Brick by Brick
I had just stepped out of a Sunday night meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous when my text alert chimed. Are you still on Newbury? I know it’s last minute, but I’m in the area.
Normally when I’m invited to do something last minute, I say, “Love to, but I’m heading into a movie”. Either that or I wait three hours and then respond with this universal line of bullshit: Just woke up from a nap and saw your text. This particular instance was unique, though. I had just left an AA meeting, the theme of which was honesty. “You never have to lie again,” said the speaker, a grateful, recovering alcoholic named Al. I thought about this as I stared down at my phone, looking at a text from Heidi, a woman I met on Tinder five days before.
How truthful do I have to be? I wondered. The plain truth was that I wasn’t that excited about meeting her, but obviously I couldn’t write that. I considered replying with Not feeling too well or Ugh, I’m exhausted, but those were only half-truths, conditional upon adding at the prospect of meeting you onto the back end. Finally I decided that the kindest and most genuine response was: I’m not really up for it right now, but I would like to meet you sometime soon. This, by all accounts, was true, so uncommonly true that it could be perceived as a brushoff. It could make me seem unwilling and inflexible. After deliberating this for a few more minutes I decided it would be easier just to meet her.
I texted her back: Yeah, I’m by the park. Where are you?
Her: Looking for a parking spot. Do you want to meet at the Wired Puppy?
Sounds good, I replied, and then I got anxious. This was supposed to be easy and casual. Parking involves commitment, especially Back Bay parking during the peak of the holiday shopping season. I pictured her holding up traffic as she tried repeatedly to back her Camry into a spot the size of a Radio Flyer. Drivers would honk at her, causing her stress. “This better be worth it,” she’d say, finally squeezing into her spot. Then she’d open her car door and step into a slush puddle. She’d arrive late at the coffee shop, and we’d talk for twenty minutes, long enough for her feet to thaw. She’d say it was nice to meet me but she had to be up early, and then she’d go back to her car, where a forty-dollar ticket would be waiting on her windshield. “Thanks a lot, asshole,” she’d say, meaning me, of course, not the parking enforcement.
I had little to lose, though. Our Tinder match was the result of one of my “like sprees”, where I indiscriminately swipe right on an entire batch of profiles, just flick my thumb across the screen of my iPhone, as though I’m dealing a deck of cards. This saves time and guarantees me at least a few matches by the end of the night. It’s like casting a wide net and then dragging it along the ocean floor; usually I pull up hypodermic needles and contaminated shellfish, but I hold onto the hope that somewhere mixed in with the refuse is a sunken gem.
The risk with this strategy is inadvertently matching with someone I know in the real world. After a “like spree” a few months back I found a message in my inbox from “Barry”, a 58-year old meth addict whom I knew from AA. I’m not sure how he made it past my filter (women, ages 30-40), but I immediately wrote him back and told him it was a mistake. Rather than accept this graciously, Barry’s response was: Maybe you could just come over and cuddle for a while? He went on to list step-by-step directions to his apartment, a “basement studio past the last Dumpster in the alley”. As appealing as this sounded, I said no.
For the next month, whenever I saw Barry at a meeting, he’d stare at me with his mouth hung open, as though I was a laundry bag filled with cocaine, sitting in a folding chair. Typically he kept to himself in meetings, but one day after our accidental match he raised his hand and told the group that he’d “just met someone special who made him want to be sober”. When he finished, he looked at me and smiled. I promptly got up from my chair and left the meeting. After that, he stopped coming around. I presumed he got the message and changed his meeting schedule, but come to find out he had actually relapsed. Apparently he went on a two-week meth binge, got fired from his temp job, evicted from his studio apartment, and, for an encore, attempted suicide. When I heard this I shook my head. “What a shame,” I said, and then looked up at the crucifix on the church basement wall and mouthed a silent “thank you”.
On the rare occasion that a “like spree” yields a sunken gem, I assume that the two of us are destined for each other, especially if her profile contains certain keywords, like sweatpants or crossword. I’ll spend forty minutes crafting a message that I consider “attentive” but in reality sounds like a note from a serial killer, something cryptic, like I play word games, too. I send the message, and then I start mapping out our life together, mulling over details like where we will ultimately live. Should we settle down and raise kids in the Boston area? Or should we be closer to her family, in Kazakhstan? A couple days go by, I get no response, and my dream dies. Then I crawl back into my foxhole, shut the lid and wait for another dream.
