for: chic, sophisticated, unimpressed. More likely, though, it was my own hokey brand of entertainment. “Really, when was the last time you played shuffleboard?” I’d ask on our way inside the local American Legion hall. These girlfriends would spend an entire afternoon getting ready, penciling their eyebrows and pulling on knee-high boots, only to find themselves an hour later crammed into the back of a wagon, bumping along the dirt path of a haunted hayride, somewhere in rural Massachusetts.
My wife has a twin sister who lives in New York, and last year we went down for a visit. The trip wasn’t until mid-December, but since both Amanda and her sister are meticulous planners, the itinerary was drafted in late September. “Sarah wants to make a dinner reservation for Saturday night,” Amanda said, referring to ten Saturdays from now. “What will you be in the mood for?” I told her it was hard to guess my appetite a full season in advance, but steak was probably a safe bet.
For the next month I was inundated with possible things to do while in New York. Each morning Amanda would pass along ideas from her sister. Whenever I chose something it only led to a submenu. “Museum sounds great,” I’d say, and then the next day I was faced with a dozen types of museum, from industrial design to modern art to the science and history of cable news. After two weeks we finally arrived at a decision. There had been so much deliberation by that point I had forgotten where we started or how we ended up with an exhibit called “Lightrock: A Journey Through the Art of Soapstone.”
I thought it would be charming to take the train down, until I discovered the cheapest fare was $600 per person. Maybe New York is a magical place, I thought, considering that same amount could get me a round trip plane ticket to Ireland. We opted to drive instead. And rather than take my Jeep Wrangler, with its torn canvas roof and constant puddle of rainwater on the floor, I rented a mid-size sedan. “For comfort,” I reasoned. From the outside the Dodge Dart looked just that, but when I got behind the wheel my head pressed against the roof. “No big deal,” I said, pulling out of the lot. This positivity lasted until we reached the highway, at which point the car’s steady vibration began transmitting into my skull. Eventually my teeth started grinding and my vision blurred so I slouched down and drove the remaining distance with the wheel lodged between my knees. This was the comfortable option, steering a go-kart across a hundred and fifty miles of interstate.
At nine we arrived at Sarah’s apartment, a two-bedroom in lower Manhattan that she shared with her boyfriend, Tito. The décor was carefully curated, everything an original, from the antique cookie jars to the vintage circus poster to the collection of nude Frankart figurines positioned atop the Danish credenza. “Mid-century modern,” as Sarah put it, as opposed to my condo in Boston, a style that most interior decorators would call “big box”.
In their living room, a wall of shelves boasted an eclectic range of books and records. I scanned the titles and smelled the mildew scent of authenticity. The records were mostly old bluesmen, names like Big Bill Broonzy and Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, artists I’d never heard of because my knowledge of music history only went as far back as Depeche Mode. I felt ashamed of my own wannabe record collection at home, all reissued classics I ordered from Amazon, shamelessly on display in the hopes I’d be mistaken for a serious music lover.
The four of us unwound in the living room, snacking on cheese and crackers and listening to Jackie Gleason’s Christmas on the record player. The soothing nostalgia, along with the merciless building-controlled heat, lulled me to sleep, and the next thing I knew Amanda was shaking me awake. “Get ready. We’re meeting some friends for a late dinner.”
“Now?” I said, checking my watch and brushing crumbs off my shirt.
In New York, late dinners start at midnight, so by the time our entrees arrived I was asleep on Amanda’s shoulder. When the check finally came I felt a boost of energy, the same tingle I experienced as a drug addict, whenever a dealer texted me that he was ten minutes away. That meant good things were coming, and in this case the good thing was unconsciousness. I imagined myself back at the apartment, stretched out on the sectional couch, plunging into a deep and rewarding sleep, the kind that comes after one has been folded into an economy-size car for five hours.
Tito suggested the group return to the apartment for a nightcap, a term I hadn’t heard since I Dream of Jeannie. In the traditional nightcap, booze is just a prop, something to occupy the hands while people trade vacation stories. As a former addict I’m used to the reverse dynamic, where people are the props and drugs are the occasion. I don’t mind partying late so long as I’m alone and properly fueled with substances.
At 2:30 the nightcap was still in full effect, but I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Each time I started to fade a burst of laughter woke me up. It was like being inside a TV sitcom and hearing the live studio audience every two minutes. Finally I excused myself and went to the bathroom. I thought if I splashed some cold water on my face, brushed my teeth and curled up in the bathtub for a quick power nap, I might make it all the way to the end of the party. Or sunrise, whichever came first.
Like much of Tito’s style, his bathroom was vintage and well maintained, a cross between an army latrine and an old-timey barbershop where politicians go for afternoon shaves. A far cry from my bathroom at home, where the trashcan overflows with toilet paper rolls and the floor is littered in yellowish Q-tips. Here all products were stashed away, except for a bar of black soap that looked like a piece of charcoal sitting in a porcelain dish, and three ambiguous bottles of men’s tonic that dated back to a time before labels were invented. I opened the medicine cabinet, expecting to find a tube of midcentury modern toothpaste, but something else caught my attention—a prescription bottle filled with oxycodone, at eye level on the middle shelf.
My heart raced. I closed the cabinet and backed away, feeling the wall behind me for support. It was as though I’d stumbled upon kryptonite; the very presence of the painkillers weakened me, and yet the only antidote would be to pop off the lid and swallow four of them. I’d then return to the party engaged and invigorated, delighting the room with my own vacation tales, like that one time, in 1986, when my family drove to Washington D.C. “But seriously, have you ever tried astronaut ice cream?” I’d say, offering my critique of the aeronautics museum while the group brayed with laughter.
In the old days I would have taken those pills without any pause or ethical consideration. It didn’t matter that they belonged to someone else, someone who had opened his home to me and was thoughtful enough to stock his fridge with those little glass bottles of Coke that I love. That the pills were prescribed to him, possibly for something serious, was irrelevant. He could have had an impacted tooth or a fractured vertebrae, but I was a junkie, therefore I needed them more. Broken bones and surgical procedures mend with time, but for a drug addict like myself, the pain of sobriety is unbearable and endless.
In recovery, the old days are never truly in the past. The demon always stirs somewhere below the surface. At that moment I was tired and cranky, ripe conditions for a relapse. There is an emergency protocol for situations like this. First, call your sponsor. If he or she doesn’t answer, call someone else. Keep calling. If you can’t get anyone on the phone, go to a meeting. If neither A or B are options because it’s three in the morning, drop to your knees and pray for a miracle.
But it was too late. I had made up my mind. I reached for the pill bottle and unscrewed the cap.
“God help me,” I said, staring into the bottle of Altoid-shaped pills, about to throw away two years of sobriety. I reached for a pill when I was stopped by a peculiar sensation, like I was being watched. I looked out the window above the bathtub and saw the adjacent apartment building. A light was on inside its window, and a silhouetted figure looked out at me. It was eerie and thrilling, like a Hitchcock film. I stepped into the bathtub for a better look, but the figure moved away. The rational part of my brain knew that the figure was just a voyeuristic neighbor, but the smaller part, the one that subscribed to divine interventions, knew it had to be something else.
With my shaking hands I screwed the cap back onto the bottle and returned it to the medicine cabinet. Then I took a deep breath, splashed water on my face and went back to the living room. The guests were saying goodbye. Fifteen minutes later I was on the couch, sinking into sleep.
The next morning I woke up at my usual time: three hours before anyone else. I tiptoed out the door to search for a coffee shop, someplace where I could chomp my Nicorette gum and slurp a hot beverage without waking anyone. Also, I feared Tito’s bathroom. I had survived the previous night’s encounter, true, but that unguarded bottle of painkillers tormented me like the telltale heart. I waited at the coffee shop until Amanda called, notifying me that everyone was up and discussing the plan for the day.
First on the agenda was brunch at a Moroccan restaurant. This seemed like an odd choice. I’ve always thought the first meal of the day should be lazy and comfortable, someplace where orange juice is served in plastic sippy cups and the patrons wear slippers and pajama bottoms. Morocco doesn’t seem like a place of comfort, but rather a place where spies hideout in underground casinos. I don’t picture French toast and Sunday newspapers; I picture tuxedos, filterless cigarettes and swords with curved blades. Still, Sarah spoke highly of it. “It has the most incredible avocado toast,” she raved. So we walked forty minutes there, passing two-dozen bagel shops along the way.
The avocado toast was delicious, but the table arrangement was unforgivable. In an effort to pack in as many people as possible and violate every known fire code, rows of tables were joined side by side, eliminating any privacy and instead forcing us to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with complete strangers. I couldn’t hear anything from our table but followed along clearly with the conversation next to me: two well-dressed socialite women engaged in a complaining match. Nothing was satisfactory—their eggs were too crisp, their husbands too meek, their literary agents too demanding. The instant they finished their meals they waved cash in the air and called out for the server. This was New York as I imagined it—a Mecca of criticism, cash, and constant disapproval.
Next on the itinerary was the Central Park Zoo. The walk there was short but arduous. We were swallowed by a crowd of tourists and forced to trudge along at the speed of a chain gang. Take out the taxis and the hot dog vendors and it looked like a scene from a post-apocalyptic film, this herd of tired refugees in search of water. My claustrophobia grew and soon I heard the sound of the beating heart in Tito’s bathroom. If only I’d pocketed some of those pills, I thought, then everything would be euphoric. Instead of a walking zombie I’d be annoyingly chatty, making pointless comments about whatever crossed my mind. “Who actually invented the sidewalk?” “Is December usually this mild?” “Did you ever go through a jogging phase?”
As it were, I began to view the entire trip through a begrudging lens, an outlook that was validated once the four of us got lost in Central Park. “If the sun is over there, isn’t east that way?” Sarah said, her hand cupped over her eyes. It was 2015, in the most industrialized city in the western hemisphere, and somehow we’d been reduced to the same navigation technique used by Lawrence of Arabia. Tito and Sarah debated the directions while I drifted off to feel sorry for myself. This is why people shouldn’t leave their homes, I thought.
Sarah and Tito settled on the correct course, and we continued our journey. I lagged behind the group, head down, hands jammed into my coat pockets. It’s hard for me to notice when I’m visibly sulking, but the amount of embarrassment on Amanda’s face is usually a good indicator. She dropped back and took my elbow. “What is your problem?” she snarled. “Why do you have to act so miserable?” I kicked a pebble and pulled my elbow away. She grabbed it again. “Find a meeting. Please.”
“Forget it,” I said. “I don’t want to ruin everybody’s good time.”
“You already are. Find a meeting today or go back to Boston.” She sped up and rejoined the others, leaving me behind to scowl and stamp my feet along the concrete path.
It’s always awkward when Saturday night dinner plans need to change to accommodate an AA meeting, but Sarah understood, even though she had made our reservation two months ago. She called a few different restaurants and secured some new options, reopening a number of possible scenarios, each one contingent upon the time and location of my meeting: 5:00 PM in the East Village. “That rules out the steakhouse in Brooklyn,” she said, and though there wasn’t a hint of resentment in her voice, I still felt like an asshole, moseying through Central Park while my friends rescheduled their lives based around my drug problem.
I felt a little better once we got to the zoo. If anything can get me out of my own way it’s an exotic animal, especially one trapped in a cage for the rest of its unnatural life. Each exhibit brought a new emotion. First was joy at the sight of a sea lion playing patty cake with its trainer. Then tears as a mama bear led her cubs through a diorama of an Alaskan forest. Most impressive were the two snow leopards, lumbering over a mound of fabricated rock. One of the leopards sat proudly on a perch, chest puffed out as he glared down at us with eyes like ice blue marbles. It was a condescending look, but could you blame him? He’s a jungle cat living in midtown Manhattan, in an apartment that would easily go for twelve grand a month.
Afterward, Amanda, Sarah and Tito went home to get ready for dinner, and I set off for my meeting. I get nervous about new places, so I reminded myself to keep an open mind and walk through my fears. This came in handy once I got to the East Village, where thousands of raging Santa Clauses frolicked through the streets—an annual event known as “Santa-Con”. Normally I love Santa Claus, so long as he’s plump and rosy-cheeked. But when a young person wears the costume it makes Santa look skinny and unhealthy. It doesn’t say joy to the world. It says my fond childhood memories are riddled with disease. A malnourished Santa is a frightening sight, especially when a stampede of them chases you down the street, their beards twisting off their faces.
I was sweating and out of breath when I got to my AA meeting, which was held inside a converted storage closet on the top floor of a narrow brownstone. Had the building originally been a residence I imagined this was where the mutant son was kept, chained to the radiator and fed from a bucket of spoiled beef. Now the room was occupied by a handful of sad adults, sitting as far away as possible from each other, quietly chewing their fingernails, looking vaguely ashamed that at age forty they still hadn’t quite gotten the hang of life. I was about to turn around and leave when a man asked for my name.
“Danny?” I said, as though it was a wild guess.
“Hello Danny, I’m Luther,” the man said. He got up from behind a desk and handed me a binder. “Could you chair tonight’s meeting?”
“Of course,” I said. The chairperson sits at the head of the room, reads the group’s preamble, and then shares his or her own story for twenty minutes. It happened so quick I didn’t have time to think of an excuse, nor did I feel that spasm of fear that normally racks my body at the thought of public speaking. I accepted the binder and sat down behind Luther’s desk, feeling like the teacher of a poorly funded adult education class. When the clock hit 5:00 I said good evening and read the statement of intention. Then I moved the binder aside, clasped my hands together on the desk, took a deep breath and told my story, starting at age seven, with my incessant need for solitude, and ending with the prescription drugs in Tito’s medicine cabinet, that until that moment had cast a malignant spell over everything.
By the time I finished only three people remained in the room, one of which was snoring.
Even so, I felt lighter after the meeting, like I had just purged a full day’s worth of self-pity. What a bizarre and wonderful thing: walking into a strange place, baring your ugliest truths to a group of random people and then walking back out and rejoining life. The therapeutic value of an AA meeting has never failed me. Even when I sit in the back row, disengaged, so bored that I read financial news on my phone, I still leave humbled, no longer the center of my own world, but instead just a visitor. I don’t know how or why this works. The dynamic is too simple for the intellectual community. There is no psychoanalysis, no self-knowledge, no one to blame. You come and talk, or listen, and then you leave.
On my way to dinner I stopped inside a secondhand boutique called Search & Destroy. Well, this is one thing they don’t have in Boston, I thought as I passed a photo book propped next to the register, open to a spread of a woman giving a blowjob to a Rottweiler. I nodded and smiled at the girl behind the register. She stared back and said nothing, though her t-shirt reading FUCK OFF SLUT spoke volumes. I looked around for used CDs, or anything music-related, but the inventory consisted mainly of gasmasks, dildos and old military uniforms. Was this a specialty store? If so, then for what? Maybe the store itself was a token of postmodernism, and twenty-four hours in New York had cultured me enough to appreciate that. Ah yes, I nodded, browsing a display of dog collars with SS insignias stenciled on them. This was exactly what the art world had been lacking, the crossroads of Nazism and bestiality.
Dinner was at Jules, a subterranean French bistro on St. Mark’s Place. “I’ve been meaning to come here for the longest time,” Sarah said, eyeing the wine list. We started with a plate of mussels, a savory appetizer that was cut short when a cockroach crawled out of the white wine broth and ran across the table. “Oh my God it’s headed for my coat!” Sarah shrieked while Tito tried to capture it with his table linen. Amanda pleaded with us not to make a scene, for the sake of the other diners. This is challenging when four people are suddenly in the middle of the dining room brushing each other off.
The manager apologized profusely and moved us to a new table, on the other side of the restaurant, where cockroaches apparently weren’t allowed.
