A Lack Of Sadness
A Lack Of Sadness is a novel I'm currently writing, due out sometime in the future. I'll be periodically updating this page with new chapters. Not one word of what you're reading has been edited.
Just as I had practiced dozens of times over the past few years, I dragged my gaze slowly from the stars in the sky to her moon-glint eyes and asked my trademark question. “What’s the most you’ve ever felt? Like, a moment, what was the most emotion you’ve ever felt at once?”
We’d been out here for all of ten minutes now and already the cold had seeped up the leg of my pants and started to penetrate the skin on the inside of my thigh. But I didn’t mind. Everything was going according to plan.
I’d found this little pond off 55A a few years back as I drove in circles upstate searching for a swimming hole to dip my feet in. It was a hell of a lot warmer back then, but since that humdrum summer day I’d come back with a date a half dozen times at least in the dead of winter. Most every girl I bring will make some sort of half-nervous joke about why I’m driving them this far off the main road on our first date, laughing the same half-laugh as they wonder aloud if this is how it ends for them. I look back at them with a straight face and offer a deadpan response about how I hope their phone has GPS, so their friends can at least find the body and give it a nice respectable funeral after I deposit it in the reservoir. Those are the kinds of jokes you can get away with when you have the non-intimidating presence I carry around. Soft in the eyes with light curls in my hair and moisturized skin, I’m the kind of guy that looks so non-violent that even if I decided to be psychotic one day on a whim after watching a Scorcese film, you feel comfortable knowing you could probably still fight me off. My arms and legs are littered with tattoos, sure, but the kind of delicate, stick and poke tattoos that indicate I’m more likely to own a greenhouse than a gun.
Laying on the ice to my right tonight was Constance. Constance...something. I hadn’t learned her last name yet. Just a couple hours into our first date, we were still getting to all that. What I did know was that she was not French, as her mellifluously French name might indicate. Her Mom had lived in Paris for a year back in the 80’s and fallen so in love with her short-term understanding of the culture that she decided to name her daughter after an old French model that graced billboards all over the city during her stay. Constance was actually Italian, so much as you can be Italian when your great-grandparents moved to the US in the early 1900’s and you yourself were raised in Seekonk, MA by two parents themselves raised in small New England towns. But if, when I told my friends I was dating a Constance, they pictured her looking like Brigitte Bardot or Clémence Poésy, I was certainly going to be ok with that.
I’d met her on the ferry out of the city on the Thursday evening just two days ago. Pier 11 to India Street. She’d walked right up and asked for a smoke as we leaned against the rail on the top deck, wind rushing through our hair and sending her shirt rippling across her chest in the breeze. At least, that’s what we’ve agreed to tell our friends. Really we met on firstsighter. Neither one of us even smokes, but both of us admit we definitely would in a post-cancer society, pack tucked into rolled sleeve and all.
Out here on the ice our shoulders rubbed together and our pinkies intertwined every so often, separating only as we pulled our hands away to rub them vigorously for warmth and blow hot breath into our palms. A mere five hours into our acquaintance, this affectionate touch already felt commonplace, comfortable. It had started two drinks into dinner, when, after three consecutive remarks I made drew a hearty giggle from Constance, I brushed my hand against her knee under the table, initiating first contact in a way that I could pass off as an accident if I read any semblance of recoil on her face. There was none, there rarely ever is, so I placed my palm firmly on her kneecap, committing fully now to the act in such a way to reassure her that, yes, I too think this date is going really really well. The left side of her lip curled upwards ever so slightly. After a healthy pause of about four seconds, she slid her right hand atop of mine and squeezed her legs together, pinning our hands together inside two walls of warm, denim flesh. It always takes about four seconds. One drink later she excused herself to the bathroom while I collected the check. She returned shortly after, this time bypassing her seat across the table and plopping down at my side in the booth. I placed my left hand back on her leg, this time halfway up her thigh instead of her knee, and gripped tightly. She wrapped both her arms inside my left bicep and tilted her head ever so slightly in my direction as she smiled into my eyes. She was ready for the first kiss. Ahead of schedule, I thought. Not here. A first kiss can’t happen sitting down. You can’t pull their body into yours. There is no right angle with which to hold their back in your hands. And a kiss in a restaurant would be a quick, PDA-paranoia peck. A first-kiss is deserving of so much more. Especially with a girl with a name like Constance.
I gave her thigh a double pat with my hand and half-whispered, “ready to go?”
