The Pleasure of My Company (10 page)

BOOK: The Pleasure of My Company
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She sat
in the living room, jotted efficiently on her clipboard, and asked me how I was
feeling about the apartment across the street. “Had I decided?” I went into a
rhapsody about the complications of my decision, about the necessity of
contacting my nonexistent writing partner. I had been talking for a minute or
so when I noticed a rictus forming on Elizabeth’s face. She was looking past me
at waist level with her mouth dropped open and her writing hand frozen. I
turned my head and looked at the TV, and my mouth went open, and if I had been
writing, my hand would have frozen, too. There I was on TV, being shuffled
along in mock arrest on the
Crime Show.
There was a long moment before I
came out with “My God, that fellow looks like me.” What filled the long moment
was my shock, not at the bad luck of the show’s air date and time slot, but at
how I looked on TV. The blue parka made me look fat, which I’m not. It made me
look like a criminal, and I’m not. The show then jumped to the long shot of me
talking to the two policemen. Now we could see my apartment in the background,
so there was no use denying the obvious. “Oh right, it is me,” I ventured. “I
made a bundle off this,” and I nodded up and down as if to verify my own lie.
Then I turned to Elizabeth and said, “All I’m saying there is ‘I’m talking, I’m
talking, I’m trying to look like I’m talking.’” She looked over at me, then
back to the TV, and I knew that she had identified me as someone dangerous.

This
moment was like a pivot. Everything in my little universe swung on its axis and
reordered itself. Here’s why: Elizabeth, whom I had previously seen only on her
turf, or through a window, or in my head, was, now that she had crossed the
threshold of my apartment, an actual being who would demand closet space. I
didn’t even have enough closet space for the clothes she was currently wearing.
I knew that I could not share a bathroom with eighteen gallons of hair stiffener,
and I began to see how clearly she misfit my life. At the same time, when she
saw me on TV, her face hid a well-tempered revulsion. In these few elongated seconds,
our magnetic poles flopped as she became ordinary and I became notorious.

Elizabeth
must have now viewed my apartment as a halfway house, since she asked me if
addicts lived in the building. I said no and did a pretty good job of
explaining the TV show, though when I began to explain about the murder
downstairs she got the hiccups and asked for water. I felt a small surge of
pride because the water from the kitchen tap was not murky or even slightly
brown. Her cell phone rang and she spoke into it, saying “yeah” three times and
hanging up. Her tone was as if the person on the other end of the line had
heard stress in her voice and was trying to suss out her predicament with
questions like, “Are you all right?” “Are you in danger?” and “Do you want me
to come get you?” She was out the door, and I looked at her from my spot by the
window and felt a twinge of the old longing, no doubt brought on by placing
myself in the old circumstances.

After
seeing the two women side by side, Elizabeth actually before me and Clarissa in
my mind, a thought came into my head that jarred me: Would it be possible to
scoop up my love for Elizabeth and steam-shovel it over onto Clarissa? This
thought disturbed me because it suggested that the personalities of the two
women had nothing whatever to do with the knot of love inside me. It implied
that, if I chose, I could transfer my adoration onto anyone or thing that
tweaked my fancy. But my next thought set me straight. I knew that once love is
in place, it does not unstick without enormous upheaval, without horrible
images of betrayal flashing uncontrollably through the mind, without visions of
a bleak and inconsolable self, a self that is a captive of grief, which lingers
viscously in the heart.

But
Clarissa was making the decision easy for me. She reflected light; Elizabeth
sucked it up. Clarissa was a sunburst; Elizabeth was a moon pie. So now my
preoccupation with Elizabeth became a post-occupation as I turned my Cyclops
eye onto Clarissa. Yes, I would always love Elizabeth in some way, and one day
we would be able to see each other again. But it was too soon right now. Better
to let her handle her own pain, with her own friends, in her own way. But
Elizabeth was at fault here. She had destroyed whatever was between us by
making a profound gaffe: She met me.