“Could we also get some new waters?” Tito asked. “I don’t mean to be difficult, but…” He held his glass up to the light and the water was indeed murky, so much floating debris it looked like a snow globe that had just been turned upside down.
From that point on the service was prompt and attentive, but the damage had already been done. The meal was tainted by insects and lead-infused drinking water. When the entrees arrived we all stared at them with our best poker faces, tepid and fearful of what might live inside the meat.
At first I saw it as poetic justice. Earlier I had suggested we get dinner at the burger joint down the street from their apartment, but that was dismissed as boring, evidently lacking the kind of joie de vivre a scampering cockroach provides. But to say “I told you so” would be gloating, and life isn’t about my personal victories or defeats. In fact, life isn’t about me at all. I’m just a visitor, grateful for the invitation. If AA has taught me anything it’s that selfishness is a heavy burden, while service to others provides a more immediate and liberating high. In my experience this has always proven to be true, yet still I forget it, every day.
“I’m freaked out, too,” I said to Sarah, angling to make eye contact. Her face was stony and pale, her eyes fixed on her plate of untouched food. “I hate bugs. Seriously, I’d rather see a rat run into the kitchen.” She nodded, though it was clear she was still disturbed. I smiled. “We’ll stop and get a pizza on the way home.”
The manager dropped off the check and told us the drinks were on the house. This might sound generous but we only had two glasses of wine, which amounted to twenty bucks—less than the cost of the roach-infested mussels, which somehow remained on the bill.
Our first inclination was to leave a poor tip, but we decided the server shouldn’t suffer, so we agreed on twenty percent. “Let’s just get out of here,” Sarah said. “I want to go home, get into my pajamas and forget any of this happened.”
That one sentence summed up my entire life, and an hour later we were sitting on the floor of Sarah and Tito’s living room, wrapped in blankets, eating pizza and watching Suits on the sixty-inch television. We laughed and talked about movies and music and other things, things that existed a million miles away, things we could comment freely on from the safety of a dark living room. Aside from the TV, the only light came from the Christmas tree, around which hung a string of 1950s bubble lights that Tito discovered in a SoHo antique store. They made a soft buzzing sound and smelled faintly of ozone, and probably emitted a toxic level of radiation, but their twinkling red and green glow was cozy and soothing and worth the potential health risk.
“Another Coke, Danny?” Tito said from the kitchen. I thought for a moment and said sure. There’s a ton of sugar in there, and God knows what other corrosive substances, but the bottles were only eight ounces, and technically I was on vacation. The building-controlled heat was putting me to sleep, and the caffeine would help counteract that. I wanted to stay up all night. This was the highlight of the trip, the four of us, lounging in our pajamas, laughing about the misadventures of the day. We could have been anywhere in the world. We just happened to be in New York.
I got up and opened a window, and poked my head out into the city. The cold air felt good. It made me appreciate the warmth from inside even more.
The Greater Fool
November 28, 2016
Of all the people I met during my first year in advertising, the most memorable was the guy who watered the office plants. His name was Phil, and though he only showed up twice a week he upstaged everyone, even the creative directors. You could walk into the lobby wearing a Burberry top hat and a snow leopard around your shoulders, but if Phil happened to be nearby pruning an orchid, you might as well be invisible. Nothing could outshine his mullet, skintight black jeans and gleaming white sneakers. It was an ensemble that screamed fearlessness, and screamed it in a crude Boston accent.
Other maintenance people tiptoed around the employees, avoiding eye contact as they fixed printers or installed recessed lights. But Phil made his presence known. He carried his watering can into closed-door meetings, made small talk with anyone he passed in the halls, and sometimes offered his opinion on the creative that hung from the studio wall, pointing his garden trowel at his favorite ad layouts. “You know what commercials I like?” he’d say, looking around for a response. “The ones with the lizard, you know, that lizard who drives the car. You guys make those?” Phil seemed oblivious to the barrier that existed between him and us, the invisible wall that we tastemakers had erected, protecting us from mass channel shoppers.
I on the other hand was keenly aware of that invisible wall. In those early days I kept to myself mostly, eating lunch at my desk, pretending to work but really just staring at the Yahoo home page while I chewed my food. Since the rest of the staff were either upstairs in the kitchen or eating offsite, I used the time to listen to CDs on my iMac. Our office PA system played music throughout the day, but it was mostly contemporary soft rock, artists like David Gray or Train. These were what radio stations referred to as “adult pop” or “easy listening”, the kind of music one might hear in a doctor’s waiting room, something to soothe the nerves before an invasive genital procedure. It had the opposite effect on me, though. Rather than a sense of calm, or joyousness, I experienced nausea, followed by vertigo, followed by severe depression. The only antidote I found was thirty minutes of my own music, somewhere in the middle of the day.
One particular afternoon I was at my desk, eating a tuna melt and listening to the British metal band Judas Priest, when I heard a voice from inside my office.
“Mercenaries of Metal tour, ’88, Worcester Centrum. 12th row center. I was there.”
I looked up from my computer and saw Phil, trimming the spikes from my window orchid.
“That was the last time Dave Holland played with the band,” he said, pointing a spray bottle at the orchid and blasting each leaf with a cloud of mist. “Which is fine if you ask me, because he was an asshole, but that’s when the band started to fall apart.” He stepped back and examined the plant for a moment. “Still, they played ‘Sinner’, which they hadn’t played since ’84. It was almost like they knew the end was coming so they went back to the set list from the ‘Killing Machine’ era.”
I wasn’t familiar with the ‘Killing Machine’ era, nor did I have a clue who Dave Holland was, but I understood Phil’s language. I spoke it fluently in my youth, a time when my bedroom walls were covered in cutouts of men in spandex and eye makeup, a time that, for Phil, had extended well into his thirties.
He went on about Judas Priest for another twenty minutes, becoming more passionate as he detailed their rise and fall. “By 1988, everything was synthesizers. Look at the intro to ‘Blood Red Skies’, for Christ’s sake. Tell me that doesn’t sound like Tears For Fears!” Coworkers passed by my office, gawking at Phil as he leaned over my desk, his hand gripping the garden trowel, his mouth foaming with white spit. “Marketing!” he said. “It’s all goddamned marketing!”
“Totally,” I said, noticing the framed print ad that hung on the wall behind his head.
“It’s a fucking trade-off, plain and simple,” he huffed, returning to the orchid. He sprayed it some more, primping the leaves between each misting. This made him look like a hairstylist, practicing on a houseplant. “You wanna sell records, you gotta sell out,” he said, shaking his head.
I sensed a deeper resentment in Phil’s tone, so it came as no surprise when he told me about his own band, Black Angel. Their high point came in ’91, when they opened a few dates for the progressive metal group Dream Theater. “Rock bands have a small window of opportunity,” he said. “You either crack the ceiling and keep climbing, or you slide back down the other side of the hill.” I’d heard those exact words before, maybe in a Motley Crue song, and I wondered how much of our conversations were stolen from various 80s power ballads.
Every Monday and Thursday Phil showed up in my doorway, holding his watering can, eager to report the latest developments in the world of heavy metal. Motorhead released a new album. Slash checked into rehab. Ozzy had an abscess drained from his ass. His biggest news was the announcement of the Iron Maiden reunion, a tour he’d been waiting for since 1993. “Dickinson is back. Adrian Smith is back. The tour manager from Seventh Son is back,” he said, counting off each highlight on his hand. I wasn’t a big Iron Maiden fan, but it was hard not to share his excitement. It stirred in me a nostalgia for a simpler time, when I was young enough to have dreams but too young to actually pursue them.
My conversations with Phil soon became a lifeline, tethering me back to a world I once knew, a world of vanilla-scented car fresheners and acid-washed denim and menthol cigarettes. The more he and I waxed about the heyday of heavy metal, the more I realized I had no place at an ad agency that specialized in fashion. Aside from the outfit I wore on my interview, my closet consisted of sweatpants and hoodies. On a typical day I’d show up to work in a black leather jacket, Adidas track pants and Converse All-Stars—suitable clothes for the emergency room at three in the morning, but not at the agency that pioneered the “lifestyle brand image”. The rest of the office looked like extras from Love Story: handsome and healthy, blue-eyed and rosy-cheeked, cable knit sweaters with cashmere scarves draped around their necks. It was as though they had come straight from the quad after a friendly game of rugby—unlike myself, who had come straight from a studio apartment after a round of earth-shattering bong hits.
One Monday I was called into a brainstorming session for a new business pitch. The meeting was scheduled at the same time as Phil’s routine visit. At first I was quiet and sulky at missing our regular heavy metal rundown, but soon I got comfortable and became engaged in the discussion, chuckling and throwing around buzzwords like “modern authentic” and “timeless classic”. I was halfway through describing a campaign idea when I heard a snip. At the far end of the conference room was Phil, pruning shears in hand, scowling at me from behind an orchid. From that point on, every time I said something, Phil clipped off a leaf. “This feels too much like Eddie Bauer,” I said. Snip. “For the advertorial, how about four beautiful young people escape to rural Maine for the weekend?” Snip. “Maybe we could get Damian Rice to play at the trunk show? Him and his acoustic, dress him in a Henley and a knitted cap?” Snip snip.
The group applauded my ideas, but I felt sick with betrayal. There I was, illustrating some apparel brand’s core values, when I’d so obviously lost sight of my own. Had Phil not awakened some truer part in me? Had he not reminded me, while quoting Metallica, that a person’s soul never changes, that either it breeds or it’s condemned to a creeping death? Had I sold out in an attempt to sell records?
When Phil finished with the orchid, he picked up his watering can and stormed out of the conference room, slamming the door behind him. I recognized this petulance from my teenage years. In junior high I was banished from the popular crowd for making friends with someone outside of our clique. Rather than grovel back with my hat in hand I shunned them and vowed never to return. I quit the football team, boycotted the school dances and retreated to the shadows. There I made new friends, kids with spiked hair, earrings and Slayer tee shirts. Though we looked like a group of rejects, we shared a common thread: anger.
I was liberated. There was something virtuous about hanging out in convenient store parking lots after school while the popular kids played sports and dated girls. On weekends I took the train into Boston and loitered outside rock clubs like The Rathskeller. There wasn’t much going on at eleven in the morning, but I hung around the area anyway, hoping someone might mistake me for a lead singer, or at the very least a homeless kid. I’d sit in Kenmore Square and fantasize about my rise to stardom, something so spectacular that the entire school would have no choice but to worship me. Could I release an album by the time I finished eighth grade? I doubted it. Other options included dating a thirty-year old or saving the school from a Russian invasion, neither of which seemed plausible either. Then I had a vision: me, alone on the auditorium stage, in front of my eighth grade class, finger-tapping through the symphonic climax of Eddie Van Halen’s Eruption while four hundred of my peers sat hypnotized.
“Mom, I need to learn the guitar,” I said one day after class.
“What’s wrong with piano?” she shot back. For the last three years I had taken piano lessons at my mother’s insistence. According to her, all children should begin intensive musical training by the age of ten. Like Mozart, she had reasoned. “By the time he was your age he was conducting operas for kings,” she said, a simple and fair comparison.
Piano is a fine instrument but insufficient as a means to channel rage. There are only a few angry pianists, the most obvious being the Phantom of the Opera. I needed an instrument that could scream, one that could accurately express my anguished soul. More importantly I needed an instrument I could play standing up, while dressed in leather pants and a hooded cloak.
My mother eventually gave in and found me a guitar teacher who made house calls. To send the message that I was a budding virtuoso, I showed up ten minutes late for the first lesson. Had I been traveling from a distant suburb this might be expected, but the fact that I was coming from an upstairs bedroom lent a certain mystique to the proceedings. “Danny! Hurry up, you idiot. We’re paying this man by the minute,” my mother yelled. Finally I appeared at the top of the staircase. As I slowly descended to the first floor my mother’s face tightened. “Why are you wearing pajamas?” she said.
I explained that this was the signature outfit I’d wear on stage: a white dress shirt, unbuttoned and tucked into my little league baseball pants. Originally there was a bathrobe, too, but my mom convinced me to drop it, even though it gave the whole look that touch of royalty. “Lose the wine glass, too,” she hissed, taking it from my hand. “You look like a jackass. No one drinks iced tea from a wine glass.”
I followed her into the living room, where a strange bearded man stood holding a guitar case. “Danny, this is your guitar teacher, Ira Falkenhemie.”
There are many suitable names for a guitar teacher, but Ira Falkenhemie is not one of them. His Members Only jacket only reinforced my doubt, as did his gray cotton slacks, white tube socks and black sneakers. He looked like a postal worker who had just picked a tattered guitar case out of someone’s trash. Normally I try and hold back judgments based on name and appearance, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. If my dermatologist entered the exam room wearing platform boots and introduced himself as Sid Vicious, I’d have similar concerns.
In spite of my prejudice, Ira was a good teacher and talented guitarist in his own right. He’d start each lesson with a brief theoretical overview, then we’d work on building blocks, and then he’d end by playing a complete song, something to inspire me. Still, my progress was slow. Six months in and I was still learning chord arrangements when I should have been soloing. Naturally I blamed this on Ira’s clothes. “If only he wore a cowboy hat,” I said to my mother, “or had some rings…or something tattooed on his hand, like a woman’s face…maybe I’d be further along.”
“Maybe you should try practicing,” she said. “You don’t live up to your end of the bargain. Every night I walk past your bedroom and you’re lip-syncing in the mirror, trying on different costumes like an idiot. The other night I heard you talking to someone, and when I opened the door you were interviewing yourself in a British accent. Maybe you should spend less time pretending and more time learning how to play the stupid instrument.”
I considered this for a moment. “I don’t know, mom. I hear what you’re saying, sort of, but I think it’s time for a new teacher.” To my way of thinking, rock and roll was less about fundamentals and more about persona. It was not something one practiced or learned, but rather a divine gift that was transferred from an elder to a select pupil. The right teacher would not be found in the classified ads, or tacked onto the neighborhood bulletin board. He must be sought out, and I knew just where to begin my quest.
Newton Centre Music was the only guitar shop within biking distance. I rode there at least three times a week after school, never to buy anything but to marvel at the collection of guitars. They hung on the wall, majestic, staggered up and down like the pipes of a church organ. Fender, Gibson, Yamaha, Ibanez—names I’d only read about in the pages of Hit Parader. Some were priced as high as five thousand dollars. I’d overheard the owner a few times talking about a guitar teacher who sometimes taught out of the back room. When I approached the counter and asked the owner’s face grew solemn. “You mean Pete Duran?”
Pete Duran. It was precisely the kind of name I wanted in a guitar teacher. “That’s him,” I said.
As it turned out, Pete Duran also taught out of his apartment, which happened to be four blocks away from my house. This meant I could walk to my lessons, carrying my guitar case as I strutted down suburban streets. I’d see my shadow under the streetlights and hold out my thumb like I was hitchhiking. This will be the cover of my first album, I thought. All I needed was a title. And some songs.
Unlike Ira, Pete Duran looked the part: long brown curls, parted down the middle like Ted Nugent. His image was all the instruction I needed, and soon I realized that’s all I would get. He spent most of our thirty-minute lesson describing the various studios he’d recorded in, or talking about his earliest influences, or trying to sell me his personal belongings. It started with his CDs, a stack of which he displayed on the table, as though his living room was a Barnes & Noble book signing. Beyond that he tried to hock old guitars, amplifiers and other related gear. After a couple months he branched out to everyday household items, anything from used bandanas to imported hair products. “This is the only kind I use,” he said, referring to the thermos-sized can of styling mousse in his hand. “It’s regularly ten bucks. But for you, it’s five.”