She squeezed my upper arm and tapped the tip of her nose against mine with her eyes closed. “Born ready.”
I draped my arm over her right shoulder as we stepped out of the restaurant into the piercing night air of Soho in January. The kind of cold air that feels so crisp and clean that you don’t even need to shower. Almost immediately, Constance’s right hand moved upwards, gripping the tips of my fingers that dangled over her breast and tugging playfully at them. Two doors down, strings of Christmas lights were overstaying their welcome in a dual window display separated by a doorway adorned with a neon sign. That’s a first kiss spot, I thought.
Right as we passed by the doorway I pulled my hand off Constance’s shoulder and spun her 90 degrees by her waist. All 5’7” of her looked up at all 6’2” of me, excited with how taken aback she was. I grabbed her softly by the back of the head, squeezing tight to a handful of hair, and pulled her towards me. The heat of our breath collided before our lips did, but when they finally met they locked for what seemed like forever and not long enough all at the same time. Her tongue flicked at mine, finally slipping so they spun in a circle like clothes in the dryer. Our hands danced with unsynchronized chaos all over our bodies. Hers shot to my cheek before running over my shoulders and then scattering around my lower back and the front of my thigh. Mine touched her chin, a small tug on her ear, a handful of ass and a quick slide up the front of her shirt before I felt the frigid air take the opportunity to rush her quickly goosebumping skin and decided it would be better to pat her coat back down against her. She finally pulled her lips away, returning for one more quick, reaffirming kiss by pulling me in with her index finger placed under my chin. I gazed down at her.
“Do you trust me?”
“What do you mean?”
“If I wanted to take you somewhere right now, would you go with me?”
“Are you gonna murder me?”
She gave me that half-nervous laugh, the one that says, “you seem like such a great person and I trust you 100%, but I’ve also read countless news stories in this sick world where someone knows someone who did something awful but doesn’t believe they could have done it because they were such a great person.”
“Ok, where is it, let’s go.”
“You have to wait and see.”
I pinned Constance up against my car with my left hand and kissed her deeply while I pulled open the passenger side door for her with my right. I drive a black 1987 Dodge Raider, the kind of car that 50% of people think is really adventurous and photogenic, and 50% of people think, “hah, that poor loser drives a 30 year old SUV.” For me, the truth lies somewhere in between. 80’s Raiders are the affordable, close-enough version of my dream to own a 1970’s Land Cruiser or Bronco. Of course, my actual dream would be to own a 1964 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud convertible, but in lieu of that I’ve convinced myself that boxy old explorer-mobiles with touch-and-go engines are the pinnacle of car ownership. That’s one of the keys to life I think, tricking yourself into thinking that what you could reasonably attain is what you’ve always dreamt of attaining.
Even in the dark of night, the drive up to the south tip of the Catskills does most of the talking for you. Like most twenty somethings living in New York City, Constance didn’t own a car, and she was happy just to be sitting in the front seat for once, with a driver that didn’t smell like musty qeema. She’d excitedly point out farmhouse lights in the valley as if she were viewing the aurora borealis for the first time. When some old Usher came on the playlist she rolled down her window, sending a blast of frozen air screaming through the car as she shouted “I think that you should LET IT BURN.”
In a moment of silence, I rubbed her left leg and asked a question I had recited a couple years ago.
“Ok, given the choice of anyone in the world, who would you have dinner with tomorrow night?”
I wasn’t angling for her to say me. This wasn’t just coy flirtation. A while back I read a study that had identified the 36 questions that lead to love. The premise being, if you can have someone answer these 36 questions for you, it will lead to love. This was question number one.
“Usher,” she said, “definitely Usher.”
“Usher’s a sex addict.”
She turned sharply and looked me straight in the eye with a sarcastic devilish grin.
“You’re damn right he is.”
We both laughed as she leaned over to kiss me on the cheek.
“What about you, who would you have dinner with?”
The smile melted off my mouth and I faced forward again as oncoming headlights splashed across my face.
“My brother probably. He died three years ago in a snowmobile accident.”
Constance froze, phone almost slipping out of her hand. You could read it in the way her eyebrows slowly rose and her eyes widened, the uncomfortable feeling of having to grieve with someone you’ve only just met.
“Oh my god, I’m so sorry.”
I took my eyes back off the road to glance over in her direction and tightened my grip on her thigh.
“It’s ok,” I said, smile slowly creeping on my face, “because I am completely fucking with you. I don’t even have a brother.
