At the Bottom of Everything (5 page)

BOOK: At the Bottom of Everything
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Anyway, a few days after the skating Anna left me a message (she always left me a couple of messages a week, asking if I could babysit an extra night or stay after to tutor Teddy), saying that she wondered if we could grab coffee sometime to talk about Nicholas. He’d gotten in a fight at school, apparently, and this wasn’t new, but this latest one was especially bad. There were a couple of kids in his class who called him “the Dick,” poured Pixy Stix in his hair, and he was incapable of backing down or shutting up—he was the kind of kid who’d keep shouting even as the teacher dragged him away with a bloody nose (he was also the kind of kid whose nose bled if you tapped it). She worried, she said, that with everything going on with his dad he’d keep acting out more and more and she was just about out of ideas. She wasn’t working Wednesday afternoon, if there was any way she could steal me for an hour.

We met at a coffee shop on Wisconsin just after four, when it was already almost dark. It had been raining so long that the
sun seemed possibly to have gone out altogether. I’d spent the day researching law schools, which had meant mostly writing emails and watching old episodes of
Family Ties
on YouTube. There were only a few other people with us in the café, which had kids’ crayon drawings all over the walls and butcher-paper tablecloths. A classical radio station that sounded like falling asleep was playing, and in the corner a woman was breast-feeding with a kind of amazing lack of self-consciousness. The one waiter drifted around grumpily, forgetting to bring sugar, checking his phone. We didn’t talk about Nicholas at first—instead we talked about a friend of hers at work who’d started beekeeping, a new Spanish restaurant in Friendship Heights. We both had big ceramic mugs of weak coffee and we made a show, to the waiter’s indifference, of deciding whether we wanted something sweet. Finally we settled on sharing a slice of German chocolate cake, which I ended up eating most of and she ended up pretending to have eaten most of.

“It’s so nice talking to someone who actually
the boys. I get almost greedy about it. Would you tell me if I was too much?”

“You’re not too much.”

“Well, you’re sweet. How have you been?”

Something about Anna made me able to talk about Claire without sounding, I think, like someone who lies in bed at night with his heart pounding, wondering what went wrong—instead I could say things like, “Well, I think I’m about done licking my wounds,” as if I were describing the aftermath of a tough game of cricket.

“Whoever does end up with you is going to be seriously lucky,” she said.

“Oh, I don’t know about that.”

“I’m serious! You’re a total catch.”

Too-frank compliments can have an effect on a conversation like too-frank insults. We hadn’t said much for a minute when the waiter brought the check, and when we finally started to stand up she said, “I love these afternoons when
they both have lessons,” and that, if I had to pick a moment, was when it was decided. In the corner the woman was still breast-feeding, this white veiny watermelon hanging out, and that may have had something to do with the mood too. I pretended I was walking up the block with her because I felt like getting some fresh air (the rain had picked up again); she pretended this sounded reasonable. Within fifteen minutes we were together on her large white bed, my jeans were around my ankles before my shoes were off, my coat was on the floor in the corner of the room, the lights were on, we were making the noises that people make, she was whispering the things that people whisper. I was distracting myself by trying to make words out of the letters in
middle-aged mistress

, I thought, tugging a bra strap here, feeling myself yanked and squeezed there,
is actually what’s happening! The person who this morning couldn’t stop thinking about Claire is right now scrambling around on his knees, reaching across to …

Afterward I settled down with my head on her chest. We’d known what we were doing, apparently.

“See?” she said. “I told you people would want you.”

She petted my head and I looked around the room, thinking of Nicholas running out of that bathroom in his Cars pajamas with his hair still wet. The radiator pipes knocked and knocked. Anna smelled not at all bad but very noticeably like skin and sweat and person. I looked into the dark window next to the bed and thought,
(in fact there were now goose bumps all along my arms and legs)
but not alone
. My heart seemed to have become slow and loud and enormous, as if I’d just come out of a long bath.

I told her I needed to get home to get ready for another appointment, which wasn’t true, but I did suddenly feel that I had to get away before what we’d done could catch up with us. Dressing in front of her somehow seemed much more intimate and embarrassing than having sex with her. “Do you want to borrow an umbrella?” she said. She watched me sleepily from the bed and beckoned me over (making me think, very much
against my will, of an old lady calling to her children from her deathbed). “Don’t drive yourself crazy,” she said. “We’re adults.” She kissed me on the forehead.

Driving home I didn’t feel crazy, exactly; I felt the way I’d felt after losing my virginity in high school, this strobe light flashing between pride and disbelief. And I thought, like a mantra,
Keep moving, keep moving, keep moving
. A woman came out of her house with her two fat huskies. A boy in a Curious George poncho ran ahead of a mom who was carrying a yoga mat and groceries. Was it really, for the rest of the world, just a regular Wednesday afternoon? Didn’t anyone know or care what I’d been doing? A police car stopped behind me at a red light and I thought for a half heartbeat they might be pulling me over.

By the time I went to bed that night (having gone into the bathroom a few times to check for evidence, having not thought about Claire for whole half hours at a time), I’d decided, first, that I would never tell anyone, including Joel, and second, that this would only happen once, and that if Anna tried to arrange something again I would tell her that she was beautiful and wonderful but that it was just too weird and sorry.

No and no and no. It didn’t work like that at all.

As I’m remembering my friendship with Thomas, it’s hard not to stop here, to plant a flag on the spot in my life when problems meant embarrassments and when I couldn’t imagine someone not being able to sleep through the night. But memory’s like a six-year-old: And then? And then? And then?