After three months Pete upped his rate from fourteen bucks a lesson to sixteen, and my suspicion grew. After four months he had disappeared entirely, with no notice or anything. I walked down for our Wednesday night lesson and knocked on the door. A young woman answered. “Can I help you?” she said.
I stood on the front porch, guitar case in hand, and then turned around and left.
That summer I saved up my caddying money and bought a Fender Stratocaster and a Marshall amp. I also subscribed to Guitar Player magazine. Published in each issue was the sheet music to a handful of popular rock songs. For those who couldn’t read music the songs were transcribed in tablature, an ingenious system that replaced those confusing dots and staffs with numbers that corresponded with the frets on a guitar. The age-old language of music had finally been decoded and made accessible to anyone who lacked the discipline to understand it.
Gone were the days of strumming cheery campfire sing-a-longs or bleak Irish folk tunes. If someone asked me to play something I dazzled them with a medley of Guns N’ Roses, AC/DC and Van Halen. The only fundamentals needed to play these songs were two ears and a basic understanding of the numeric system. Unlike the acoustic, the electric guitar forgave my lack of skill. Rather than hunker down and learn the advanced parts, I’d compensate by scraping the pick up and down the neck or hitting a high note and bending the vibrato bar back and forth until the strings snapped. The music was often incoherent, but if I closed my eyes, tilted my head back and made the right facial expression, it was considered performance.
In high school I cobbled together a band, three guitarists and a drummer. We took turns on vocals, which didn’t matter anyway since none of us owned a microphone. Our instruments were out of tune, our time was off, and we lacked that one special ingredient called talent. We couldn’t even get to the bridge in “Back in Black” before drifting off into side conversations. Still, I kept showing up, mainly because I enjoyed the bus ride to the drummer’s house. I pictured myself on a Midwest interstate, bound for Hollywood, nothing to my name but a guitar case, a few bucks and a notebook full of song lyrics. Then I’d get to the rehearsal and start playing, and my dream of rock and roll greatness instantly dissolved.
After three weeks the band broke up, but I continued taking the bus to random places, like pizza parlors or car dealerships, always with my guitar case in hand. Playing the role of struggling musician was far more gratifying than the actual struggle to play music.
By tenth grade I got back into sports and other school activities. I abandoned my headbanger clique for a more socially acceptable, well-adjusted group of friends. As such, the guitar went down to the basement, where over the years the humidity and mildew has warped it into a Salvador Dali painting. It’s still there to this day, propped on its stand, next to that Marshall amp, both covered in a coat of dust. Whenever I’m at my mother’s house I’ll go down, turn the lights on and there it is, this souvenir of my teenage angst, slowly curling up at the edges like a withered tree branch.
In my late thirties I was haunted by the idea that I’d chosen the wrong path in life. At work I’d idle away the hours on Youtube, watching vintage concerts from the 80s and 90s. At home I’d lie on the couch reading one rock and roll biography after another. If I just stuck with guitar. If I just stayed in Los Angeles. If I just got sober twenty years earlier. I had spun a narrative in my mind, one in which my true passions were sacrificed for a more stable, conventional career. But there were no true passions. No missed callings. No squandered gifts. Just because I identified with the image of heavy metal didn’t mean I could survive its reality. In one biography I read that a certain 80s hard rock band—one of the biggest in the world—shared a studio apartment on the Sunset Strip for two years before they caught their break. Five guys living in one room. After a month the toilet broke, and instead of fixing it they just shit into cardboard boxes and throw them out the window. I love that story, but I can’t see myself as a character in it. What with my chronic bowel disease, I can’t even go to the beach for two hours without first scouting the dunes for a port-a-potty.
* * * *
When Phil the plant guy finally saw that Iron Maiden reunion concert his report was abysmal. “Total bullshit,” he said from my doorway, trembling with rage, his watering can in hand. “They didn’t play ‘Wasted Years’, they didn’t play ‘Alexander the Great’, and they didn’t play ‘Hallowed be thy Name’. And to make things worse, Bruce Dickinson started railing against some kids in the front row for smoking pot, like he’s making this big anti-drug statement just because he spends all his time doing competitive fencing, or whatever the fuck.”
He made no effort to hide his disappointment. Later he was upstairs in the studio, re-potting the second floor orchids, ranting to the entire creative team about the fucking god-awful Iron Maiden show and how he’d been ripped off by a bunch of sell-out geezers. The art directors nodded politely, but whenever they tried to resume their meeting Phil would lash out with another gripe about the malfunctioning sound system, or the parking lot chaos, or how the opening act was booed, or the vomit stain on his chair that the ushers refused to clean. In his fury he knocked over one of the orchids, sending a fan of soil across the hardwood floor. “Goddammit!” he cried, dropping his trowel and holding his head in his hands. Then he walked off to the bathroom to collect himself.
Two weeks later a new plant guy showed up to water our orchids. I assumed our HR person complained and Phil was let go, either that or Black Angel finally got that recording deal. I miss our conversations, the same way I miss holding my old Stratocaster and playing the intro to “Welcome the Jungle”. It’s fun for a minute but then it feels embarrassing and redundant. Even so, it’s nice to know it’s still around, if for no other reason than to remind me of how it used to be.
Over the last two years I’ve developed a habit of waking up in the middle of the night and completing a series of household chores. This baffles me since, by nature, I am not an overly tidy person. During the day I could care less about that sink full of dishes, or the spot of tomato sauce that’s curdled on the floor, but at precisely 3:30 in the morning I will spring out of bed, grab a utility knife from my toolbox and spend forty minutes scraping dirt off the linoleum floor. It’s as though an unknown spirit takes control of my body and guides me to the scene of something tragic, something I must make right, like my bathtub, where a ring of mold has formed around the drain. “Thank you,” I mumble, and then fall to my knees and scrub.
Unlike most people who wake up in the middle of the night and watch TV or surf the web in order to tire themselves back to sleep, I approach these chores with a sense of urgency. These are things I must do, and must do immediately, between the hours of three and four AM. I may be half-asleep and uncaffeinated, but somehow I have the presence of mind to re-spline a window screen and then walk outside to my Jeep, where I wash the license plate with Windex.
Strange patterns have emerged, motifs that tie together different chores. One night I cleaned my freezer, chiseling through layers of ice and uncovering packages of frozen vegetables that dated back to 2007. When I was done purging, all that remained was a single pint of ice cream. It was beautiful, this surviving bucket of Ben & Jerry’s, all by itself in the middle of a dark ice cave. The following night I grabbed a similarly shaped container of Spackle from my tool shelves. Then I used a putty knife to patch the screw holes in my bathroom ventilation grate. Months have passed since then and still whenever I see anything cylindrical, like a Yankee candle or a propane tank, I’m caught in a trance of déjà vu.
Many of these “spells” come on the heels of a dream. One moment I’m in the cockpit of a plane, piloted by my niece’s seventeen year-old boyfriend, the next moment I’m on my hands and knees on the kitchen floor, holding a tape measure, wondering if this particular tile has been discontinued. Is there a connection these two things? It’s hard to say. Once I’m awake my dreams quickly dissolve into a faded snapshot. I was caulking my bathtub at four in the morning when suddenly I stopped and began rolling the silicone sealant between my thumb and forefinger. “What is this?” I said. Then a vision came to me from that night’s dream: a faceless woman, wearing a cowboy hat and a surgical mask, squeezing a tube of fluoride paste into a mouth tray.
Like the Wolfman, who finds himself at sunrise on a park bench, barefoot and shirtless, I’ve woken up on the floor, or in the front hall, my fingernails caked with white paint or stained from WD-40. Further evidence of my shadowy housekeeping is strewn throughout my condo. “Something happened here,” I’ll say, standing in my kitchen like a psychic who’s brought in to a murder scene. The vibe gets stronger as I move toward the wall. I lean forward onto the balls of my feet and rise up on my tippy toes. “Yes, a little higher now. This feels right,” I say. Then I peer onto the tops of the picture frames and discover that they’ve been freshly dusted.
“There’s something strange going on at my house,” I told Steve, a fellow alcoholic, after my Tuesday night AA meeting. “Every morning I wake up at 3:30 and clean. I know I’m awake, but it doesn’t feel like me inside my head. It’s starting to freak me out, man. The other night my wife woke up and I was standing over the bed, holding a toilet brush. What if next time it’s a kitchen knife?”
Steve sipped his coffee and shrugged, and I immediately regretted telling him. How could I expect this guy to relate? He’s never dealt with a ghost before. In fact, since his wife left him, he’s been living out of his car, and I highly doubt a ghost would haunt a ’98 Mercury Sable. I changed the conversation back to him. “Anyway, enough about me. You were talking about your runaway daughter. Continue.”
“It’s just some light sleepwalking,” my wife contends, or at least she did until recently. Her attitude shifted a month ago when she too began falling under the same kind of spells. I woke up one night and found her standing on the bed, peeking behind my Goonies poster. “This is all wrong,” she whispered. A couple weeks later she was swiping her hand at the comforter, complaining about the centipedes. Her creepiest vision came just last week, when she woke me up to inform me that a crab was crawling out of my left ear. Even more disturbing was the casual manner in which she told me. “Be sure it doesn’t lay any eggs in your head,” she said, half asleep, as though reminding me to turn off the living room light. By the time I finished dousing my face with bug spray, she was snoring.
Though she admits it’s doubly bizarre that this strange behavior afflicts both of us, she still shrugs it off as benign. “Who knows? People do weird things when they sleep.” Even when I ask about the unexplained bruise on her calf that appeared one morning, she chalks it up to a common iron deficiency in females.
“Do other women get bruises shaped like a small child’s mouth?” I said, pointing at it. “With teeth marks, too?”
She claims I watch too many scary movies, and that my imagination gets carried away. This is true, but still, isn’t that how this story always goes? Nobody believes the main character until the end, when it’s too late and the entire house is overrun with translucent longhaired people dressed in Civil War costumes. “Does this seem like the work of a demon?” she says, gesturing toward our freshly painted baseboard trim. “I’ve heard of people committing murder because the voices told them to do it, but what kind of ghost drives a person to scrub his shower with calcium remover?”
“The kind with self-respect,” I say, as though it’s obvious. “Maybe the ghost was a maid. Maybe it had obsessive-compulsive disorder. Maybe there was a murder, and the killer spent the night cleaning up the mess. Whatever it was, something terrible happened in this house at 3:30 in the morning. And while it was happening, they were listening to NPR, which is why I keep turning the volume up on the stereo every night.”
“That makes sense,” Amanda said, typing something into her phone, possibly an email to a psychiatric hospital. She grabbed her gym bag, took one last look around the apartment and, deeming it free of sharp objects, left for her spin class.
The old me would have simply accepted a poltergeist in my home, the same way I accepted my mustard-colored clapboard siding. For ten years my house looked as though it had been painted with turkey gravy, but now that I’m sober I’ve made a conscious effort to upgrade it. This summer I hired a contractor to install new siding. I haven’t heard from him since he cashed my deposit check, two months ago, but the wheels are in motion. I’m confident that one day his crew will show up and I’ll return from work to a house that no longer looks condemned.
The ability to deal with things in a confident and composed manner is one of the many gifts of working a twelve-step program. In the last three years I’ve gained the coping skills required to sit in traffic, navigate the rough patches of a marriage, and live with a nagging bacterial skin infection. Now that list includes warding off a supernatural entity.
I began my paranormal investigation with Google, a tool that, in the past, has helped prove the existence of basically anything that wanders through my twisted mind. My first search, “ghost possession and household chores”, brought me to a Boston University graduate dissertation about a Swahili cult. Apparently spirit possession was used to domesticate tribal women in 19th century Zanzibar. Since I gleaned all this from the title alone, there was no need to read the actual thesis. Next I clicked on a link titled “Symptoms of Ghost Possession” and landed on the Spiritual Research Foundation’s website. The first paragraph contained a startling statistic: nearly 30% of all people are in some way possessed by a ghost. Satisfied, I closed my laptop and texted Amanda. Guess what. This kind of shit’s been happening for hundreds of years, and there’s a 1 in 3 chance it’s a ghost. You’re welcome.
Equipped with sufficient proof, it was time to involve the church. I happen to know a priest, someone I met fifteen years ago at a soup kitchen. He mistook me as homeless and offered me his phone number. "The parish is always open if you ever feel desperate and need someone to talk to," he said.
“Thanks," I said, "but I don't think I'll need this". I explained that I was actually there as a volunteer, part of my office's outreach initiative, and that my life was in a really good place. Still I called him three days later, high on cocaine, and asked if he had any connections in Los Angeles. After that we spoke every six months or so, either late at night or early in the morning, depending on the kind of drugs I’d ingested. The last time I reached out was five years ago while hallucinating on mushrooms. I left a rambling voicemail about the existence of God and how I'd no longer have the need for shoes.
We hadn’t spoken since I got clean, so it pleased him to learn I was still alive, not to mention sober and married. His delight turned to suspicion, however, once I told him I was possessed by a demon, and asked if he could perform an exorcism.
“The church has a strict decree about this sort of thing. Unless your life is in immediate danger, there’s nothing I can do,” he said. Apparently ghosts are granted the same legal protection as stalkers or estranged lovers. As long as they don't violate any restraining orders they’re free to haunt whomever they please.
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll remember that when my soul is being torn apart in hell.”
The priest sighed. “Okay, Danny. If it is something supernatural, my involvement might only make it worse. It’s looking for validation, so the more you feed into it, the more real it becomes. I suggest you ignore it. Instead of engaging with it, try connecting with God through prayer. Do that, and the ghost will lose interest.”
This was a boring plan. I had hoped for something a little more spectacular, like the two of us huddled around an ancient book, reading together in Latin while the doors blew open and my condo filled with streams of blue fire. Instead I got the kind of advice my doctor gives when I ask for a pill that cures fatigue. I expect him to reach into a case and hand me a vial of glowing liquid, but instead all I get is: “Eat right, get enough sleep, and exercise”.
Even so, I thought it prudent to furnish my condo with two crucifixes, one for the living room and one for the bedroom. This way God’s protection could beam from both ends of the unit, like my air conditioners. I went on Amazon, typed in “wooden crosses” and found an infinite supply in all sizes and materials. Then I remembered the old myth about vampires and holy water, so I retyped “blessed wooden crosses”. Again, the results were plentiful. I bought two crucifix-and-rosary combo packs, blessed by Pope Francis in 2013, for sixteen bucks each. Now the “recently purchased” section of my Amazon profile reads: vintage Trapper Keeper notebook, DVD of the movie Cobra, wooden crucifix blessed by the Pope.
The next day my package arrived. “This is just temporary, right?” Amanda said as she watched me take down the oil painting that hung on our bedroom wall, the one her mother gave us for Christmas, and replace it with a gaudy crucifix made of composite wood and bronze.
“I hope so,” I said. “Here. Wear this.” I placed a rosary around her neck, a gesture that mimicked an Olympic ceremony. It was as though Amanda had won a gold medal in the sport of Catholicism. “Just for tonight. See if it makes any difference.”
We lay in bed that night and watched The Office, our matching rosary beads draped around our necks. Amanda fell asleep after fifteen minutes, but I stayed up to watch another episode, feeling obligated to entertain our new roommate, Jesus. During the funny scenes I imagined him, nailed to the cross, howling with laughter and thanking me for the much needed distraction.
For the first time in months I slept peacefully throughout the entire night. At 7:30 the next morning I woke up to the sound of someone knocking.
“Who’s at the door?” I said, but Amanda was still asleep.
Again the knock. Not from the door, though. It came from inside the bedroom wall.
“Amanda,” I said, pushing her shoulder. Nothing. I sat up in bed, looking around the room, waiting for the sound. Just as I lay back down it came, three violent knocks this time, so forceful that the crucifix fell from the wall and landed facedown on the floor.