That kind of manic behavior was typical before I got sober. For years drugs and alcohol simplified my perspective into two basic emotions: euphoria and withdrawal. AA has helped me level off a bit, to stay in the moment and take things as they come. Perhaps the most valuable lesson I’ve learned in the last two years, though, is not to trust my instincts. That might seem counterintuitive to most conventional wisdom, but let’s face it, I didn’t end up in Alcoholics Anonymous because I was kicking ass in the life department.
“Heidi?” I said. I didn’t have to ask. She was the only person inside the Wired Puppy. The place was closing in twenty minutes.
We shook hands and went to the counter. “This place has great coffee,” she said. “Do you like coffee?”
“I do,” I said. I thought of adding that I also like to breathe, and eat, and sleep, but figured I’d hold onto those for when the conversation really hit the skids.
“What’s your favorite coffee place in Boston?” she said as she ordered a Free Trade Ethiopian Dark Blend.
“The Dunkins on Old Colony Ave. in Southie,” I said. “They make a great regular, plus there’s a TV on the wall that plays CNN.” Then: “I’m only kidding.” But I wasn’t kidding. Dunkin Donuts is the only coffee I ever drink, not counting the Maxwell House that I brew at my Tuesday night “Surrender to Win” meeting.
“I know that Dunkins!” she said. “I live right across the street. I go there when I’m desperate.”
“Wait…where do you live?”
She told me her address. It was two houses down from mine. So much for a wide net.
“Get out of here!” she said. “Are you in that new building on the corner?”
“No…I’m down the other direction.”
She cocked her head, searching for a mental picture of my house. “Oh, that brown one?”
“Technically it’s mustard,” I said, wondering if she’d noticed the rotted window frames, or my old toilet, which had been sitting out on my back deck since June.
She nodded. “Right…I’ve always wondered who lived in that house.” This is something people only say when referring to a castle on a hill or a shithole that looks like it might be haunted.
“Yeah, that’s me,” I said. Then, as if this would help: “I own it.”
The great thing about a first date is that a person can crawl out from under any rock, throw on a decent coat and be whoever they want to be. But my charade had just ended. I was no longer the guy from South Boston who may or may not live in one of those new luxury high-rises, who may or may not park his Mercedes SUV in a designated underground spot, who may or may not pay $800 in monthly condo fees. I had just been officially outed as the guy who lives in the oldest, most pitiful house on the street, the guy with a broken screen door leaning against his neighbor’s fence, the guy who shovels out his car in the winter and then claims his spot with a Finding Nemo beach chair.
The Wired Puppy closed for the night, so we strolled around Newbury and Boylston Street. One thing I noticed about Heidi was that she looked excessively French, almost comically so, as though she were auditioning for the role of “Girl Walking Along Seine.” This occurred to me as soon we left the coffee shop, when she put on her Beret. Along with her short, messy hair, her pointed chin, her crooked front tooth, her long wool coat, her impeccably tied scarf and her leather boots, she looked more like an illustration than an actual live person. Was this intentional? When she got dressed, did she say to herself, “If my name’s going to be Heidi, I damn well better look like a Heidi.” As I spun this narrative in my head I felt myself grow distant and bitter.
I took a deep breath, reminded myself that I’m a sick asshole, and lo and behold, I was back in the present moment, just in time to catch the last part of a question.
“…do you ever rock climb?” she said.
I’m not sure how we got there, but I rolled with it. “The last time I climbed a rock I got stuck in the Hollywood Hills and had to be rescued by the L.A. County Fire Department. Back then we didn’t call it rock climbing, though. We called it ‘getting stoned and doing something’”.
She laughed. It was a good note to end on. We arrived at the corner of Commonwealth and Arlington and stood awkwardly for a moment. I told her I should probably head home. She offered me a ride and I politely refused.
“Are you sure?” she said. “We’re literally going to the same place.”
“Nah, it’s nice out,” I said. “And I like to walk.”
That was the plain truth. I didn’t have to dress it up one bit.
I was still on the fence about Heidi, so I was leery about spending too much money on a second date. I like to pick up the tab when I’m out with a woman, not because I’m old fashioned or chivalrous or anything like that, but because asking a date to split the check is awkward and uncool. My problem is that, when it comes to date ideas, I’m not creative. I always suggest a bar or restaurant, we always order food (and alcohol for her), and I always spend somewhere between fifty to a hundred bucks. Three or four times a month, this adds up to a car payment.