“Ohhh myyy goddd,” she moaned, playfully pulling her leg away from my hand, “you’re the worst, I felt so fucking awkward for like two seconds.”
“Honestly I’d probably go with Usher too, Bieber made him so fucking rich I could probably order a Ducati for dessert.”
The thermometer in my truck read 14 degrees when I finally pulled off on the side of the road where we could walk to the pond. Constance lept out of the car and shouted towards the trees, “it’s so beautiful!” There wasn’t much to see this late at night, but there were stars in the sky and the air smelled like pine, and that was more than enough for someone who had spent the past few months of her life slogging around the city on the L train.
“So beautiful,” I said back, “you could really die happy up here.”
Constance punched me on the shoulder and laughed.
“Ok, what’s this thing you just had to show me?”
I grabbed her hand and pushed back the brush, paving the way as we trekked a couple dozen feet through the thicket.
“Wait, you have to close your eyes.”
“If I close my eyes there better be a car with a fucking bow on it waiting for me.”
“Ok, never mind, don’t close your eyes. But here it is.”
Constance gasped. Mostly to humor me, I’m sure. After all, she’d no doubt seen a frozen pond before, but I still appreciated it. It hadn’t snowed in a few weeks so there the ice laid bare, completely uncovered and sparking from the mangata. I stood at the edge for a second, letting Constance run out before me and beckon me to follow me. That’s the way it was supposed to be. That’s the way I had planned it. Out in the middle of the pond she laid down on her back and tugged at my pant leg to get me to do the same. If this feels like a scene from a movie you’ve seen before, that was the point. It was a cinematic moment. Manufactured some might say, my ex-girlfriends especially, but in this moment my life was a movie.
I kissed Constance on the cheek and looked up at Osidius.
“Ok, next question. Would you like to be famous, and if so, in what way?”
“Doesn’t everyone in New York want to be famous?”
“I don’t care about everyone, I said do you want to be famous?”
“I don’t think I care really. 16 year old me wanted to be famous, but only so I didn’t have to get a job. I’m too old to be famous now.”
“You’re like 28.”
“Being famous is only cool when you’re young. Once you’re 25 all you ever do with money is buy organic milk and retirement funds.”
“Wow, ok, no fame for you then.”
Hah, what about you, do you want to be famous?”
“Honestly, I just want my brother to be alive again.”
Constance rolled her eyes and punch me in the shoulder again.
“You’re the fucking worst.”
For 8-9 minutes we carried on like this, me asking questions from the fall in love list, Constance telling me more and more about her life. Finally it was time to ask my favorite question, the one that I made up myself.
“Ok, one more question. You have to think about this one.”
“What’s the most you’ve ever felt? Like, a moment, what was the most emotion you’ve ever felt at once?”
Constance pulled her hand away from mine.
“If you say your dead brother again I’m going to kill YOU and leave you in the reservoir.”
“No, no, I won’t, this one is serious. You go first.”
“Ok, ummm, let me think.” She bit her lower lip softly and looked down at her feet as she clapped them together. “Ok, I have it, you can’t laugh though.”
“I think my first kiss, just because I was young and everything felt bigger then.”
She said it so nonchalantly. I fucking hate that. She hadn’t even put any thought into it.
“Yeah, what’s wrong with that?” she replied, the tone in her voice dropping ever so slightly, apparently a bit agitated at my questioning of her.
“Nothing, just the way you described it doesn’t seem like it was really that great.”
“Whatever, what’s yours?”
I paused for a moment, wondering if I really wanted to get into this right now. Wondering if she was really going to understand or if she was just going to nod along while she looked gaily off into the abyss of the night sky.
“Ok, mine’s old, but there’s a reason for that.”
“Ok just tell me.”
“So in high school my senior year, I played basketball. And I was good, you know, like I don’t want to sound like one of those old jocks trying to relive the past, but I was really good. And we were in the finals against this team called Meridian and I was just going off. I scored 14 points in the third quarter. 15 in the fourth, it was like a Disney movie. And I can still hear that sound, people pounding their feet on the wooden bleachers, their chants echoing through the halls of the school. I hit a buzzer beater with 4 seconds left and the place erupted. That was the moment. It was like it was inside me, the shouts were coarsing through my skin. And that was the most I ever felt all at once.”
I paused for a moment to see if Constance would interject. She didn’t.