“It’s happening,” I said softly, and then my condo began to shake. The knocking returned along with it, louder and from all directions. I pictured a thousand ghastly fists pounded on the walls outside. Mixed into the clamor was a screeching voice, speaking fast, yelling something in a foreign language.
Now Amanda was up. “What the hell is that?” she said.
“Get dressed!” I cried. I ran to the living room. The crucifix that hung from that wall now lay flat on the floor. Through the windows I glimpsed dark figures, hovering, waiting to invade my condo and devour my soul. I picked the crucifix off the floor, ran back through the kitchen, unlocked the back door, flung it open and then screamed.
Standing there was a Latino woman wearing a black cowboy hat. Her face was smooth but her eyes were cracked with age. The early morning light formed a halo around her body. She said nothing, only smiled at me and gave me a quick bow. The demon, masquerading as an angel of light. My reckoning had come. I wanted to warn Amanda, tell her to run down the stairs, but I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t move. I knew it was too late, anyway.
The woman tilted her head back and looked up at the sky. “Shh,” she said. Then she yelled something in Spanish, and the pounding stopped. She reached her arms into the air, and when she brought them down she held a large piece of rotted wood. She turned and threw the wood over the side of my deck. A moment later it crashed on the ground, and she turned back to me. “Okay,” she said, and disappeared down my back steps.
I walked out on the back deck, in my boxer shorts, and looked up. Three men were on the roof, speaking to each other in Spanish. They wore tool belts and work gloves. Standing on a ladder was a fourth man, prying a chunk of siding off my house. He saw me and nodded. I walked back inside to the living room and looked out the window. There were more workers at the front of the house, high up on scaffolding, using hammers and crowbars to peel off old clapboard. On the sidewalk was a foreman, pointing at places, shouting things. Behind him were two trucks, their doors reading NAIL-IT HOME IMPROVEMENT.
After two months, my exterior siding project had finally begun.
* * * *
Dr. Feldman does not believe in demons, at least not the ones that talk backwards and smell like rotten meat. According to his professional psychoanalytic opinion, I am haunted by the ghosts of my past. These ghosts cannot move objects, and they don’t quarrel over my soul, but they are real, “damaging,” as he puts it.
I ask if, by ghosts of the past, he’s referring to people who died when I was young. My grandmother, for instance. Or Mindy, my family’s cockapoo. “The dog, maybe,” I say, “but I’m pretty sure nana always liked me.”
He clarifies. “No. I’m talking about traumatic incidents or relationships, things that inform your behavior as an adult. These can be much more debilitating than a spirit up in the attic.”
I think of my father yelling at me, when I was six, for peeling the corner of the dining room wallpaper. My dad was a scary guy, but I imagine that’s nothing compared to waking up with a pentagram carved into my abdomen.
“So why am I waking up at the same time each night and cleaning my house?” I ask.
His answer is simple and confident. Anxiety. “You’re getting ready to sell your condo. You’re worried about the future. You’re overwhelmed with everything that’s going on—work, marriage, buying and selling a home, Crohn’s Disease, writing, sobriety—and something in you feels the compulsive need to get things done. You can’t relax, or else it will all fall apart. That lack of trust, I guarantee, can be traced back to your formative years.”
He says that since I fall asleep at roughly eleven o’clock every night, my third REM cycle would regularly end at around 3:30. Scientifically speaking, this is the time when people’s sleep is at its lightest. “And your subconscious is telling you to move. Or in this case, fix up the house.”
The shrink suggests that my wife has similar anxieties. Hers manifest in different ways. Instead of cleaning, she kills bugs. Two nights ago she woke up, grabbed a charcuterie board from the kitchen, and used it to swat imaginary flies.
I ask what I can do. Maybe a sleeping pill, or a Chinese herb, or a Native American sweat lodge. “Try ten minutes of meditation before you go to sleep,” he says. “Maybe scale back on your caffeine intake.”
“I’ll try that,” I say, but all I can think of is, You’re in on it. You’re one of them.
It has been less than twelve hours since the shrink appointment, but I can barely recall it, as though it were the faint residue of a dream. I hear him murmuring somewhere in the back of my mind, saying something about anxiety and stress management. But his voice fades out as I walk through the kitchen and into the living room. I don’t think I’m sleeping; after all, I’m cognizant enough to see the clock. It reads 3:33 AM. I look around the room and notice something in the corner, under the lamp: an ungainly mess of Ethernet cable, tangled together with a modem and a wireless router. The area is covered in dust bunnies and tumbleweeds of cat hair. A trail of them lead under the sofa. My heart begins to race.
I close my eyes. “Thank you,” I say. “It shall be done.”
And then I get to work.
“Fine, let’s have a wedding,” I said to my then-fiancé, Amanda. “As long as you know that the money we spend on a reception and honeymoon is money we’re not spending on a house. Think of it like this: a few days of happiness now, or a lifetime of happiness later.” Then, in a soothing tone, I added: “I’ll support your decision, either way.”
I have a rigid either/or mentality when it comes to expenses. Every time I buy something, I imagine a more appealing way to spend the same amount of money. I’m not sure exactly when or how I developed this principle, but it was fine-tuned during the later years of my painkiller addiction. Toward the end, I measured every expense by its value in Percocet. “There goes a whole week’s worth,” I’d groan while paying my mortgage. A romantic dinner for two might set me back a full day of drugs, while something smaller, like a AAA membership, equaled a single dose.
As such, I only spent money on material things when absolutely necessary. “Guess it’s time for that oil change,” I’d say while coasting along the breakdown lane, smoke billowing from my radiator. My utilities got paid only after the service was disconnected. Home repairs were solved with duct tape, anything from leaky faucets to broken screens to cracked linoleum tiles. I hadn’t bought a new article of clothing since 2001, which explained my closet full of mock turtlenecks, cargo shorts and bootcut jeans.
Unless they served a practical purpose, most household items were frivolous. Did I really need a showerhead? Water is water, and the way I saw it, I was lucky to even have any. I didn’t need multiple spray settings to increase its appeal. In the old days people bathed in creeks or, in later years, lobster pots. And they seemed clean enough, give or take the occasional diagnosis of scurvy.
I felt the same about bed frames. People spend thousands of dollars to frame their beds, as though sleeping is a form of fine art to be showcased in solid maple. It took me ten years to frame my Raiders of the Lost Ark poster, the one that currently hangs above my kitchen table, and now I’m told the bed needs the same kind of royal treatment?
Perhaps the most baffling of all housewares, however, is the oven mitt. Sure, a pair only costs ten or fifteen bucks, but really, will two dishtowels not accomplish the same thing? Or, in my case, a pair of old sweatpants? Any heavy fabric will do, but then, what fun is that? Shape it like a flipper and stamp a cupcake-and-bowtie pattern on it and the simple task of grabbing a hot casserole dish becomes a joyous and classy experience.
When Amanda and I first started dating, I loosened up with money, but once we moved in together I reverted back to that either/or mentality honed during my active addiction. The first signs of this came at the grocery store. “I should have been up front about this, but I’m not a wealthy man,” I said, lifting a bag of frozen shrimp out of the shopping cart.
“That cost four dollars,” Amanda replied. “I thought it would make a nice appetizer.”
Appetizers? I thought. Then what, a luxury box at the Kentucky Derby? “Yeah, but after adding the dipping sauce, then it’s more like eight bucks, and, well, do we want to spend eight bucks on an appetizer with zero nutritional value? Or should we spend that money on, say, a couple boxes of pasta and jars of sauce? That’s two whole dinners for the same price as a single…what did you call it…appetizer.”
“I’ll pay for the groceries,” Amanda said, grasping for the frozen shrimp in my hand.
“It’s really not about the money,” I explained, taking hold of the cart. “It’s about maximum value. It’s about developing sound consumer habits on a small scale so they become intuitive on larger, more consequential purchases.” My lecture continued up and down the remaining aisles, until we arrived at the checkout line, by which time Amanda could only respond with short, embattled nods.
After that, Amanda insisted on buying groceries alone, returning from Whole Foods each week with prime cuts of free-range meat and bundles of exotic vegetables. “Until you start cooking dinner around here, you have no say in what I buy. Is that understood?”
I nodded, then stowed the Peruvian sunchokes in the fridge.
Every week Amanda bought something new for the condo, small household items that seamlessly found their way into my daily life. House keys hung from a row of hooks instead of sprawled across the kitchen table. Pens and loose change resided in small ceramic trays. Bathroom toiletries disappeared from the edge of the sink and were neatly stored in wicker baskets. “I bet you didn’t even notice the silverware tray,” she said, nodding to the spoon resting in my bowl of Captain Crunch. I wiped the trickle of milk from my chin, removed the spoon from the bowl and stared at it, slowly realizing that I didn’t have to rummage through spatulas and turkey basters to find it.
Gradually I warmed up to these domestic touchups, though some purchases still irked me, like the plastic containers Amanda brought home from Ikea. She emptied a box of cereal into one and filled the other from a bag of cat kibble. “You realize that stuff already comes in its own container,” I said. “All you did was transfer one thing to another. Nothing is gained.”
“But now it looks much nicer,” she said, stepping back and marveling at the two containers, poised side by side on my laminate countertop.
Soon our home was filled with trinkets for which we had no immediate use, things Amanda bought simply because they were on sale. “We’ll need these eventually,” she said, referring to the glow-in-the-dark badminton net or the family of bronze penguins. Though we ran out of toilet paper every three days, our storage bins teemed with picture frames, cutting boards, cabinet liners, boxes of stationary, packs of assorted magnets, all with the price tags still attached.
One afternoon I got a text from Amanda: “I’m outside. Can you help bring up some stuff from the car?” This is the normal protocol with groceries, so I was surprised when I found the backseat full of Nordstrom’s bags. “Don’t get in a tizzy,” she said preemptively. “We needed all of this, and I only spent two-hundred and eighty dollars.” Only two hundred and eighty dollars? I thought, intuitively calculating how much food or electricity or condo fees that same amount would have yielded.
Upstairs, we unpacked the bags. “We needed shoes from Max Mara?” I said, staring down at the large white shoebox.
“What else am I going to wear to your niece’s graduation next week? Something has to go with this new dress,” Amanda said.
“How about flip-flops?” I said. “It’s not a formal event. We’ll be sitting on high school gymnasium bleachers for three hours.”
“Well, I’m sure there’ll be pictures afterward,” Amanda said.
I was ready to let it go and move on when Amanda pulled two sets of bed linens from the last shopping bag. “Wait a minute,” I said. “We already have a perfectly good set.” Amanda said there was nothing perfectly good about sheets with Yoda and Luke Skywalker printed all over them. She went on to explain that the new sheets were seasonal: light cotton for summer and chamois flannel for cold weather. The current set, she added, would be used strictly as reserves, or torn up into dusting rags.
“I paid fifty bucks for those sheets,” I said. “They’re not even a year old. I really hoped these would cover us in the sheet department for a while.” I asked her to return them to Nordstrom’s but she refused. This led to a heated argument that involved me lying on the bed and rolling around on the existing sheet. “See? Still works like a charm.”
Amanda dropped her face in her hands. “I can’t live like this,” she sobbed.
“Like what?” I fired back. “An impoverished life with only one set of bed linens?” I stormed out of the bedroom, slamming the door behind me.
An hour later I cooled off and apologized. “You don’t have to return the sheets,” I said, standing at the bedroom door while Amanda lay face down on the bed. “The more I think about, we really do need them. They were a good idea. Brilliant, actually.”
“Good. Then it’s settled,” Amanda said, her voice muffled by the pillows.
I reminded myself that Amanda’s intentions were in the right place. This was how civilized people lived. They spent time and money turning their houses into warm and welcoming homes. They put thought and consideration into how they dressed. They treated themselves once in a while to a nice meal or a weekend getaway. This wasn’t materialism, as I had bitterly labeled it throughout fifteen years of drug addiction. This was self-respect, an area in which I had little to no experience.
The next day I had an epiphany. It was time to lighten up and start behaving like a normal member of society. My first step was to dress classier, so I reached under the bed for the storage bin where I kept my nicer, lesser-worn clothes. I removed the lid and saw that my clothes were gone, replaced with the two sets of bed linens. “Honey,” I shouted toward the bathroom, where Amanda brushed her teeth. “Have you seen my cashmere v-neck and gray chinos?”
“I needed room for the new sheets, so I moved your clothes to the front hall,” she said, spitting out toothpaste. “In a trash bag, next to the recycling bin.”
* * * *
That Christmas I asked Amanda to marry me. The engagement ring doubled as my main present, thus I was able to shop for the rest of my gifts at CVS. I gave Amanda those first, watching her eyes narrow with bewilderment as she unwrapped random general store merchandise. “This is scented with green tea,” I said, pointing at the six-pack of bar soap in her lap. She nodded and feigned excitement and then placed the soap in a pile with the rest of her gifts: a travel-size compact mirror, an eyeglass-repair kit and a box of Flonase.
“Let me guess: um…probiotics?” she said as I handed her the gift-wrapped ring box.
We made a pact to wait until the New Year before delving into the logistics of a wedding. “I totally agree,” Amanda said, staring at the diamond on her finger. “Let’s just enjoy this before it gets stressful.” Forty minutes later she was on her laptop looking at venues. “Would you rather something elegant, like this,” she said, holding up a picture of young Aryan couple posing against a deck railing, gazing out at Narragansett Bay, a disturbing amount of glee molded on their faces. “Or we could do something more rustic, like this,” she said, clicking over to the interior of a pinewood lodge, where a young couple in matching camouflage exchanged vows beneath a mounted deer head, the camera angle making it seem as though the animal itself performed the nuptials.
I reached for her laptop. “Or we could do something cheaper, like this,” I said, holding up a picture of city hall. “Or we could just elope. Sneak away for a few days, somewhere romantic. I’m thinking Connecticut.”
After some discussion we agreed on a small, intimate ceremony and reception, mostly as a courtesy to our families. “No friends,” I said. “Immediate family only.” I thought of all my high school and college friends who got married over the last ten years, many of whom had invited me to their weddings and never even got an RSVP from me. “This will save us from having to choose who to invite and who gets left out.”
We picked a general timeframe, somewhere around the end of February. This gave us two months to plan the whole thing, which, to our way of thinking, meant less time to agonize over details. Our goal was to keep it simple, as we say in Alcoholics Anonymous. For most people, weddings are huge events that require a cast and crew of hundreds. In fact, most engagements last for years. Take my friend, Victoria, who got engaged last fall and won’t be married until June of 2017. This means her wedding will require more time and energy than the next Star Wars film.
For the venue, Amanda wanted something with relevance, “sentimental value”, as she called it. For me, the obvious choice was Ihop, where we split our first breakfast sampler. A close second was Dave & Buster’s. Amanda dismissed these as tacky, suggesting instead the New England Aquarium or the Roger Williams Park Zoo. “How is that relevant?” I said. “Shouldn’t we at least be among our own species, for starters?”
“It would be so beautiful, though, to be surrounded by wildlife,” Amanda said, her face distant and dreamy. I could tell she pictured something biblical, like the two of us perched atop an altar made of traprock, wearing garlands and loincloths, staring out an audience of snow leopards and baby elephants.
When Amanda told me the price for the zoo, I gasped. “Seriously? Three months of mortgage payments just to get married in a diorama of the Congo?”
Ultimately we decided on an old Governor’s House on the east side of Providence, near the Brown campus. For a few hundred bucks we had limited access to a large room for the ceremony, one bathroom, the front hall and part of the stairwell.