I have a friend in Los Angeles who meets a lot of women on dating websites. Rather than going to trendy bistros or cultural events, where he could easily drop fifty bucks a pop, he takes them to the Griffith Park Observatory. There he’ll spend at most seven dollars each, and that’s if they watch a film in the planetarium, which he’ll only propose if the date has potential. Every week he shows up at the observatory with a different woman, saying hello to the same ticket-takers, all of whom he knows on a first name basis. At this rate, you’d think he’d have a constellation named after him, or at least a telescope. And while none of his dates have ever materialized into anything serious, he has gained an impressive knowledge of the solar system, and of the observatory itself. Ask him anything about it and he’ll answer you like a tour guide, reciting the hours of operation, the class schedule, and which areas are available for private functions.
In the spirit of creativity I suggested to Heidi that we go to “The Art of Brick”, an installation of Lego art on display in Faneuil Hall. My friend Dave had mentioned it a few weeks back. Took the family to see this today. Amazing. And free! he texted me. Heidi thought it was a great idea, so we set it up for Sunday night.
I ordered an Uber to take us to Faneuil Hall. The car will arrive in four minutes, I texted her. Meet me out on the street. I didn’t intend for this to be clandestine, but once I got outside I felt like I was meeting an informant in a spy movie. At first we passed each other, exchanging furtive glances, not saying anything. Then the Uber arrived and we both moved toward it. “Heidi?” I said. “I wasn’t sure if that was you.” Just in case another next-door neighbor was waiting for someone at the exact same time.
Dave must have seen “The Art of Brick” during a special matinee promotion, because I paid fifty-six bucks for two adults. That’s more expensive than admission to the Museum of Fine Arts—an actual museum with high ceilings, marble floors, velvet ropes and priceless Renaissance-era paintings. “The Art of Brick”, on the other hand, was staged in the attic of Quincy Market, a jury-rigged maze of blacklit poster board that felt more like the entrance to a nightclub than an art gallery.
The first section was all classical works of art, re-created with Legos. Heidi took the lead and proceeded to not only identify each piece, but also to enlighten me with a five-minute critique of its composition, along with a brief history of the original artist and the religious or political context in which it was created. She began each analysis with a gasp. “Ah…Girl with a Pearl Earring. The Baroque era. Look at how he stays true to the simplicity of Vermeer’s original. The negative space, all black. No context. Like true love itself…transcendent.”
“Yep,” I said, moving on.
Next was Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, its swirling brush strokes astoundingly redone with light and dark blue Lego blocks. “Jesus Christ, that’s incredible,” I said.
“Mmm,” Heidi said, tilting her head. “And notice the use of light…even in the deepest of night the sky is illuminated, guiding us toward peace. So hopeful, yet so melancholy,” she said, pressing her body against my arm.
I stepped away. “Exactly,” I said. “And look, even the frame’s made out of Legos.”
We continued through the exhibit. “I know that one!” I shouted, pointing at the Mona Lisa. “And that one over there is what’s-it-called, Farmer With Pitchfork.”
The rest of the show was original work, like the yellow torso, its hands pulling apart its sternum. A stream of yellow Legos spilled from its chest cavity. “I call this Too Many Chili Dogs,” I said. Nothing from Heidi, who stood before a sculpture of a man and a woman holding hands, their bodies a deep shade of red. The man had a protruding midsection, and the woman’s breasts appeared droopy. “They must be retired,” I said, thoughtfully.
“I see commitment,” Heidi said, wiping away a tear. “A passion that never fades. That explains the boldness of the red.”
“Right,” I said. For the remainder of the exhibit I pointed at each piece and asked Heidi what it meant. Her answers got progressively more ludicrous. A blue figure that looked like it was swimming through the floor represented “the plight of the middle class”, while a torso with its arms folded and a box for a head personified “the hubris of standardized testing”.
I checked my watch as we neared the end of the exhibit. Even though it felt like hours, we had only been there for twenty-five minutes. This was unfortunate, as I had hoped the Lego thing would be the entire date, and then we’d go home. Instead, Heidi asked if I wanted to grab a bite. “Just a snack,” she said.
“Okay,” I said, confident that we’d end up at a bar somewhere, where she’d order a beer and we’d split some nachos. Twenty-five bucks, tops. This would also give me some extra time to decide whether or not I liked her. At that point, I was leaning heavily toward not.