By that summer Thomas and I were best friends in the society-of-two, not-necessarily-cheerful way that sometimes happens with kids that age. We had sleepovers every weekend, we spent afternoons walking the bike trail behind his house. My mom sometimes asked me, not quite suppressing her worry, what it was we did in all that time we spent together. At first she’d been thrilled that I’d found a best friend—she’d been in a more or less perpetual state of nervous guilt about having made me leave my school in Baltimore—but maybe she’d seen a
special on troublesome teens, or maybe my stepdad, Frank, had muttered something to her; she may even have worried that we were gay. We weren’t, of course—our desire to find girlfriends was one of the foundations of our friendship—but even if I’d wanted to explain to her why we spent so much time together, I couldn’t really have done it in any way that would have made sense to her. Adult
friendship is all talking and laughing and bickering and planning; teenage friendship can be more of a joined solitude, like oxen yoked together. The not-having-to-do-anything can be the whole point.

“You’re going to be happier than I am in high school,” Thomas said to me one day. “I don’t seem to have the courage to disappoint my parents, which seems like a crucial ingredient.”

By then he knew everything about my family: about my parents having gotten divorced when I was one; about my mom’s years of dating (which I remembered mostly as her frizz of red-dyed hair and a parade of nervous men handing me toy trucks or Nerf footballs, as if I were a baby chimp). He knew about the awkwardness of my stepdad, who I often thought I could stump by asking him my middle name, and about Frank’s son, Ian, who I knew only from a handful of trips home from Wash U, during which he drank weight-gainer shakes and showed me naked pictures of his girlfriend. I knew, of course, that when I told Thomas all this I was selling out my family, but I didn’t care. My family was like the cardboard
astronauts outside Blockbuster—you could sweep them aside, fold them into the Dumpster, without thinking about it.

Halfway along the bike trail there was a homeless encampment—clotheslines and a fire pit and a few half-empty water jugs—that we liked to poke around in, imagining that we heard people coming. For some reason this was where we always had our best and frankest talks—about whether happiness was more valuable than intelligence; about whether women really cared about penis size; about the neighbor of mine with OCD who’d swum laps until the lifeguards had dragged him out of the pool. We called these talks
, which was a word I’d learned from Thomas. We really thought that we might, sitting there past sunset, picking up used condoms with sticks (these were the first condoms I’d ever seen, and at first I took them for some kind of food wrapper), solve the problems that had been troubling humans since the beginning of time.

Symposiums were also often when Thomas’s version of a wild side came out—not the kind of wildness the bad kids at school had, breaking things and pulling down their pants, but the kind of wildness woods had: he turned strange, indifferent, a little dark. “I’m not sure I feel a lot of the things that you’re supposed to,” he said once. “Except for you and my parents, I’m not sure whose death I’d actually care much about.”

(My biological dad, who lived in Tucson and who I’d seen only a handful of times in the past decade, happened to die that summer. He had a heart attack while he was playing tennis with his girlfriend. My mom woke me up buzzing with the news, as if she’d been plugged into some sort of charge; she seemed to expect me to act upset, so I did. I only felt capable of figuring out how I actually felt about it—mostly annoyed that everyone thought I must be devastated—once I could talk to Thomas.)

At the homeless encampment, Thomas liked to pile leaves and garbage into the fire pit, which was just a ring of stones, and then light them with matches that he’d taken from one of the restaurants near where the bus let out on Connecticut. The fires burned blue, orange, white, gave off stinking curls of oily smoke; he’d watch and take a couple of seconds to respond to whatever I said to him. “I think I’d like to be cremated,” he said. “Fire seems like the best state that matter can aspire to.”

One afternoon a park worker (we called him a police officer when we told the story to each other afterward) stepped through the trees just as one of these fires was as its peak, and once I’d started to run, my body clanging with disaster, I looked back and saw that Thomas hadn’t followed me—he was walking calmly in the other direction. I hid behind a tree, too far to hear what Thomas and the officer were saying to each other, but I imagined that Thomas had had an inner collapse and that he was turning himself in. I’d make my way home alone.

But he came strolling over, not with the officer, and as we walked back to his house he told me, sounding almost bored with the need to explain, what he’d said. “My friend and I
were out walking along the path and we thought we saw a fire burning, so we ran over to put it out but we couldn’t find any water.”

And like that: resolved. I was slightly, silently mad at him for the rest of the afternoon for being so much better than me at coping in an emergency. The practical world was supposed to be my realm.

When we weren’t in the woods, we spent most of our time at the Pells’ house, despite my mom’s pleading. I knew she’d embarrass me in front of Thomas; I knew Frank would want to take us to the country club, where he’d turn red in the sauna and fart like a silverback gorilla. The few sleepovers we had at my house felt like exhibition games; whatever fun we managed was halfhearted and conditional.

And as I got to know his parents, I began to feel that way about my house even when I wasn’t with Thomas. When my mom and I had first moved into Frank’s, just before seventh grade, I’d felt like the kid on
Silver Spoons
—my new bedroom was the size of our old living room; the kitchen had two dishwashers and two sinks; in the backyard there was a little heated pool hidden by a hedge where Frank liked to float on Saturday afternoons. But now that I knew the Pells, now that I’d seen the look on Thomas’s face as Frank showed us how to turn on the jets, it all seemed pathetic, like a
catalog you could live inside. Could the Pells’ dim, golden dining room really exist just a few miles from this one with its fake fruit and stacks of
magazine? My mom and Frank, the house, their whole lives, seemed now like a microwavable meal, plastic wrapped and artificially colored.

BOOK: At the Bottom of Everything
13.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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