Amanda found a restaurant close to the Governor’s House and began coordinating times, drafting menus and securing deposits. She contacted a florist and, with help from her mother and sister, worked on party favor ideas and other decorations. These were the details I took for granted. Name cards. A guest book. Invitations. Music. Rings. Photographs. A justice of the peace.
“How’s that coming, by the way?” Amanda said, searching the internet for wedding dress inspiration.
“How’s what coming?”
“The justice of the peace. You were supposed to figure that out by now.” She took a deep breath. “The wedding’s in four weeks, Danny. You need to start helping out here.”
Originally I had tweeted Axl Rose, asking if he’d officiate the wedding, but it had been almost a month and I hadn’t got a response. So I went on Angie’s List, the same website where I found my plumber, and searched for someone to marry us. Out of the three names that came back I picked the least expensive, a woman named Joan. I clicked on her website, scrolled past her mission statement and credentials and went straight for the pictures. In each one, Joan was dressed in a white robe with her hands clasped in front of her waist, standing between a newly married couple. While their faces were all smiling and giddy, Joan’s expression was always hauntingly blank. This was made even creepier by her short, Greco-Roman haircut. She seemed to be all business, as though saying to the camera, “Here, master. I brought you another set of humans.”
According to the site, Joan offered her own gospel music for an additional fifty bucks. This was verified by another photo, this one of Joan holding an acoustic guitar, strumming away, her eyes closed and her mouth open in song, revealing a set of enormous horse teeth. I saw no newlyweds or family members in the picture, probably because they were facedown on the ground, dead from cyanide poisoning, while Joan hummed the chorus to “Amazing Grace”.
In all honesty, Joan frightened me. Her face had an evangelical sheen, like Piper Laurie in Carrie, or Jason’s mother in Friday the 13th. But her fee was nominal compared to the competition, so I sent her a query email and checked that off my list.
The wedding was three weeks away, and things were somehow falling into place. Amanda’s dad found us a pianist and a photographer, both friends of his from college. They signed on at a discounted rate, so long as we paid in advance, and in cash. We gave them both some basic direction over the phone. “Let’s keep it modern,” I said to the pianist. “Like Elton John, David Bowie, none of that ‘Here Comes the Bride’ shit.”
I took the same approach with the photographer. “I don’t want any phony wedding poses,” I said on a conference call, Amanda next to me on the couch. “I want it to look raw, gritty, editorial-style. Behind-the-scenes. I’m seeing a lot of blurry black and white stuff, me with my tie undone, maybe a cigarette in my mouth, sitting in an old convertible. I look haggard and worn out.”
Amanda released the mute button. “Just do your normal thing,” she said into the speakerphone. “As long as we get a few family shots and something nice for the mantle.”
For superstition’s sake I was left out of the dress-hunting process, a relief considering how torturous it seemed. Amanda ordered three to four dresses a week, had them shipped to her, tried them on at home and then sent them all back, frustrated to tears. “Just get something simple and white,” I said, my mouth full of potato chips. “What’s the big deal?” Amanda said nothing, then calmly picked up a J.Crew box and threw it at my head.
Eventually she found a dress, and as soon as we dropped it off with the seamstress we felt like two refugees who’d just made it through customs. We weren’t free and clear quite yet, but the unnerving part was over. All that stood in the way was a trip to Rhode Island for the marriage license.
The night before the wedding, Amanda and her sister stayed in a hotel in Providence. This was to ensure a short drive to the ceremony, and also to accommodate the seven hundred-dollar hair and makeup crew. My preparation had less fanfare. I drove down to Providence the morning of the wedding, in sweatpants, my Men’s Wearhouse suit in the back seat of my Jeep Wrangler. Once I got into Providence I pulled into a Best Western, walked into the lobby’s restroom, changed into my suit, then walked out. From there I took an Uber to the Governor’s House and waited. It was ten-thirty, and the place didn’t open until eleven. I sat on the front steps and waited for the guests to arrive. In my hand was a brown paper bag containing our wedding rings.
* * * *
In the days leading up to our wedding, the most common advice I’d gotten was “pay attention, because it goes by fast”. This proved to be true, especially since we only had the venue for forty-five minutes. Factor in Amanda’s late arrival, and that left us with thirty-five. As soon as we were presented as “Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Pellegrini” the house’s event coordinator began ushering people out. “Thank you, congratulations, have a wonderful life together,” she said to the guests as she held open the door. Amanda and I waited for everyone to leave, then snuck into the backyard, with the photographer, to steal a few portraits against the house’s exterior. On a few of them the event coordinator can be seen in the background, behind a first floor window, scowling at us.
Afterward, we spent a few nights in Newport. Amanda called this a “mini-moon”, which, like the term “stay-cation”, is a euphemism, intended to help cheapskates like myself feel better about their stinginess and boring sense of adventure. Telling someone you’re taking a “stay-cation” implies it was a choice, that all you wanted to do was relax in your EZ chair for a week, or “run some errands”, or take a series of little day trips to local diners and antique shops. Tell someone you’re taking a “mini-moon”, and the implication is that a bigger moon lies ahead, at a more opportune time.
I thought about this as I sat on the edge of the ocean cliffs with my new wife, looking out at the Atlantic on a sunny, sixty-degree February day. Sure, the money we spent on our wedding could have gone elsewhere, maybe a home renovation or a lingering debt or a trip to some remote island. Or I could have bought a thousand painkillers and sat on a park bench for three months, dreaming of a bigger moon, wondering if I’d ever meet someone and live happily ever after.
The Greater Fool
I felt good that morning, eager for my walk to work. I plugged in my ear buds and hit the sidewalk when I heard a voice from next door.
“Uh-oh. You pissed somebody off.” This from my neighbor, John, a grizzled South Boston townie who stands in front of his house all day with his arms folded. John is younger than me, but he could easily pass for sixty. Maybe it’s his missing teeth, or his limp, or his slurred speech. Or maybe he seems older because of his 20-year old daughter. She and her boyfriend hang out in a red Mercury Sable that never leaves the driveway. It sits parked, the engine running, the windows fogged with pot smoke. In seven years I’ve never seen his daughter leave that car, at least not without the help of a warrant or an EMT.
I turned to John, removing my ear buds. “Come again?”
He pointed at my Jeep, parked across the street. The windshield had been smashed in three places. From where I stood they looked like bullet holes, evidence of a gangland-style execution: two above the steering wheel and a third on the passenger side, slightly lower, as though intended for someone shorter. Like my wife.
I crossed the street to take a look. They weren’t bullet holes, but dents in the glass, each one surrounded by a spider web of cracks. The work of a hammer, or a baseball bat, or a boot heel.
“That looks like some kinda message.” John again.
“It’s probably just junkies,” I said. I rarely locked my Jeep at night and hardly drove it during the week, and as a result the neighborhood heroin addicts used it as a safe haven to cook and shoot their dope. Some mornings I’d open the door and find my seat tilted all the way back, along with some minor disarray, like an open glove box or a misplaced CD case. I pictured the addict getting high, reclining the driver’s seat and reading the liner notes of my Phil Collins CD before peacefully nodding off. It warmed my heart, this rapport I had built with the local junkies. My Jeep was a form of public welfare, like clean hypodermic needles or free chicken soup.
“Yah, you’re prob’ly right,” John said. But deep down I knew I was kidding myself. This was a kinda message. And as I pieced together a possible explanation, one that became more certain with each thudding heartbeat, my body got colder. If my theory was accurate, then this was just the beginning, and my life could be in unholy danger.
* * *
Who would send me a message by smashing my windshield? Well, since I began posting stories online, I can name at least two-dozen culprits off the top of my head. But the one that stood out was a woman I met online nearly eighteen months earlier. Let’s call her Jane.
On our second date, Jane suggested we visit some of her friends at an underground goth party, held in the back room of a Boston bar. I was surprised. Jane had rosy cheeks and light hair, a departure from the black lipstick and pale complexions that are typically associated with goth culture. “My friends are really laid back,” she assured me. For me, laid back means three middle-aged men on lawn chairs, drinking cans of Miller High Life. Not a room full of people dressed in hooded cloaks. Still, in the spirit of adventure, I told her I’d be happy to go.
To my surprise, it was just like any other party, only with heavier music and meat hooks hanging from the ceiling. The people were polite and welcoming, not aloof like the garden-variety Boston assholes I encountered in my former club days. I had an enlightening conversation with someone named Glamboy. For forty minutes we discussed climate change, not the kind of subject matter you’d expect from a 20-year old kid wearing mascara and plastic fangs.
The next day I wrote about the experience in my journal. Of course I did. It’s not everyday that I meet someone who sleeps in a coffin in his parents’ basement. I titled the entry “My Night With Glamboy”, closed the journal and felt a creeping doubt about my future with Jane.
We went on one more date, a day trip to the Liberty Tree Mall, where we browsed through leather accessories in a store called Hot Topic. I felt uncomfortable there, mainly because the target demographic seemed to be adolescent girls with sadomasochistic tendencies. “You should get this,” Jane shouted from three aisles over, holding up a codpiece that looked like it was made for a 12-year old. I bent down and scratched my head, avoiding the cashier’s stare.
I liked Jane, but, in the end, we weren’t on the same page. Whenever I suggested typical date fare, like lunch, she’d counter with, “Maybe, but Sunday is fetish night at Club Hell. I sorta told some friends I’d go.” I wanted to get to know her in a quiet, relaxing environment, one that wasn’t encumbered by industrial music or Nazi propaganda films projected on the walls. Finally, after three dates, I called it quits, citing my early sobriety as the main reason. She respected that. There was no ill will and she told me I could always call her when my recovery reached sturdier ground.
Months passed, and in December of 2014, while scanning through my journal for a story idea, I came across “My Night With Glamboy”. I expanded it to 3500 words and used Jane’s character as the access point, making the story less of an exposé on goth subculture and more about the lurid adventures that await us on the other end of dating sites. And while I changed Jane’s name, virtually everything else was taken verbatim: her job, the town where she lived, her physical description and mannerisms, and nearly all of our dialogue, including the vulnerable moments, like when she revealed her compulsion to self-mutilate.
The one detail I changed was inconsequential: the dating site. Jane pointed this out when she eventually read the story, nearly six months after I posted it. I was at my office late one day in June of 2015—two months before the smashed windshield—when I got an email from Weebly, the server that hosts my blog, alerting me of a reader comment.
That’s funny. I thought we met on OK Cupid. Not Tinder.
Gooseflesh spread across my body. How did she find my blog? Not by Googling my name, that’s for sure. I do this at least once a week and am always disappointed by the six pages of Daniel Pellegrini I click through before arriving at the Greater Fool website. Even my father, Daniel Pellegrini Sr., appears before me on a Google search, and he’s been dead for thirteen years.
Jane must have visited my Facebook profile and found one of my more recent posts relating to my blog. We’re not friends on Facebook, but apparently that doesn’t matter. If a post is labeled as “public”, anyone can view it. Still, even if she got to my blog she’d have had to scroll through six months’ worth of stories to find hers, and back then I wrote two a month. That’s twelve stories at an average of 3500 words each. A total of forty thousand words, half the length of the average novel.
Suddenly I felt like I was being watched. I shut down my computer and hurried out the door.
On the walk home, I thought about the story, wondering what else was in there and how damaging it might be. Maybe it’s not so bad, I thought, and then I remembered one passage, early on, that described Jane’s face as “…permanently disdainful, as though wincing at a foul smell…a fresh cadaver who was deeply unsatisfied with the way in which she died.”
“Jesus Christ,” I said, pulling at the few remaining strands of hair on my head. I didn’t want to think about what else I had written. I wanted to climb up onto the expressway overpass and let the traffic pulverize me. Instead I took a deep breath and reached for my phone. My wife Amanda was waiting for me at a restaurant, and I wanted to let her know that I was running late. Normally I am not this thoughtful, but I had to do something considerate to feel like less of an asshole.
There was a text waiting for me from an unknown number. “Please let it be a collection agent,” I said, and then unlocked the phone and read it.
Hello. This is Jane. Do you remember me? It certainly appears so. I came across your website and found a story you wrote about me. I suggest you take it down. Right now.
My bowels filled up with water. This is my body’s natural response to fear, as though there are copper wires that run directly from my brain to my rectum. I picked up my pace, power-walking over the West 4th Street bridge into South Boston. I kept enough composure to reply to her text.
I’m sorry. I’ll take the story down. Give me ten minutes.
Something told me not to cave in, that I was protected by the first amendment, but then I pictured Jane sitting at the center of a pentagram with a book of spells in her lap. So I admitted fault and agreed to her terms, hoping that would be the end of it.
It was not. A moment later my phone buzzed again.
You wrote about my personal life. Things I revealed to you in confidence. To me they are real but to u they are entertainment. That entire story was a judgment on my character and my life. You are so low. You must really hate yourself.
I was two blocks from my house. I could have waited and put some thought into my response, but I desperately wanted to resolve this matter.
You’re absolutely right. I do hate myself. I’m sorry. The story will be down in five minutes.
A minute later, she replied. To think some drug addict is passing judgment on me. Ha. That’s the real humor. Maybe I’ll write a story about that, on my own blog. The loser drug addict with Crohn’s Disease who sits at home shitting his pants and writing terrible things about people. Wouldn’t that be funny?
I was tempted to tell her I’d already covered that topic ad nauseam, but instead I unlocked my front door and ran up the stairs to my condo, went straight for my laptop, and deleted the story from my website. The story’s gone. Again, I’m truly sorry. My intent was not to hurt you or pass judgment on you in any way. I write about life experiences, that’s all. Besides, no one reads my blog. J Anyway, I deleted the story. It’s over.
I hit send and waited a few minutes while I calmed down. Then I splashed cold water on my face, changed my shirt and headed out for the restaurant to meet my wife for dinner.
Ten minutes later I arrived at Loco, part taqueria, part oyster bar. Amanda sat at a two-top by the back wall, a half-finished margarita in front of her. She saw me and smiled, and I immediately felt at ease.
“Do you want to start with something from the raw bar?” she asked.
“Sounds good,” I said, and then I felt a buzz against my leg. Another text. I looked down at it.
Nothing is over.
“Let’s get six Island Creek oysters and six of these other ones,” Amanda said. “Danny? Why do you look pale? Are you feeling okay?”
“Yeah, I feel great,” I said, grabbing a menu.
The server took our order, and as soon as he walked away the phone buzzed again. I tried to ignore it by engaging Amanda in constant conversation, broaching topics that normally didn’t interest me, anything to keep her talking and me distracted. “So, tell me more about your spinning class,” I said. “Who’s your favorite instructor?”
I listened and nodded and asked more questions, my leg buzzing sporadically throughout our entire meal, these tiny electric shocks reminding me what an asshole I was.
After the server cleared our plates, Amanda excused herself to use the restroom, leaving me alone with a cache of unread hate mail. They can’t all be from her, I thought, but when I checked I saw eight texts from Jane. I unlocked my phone. There were pages of texts, some short, some infinitely long. I scrolled through them, noticing certain phrases and keywords. A few that stood out: …I’m not mad. A pussy-ass like you could never make me mad…I knew there was something cowardly about you…no wonder you’re old and single…you’re a degenerate junkie…How’s it feel knowing you’ll be wearing diapers in a few years?...Your bulge is pathetic…
And the last one, which I read in its entirety: Watch out. You have no idea who the fuck you messed with. Hahaha.
I deleted all of her texts and blocked her number. Then I kindly asked the server for the check.
Though I didn’t mention any of this to Amanda, she noticed my increased concern for home security in the following weeks. At first I took sensible measures, like locking both doors at night and keeping a Louisville Slugger next to the bed. Soon, however, my actions became more paranoid. The cat was no longer allowed outdoors, which resulted in twice the amount of scratched walls and furniture. I burned sage throughout our rooms, giving the entire condo the fresh odor of hot garbage. After that I made some décor changes. “What’s with all the crucifixes on the walls?” Amanda said.