“I think about that night all the time still because I will never get to relive it ever again. No matter what I do, no matter how successful I am, people are never going to chant my name again in a way that doesn’t feel absurd. Maybe one day in the break room people will all start shouting because it’s my birthday but it’s going to feel lame. Maybe I’ll hit a game winning three at the Y and my pickup teammates will crowd around me but it’s going to be hollow. It’s not about the basketball, I don’t even really like basketball, it’s that for as long as I live I don’t think I’m going to feel anything that intensely again. I’m never going to have a feeling that coarses through my skin. ”
I glanced back over at Constance who was staring straight up in the sky. Our hands were no longer touching.
“Honestly I haven’t really felt anything in years. Good or bad. My life has been like one giant flat line. I’ve been happy, I’ve been sad, but it’s inconsequential. I mean, I’m happy right now, I really am, but in a tedious way. I barely even feel like I’m alive.
My voice sort of trailed off and silence froze in the air with our breath for exactly six seconds.
“Wow,” Constance said, sitting up on the ice and facing me with her head leaning on her knees, “did you just forget I was even here?”
“What do you mean?”
“That was a lot.”
It was all weird after that. I haven’t seen Constance since that night.
I’m thinking about rearranging my living room again. I might get a new coffee table too. I’ve gotten so good at my job lately that I don’t need to work as much. That happened pretty fast. I still feel so youthful, so prone to childlike whims, it doesn’t feel right that I’m already 28 years old and so far along into my career. If I wasn’t responsible for molding the people below me, I probably wouldn’t even bother going to the office most days anymore. I’d work remotely from random locations around the city so my cubicle farm friends could live vicariously through my geotags. I might even get a little studio down by the ocean. I’m not sure if that exists in New York but I’d at least check it out.
I have a lot of free time now that I often struggle to fill, so I clean a lot, and I rearrange my furniture. In my head I try to convince myself that it’s such a darling life I’m living, like my hobbies were ripped from the pages of one of those $30 quarterly magazines about slow food and nordic home decor. I’ll light expensive candles and float delicately about the apartment with a copper watering can as I tend to my plants. Really it’s not so darling. I think I’m just bored. The people in the magazines are probably bored too. Or maybe they’re not. They’re just models on a photoshoot that retreat to their interesting lives after they’ve done their part to convince people like me that we should be buying $45 bars of homemade, handcut soap while we’re still in thousands of dollars of debt. I could probably have bought a pretty nice house by now if I stopped trying to curate my life like this. I don’t deserve a house though. People that buy handcut soaps while they’re still in debt don’t deserve to own a house.
This apartment is all mine now. Max moved out of his room last year because he couldn’t afford the neighborhood anymore. We’d been roommates since we were 20 years old, going all the way back to Kimball Hall at Stanford. Before that we were best friends from neighboring towns in Idaho who met through rec sports leagues sometime around first and second grade. There isn’t much expectation for people where we’re from. Most everyone I know took classes at the local college and still lives a couple streets over from where they were born. The exception being if their parents had passed and they now actually lived in the same house where they were born. That’s the case for Amy. Rodney was my neighbor growing up. He was a couple years older than me and when he went to University of Texas it was big news around the neighborhood. So Stanford was a big deal for Max and I, or at least it was for our families. We even got a little blip in the local paper, and every time I made Dean’s List there it was again. “Gennaro Parker of Buhl has made Dean’s List at Stanford University for the Spring ’08 Semester.”
I always loved that name, Gennaro. Maybe I didn’t love it when I was back in elementary school and everyone was calling me Jenny to tease me, but when you get older you start to appreciate your uniqueness more and more. I started to appreciate my parents for not naming me Steve or something. You don’t get many interesting names in Buhl, as you can imagine. Lots of Jimmys, Daves, and Ryans, and just about everyone over the age of 50 is Bill, Ed, Rick or Tom. But I was lucky enough to get Gennaro, passed down to me by my Mother’s grandfather, responsible for bringing her family to the States back in the 20’s. Now I go by Genny on purpose, but nobody says it in a teasing way, at least nobody outside of Buhl. I’m sure some of the local mutts that hang out outside the gas station back home would probably get a kick out me having such a nancy name and cuffing my jeans, but those guys hydrate with Bud Light 30 racks and have to wake up before dawn every day to go do manual labor for a living, so I don’t really take their opinion too seriously.