“The Union Oyster House is right around the corner,” she said once we got outside. She shivered from the cold, then reached into her purse and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. “Mind if I smoke? They’re American Spirits.”
“Not at all,” I said, thinking how amusing it is when people qualify their vices. It’s like telling someone you shoot gluten-free heroin.
We split a dozen oysters and Heidi ordered two Sam Adams. The bill was sixty bucks, including tip. “Let me pay for this,” Heidi said once the bartender returned with my change. I shook my head and checked my watch. My eyes watered from boredom and spite. I wanted to go home.
“Should we get a car?” she said. I felt her knee pressed against my leg.
“Good idea,” I said, rubbing my temples.
While we waited for our Uber, Heidi smoked a couple more cigarettes and talked about her job, casually mentioning that next Monday was her last day. “After that, I might move to Budapest. Then again, I might not. Maybe I’ll have a reason to stick around,” she said coyly, exhaling a stream of smoke and pressing up against me.
“Sounds like a solid plan,” I said, twisting away from her. An MBTA bus roared down Atlantic Ave. I briefly considered stepping in front of it.
The Uber arrived and drove us back to our street. “You have to come up and see my place,” Heidi said, tugging on my arm. I forced out a yawn and reminded her it was getting late, hoping she would take the hint. She didn’t. “Just five minutes. Come on.”
“Okay,” I sighed.
Her apartment was a four-bedroom that she shared with two other women and one dude. It was nearly triple the size of my place, but at least I didn’t have to sign up to use the living room or label my food in the fridge. She gave me a tour of the place, basically pointing at ordinary housewares and stating their owners. “That’s Michelle’s bookcase…that’s Greg’s coffee table…that Chinese lantern over there is mine.” I followed behind, nodding along, yawning into my fist.
“Wait ‘til you see this,” she said, taking my limp hand into hers and leading me into her bedroom.
We walked through a bedroom that looked similar to mine—at age twenty-two. A mattress, a chest of drawers, a couple stacks of books and a hardwood floor. “This is nice,” I said. Then we came to a sliding glass door. She opened it and we stepped out onto a deck.
“This is what I wake up to every morning,” she said, gesturing out at the Boston skyline. The view was unobstructed. Skyscrapers and twinkling lights, so clear it was surreal, like the backdrop of a movie set.
I felt her standing close to me, angling for a kiss. Her hand brushed against my hand. I pulled it away and buried it in my coat pocket. “You motherfucker,” I said.
“This was my view,” I said, still staring out at the skyline. “I had this view from my back deck. Then, a couple years ago, some asshole tore down the little house that used to be here and built a taller one. Three floors weren’t enough, so he pulled some strings, got a zoning variance, and added a fourth, blocking my entire view. So now when I wake up in the morning, I don’t see the skyline. I see you.”
“And this is my fault?”
“It’s nobody’s fault. But I’m still resentful about it. It’s an open wound, and coming up here with you just poured salt in it.”
“Maybe I can make it better,” she said, moving toward me.
I backed up. “You definitely can’t, and I’d appreciate it if you didn’t try.” I took a deep breath. “I’m leaving now. Good night. And best of luck in Budapest.”
I opened the sliding door and walked back through her bedroom. “Are you serious?” she said. I continued toward the front door, quickly, so she couldn’t catch up. She called my name a few times, the last one echoing throughout the stairwell.
Once I got outside my text alert chimed three times.
Ur a sick fucking weirdo.
Stay away from me.
How’s this for a view: FUCK YOU
Alcoholics Anonymous is filled with clever proverbs, a few of which passed through my mind as I read those texts. One of them was Keep your side of the street clean. I thought that was funny, considering its literal relevance. But the saying that stood apart from the rest was one I hadn’t heard in a while. I knew it from AA, but it could very well date back to some Buddhist monk, a thousand years ago.
Serenity is not freedom from the storm, but peace amid the storm.
Sometimes we're the storm. Sometimes the storm is circumstantial, like a bad date or a nasty text. Sometimes truth is the storm. The plain truth. If so, we have a simple choice: either dress it up, or make peace with it.
When I got home I noticed my front steps: the paint stripped away, the wood rotted and splintered. This would need to be addressed at some point, added to the list of things to fix. The list is long, but it will get done. Before I walked up them I took one last look at the skyline. I could still see the tops of the buildings and the twinkling lights, even from way down there.
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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