I lashed back at her. “You’re the one who always says we need more artwork. Now I show an interest, and you criticize it.”
I worried about potential legal implications. The story had been removed from the internet, but what if Jane copied it to her desktop as evidence? Could she sue me for defamation of character? I asked my friend, Eric, a litigator. “It’s hard to say,” he said. “There is something called the Freedom of Art Act. It grants leeway to artists who use real life experiences in creative ways.” This gave me some peace of mind, though I doubted that my stories qualified as art, considering half of them are about bowel disease.
Then there was the ethical dilemma. On this I consulted my therapist. “What am I supposed to do?” I said. “I write about my life. Sometimes that involves other people. Surely I can’t be the only person who deals with this problem.”
“Hm,” said my shrink, staring off into his infinite wisdom. “Maybe you could ask their permission before writing about them?”
I thought of how I might pose this question to Maggie, a former girlfriend who was currently the subject of a three-part series. “Hey Maggie. I know it’s been a while, and the last time we saw each other you threatened my life, but I’m writing a story about our relationship and I’m wondering if you’d be comfortable with it. It includes details about your alcoholism and multiple venereal diseases, as well as the Xanax I stole from your underwear drawer. The story will live on the internet and will be promoted on social media. Oh, and the title is Trainwreck.”
There were others, a supporting cast of ex-girlfriends, former drug dealers, employers, neighbors, CCD teachers and childhood friends. I pluck our relationships from the real world and render them in a way that will best serve a particular story, molding their characters for the sake of theme and structure. And while the light shines harshest on my own folly, these other characters become paper targets, defenseless against a one-sided assault that I call truth. Is this ethical? Is it art, or is it cyber-bullying? Am I telling stories or am I exacting revenge?
“Why do you write these stories, Danny?” my shrink said.
I thought about it for a minute. “Because I’m insecure, and angry, and small, and sick. And I guess I just need to talk about it.”
“Interesting,” he said, yawning and checking his watch.
In spite of this epiphany I kept writing, and two weeks later I posted Trainwreck: Part One, the first of three stories about my incendiary romance with “Maggie”. Maggie was a loud, obnoxious drunk that craved attention and often got it in the tackiest ways, like staggering into a room full of people and lifting her dress over her head. Or dry humping strangers at parties. Or sobbing at a breakfast café until the server brought her Bloody Mary. Whether consciously or not, this was someone who wanted a story written about her. I was just the investigative journalist, observing her erratic behavior while hooking up with her and stealing her benzodiazepines.
Writing Trainwreck pulled my attention away from Jane, and by early August I had forgotten all about her. It’s funny how quickly a short amount of time can totally change one’s mindset: in the days following her texts, I was certain I’d get a subpoena in the mail, or, worse, a giftwrapped cow’s tongue. But after a month it was as though nothing happened, the whole incident flypapered from my consciousness. Until of course that lovely August morning when I stepped out of my house and saw my Jeep’s windshield smashed. Then it all came flooding back into my bones.
“Danny, we live in the city. People get their cars broken into all the time. It’s not personal,” said Amanda, later that evening.
“Okay, Sherlock. Why would someone smash the windshield instead of a side window? Or better yet, why would they smash anything at all seeing as that my top was down and my doors were unlocked?”
“Then it was drug addicts,” she said. “They probably went through your car, looking for something to steal, found nothing and then smashed your windshield because they were pissed!”
“Always quick to blame drug addicts,” I said, wagging my finger. “Leave the drug addicts out of this. They wouldn’t do this to me. We have a mutual understanding. Besides, drug addicts want to get high, not vandalize.”
“Fine,” Amanda said. “Then it was kids doing stupid kid things. The point is this kind of shit happens all the time. This city is filled with idiots and life is filled with random coincidences. It doesn’t mean someone’s after you.”
I needed another opinion, so I called my friend, Dave, and told him about the windshield. “Jesus,” he said. “You think it was Trainwreck?”
I hadn’t even thought of that. Before I could respond Dave listed off six other possible suspects, all people I had written about in the last year. Among them were Justin, a childhood friend who now lives in his parents’ attic, like Boo Radley; Bill, the pedophile Home Depot employee with the incontinent dog; Carol, the married woman I did mushrooms with back in 1999; and Luis, the drug dealer and El Salvadorian gang member, who I’ve described in detail, should any DEA agents stumble onto my blog.
The point: it could be anyone. Every story unearths a new reason for someone to hate me. Take for instance Tommy Donovan, a kid from my neighborhood. Even as a child, Tommy was a sociopathic animal. He sexually harassed the elderly woman who collected cans on his street. He routinely broke into his neighbor’s house, using their phone to call 900 numbers. On summer nights he’d walk through the high school baseball field, fully nude, boasting about it the next day, telling people how he took a shit on third base or masturbated in right field. I haven’t written this story yet, but I will. I have to. And I can’t imagine the real Tommy Donovan reading it someday and looking back fondly on his childhood.
“Why don’t you write about nice things?” my mother says, every time I see her. “Like Maeve Binchy. I just read a wonderful book of hers about aging and finding love later in life. It takes place in a small town outside Dublin. The characters are wonderful. Why can’t you write stories like that?” Then she adds, “Stories that aren’t so hurtful.”
There’s a long answer to this question, one that includes Freudian self-analysis and literary buzzwords like absurdist and artistic expression. But when I start talking like this I sound like a jerkoff. So instead I say, “I don’t know, mom. I just think that stuff is funny.” That’s the extent of it. Things happen in life, and I like to curate them. It may be unethical, or trashy, or cheap, or ugly, or whatever. But it’s the way I do it, and will continue to do it as such, so long as there are priests that can bless my condo once a month, and pepper spray that fits into my wife’s purse.
* * * *
A week later, I saw my neighbor standing on the sidewalk in front of his house. His arms were folded, as usual, but there was something different about his face. He looked distant instead of watchful. I said hello and asked how he was doing, and he shook his head.
“My daughter got arrested last night,” he said.
I looked at the red Mercury Sable. It was quiet and still, not vibrating with the bass of some hip-hop song, as was usually the case. “Jesus,” I said. “What happened?”
John spat out a wad of phlegm. “Her and that fuckin’ asshole boyfriend. Cops busted them for possession. They were walkin’ up and down West 6th Street, with a baseball bat, smashing in car windshields. When they searched her they found two grams of meth. That’s her third drug charge in two years. Now they got her on destruction of property, too.” His jaw trembled, and he started to cry. “Dumb fuckin’ asshole,” he said, covering his face.
I wanted to tell him how relieved I was to hear this, that for the last seven days I thought I’d been targeted by a satanic cult, when it was his daughter all along. But it wasn’t the right time. Instead I walked over and stood next to him on the sidewalk. “It’s all right, John,” I said. “Some people have to hit bottom, but she’ll make it back. She’s going to be fine.”
I didn’t believe a word of this. The fact is that most people don’t make it back, and John’s daughter was no exception to the rule. But who am I to say this? Sometimes honesty isn’t that important. Sometimes it’s as bullshit as everything else.
The summer I was thirteen, my cousin, Billy, hired me at his landscaping company. This thrilled me to no end. Having grown up with two older sisters and a chronically disappointed father, Billy was my only male role model, the closest thing I had to an older brother. He was in his mid-twenties at the time, handsome, muscular and intense, with naturally dark Italian skin, brooding eyes, a big smile and a great head of thick, wavy hair. By contrast, I was skinny, fair-skinned and dainty, with hair so straight and downy it couldn’t even hold a part. I did whatever I could to toughen up my image—pushups, ripped jeans, black t-shirts—but it’s hard to be intimidating when your head looks like a dandelion.
Working alongside my cousin—outdoors in the sun, pushing heavy equipment—would grandfather me into the world of toughness. Landscapers were the Roman soldiers of suburban life. They patrolled the streets in green trucks, smoking cigarettes, whistling at girls and listening to classic rock. To ride with them would be a significant leap in masculinity, especially given my current part-time job bagging groceries at Star Market, where I stood like a goof for three hours a day, wearing a blue smock, watching food drift toward me in slow motion.
“You up for this, mush?” Billy said, sitting behind the wheel of his pickup, the engine grumbling. Whenever he wanted to talk to me, or anyone in my family, he just drove his truck into our driveway, honked the horn, lit a cigarette and waited for someone to come out. That’s how cool he was.
“I’ll start you off three days a week, Monday to Wednesday, then we’ll take it from there.” He flicked ash from his cigarette. His palms were calloused and grease-stained, whereas mine were soft and pink. “You’ll be the low man, and you’ll be doing a lot of shit work, but if you stick with it, you’ll get more responsibility. By the time you turn sixteen, you could be driving your own truck, running your own crew.”
Driving my own truck? I envisioned myself jumping from the back of a pickup, wearing a trucker hat and aviator sunglasses. Or hurling tractor-trailer tires one by one onto a pile. Or tearing apart an aluminum shed with a crow bar. The fantasies were endless.
There were three of us in Billy’s crew: Billy, myself, and a 23-year old amateur body-builder named Tommy. We looked like a traveling Abercrombie & Fitch photo shoot: two bare-chested models and a random kid that someone threw in for the sake of diversity. While they worked the heavy equipment, like the industrial mower or the weed whacker, I pushed around a small, consumer-grade lawnmower, like the one my dad used at home. My job was to cut the edges of the lawns as well as any narrow sections that the power mower couldn’t reach. This took about fifteen minutes. Then I looked on with envy as the other two operated the real machines. They were surgical, a pair of commandos working in perfect synchronicity. One day, I thought. One day.
“Hey! Dipshit!” Billy walked toward me, carrying the weed whacker like a machine gun, his biceps bulging with veins. “What do you think you’re doing?”
I wasn’t sure what he meant, but his voice scared me, so I sat upright in the grass and put my boots back on while he loomed over me. “Huh? Nothing. I’m just waiting for you guys to finish,” I said, gesturing toward the backyard, a half-eaten Fruit Roll-Up in my hand.
“Waiting for us to finish?” Billy repeated in disbelief. “You lay in the grass and take your shoes off while we’re out here working?”
“My feet hurt,” I said. Then, softly: “These are new boots.”
“Jesus Mary Mother of God,” he said, wiping his hand across his face. “Never, absolutely never, should you sit down. If you finish before us you ask ‘what else can I do?’ Or you get on your hands and knees and start pulling up weeds. Or you run to the store and get us cold drinks. You don’t lay down in the sun and eat a fucking fruit snack that your mommy packed for you.” He walked away, shaking his head. “Unfuckingbelievable.”
For the rest of the afternoon I kept my head down and stayed quiet. I took my time with the mower, retracing each path at least twice. When I finished I scoured the lawn for weeds. If I couldn’t find any I’d pick up anything—pebbles, acorns, gum wrappers, blades of discolored grass—and store it in my pocket. I was afraid to stop moving.
That Wednesday I got my first paycheck. A hundred and twenty bucks, cash. Twice as much than I ever made in a week at Star Market. And this was just the beginning.
I felt more comfortable in my second week, a little seasoned, confident that as long as I kept moving I would avoid any scrutiny. I can do this, I thought as I pushed the mower around the fringe of a million-dollar home on Commonwealth Avenue, easing into a nice rhythm. That rhythm came to a grinding halt, however, when I mowed directly onto a rock garden. I would have seen it coming had my eyes been open, but I was lost in a daydream, an imaginary place where I was tanned and muscular and in charge of my own landscaping company.
“It just stopped working?” Billy said, wafting away the black smoke. He tilted the mower on its side and inspected the undercarriage. The blade was mangled. “This just happened out of nowhere? Is that what you’re telling me?” he said, his chest and shoulders heaving up and down as though priming his own rage.
“Maybe I hit a rock, I don’t know,” I said, my lip quivering.
“Maybe you hit a rock?” he said. It occurred to me that most of our dialogue consisted of me saying something and then Billy repeating it in disbelief.
There was nothing else to do but shrug. Billy pushed the broken mower back to his truck, loaded it onto the trailer and then drove off, returning an hour later with a replacement model.
“You just set us back two houses,” Billy said as he gave me the new mower. “From now on, fucking pay attention.”
My next paycheck was eighty bucks, forty less than my regular wage. When I told my father, he said that was most likely the cost of the lawnmower repair, deducted from my salary. “Being an idiot has consequences, son. How long have I been telling you this?”
“Can’t people make mistakes?” I asked.
“Of course,” my mother said. “As long as they learn from them.”
After that conversation I gained a new appreciation for mistakes, and thus I went easier on myself when I made them. “From now on, never fill up the mower’s gas tank on the lawn, in case there’s a leak,” I said, looking down at a circle of burnt yellow grass, the size of a manhole cover. When I forgot to load the leaf blower onto the trailer one day after a job, I made a mental note to check at least once before saying I was “absolutely positive” about something. “Now I know,” I said to myself, while Billy drove back to retrieve the blower from the last house, three towns over.
By the end of June my schedule had dropped from three days a week to two. Billy said it was only temporary, until he secured some more clients. By mid-July it was down to one day a week. “Summer’s a slow time of year for landscaping,” he said, but I think it had something to do with Mr. Cosgrove’s bed of daffodils, which I mistook for weeds and subsequently ripped from the soil, one by one.
As my schedule shrank, so did my responsibilities. I spent less time cutting grass and more time guarding the trailer, which, up until then, had not been a concern. Most of the equipment was in use while the truck was parked, so all I really protected were a stack of orange cones. “You can never be too cautious in some neighborhoods,” Billy shouted as he disappeared over the rolling hills of a three-acre front lawn.
Finally, in late July, I quit. “I’d like to devote more time to my friends,” I told Billy. “This is the last summer we have before high school.” The truth, of course, was that I was incompetent, and I finally owned up to it. Being incompetent is one thing, but actually knowing you’re incompetent is a hard reality to face.
At the end of August I went to Star Market and got back my job as a grocery bagger. They gave me a twenty-five cent raise and said in three months I could get promoted to cashier, which paid five-fifty an hour. Cashiers had always intimidated me; they knew all types of register codes by memory and were responsible for depositing their cash in a rubber bag that was then locked and signed over to a manager. With proper training, though, I knew I could do it. What’s more, cashiers didn’t wear blue smocks, just a white collared shirt with a nametag and necktie. Maybe I was more suited for the white-collar world, after all. There was no shame in that.
By October I forgot all about landscaping. There were fleeting moments, up in the Star Market break room, when I imagined Billy, Tommy and myself, sitting on our Igloo coolers, eating Italian subs, smelling freshly cut grass and talking about the Red Sox. Then I’d snap out of it and bring my attention back to the break room, where I shared a table with Heather, Michelle, Caitlin and Brenda, listening to another of their fierce debates on who was better, Janet Jackson or Paula Abdul.
* * * *
It’s been over twenty-five years, and I’ve long since accepted my ineptitude when it comes to anything handy. In 2006 I bought a fixer-upper condo in South Boston at a great price, and the only upgrades I’ve done in ten years were replacing a screen door and assembling three bookshelves that I bought at Target. The screen door was a surprising success, but the bookshelves have buckled and leaned over time. They were intended to be an astute symbol of knowledge, but have instead become a haunting foreshadow of old age.
My lack of interest in renovating was likely due to my dependency on drugs and alcohol, a habit that required a great deal of time and money to maintain on a daily basis. When I got sober, in 2013, I rededicated my home improvement efforts, starting with a bathroom update. I bought new fixtures, ceramic tiles and a gallon of paint. Then I found a handyman on Angie’s List and paid him $1500 to do all the work. He finished it in one weekend, and it looked great. It was time for the next project: my condo’s front door. This I tackled sixteen months later.
