Authors: Ben Dolnick
“You always seemed like such a
,” she said after we’d been talking for a while. “I thought you were a Flip Cup kind of person.”
“I thought you were a vocal exercises kind of person.”
Mi mi mi mi mi
We hugged again before she left, more confidently than before, and she told me that I should come to her next improv show.
I did, and that did it. There were, in those first weeks, afternoon coffees that ended with us on a bench near her office, her legs in my lap; there were mornings of having to unmake the bed to find our underwear; there was kissing good-bye on the Metro platform. By that first fall together we were spending almost every night at her apartment, reading next to each other in bed, having conversations between the shower and the bedroom.
“So I guess this is what it feels like,” she said once, when we were leaning forehead to forehead, the only two people on the long escalator in Union Station.
I wish I could take that year, like the salvageable bits of a meal dropped on the floor, and separate it from what happened next, which now seems minor but which at the time seemed baffling and tragic and unbelievable. What happened is: she broke up with me. “You had a bad breakup,” my mom said when I was over for dinner one night, in a summing-up-and-moving-on voice. (Are there good breakups? Are there breakups that leave both people feeling that they’ve just emerged
not from a washing machine but from a bittersweet and not-too-long movie?)
There was the philosophical version, which would settle over me sometimes as I was falling asleep—I never entirely opened up to her and this little flaw, like a crack in a glass table, had no choice but to spread—and then there was the battle-flashback version that I spent most of my days trapped in. The fight outside her building, when someone leaned out from a high window and called out, “Get a divorce!” The bleary Sunday morning in the kitchen when she said, “I don’t know why we’re doing this anymore.” The night on the couch when we both cried while
Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives
played in the background.
In the middle of my tutoring sessions now, while the fifth grader I was supposed to be paying attention to burrowed through a sheet of word problems, I’d look up into the black living-room windows and think:
Cold and alone
. I don’t know where this phrase came from, or what
had to do with anything, but the words were like a lyric that had eaten into my brainstem:
cold and alone
, waiting for the light to change;
cold and alone
, eating Chex for dinner;
cold and alone
, listening to my roommate and his girlfriend have sex at half past two in the morning.
I’d gotten used to treating my apartment, in my Claire days, as not much more than a place to keep my clothes and pick up the mail, but suddenly I was spending my nights drinking beer with Joel on the futon, watching Craig Ferguson. “Are you gonna be OK?” he sometimes said.
“I don’t know.”
“Ah, come on, you are.”
I knew Joel from college too—he’d been the guy in my freshman dorm who knew where in Philadelphia to buy good weed—but now we seemed to have not much more reason to live together than any two people standing in line together at the bank.
One night, while I was lying with my cheek pressed
against the rug between the coffee table and the TV, thinking for whole minutes about things like whether I should roll over to reach for my water glass, I called Claire twenty-three times. At first I had urgent things to say, things I was sure would change her mind, but after half a dozen calls I couldn’t remember what they were, and if she’d picked up I would just have had to groan, like a cow whose legs have given out. Another night I stood outside her building saying her name, first in an embarrassed bark, then louder and louder until I was bawling on U Street, promising myself that I would never again feel anything except sympathy for the people I saw ranting in front of the White House. I was going to tell her about my childhood, tell her about Thomas, about Mira Batra; I was going to split my life open and spill it onto her front steps like a full-to-bursting bag of coffee grounds and orange rinds.
This happened to be the fall of 2008, a few weeks before the election, when everyone in D.C., and maybe everyone in the country, had been gripped by a brain fever that was making them email each other poll results and interview clips and enormous heartfelt diatribes about how normally they don’t get involved in politics but now, with the stakes so high … For me all that was like the Traffic and Weather Together updates on AM radio. The only headlines I cared about, and I cared about them so much that I would run from the apartment door to my computer without taking my coat off, were Claire’s Facebook updates, which she hadn’t yet blocked me from seeing.
So fun running into you guys last night! We should grab a drink!
Hahaha tell B I miss her please, OK?
Anybody else starting to crave chili? Mmmm.
Each of these, next to a stamp-sized picture of Claire smiling in the white snow hat she’d once sat holding on my bed,
made me feel like one of the stockbrokers in the pictures on all the newsstands.
DOW DROPS 777 POINTS, WORST SINCE DEPRESSION
Who is B?
Where was Claire when she ran into people last night?
Doesn’t that “Mmmm” sound like someone who’s got a new boyfriend?
These questions gripped me for some of the least happy hours I’d spent since high school, slouching in the filth of my bedroom, clicking and clicking, unable to summon the energy even to turn on the lights. The way I remember it, I spent those months half sick, unshaven, shuffling along windtunnel streets with my hands buried in pocket-nests of disintegrating Kleenex. Suffering impairs judgment; there should be flashing lights, a surgeon general’s warning, celebrity-sponsored ad campaigns.
I say that Thomas was the smartest boy at my new school, but I want to make clear just what I mean by that.
When I was twelve my mom remarried and we moved from Baltimore to a suburb just outside D.C., so in seventh grade I started at Dupont Prep, where everybody seemed to come with a title as much a part of them as a last name. Teddy Minor: best athlete. Jason Vorsheck: best musician. Vanessa Stoyke: best writer.
Thomas’s title was the most impressive but also the hardest to pin down. Because there were definitely kids who were smarter in the sense of doing better on math tests—there were boys who were essentially human computers, humming autistically away while they filled out problem sets meant for college students. And there were kids who had a practical supercompetence that Thomas never came close to—they were on the robotics team, they fixed the A/V system, they wore T-shirts with Nietzsche quotes.
