Authors: Ben Dolnick
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2013 by Ben Dolnick
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by
Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Pantheon Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Dolnick, Ben.
At the bottom of everything / Ben Dolnick.
1. Boys—Fiction. 2. Male friendship—Fiction.
3. Forgiveness—Fiction. I. Title.
Jacket design by Pablo Delcan
Book design by Claudia Martinez
For my grandmother
Here is the real core of the religious problem: Help! help!
I’ve noticed that whenever I tell the story of going to look for Thomas (all it takes is a couple of beers, like quarters into a jukebox), at some point whoever I’m talking to will say two things:
(1) You’re such a good friend!
(2) How could you just pick up and leave like that?
I was nothing like a good friend, and I could only pick up and leave like that because the thing I was picking up and leaving was no longer, in any recognizable sense, a life. But I don’t say this. My conversation self, the one I send out to bars and parties and weddings, is a half-truth-spouting machine. Here I’ll try to do better.
I’d spent the last couple of years (really the years since I was fifteen) ignoring the fact that Thomas needed me, as if his life were a flashing Check Engine light in the corner of my dashboard. I’d let emails from his mom pile up so long
that it would have been worse, I convinced myself, to respond that late than just not to respond at all. I’d become an expert at changing the subject whenever his name came up (
did you ever think he’d drop out of school? did you hear he was in the hospital? what’s he doing in India?
). I’d even, one especially unproud morning, turned and speed-walked out of Safeway because I’d seen Thomas’s dad, or someone who looked like Thomas’s dad, rooting around in the bin of red peppers.
But of course shame was going to catch up with me sooner or later. Shame or Thomas’s mom, who startled me outside the CVS on Wisconsin Avenue one day when I’d just bought a box of condoms.
“You’re just hell to get ahold of,” she said, smiling. I held my bag behind my back. “Do you have time to come back to our place? Richard would love to see you.”
“Oh,” I said, “I’m actually …” and pointed off vaguely behind me.
She nodded. “You know Thomas talks about you as much as anybody,” she said. My heart was racing, reasonably enough. “I know he’d love to hear from you.”
“I’ll write to him,” I said, and I did my best to sound as if the thing that had been stopping me until then was just that it had never occurred to me.
We hugged (this took some ginger CVS-bag maneuvering on my part) and promised to see each other soon. “Send your mother our love,” she called out as she got into her car (a new Volvo, this one blue). I was fake smiling and murmuring for a block and a half.
Thomas had been the smartest kid at Dupont Prep, the last person anyone would have pegged for disaster. And I, semi-reasonable soccer player and wearer of striped polo shirts, had been his best friend. We were, for a few years, one of those pairs, like Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, that no one could quite believe in or understand.
Anyway, childhood friends, given a decade or two, turn into strangers. Their parents don’t. I could more or less convince
myself that the Thomas I’d been doing my best not to think about was someone else entirely, but his mom (who looked so pale and defeated, who was probably even then asking Richard to guess who she’d run into) was unmistakably the same woman who’d driven me home when I’d forgotten my retainer, who’d bought me calamine lotion when I came back from field day with poison ivy. But I didn’t turn around.
I won’t try to defend myself except to say that my own life still seemed to me complicated and demanding enough that I didn’t think I had room in it for Thomas. And that I turned out to be as wrong, in imagining the course of those next few months, as I’d ever been about anything.
But just then I only knew that I’d barely escaped a visit to the Pells, and that Anna was waiting for me. I hurried back to my car like a fish released, just in time, from a barbed and rusting hook.
When all this happened I was twenty-six, which didn’t seem to me at all young. I’d recently realized that I couldn’t say anymore, when people (great-uncles, overzealous librarians) asked, that I’d “just finished college,” and that no one wanted to know now what I wanted to be; they wanted to know what I did.
Which was: tutoring. “Ohhh! Tutoring! That must be so … [hard/interesting/wonderful].” It was hard, in the sense that all of life, particularly the bits you have to spend with sullen eleven-year-olds, is hard. And it was interesting, in that it meant I got to see a great number of strangers’ kitchens and bedrooms and medicine cabinets packed with antidepressants and Vaseline. It was only wonderful at the ends of sessions, when I would nod farewell to a parent or babysitter and spill back out into the world, free and light and finished.
For the two years after college I’d had a more conventional job, at a political magazine on Capitol Hill. This magazine was tiny and well respected, perpetually on the brink of bankruptcy, overseen by its eighty-something FDR-revering founder, staffed by young and exhausted and brilliant people who moved on after a year or two and haunted you forever
after with their bylines. Every issue was an emergency, and in the middle of my first real assignment, something about the transformation of the domestic auto industry, I had a panic attack (my first in years), complete with a terrifying/mortifying ambulance ride, after which my boss made clear, if it wasn’t clear already, that I was probably in the wrong line of work.
So that spring I became a tutor, which seemed, along with being a nanny, to be one of the loopholes people my age had discovered in the professional world, a way of making a reasonable amount of money without working particularly hard or doing anything more soul-crushing than absolutely necessary. My mom and stepdad were appeased by the thought that I was just biding my time before going off to law school and becoming a public defender (which I still thought I might do), and I was appeased by the thought that I got to spend all my nights with Claire.
I’d met Claire when we were undergrads, but we’d only known each other well enough to smile when we shared an elevator or when we passed each other in the library. She was one of the girls, of whom there were dozens at Penn, who I’d see and think,
In another life, maybe, yes
. Red hair, pale skin, freckles that weren’t so much countable as a kind of wallpaper pattern. She was in things like improv troupes and student movies, on the fringes of the theater crowd but not quite so pretentious or pleased with herself as most of them seemed to be. She always had a boyfriend, usually another actor.
I first saw her in D.C. at a party in Adams Morgan just before I left the magazine. It’s always unsettling, seeing people you’ve almost but not quite forgotten about—not because they’ve changed (she’d hardly changed at all) but because they’ve gone on existing, finding jobs and making friends and moving apartments, all without the help of your thinking about them. So there she was, Claire Brier, standing in front of the little table that someone had set up with bottles of vodka and juice and red plastic cups. We hugged when we saw each
other, despite never having hugged when we’d seen each other regularly. We carried our drinks over to the window, because even though it was April the heat was on in the apartment, and while we talked she fanned herself with her hand. She turned out to be living alone on U Street, working at a think tank, still doing improv on the weekends. She finished her vodka and poured herself another. She looked, I thought and think, like a girl who should live on a rocky beach in New England, drink enormous mugs of dark tea, dig up clams.