Hell, where we’re from, Max is a cool name. Max and I have a lot of differences for such good friends. He played sports devotedly, just not very well. He was tall for a 6th grader, so our coach made him the team power forward the first year of middle school ball. Every day in practice he’d get to skip all the dribbling drills so he could work on posting up, and in 6th grade he was the king of the court. Then he was sort of tall for a 7th grader, not as tall for an 8th grader, average height for a freshman in high school, and by sophomore year he was a 5’9” “power forward” who couldn’t dribble a basketball if his life depended on it. That was where his career came to its merciful end, on the end of the JV bench. After that he picked up tennis and lacrosse, two sports in need of warm bodies at our school, regardless of height. He was there in Boise when I hit the game winning against Meridian and won MVP of the state tournament, cheering from the bleachers with my parents and younger brother.
My basketball career was just about the exact opposite. In 6th grade they let all 4’8” of me on the middle school B team out of the kindness of their heart. I worked my ass off outside every night until my mom turned off the driveway light, at which point I’d ask my Dad to back the car out of the garage so I could do passing drills with the wall. Most nights if he wasn’t busy he’d convince my mom to turn the lights back on so we could play a game of PIG before homework time, HORSE if I was lucky. My Dad would’ve been out there for hours with me if he could, but he’d had shoulder surgery when I was real young that meant he could only play basketball or baseball with me for a few minutes before his arm started to give out. You could tell that him bothered him. Not the pain so much, but the fact that he physically couldn’t be the dad he had always dreamt of being. He did his best. I should’ve played soccer, then we could’ve played together for hours every night.
I didn’t even make the freshman team in high school because I was too short. It wasn’t like middle school where they thought it was too mean to cut anyone. So I had to sit in the stands watching Max galomp up the court in his rare playing time, ball bouncing off his knees every time he tried to dribble more than three steps. We’ve never stopped being friends for even a minute, but my freshman year and then his senior year, there was definitely envy between the two of us that my parents would comment on at the dinner table.
It finally fucking happened between freshman and sophomore year for me. The growth spurt the doctors had been promising me for years. I came back to school that fall and the basketball coaching staff almost dropped their clipboard when I walked into the gym. I made the JV team, and, in my own words, lit the world on fire for the first four games, earning an almost instant promotion to the varsity bench. Sometime around the middle of the season my knees started to give way to the burden of my weight increasing (healthily) by over 25% in a year. By the end of the season I had earned some varsity playing time, which I quickly lost because I could barely run anymore. Coach sidelined me for the rest of the year, consoling me by saying bad knees were a problem he saw all the time with high schoolers, and that I’d be ready to go once I stopped growing.
I didn’t stop growing that year. By the start of my junior year I was finally abreast of 6’, but the pain in my knees had mercifully gone from crippling agony to severe by workable discomfort. Junior year I led the conference in scoring and got all district honors for athletic and academic achievement. You can probably guess which award my Mom hung on the fridge.
Senior year is where all those nights in the driveway finally came together. My Dad would stay out later every night with me, sometimes past midnight if he was able to get all work squared away by dinnertime. You could tell his arm was aching just like my knees were a year before, but he wanted to be out there with me, pushing me, helping me become everything I dreamt of becoming. Some nights he’d just play defense for hours, unable to comfortably shoot the ball more than 10 or 15 times in a whole night. I was bigger now, stronger too. 6’2 and lean but muscular, just like he was. Dad had been an athlete all his life. A star baseball player in college that played competitively if not professionally for many years after college, he still went cycling almost every morning to stay in shape now that he couldn’t throw or lift heavy weights. My mom would hear us shouting at each other from inside and know she had nothing to worry about, because the second we crossed the doorway to come back inside we’d be best of friends again. That was like our portal to becoming friendly again. Outside we were at each other’s throats. Inside we would play board games together, and talk about the Seahawks.
My parents and brother made it to almost every away game that year, except for a handful of away games at school that for some reason held games at 5 PM instead of 7:30, so parents that worked normal hours could never make it. They watched me average 22 points per game and make first team all-conference for offense and defense. In my heart I thought I might have a chance for state player of the year, but in my head I knew there was absolutely no chance. Honestly I probably wasn’t even in the top 5 or 10. Idaho might not be known for churning out elite athletes, but Derek Burgess earned a scholarship to Indiana and Andrew Carter had one to Wisconsin, so they were good choices. I was a big star in a small town, but there are hundreds if not thousands of kids across the country that light up their small conferences but couldn’t sniff playing time at a D1.
Senior year I had offers to play D3 at a few schools in the northwest, but I’d never heard of any of them. I got one offer from a mid-size school in Oregon, but it wasn’t a full scholarship and the school looked it was pretty useless. Basketball was the most important thing in my life, but I’m a reasonable enough person. Hometown high school hero was where my career would peak and I was going to be ok with that. So I sat down with Max and we decided to go to Stanford.