Long
after the sun had set, my thoughts continued to accumulate, spread, and
divide. What were my chances with Clarissa? None. Clearly, none. In nine months
of twice-weekly visits, she had not placed on my tongue one sacrament of
romantic interest. And not only that, she spoke to me in the tone one uses with
a mental patient: “And how are we today?” meaning, “How are you and all those
nuts living inside you?” At least Clarissa knows I’m benign. But that is not
an adjective one wants to throw around about one’s spouse: “This is my husband.
He’s benign.”

In
spite of the gleaming bursts of well-being that were generated by the idea of
loving Clarissa instead of Elizabeth, in the deeper hours of the night I began
to look at myself, to consider myself and my condition, to measure the life I’d
led so far. I did not know what made me this way. I did not know of any other
way I could be. I did not know what was inside me or how I could redeem what
was hidden there. There must be a key or person or thing, or song or poem or
belief, or old saw that could access it, but they all seemed so far away, and
after I drifted further and further into self-absorption, I closed the evening
with this desolate thought: There are few takers for the quiet heart.

In the
middle of the night I woke spooked and perspiring. I clutched the blanket,
drawing it up to my mouth as protection against the murderous creature that no
doubt was lurking in the room. I lay still in case it did not yet know I was
there. I held my breath for silence, then slowly let it out without moving my
chest. Eventually this technique caught up with me and I had to occasionally
gasp for air. But no one killed me that night, no knife penetrated the blanket,
no hand grabbed at my throat. Looking back, I can identify the cause of my
panic. It was that my earlier Socratic dialogue with myself about the nature of
love had no Socrates to keep me logical. There was just me, seesawing between
the poles. There was no one to correct me and consequently no thought
necessarily implied the next, in fact, a thought would often contradict its
predecessor. I had tried to force clarity on my confused logic, and this
disturbed my demanding sense of order.

 

Two days later I saw a man
in a suit and tie standing on the sidewalk in front of the apartment next door.
He was rail thin and for a moment I could have been in Sleepy Hollow except
this man had a head and no horse. He swayed from left to right, scanning up and
down the block for street numbers. He was all angles as he craned sideways and
looked up, twisting at the waist to check an address he held in his hand. This
one-man menagerie crabbed along the sidewalk, with his neck moving owl-like as
he looked far and close.

When he
saw the address above the stairs of my building, it seemed he’d found what he
was looking for. He collected himself and came up the steps and knocked at my
door.

“Daniel
Cambridge?” he called out.

I
counted to three then opened the door.

“Yes?”
I said.

“Gunther
Frisk from Tepperton’s Pies,” he said.

We sat
chair and sofa; this time with the TV off as I didn’t want an errant
Crime Show
to leak into my living room. He asked whether I would be available on March
4 to read my essay at Freedom College in the event I won. “I would check my
schedule,” I said, “but I can always move things around.”

“I have
to ask you a few questions. Your age?”

“Twenty-nine.”

“Married?”

“Engaged.”

“Where
do you work?”

“I
train boxers.”

He
chuckled. “The fighters or the dogs?”

I made
a choice. “The dogs.”

“Ever
been in trouble with the law?”

“No.”

 

I wondered when he was
going to ask me a question to which I wasn’t going to lie.

“Are
you the exclusive author of your essay?”

“Yes.”
I marvelled at my ability to answer truthfully with the same barefaced
sincerity as I’d displayed on my five previous whoppers.

He
explained the judging process to me, made me sign a document promising not to
sue, gave me a coupon for a frozen pie, and left. I watched from the window as
he walked back to his car, got in it, and sat. He picked up a clipboard from
the passenger’s seat, gave it a befuddled examination, and then again elongated
his neck as he looked out the windshield toward my apartment and back to the
clipboard. I’ve only seen comedians do double takes, but here was one occurring
in real life. He got out of his car, once again checking the clipboard against
the street numbers. He came up my steps, shuffled in front of my apartment, and
rapped a couple of times. I opened the door and saw on his face an expression
of bewilderment, as though he had stepped into his shoes in the morning and
they were size seventeen.