But all of those people’s intelligence had something glitchy about it, something vulnerable and freakish; what set Thomas apart, I think, was that he somehow managed, in his hundred-pound body and New Balance sneakers, to give the impression
. Teachers talked to him about things they would never have talked to the rest of us about—their sick parents, their boredom with
Jacob Have I Loved
, their hopes of writing a screenplay. If the discussion in an English class or a grade-wide meeting got especially tense or complicated, you could always count on Thomas, raising his hand so slightly that it was almost as if he were apologizing for it, to say something that would work like a sudden gush of cold water on a burn. “I wonder if Amelia’s and Harold’s arguments are actually variations on the same point …” “This may be very similar to what David was saying earlier, but if what we’re really talking about is whether some people at Dupont feel excluded from the bulk of the student body, then I think …”
People liked him but there was something impersonal about their feelings; he was, especially as middle school went on, like the school’s prize oak tree.
A lot of this had to do with dating, or “dating,” since couples at Dupont didn’t, in seventh grade, go on actual dates. Jenny and Stuart were a couple, so on Valentine’s Day Jenny gave him a key chain with a red rubber heart. That was all. Lauren and Neil. Alex and Alex. Me and a pretty but nearly mute girl named Rebecca. It was as if there were some disaster headed our way, a tidal wave or a meteor, and we all had to pair off for the sake of the human race.
Thomas was shut out of all this, mostly because he had no female equivalent. He was too strange, too impressive, too mature; dating him would have been like dating Mr. Davis, the seventy-year-old British drama teacher.
Some of this must also have had to do with the way he looked, which wasn’t bad, really, but was as much alien as boy. He was the palest person I’d ever seen, almost translucent (the one time I remember him being teased was when he took off his shirt at a pool party and revealed this nipple-less body the color of a boiled peanut). His eye sockets were enormous, delicate caves, like dented eggshells. At my old school there had been a boy with leukemia, and Thomas made something
of the same impression; he’d been taken out of the oven too early, he needed another coat of skin. But with Thomas the effect wasn’t so much to make him seem weak (although he was definitely weak); it was to make him seem intimidating, the way a reptile can be intimidating. Why did he look so steadily at your eyes when you talked? Didn’t he ever bite his nails or tap his feet? It was impossible to picture him kissing someone (kissing was as far as any of these couples went), or even just dancing.
And he spoke, at twelve years old, so calmly, with such carefully constructed sentences, that it was hard to believe at first that he wasn’t faking it. Some people thought it was a slight British accent, but it wasn’t that—it was more of a cigarette-holder accent, the voice of a professor musing at the head of a seminar table. I used to do an impression of him that reliably brought tears to Matt Corrigan’s eyes. “If the assignment sheet is right that you’d like us to read chapters three and four tonight (and I assume that it is), then should this chapter four over the weekend actually be a chapter five?”
But there were things he wasn’t good at (mental things, I mean; at sports he was a disaster), and it was always a surprise to discover one. Spanish, for instance. I’d never taken a foreign language—they didn’t start until seventh grade at my old school—but by my third week at Dupont I was speaking as well as Thomas, who’d been studying it since third grade and still couldn’t roll his
’s. And music. When he picked up his trumpet in band he was like a newborn deer, so clumsy and feeble.
I played percussion, which meant that I stood right behind the brass section. I was in the perfect position to see that while Thomas sat there, his legs pressed together as if he had to go to the bathroom, his trumpet tilted toward the ceiling, he was faking it, straining his cheeks, bugging his eyes.
We played movie themes and marches, so loudly that you could feel the out-of-tune-ness as a buzz in your bones. Our teacher was a little gray-haired rooster of a man named Mr.
Adams. He walked around the music room holding a coffee mug with some sort of musical joke on it (
NEVER B FLAT; SOMETIMES B SHARP; ALWAYS B NATURAL
), looking for reasons to yell. We knew he’d found one when he set his mug down on the piano.
“You incompetent twerp! Play it! Don’t come in here and insult the rest of us with this …
bwwap, bwwap, bwwap.
Play it like you mean it! Play it with some BALLS!”
Since he wasn’t a classroom teacher, Mr. Adams didn’t know or didn’t care that everyone else at Dupont revered Thomas. To him Thomas was just the sickly little seventh grader who tried to use his braces as an excuse not to play. “
Everyone else shut up, I want to hear just what Sweet Cheeks is doing, I want all of you to hear it. Ready? One-and, two-and, three-and, four-and …
What? What’s that you’re saying? I can’t hear you
“I haven’t had a chance to practice this piece, actually.”
“You haven’t had a chance to practice this piece, actually?”
“Nope, I’m afraid not.”
say ‘nope’ to me. Do you know what ‘nope’ says to me? Do you know what it says? ‘
You could see regret and fear taking hold of Mr. Adams like a quick-moving set of clouds blowing in. He hung his head (he was, like many teachers, deeply theatrical), and when he raised it he said, “Sweet Cheeks. Thomas. Folks. You want a lesson in losing your cool, in why it’s important to think before you speak?” He pointed at himself, at his own face. “I lost it. Shouldn’t have said it. I’m owning up to it. My bad. Now, everybody ready to play? Let’s pick up on … third line, right after the rests.” Out of sympathy, or maybe just embarrassment at realizing that, for the moment, we had power over Mr. Adams, we lifted our instruments and played whatever piece it was with the kind of stiff attention we could usually only manage when the principal was in the room.
But Thomas was unshameable. He sat there now with his trumpet in his lap, not even pretending to play. Most of us (I, definitely) would have been trembling, and then would have
gone home and practiced until our lips ached. But Thomas had actual confidence, actual contempt. What could Mr. Adams possibly do to him now? Thomas would never have to worry about being yelled at again.