The door had been an eyesore from day one. It’s shade of dark brown went out of style in the 1600s, a time when “plain” was fashionable and aesthetics were seen as devil worship. The knob and deadbolt were reinforced with steel plating, presumably to safeguard against burglars, or, considering my neighborhood, Drug Enforcement Agents. The wood in the frame had decayed so much over the last century that the screws would no longer hold the hinges. This made the door uneven, so it could only open forty-five degrees before it got stuck against the floor. I’ve heard real estate people say that a modern kitchen sets the tone for an entire house, but in my experience nothing says “welcome home” like a quality front door, the premium kind that opens and closes.
I bought a door from Home Depot and hired my handyman to install it. “No problem,” he said. “Shouldn’t take more than a few hours.” But the job wasn’t that easy. He couldn’t get the door to shut, no matter how much he measured and shaved and sanded. It fit perfectly in the frame, but once he attached the hinges it overshot the jamb by a half inch. “This door is exactly the same goddamn size as that door,” he said, pointing to the old door that leaned against my kitchen wall. Over and over the handyman went through the same ordeal: he removed the door, sanded the edges down, then put it back on, but still it banged against the jamb, refusing to shut. Eventually he tried forcing it in, growling as he leaned into it with all his weight. “Goddammit!” he screamed. “The fuck is wrong with you?!”
By ten o’clock he was on his knees, trembling, whispering to the door, asking how it could be so fucking cruel.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” he finally said. “The old door fits. The new one doesn’t. They’re both the same size. I can’t explain it.” His voice was shaky, the way a person talks when nobody believes them about the flying saucer or the talking chair.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said, getting my checkbook. I was tired and frustrated just from watching him. “How much do I owe you?”
“I can’t charge you,” he said. “I didn’t do the job.”
I offered to pay him half his quote but he refused. Still, I had to give him something for the effort, so I handed him all the cash I had on me. “At least buy yourself some dinner,” I said. “Or pick up some flowers for your girlfriend.”
He looked down at the twelve bucks in his hand. “Thanks. This is…generous.”
“Why don’t you just call my dad?” my wife, Amanda, said when she got home and found me sitting in the dark, holding my brand new stainless steel deadbolt, turning the lock in and out, in and out. Click-click, click-click.
“He’ll know what to do,” she said. “He could probably finish the door in an afternoon, and then we’ll take him out to dinner afterward. He loves helping out family.”
My father-in-law, Armand, is a contractor. He knows how to build things, and he understands how things work. If he comes across something he doesn’t understand, he will study it and tinker with it until it makes sense to him. He is naturally curious and patient. When he walks down a city block he stops and looks up at things: buildings, scaffolding, highway overpasses, anything. My brain does not work this way. I am naturally impetuous. If I come across something I don’t understand, I figure it must not be important. When I walk down the street I ignore the wonders of everyday life, opting instead to talk to myself and craft elaborate insults for use in later conversations.
“You’re right,” I said. “Let’s call him.” I should have done this from the start, as my wife suggested three weeks ago, but I didn’t want to bother him with what I assumed would be a menial task. That and I wanted him to think I was capable. Or at least capable enough to hire someone else to do a decent job.
My in-laws drove up the following Sunday. As soon as Armand hopped out of his Dodge Ram I felt at ease. He was dressed for work: flannel shirt, Wrangler jeans, a tape measure and cell phone clipped to his belt and a pencil behind his ear. This was a professional, unlike my handyman, who showed up in sweatpants and an Ed Hardy t-shirt.
Once we got up to my condo, I offered him a drink. “Can I get you anything? We have coffee, soda, Perrier…” But he was already inspecting the door, slowly opening and closing it, carefully watching the hinges.
“The new door won’t fit because the hinges stick out,” my father-in-law said. “See that? On the old door, the hinges are mortised, which means they’re set into the wood, flush against the edge of the door.”
He had figured this out in thirty seconds. The handyman spent six hours agonizing over it and it nearly drove him insane. “That’s amazing,” I said. “Can we fix it?”
“Sure, we just cut mortises in the new door.”
“What’s a mortise?” I said.
He took a breath, then explained it again.
“Do you have a mortise-cutting tool?”
“We chisel them out,” he said.
“With what?” I said.
“With a chisel. But first we need to deal with this frame. It’s in rough shape. We’ll reinforce the wood, fill in all these cracks with Durabond, and then deal with those holes.” He pointed to the bottom hinge. “Those screws won’t hold the hinges firm against the doorjamb because the wood has been drilled and re-drilled so many times. So we’ll fix that, too.”
“Sounds great,” I said. “What can I do?”
“You can run down to my truck and get some more tools. Do you have a power drill?”
“I have a screwdriver,” I said. “A Philips head, I think. Will that work?”
Armand handed me his keys. “That’s okay. On the front-left side of the pickup is a case that says Dewalt. Grab that. Behind that you’ll see a blue tote bag. Inside there’s a box of wooden matchsticks and some Elmer’s glue. Just grab the whole bag. On the other side of the truck you’ll see my gray toolbox. Under the tray is a plastic bag filled with four-inch toggle screws. Bring those. Then, on the floor of the back seat, there’s an impact gun. And that’s all we need.”
I ran down to the truck, grabbed the tools and carried them back up. “This is the impact gun, right?” I said, holding it in the air.
“That’s a bicycle pump.” He laughed. “It’s okay. No big deal.” He looked into the tote bag. “You couldn’t find the toggle screws?”
“That’s right, I forgot to ask; what’s a toggle screw?”
He described it to me. I ran down, grabbed the impact gun and the toggle screws, and ran back up to the condo. “Toggle screws?” I said, holding my palm out.
Armand smiled. “Nope, those are wall anchors,” he said.
I watched Armand work all morning. He filled in the screw holes by rolling together a handful of matchsticks, dipping them in glue, then hammering them into each hole. He was calm and focused while he worked, staring down over the round eyeglasses that rested on the tip of his nose.
“I wish I knew how to do this kind of stuff,” I said.
“Everyone has their own skillset,” he said. “That’s how the world works. I do my thing; you do yours.” I thought about my thing. The previous Friday I spent the whole day writing copy for Walmart, four pages of announcements that began with “Spring forward with 20% off any purchase…”
Next, Armand used the impact gun to drill the toggle screws through the doorframe and into the wall. The gun made a loud, grinding sound, like a fork caught in a garbage disposal. It vibrated through the entire wall and reminded me of the implants I had done at the dentist, the previous spring.
“Can I try that?” I asked. He handed me the gun and coached me, but when it came time to pull the trigger I hesitated, causing the screw to slip and a piece of the frame to come splintering off.
“We’ll fix that with the Durabond,” he said. “I’ll mix it up when I finish this.”
“I can mix it,” I said. “It’s like pancake batter, right?”
“Sort of,” he said. “How’s this for a plan: I’ll mix the Durabond, and you run down to the truck and grab my iced coffee. It’s in the cup holder. Dark brown liquid, clear plastic cup, straw sticking out.”
At 1:00, my wife grabbed us a couple sandwiches for lunch. “Take a break, Pop,” I yelled from the kitchen, my lips orange from Cool Ranch Doritos. But he politely refused and kept lathering the doorframe with Durabond. “I’ll be over there to help in a minute,” I said, one hand holding my BLT while the other scrolled through my Instagram feed.
Once all the Durabond had dried it was time to hang the door. I held it in place while Armand drilled in the screws. “Please hurry, it’s slipping,” I said, my face turning red.
“All set,” Armand said. I let go of the door, staggered across the living room and flopped down on the couch. “I think I threw out my back,” I said, reaching for the TV remote.
Armand made a few adjustments, and ten minutes later the door was up. He gave it a gentle push. The door opened swung open, straight and smooth. “Wow,” I said from the floor, where I laid across my back roller. “It’s beautiful.”
“It’s tight,” Armand said as he closed it. “We need to sand down the edge a little bit.”
We got on our knees and sanded. “This hurts my fingers,” I said. I got a bandana from my bedroom and tied it around my mouth, then I put on my wife’s gardening gloves and resumed the work. “I don’t want to breathe in this shit.” Armand nodded, sanding away with his bare hands while a cloud of sawdust sprayed in his face.
At four o’clock the door was finished. Armand installed the knob and the deadbolt and then handed me the keys. “That should do it,” he said. “It needs to be painted, but I’ll let you take care of that.”
“How about a celebration dinner!” I said. “Let me just wash up first.” An hour later I was showered and ready, wearing jeans, my Timberland boots, a flannel shirt, and the foam wrist brace I sometimes wore for my carpel tunnel. I thought the manual labor might cause it to flare up, and I didn’t want to take any chances.
* * * *
The next time I saw my father-in-law was two months later. He came up to help me fill in a hole in my living room wall. The hole was a vent for a gas heater, but since I don’t own one or plan on buying one, I figured I’d cover it up permanently. My temporary solution, for the last ten years, was a piece of cardboard box, scotch-taped to the wall. This no longer passed my new set of living standards. Call me snobbish, but I wanted my walls to be 100% plaster.
Armand and I went to Home Depot for supplies. We took our time, browsing through each section. I asked about things that had eluded me my whole life, like why it was called a “two-by-four” if it came in different sizes. Armand answered my questions in the simplest possible way, without a trace of sarcasm.
At the register, Armand explained the exact process of filling in that hole in my living room wall. “We’ll patch it with sheetrock and tape, then lay on some Durabond, sand it down and then paint over it. It’ll be like the hole was never even there.”
I thought about that, then I thought about the last thirty years of my life.
“Sound like a plan,” I said.
This is the third and final installment of the Sinatra Suite trilogy. Scroll down for parts 1 and 2. You can start here if you'd like, but I always find things make more sense when I start from the beginning...
When do you first tell someone that you love them? I’ve asked this question several times over the years. The most common answer is this: When it feels right.
When someone tells me to do what feels right, my mind wanders into a nebulous place. In my experience, what feels right is the opposite of what is right. As a child it felt right to talk about my friends behind their backs because it gave me the attention I craved and the sense of worth I lacked. In high school it felt right to get my hair permed, even though it involved sitting under a hooded dryer in between two middle-aged women. With Kate, it felt right to tell her I loved her on the phone, early on a Sunday morning, after I’d been up all night, snorting cocaine with the comedian in 3F.
“I’m physically sick without you, Kate, like there's this smoldering andiron in the pit of my stomach and the longer we're apart it just absorbs all of my loneliness and hatred. It's about to burst. I can see it, my stomach, it's expanding right before my eyes."
“We talked about this, Danny. That's your Crohn's Disease, and you need to see a doctor.”
“I need you, Kate,” I said. “Once I get back to Boston I’ll be fine. Trust me, it’s gonna be great. Me, you, a new life, a new job, good health…Jesus Christ, I gotta pull it together.”
There was a long sigh on the other end. “We can’t keep having this same conversation,” she said, her voice getting firm. “I don’t want you waiting by the phone all day, and I don’t want you dropping your entire life and coming back to Boston just for me. I can’t make these big future plans with you all the time. It’s a ton of pressure and I don’t want to resent you.”
“Resentment’s fine, if it means we’re together.”
“It’s too early in the morning for this,” she said.
“I can call you back, say…one hour?”
“Good bye, Danny.”
My face twitched and my teeth gnashed together. “I love you,” I said, throwing it out there. In the silence that followed I envisioned Kate lying in bed, the phone against her ear as she poised herself to cross the threshold and tell me that she loved me, too. Instead I heard two clicks, followed by a dial tone.
* * * *
The following Tuesday I saw a gastroenterologist at Cedars Sinai Hospital for the pain in my stomach. To my surprise, the prognosis was not a “pit full of loneliness and hatred”, but likely a Crohn’s Disease flare-up. My belly was distended and sensitive to the touch, and the pain had grown constant, a steady burn throughout my entire midsection. I had lost fifteen pounds since January and my skin had gone from pasty white to translucent. I couldn’t get beyond the first two bites of any meal. My bowel movements felt like acid rain trickling out of my anus.
This was familiar territory. I’d had two prior Crohn’s flare-ups back east, both treated in the same archaic manner: starvation. In each case the pain proliferated, in spite of my fasting, and I was eventually admitted to the hospital, where I laid in bed for a week, hooked up to an IV, until things “calmed down”. Though I felt reasonably cared for, these hospitalizations seemed to be lacking something. That something was science. When I asked if there was medicine that could help expedite my recovery, or at least numb the pain, the doctor shook his head solemnly. “Your body needs time to heal, to work these maladies out of your system.” This was the kind of response one would expect from the Amish, not from a man with a white coat and a medical degree, and least of all not in Boston, a city renowned for its healthcare. I wanted to take a pill and feel better, not lay in bed for a month rubbing taro root on my stomach.
In Los Angeles, treatment for Crohn’s Disease is far more progressive. After pushing on my belly a few times the doctor went straight for her prescription pad. “We can either run a series of invasive tests,” she said, “or I can send you home on a high dose of steroids and Vicodin. You’ll feel better in a day or two.” Along with the prescriptions she handed me a CD, the cover of which had an illustration of the tree of life superimposed over Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. “Stress can often activate an inflamed bowel,” she said. “This is a guided Kireiki meditation, used for body healing and chakra alignment. Try this, along with the Vicodin and Prednisone, and you should pull out of this flare-up.”
This kind of healthcare was more my speed. Rather than rely on my body’s natural ability to heal, I placed my trust in a combination of narcotics and what the meditation referred to as “Positive Visualization”—essentially day-dreaming oneself back to health. I put the CD in my stereo, took three Vicodin and listened as a gentle English voice led me through a forest. I was told to listen to the sounds of the birds chirping and twigs snapping under my feet; to notice the rich color of the trees; to feel the moisture in the air and breathe in its sweetness. I added my own jungle-related touches here and there, like a friendly brontosaurus, raising its head from a patch of tall grass, and some Viet Cong snipers, who waved hello from treetops.
The voice led me to a clearing in the forest, where a lagoon magically appeared. “Wade into the lagoon,” the English voice instructed. “Notice the water is neither warm nor cold. Feel your body get lighter with every step. Now submerge yourself,” the voice continued. “Swim down to the lagoon’s floor. There is no resistance. The deeper you dive the lighter you will feel. Notice the bubbles in your wake; these are your body’s negative energies, cleansed by the purity of the lagoon.”
The bottom of the lagoon was dark and murky. Gradually a form took shape: an arm, reaching out toward me from the nothingness. In its clenched hand was a rose. Streams of light cascaded down, illuminating the rose, casting a halo around it. “Take the rose and swim back to the surface,” the voice said. I did. As I ascended, the water got lighter and clearer, until finally I emerged through the lagoon’s surface, rose in hand. Next the voice instructed me to float on my back and stare up at the sky. “Now, place the rose on your chest. Feel the sun’s warmth on your face,” the voice said. “Feel yourself being reborn, becoming whole again.”
Sitar music faded up, along with gently lapping waves, signaling the end of the meditation. It was an odd place to end, me floating on my back, so to bring a better sense of closure I put the rose in my teeth and swam ashore. Then I walked through more woods until I arrived at the edge of a lake, where I stood and waited for a rubber raft filled with commandos to pick me up and give me a lift back to reality.
Whenever my stomach pain got really bad at work, which was every few hours, I meditated, locking myself in a storage closet on the Sony Pictures lot, my portable CD player in hand. I’d sit on a stack of copy paper, shut the light off and transport myself to the same oasis, diving into the same lagoon and reaching for the same rose. With each journey I got a clearer glimpse of the person handing me the rose, and each time it looked more like Kate, her yellow-blonde hair floating around her head like tentacles. I became obsessed with the mystery and everything it entailed: the stomach pain, the Vicodin, the imaginary escape. After a week I was using the Kirieki CD ten times a day.