“I’m
sorry,” he said, checking his clipboard. “I … I … does Lenny Burns live
here?”

We just
hung there staring at each other. Thank God my eventual response justified the
eternity that elapsed before I spoke.

“Dead,”
I said. “Dead!” My voiced raised. “Dead at twenty-eight!” I cracked out a half
sob, drawing on the same intensity of belief I had employed when I wrote the
name “Lenny Burns on the essay. For dramatic effect, I reeled backward onto the
sofa. Could my experience with the
Crime Show,
I thought, have given me
the skills of Pacino?

Gunther
stood in the doorway. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he said. “Mr. Burns lived here?”

“He was
a cousin; my third cousin removed from my stepmother’s side, but we were like
this.
You can’t imagine how sudden.., everybody in the building loved him.” My
sincere belief in what I was saying made me choke up.

“He was
a finalist, too … just like you,” said Gunther.

“Oh my
God, the irony!” I cried. “We entered together. Lenny loved the idea that he
might be typical, and once he got that into his head, he wanted to be the
most
typical. He would have loved to have been a finalist. Why couldn’t you have
come yesterday, before he passed?”

In the
hallway Philipa came by and heard me keening inside. She saw the door wide open
and the distressed posture of Gunther Frisk.

She
called in to us, “What’s the matter?”

“It’s
Lenny,” said Gunther, trying to be helpful. “Lenny died.”

Philipa’s
face was so blank, so unresponsive, that it was possible to interpret her
expression as sudden, catastrophic, morbid shock. I rose and pulled her in,
holding her face against my shoulder in comfort. Also so she couldn’t talk. I
said to Gunther, “Could you excuse us?” He muttered an apology, acknowledging
that he might have just blurted out private information that would have been
better delivered by a priest. “I will contact you,” he said as he back-pedalled
out of my apartment.

 

It was a shimmering Southern
California day, and the light poured into the Rite Aid through its plate glass
windows the size of panel trucks. The merchandise inside broke the light like a
million prisms. Candy bars, laid out like organ keys, glistened in their foil
wrappers. Tiers of detergent boxes bore concentric circles of vibrating colour.
The tiny selection of pots and pans reflected elongated sideshow images. Green
rubber gloves dangled from metal racks like a Duchamp, and behind it all was Zandy’s
yellow hair, which moved like a sun, rising and setting over the horizon of
ointments and salves.

I had
actual purchases to make at the pharmacy and it was just luck that I fell into
the correct rotation that allowed Zandy to wait on me. I was buying sixteen
Chap Sticks. This was not a compulsion; this was practical. Ten go in a
drawer, and I place the other six around the apartment for handy access. I
handed her the cash and she might as well have called me by name, as she
referenced every prescription drug I ever took.

 

“Still taking the Inderal?”
she asked.

I had
tried Inderal for a while to keep my heart from racing; I was off it now. “Not
much,” I said.

“How’d
you like Valium?”

“Left
me kind of groggy.

“You
stopped your Prozac.”

“Don’t
need it anymore.”

“Got a
thing for Chap Stick, huh?”

She
could have been on a data-gathering mission, or she could have been flirting
with me. I couldn’t tell which. But it was profoundly intimate for her to know
what drugs were flowing through my own personal veins. If a waitress were
asking me these questions I would definitely consider it a come-on.

Up
close Zandy failed in the perfection department, which made me like her more.
The button of her nose was askew, as though someone had dialled it to three.
Her skin, though, was so dewy and fresh I couldn’t quite turn to go. I picked
up my sack of Chap Sticks, and she said, “Don’t forget your change,” and then
she added a wonderful thing: She said, “See ya.” I had to stay there a second
and take her in before I was able to unstick my gummy feet from the floor.

BOOK: The Pleasure of My Company
4.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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