“Are you on something?” Kate said, half-asleep, her voice muffled by a pillow. I’d called her at 2:30 AM her time, after taking a dozen Vicodin over a four-hour period. I told her about everything: the forest, the lagoon, the rose, the friendly dinosaurs, the Viet Cong. Everything.
“I’ve found a metaphysical channel that connects us,” I said, pacing around my bedroom, scratching my legs so vigorously that my fingertips were bloody. My heart thudded against my breastplate in triple time. “Have you seen the lagoon, Kate? Have you? That’s me at the bottom, Kate. Me. I’m the guy…I’m the guy…you give me the rose. Me.”
Kate begged me to go to sleep. I tried explaining that the lagoon only appeared when conscious, but I couldn’t complete a full sentence. I had taken so many painkillers that my throat was closing, which made swallowing difficult. I’d speak a few words and then stop to gasp for air. “If I drive…straight through…I can be in…Boston...in forty…hours.”
No response. “Kate?” Silence, then two clicks, followed by a dial tone.
I hit redial until dawn. The line was busy. The pain in my stomach mushroomed out to my ribcage. I took more Vicodin.
I slept for a few hours and starting calling again at dawn. At nine Kate’s phone was ringing, and by mid-afternoon someone finally picked up. It was her roommate, Maura. She told me Kate was out, but refused to elaborate when I asked where she was, who she was with, or how she was dressed.
“Fine. When you see her, tell her my flight lands in Boston at eight, and the town car will take me directly to your apartment,” I said, slamming the phone down and realizing that 8:00 PM was in two hours.
An hour later Eric poked his head into my bedroom. He and Frank were going to a 7:00 showing of The Matrix and, keen to my recent isolation and despair, asked if I wanted to join. “I’m good, but thanks for asking,” I said, curled up in the corner of my bedroom with one hand on my stomach while the other counted out my remaining Vicodin.
I spent the night waiting by the phone, biding my time by chain-smoking and tearing random objects to shreds. I started with the covers to all of our paperback books. Next were the wall posters: The Who, Reservoir Dogs, Pamela Anderson. I followed this with a box of Band-Aids, removing them from their individual packages, tearing them up, and then finishing with the box. All shreds were stacked in neat piles on the floor, like rock cairns. My bedroom looked like an ancient Indian burial ground. Once all the paper-based objects were torn up I moved on to different materials, finally tiring myself out on a pair of flip-flops. The phone never rang once.
I tried to use the Kireiki meditation and revisit the enchanted forest, but my mind transported me to a darker place, where it was cloudy and bleak instead of bright and clear. Rather than chirping birds, I heard creaky screen doors and howling wind. The friendly dinosaurs were gone, and the Viet Cong snipers were replaced with junior-level studio executives.
At eleven I took the last of my painkillers, crawled into bed, and faded out. When I woke up, at four-thirty the next morning, I called the doctor’s emergency service. The stomach pain seared throughout my entire torso. I had vomited up two bowls of Ramen noodles, and I had a fever of a hundred and two. The doctor’s office told me to get to the ER. Immediately.
Eric dropped me off at the Cedars Sinai Emergency Room. I was triaged, examined, scanned, heavily sedated and admitted. When I woke up that afternoon, I thought I’d died and gone to a West Elm showroom. My hospital suite was bigger than my apartment. It had two rooms: one with a dining set and bookshelves, the other with a double-size bed, leather chairs, a desk, and a mahogany armoire that housed a plasma TV and an X Box. Once I realized I was in Cedars Sinai I thought of Frank Sinatra. He had died the previous summer while staying at this same hospital, so naturally I assumed this was his suite.
“Maybe. But regardless, everyone is treated like a celebrity at Cedars Sinai,” the nurse said, injecting my IV with forty milligrams of Demerol.
Tears streamed down my cheeks. The Demerol was instantaneous, like a warm blanket over my entire nervous system. “You people are so kind,” I said.
He patted my wrist, packed up his tackle box and left. I looked out my window at the sprawling hills of West L.A. The sun was beginning its descent, casting an orange glow over Hollywood. “Jesus Christ, this is good shit,” I said, a snot bubble popping in my nostril.
Every three hours a nurse would come in and inject me with Demerol. By the time the doctors arrived to outline a plan, I was drooling. They told me there was an obstruction inside my ascending colon, along with acute inflammation of the intestinal wall, and that surgery would be required to remove ten inches of colon and my appendix. “Sounds good,” I said, nodding off.
On my third day in the hospital, I called Kate. “She’s out, Danny, and I don’t know where she is,” said Sara, another of Kate’s roommates. She sounded irritated. Normally I would have taken offense and considered it some kind of coup, but I was too stoned to take anything personally.
“Okay. Just tell her I’m in the hospital, Cedars Sinai, and I’m having surgery on Friday. Tell her I hope she’s doing well. That’s all. Good bye.” The phone slid out from my hand and dropped onto the bed.
The next day Kate called back. “Danny? Oh my God, what happened? Are you okay? I came home last night and saw DANNY-HOSPITAL written on the dry erase board and I freaked out! I went to sleep and called you as soon as I woke up, after I got back from the gym and ran all my errands.”
She apologized for being distant over the last few weeks. “There’s been so much drama at work, I just don’t know how to handle it,” she said, sobbing. “I was selfish. I didn’t consider your feelings. I’m so sorry if I hurt you.”
I forgave her. We talked for another hour. She told me how much she missed me and that she’d pray for me every day. She insisted I call her regularly while I was confined to a hospital bed, which would likely be another ten days. Neither of us mentioned love, and that was fine. It wasn’t the right time. But that time would come, months from now, once I was back in Boston, healthy, amongst friends and family. I pictured Kate and us on a late-spring day, sitting on a blanket in the Boston Common, sipping red wine from paper cups, staring into each other’s eyes. Starting over. Building something true. Being our best selves. That is love.
I hung up the phone and smiled. The nurse came in and shot me up with more Demerol, and then I wept. After two months of corrosive uncertainty, of physical and psychological torment, order had been restored. I laid back, turned on the TV and flipped through some channels, but they all showed the same thing: an aerial shot of a building in what appeared to be the middle of the nowhere. “How awful” the nurse said, referring to a mass shooting that had just occurred at a Colorado high school.
“Yes. Awful,” I said, thinking of Kate and I, lying next to each other in bed, on the other side of the country.
* * * *
The surgery was successful. I woke up with cottonmouth and a row of titanium staples running vertically down my naval. The next five days were spent recovering in my suite, slowly reintroducing solid food and tapering off the pain meds. I was downgraded from Demerol to Dilaudid, which is like substituting Tylenol for heroin. The withdrawal was severe and sent me into fits of sadness and rage. Whenever the nurses checked my vitals I’d beg them for one more shot of Demerol. “I won’t bother you ever again, I swear,” I’d say, a song-and-dance that became routine behavior in the years to come.
I called Kate every day but she was never home. The night before my discharge I called every two hours. Finally someone picked up. It was Sara again. “Dude, what the fuck is your deal?” I heard laughter and Top-40 dance music in the background. Sara shouted into the phone, her words slurred together. “You are the reason we keep our phone off the hook. Do you even know that?” She told me to hold on, then screamed, then broke out laughing, then claimed she was going to piss herself. She came back to the phone. “I gotta go. See you tomorrow, Greg.”
Greg? Did Kate have another stalker? What was happening tomorrow? Was she in some kind of danger? I had to get back to Boston, fast. First I had to get out of this hospital. Then I had to quit my job. Then gain some weight. Then get the staples out of my stomach. Then pack up the Acura and leave. Two weeks, tops. I just hoped it wouldn’t be too late. My breath quickened. My heart raced. The walls of the hospital suite closed in on me. Panicking, I hit the nurse’s call button. “I think I’m having an anxiety attack,” I told her. She injected me with twenty milligrams of Valium, and a half hour later I was asleep.
I was discharged the next day. Since I didn’t know anyone who could give me a ride I took a cab back to my apartment. When I got there, Howie was sitting on the steps, smoking a cigarette, resting a bag of ice on his right hand. He told me he beat up a pimp the night before on Hollywood Blvd., then asked if I had any weed.
“I just got out of the hospital, Howie,” I said.
“For what?” he said.
“Never mind. Did I get any calls today?”
“Yeah. That chick. The one from Boston. She called twice.”
“She did? Jesus Christ, Howie. What’d she say?”
“That she misses you and loves you and can’t stop thinking about you.”
“Are you serious?” I said, gooseflesh breaking out over my body.
“No, you asshole,” Howie said, standing up from the steps, flicking away his cigarette. He laughed, then turned and went back inside.
I decided not to call Kate until I got back to Boston, where I could talk to her face-to-face. I felt less helpless now that I was out of the hospital and taking actionable steps toward my departure. After some convincing, Frank agreed to drive back to Boston with me. We discussed it on the way to the bank one afternoon. “I don’t know, things are finally starting to pan out for me here,” he said as he handed the teller a Ziploc bag filled with coins in exchange for nine crisp singles.
“Frank, nothing is going to pan out for us,” I said. “Not for us, not for anyone. This city is all make-believe. It’s fun for a little while, but it gets old.”
“I haven’t even tried acting, yet,” he said. “What if I’ve got that special something?”
“You don’t,” I said, placing my hand on his shoulder.
For the next week I focused on my diet. Every three hours I ate some combination of peanut butter, eggs, potatoes or pasta. My cheeks and temples filled out. The bones and tendons in my wrists faded. My clothes fit better. I cut back on cigarettes and only smoked weed twice a day: at night, before bed, and first thing in the morning. My determination was unshakable.
I went back to the hospital for a follow-up. The surgeon plucked out the staples from my stomach and cleared me for travel, so long as I wasn’t flying. He said air travel posed a threat to a newly repaired intestine, something about the change in pressure causing the colon to crinkle and implode like a soda can under a boot heel. “I had one patient whose stitches burst open on a flight to Vancouver, poop splattered all over his insides,” he said. This stopped me in my tracks. Hearing the words “splattered poop” is drastic enough; adding the image of it dripping from a gallbladder seemed gratuitous.
Frank and I made it back to Boston in three days. We slept outdoors in Colorado the first night, splurged on a Motel 6 in Indiana the second night, and drove straight through the third night. I was on a mission, commandeering the Acura with grit and purpose and sheer will. The sun rose as we crossed the New York state line, and I charged at it like an astronaut rocketing toward earth. Somewhere I took a wrong turn and wound up in morning traffic on the Long Island Expressway. By the time we reached Interstate 95, my eyelids started sagging. Once we got to the Mass Pike I was falling asleep at the wheel.
Early that afternoon I pulled into my parents’ driveway. No one was home, which ordinarily would have been nice, except that I no longer had a house key, so I curled up on the front steps and fell asleep. Four hours later I awoke, my father standing above me. No “welcome home”, no “great to see you”. Instead he just shook his head at me, the universal expression of disgust.
I slept for a few hours and then called Kate. Maura answered. She told me Kate was working late but suggested I come over anyway. “We can meet up with her later,” she said. On another day I might have noticed the apprehension in her voice, but I was too giddy.
“I can’t believe how nervous I am,” I said, sitting in Maura’s living room that evening, fidgeting with my hands. “This is the room where it all started. I was sitting over there, and I remember Kate coming through the door but moving directly into the kitchen. I only caught a glimpse of her at first. But I knew right then that she was the one.”
Maura’s face went pale. “Danny, Kate is seeing someone. They’ve been together for a couple months. I can’t believe I’m telling you this, but it’s true. I’m sorry.”
My body shut down. My blood stopped flowing; my organs went on strike. My extremities got cold. I looked down at the floor, covered my eyes and nodded. In spite of the pain and humiliation, something about this moment made perfect sense, as if the story couldn’t end any other way. “She could have told me this earlier,” I said, massaging some feeling back into my face. “It would have spared me a long drive from Los Angeles.” I groaned. “Who is this guy?”
Maura gave me the broad strokes. He was a lawyer in his mid-thirties. They met the previous fall, when Kate was a paralegal in his department. “He doesn’t have much personality,” Maura said, trying to cushion the blow. It didn’t help. I had already formed a mental image of this man, something one might see on the cover of Fortune magazine. The big smile, the Rolex Submariner, the ten thousand dollar suit, the cigar. And a caption underneath his name that read MONEY CHANGES EVERYTHING. How could I compete with that? I couldn’t even afford curtains from Target.
“I’m supposed to meet them later, at the Black Rose,” Maura said. “You’re obviously welcome to join, but I’m sure it’s the last thing you want to do.”
I couldn’t just walk away. I had to see Kate’s face. More importantly, she had to see mine. “Fuck it. Let’s go,” I said.
An hour later I was in a crowded bar in downtown Boston, squeezed into a booth with Maura, Kate, her asshole boyfriend, and four of their coworkers. The group laughed and drank pitchers of beer and told lawyer stories. Kate and her boyfriend, Greg, held center stage. Someone asked them how the show was last night. “Springsteen was great,” Greg said, “but I’d rather be on the floor instead of up in the luxury box.” Someone else asked them if they were excited about snorkeling in the Bahamas this weekend. “So long as I can close those Morgan Stanley contracts!” Greg said, prompting howls of laughter. Someone said Kate was “absolutely gorgeous” and called her and Greg “the perfect couple”. At one point Kate and I made eye contact. She gave me a sympathetic smile and mouthed the word “sorry”—our last piece of verbal discourse, ever.
One of the coworkers turned toward me. “So…Dave, right? What do you do for work?”
I nodded. “I write for a magazine.” It was the first thing that came to mind. “An op-ed column, actually.”
“Cool. What was your last story about?”
“I’ll tell you what the next one’s about. You know that girl?” I nodded toward Kate.
“Kate? Of course. She’s a sweetheart.”
“Yeah. She is.”
The guy looked confused. “Are you writing a story about her?”
I smiled at him, then pulled a wrinkled five-dollar bill out of my pocket and dropped it on the table. “Would you mind if I snuck by so I can use the men’s room? I just had a piece of my colon removed, and I think I just shit myself.”
I slid past him, walked through the crowded bar, past the men’s room, and out the door.
* * * *
I sometimes wonder what would have happened had I stayed in Los Angeles. Maybe I’d be running a studio. Maybe I’d be an award-winning screenwriter. In all likelihood, I’d be working some shit job, living in a courtyard-style apartment complex, wearing shorts and flip-flops all year long, sitting on my couch, watching movies, eating frozen yogurt. I would have gotten comfortable, and that, I now understand, is the worst thing. Whether it was my fool hearted love for a woman I barely knew or a tyrannical movie producer boss or a rotten colon, the forces of nature wanted me out of Los Angeles and back in the miserable east. I think about that sometimes when my stomach hurts, or when the January wind blisters my face, or when I’m sitting in the back row of an A.A. meeting on a Saturday night. I think Life Sucks, and then I thank God for it. I thank God for pain. Without it there’d be nothing to laugh about.
There was a forty-dollar parking ticket on the windshield of my Acura. I threw it in my back seat, and then I grabbed the rose I bought on my way into the city. Originally I planned on presenting Kate with the rose, laying on some sappy bullshit about destiny and then consummating our love. Obviously that’s not how things turned out. I walked across the street and laid down the rose on a random doorstep. Maybe someone would find it and make up their own story.
That concludes the Sinatra Suite Trilogy, folks. Thanks so much for listening, and remember this: behind every epic injustice looms the shadow of an even greater fool.
Daniel Pellegrini is a recovering drug addict with an aggressive form of chronic bowel disease. That means he can't take painkillers after undergoing rectal surgery. He's here to show you just how beautiful life is.
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