The 2007 Idaho State Final was the last game of my career. A packed house, by Idaho standards, in Boise, a big city by Idaho standards. My parents were there, Max was there, the local newspapers and tv news crews were there, all the pretty girls from my school were there. Hell, my barber was there. The opportunity to hang a state banner is a big deal for a small town. Buhl only has a couple in the gym, and most are from short period in the early 80’s.
The story writes itself from there. I was as good as I ever dreamt I would’ve been. I’d pour in a three and turn to point at my dad as I bounced back down the court, smile beaming across my face. My mom was holding him with both arms, head resting on his shoulder. She was going to cry after the game, I knew it. I probably would too. If my dad started crying there was no way I was going to be able to not cry. My dad doesn’t cry.
In the third quarter I scored 14 points and we ran out to an 18 point lead. The game wouldn’t get close again. Max was pumping his fist in the air and stomping on the wooden bleachers. Standing in the middle of it all it felt like the building was shaking. People I didn’t even know were chanting my name whenever I touched the ball. “PARKER, PARKER, PARKER.” When my friend Cory Smith got it he’d get the same “CORY, CORY, CORY.”
I stole the ball off an inbounds pass to start the fourth and the rout was on. Instead of scoring a runaway layup I dribbled to the rim and then turned left, dribbling out to the three-point line and letting everyone catch up. The air filled with a mild-chuckle, Buhl fans appreciating the showmanship. I heard my dad whistle. Only he could whistle that loud. I had goosebumps. I whipped a pass over my shoulder to Cory as he streaked through the lane and just barely threw down the only dunk of the game. I thought the ceiling might collapse.
With ten seconds left, Meridien inbounded the ball down by 24. The buzz in the building was swelling. My entire school packed onto the first and second rows of the bleachers, ready to stamped the court at the final buzzer. Cory stole the pass and raced up the court, dribbling erratically out of excitement. He turned his head and saw me running with him stride by stride. The ball found my hands. Four seconds left. I threw it up, turned and melted into the crowd.
It’s like a goddamn dream sequence now. When I relive it I’m blinking, and every time I open my eyes there’s someone yelling in my face, grabbing my shoulder and pulling me in violently for a hug, our chests colliding as I tried to push away. I was scanning the crowd for my dad, my mom, Max, my brother, anyone. The moment felt like it was inside of me. The chants were in my bloodstream, the joy was in my throat. Someone grabbed my jersey from behind and pulled me in. It was Max, standing next to my parents. Mom was crying and holding both of her hands over her mouth. I bet she was thinking of all the nights my dad and I came inside bleeding from our noses and just above our eyes, beaten and bruised but bonding and building a relationship that would never see us grow apart. My dad grabbed me firmly and hugged me with all his might. One of the first tears I’d ever seen him cry dripped onto my shoulder. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t whisper in my ear. He didn’t have to. He just hugged me. Finally he let go and wiped the tear from his eye. He turned to Max and said, “whew, what a fucking game, huh?” My mom slapped his bad shoulder for swearing.
That night in bed my ears were still ringing, but so were my veins. So was my brain. Everything was ringing. Everything felt like it was going to explode and I couldn’t wrap my head around the gravity of this feeling.
I didn’t get any scholarship offers or anything after that game. My life didn’t change at all. Max and I went to Stanford and then moved to New York City and I eventually became a designer and he eventually became a sales account manager. Rent went up in our neighborhood after a few years and he had to move to a neighborhood farther inland. I took the place all to myself and still hang a picture of Cory and I holding our state championship trophy next to my favorite plant in the living room. In my bedroom closet I have the trophy too. I stole it from the school when I visited some old teachers a couple years after I graduated. These things are probably lame to keep around, but I want them for when I have kids someday so my son can see what he’s capable of experiencing if he works hard.
Sometimes I play in a basketball league on Wednesday nights, but my knees aren’t so great anymore.
I went to Max’s holiday party with him because he had a plus one and no girlfriend to bring. He probably could have just found some girl online to bring, but we always say that open bar weddings and open bar holiday parties are two places where you always want to bring a best friend instead of a date. So far we’ve been each other’s date for three weddings and four holiday parties. We have great stories from each one.
This year I met one of his coworkers named Emily. Emily is kind of a boring name. Not as bad as Rachel or Sarah, especially if you take to jokingly calling them Emilie. Or even Em, Em is sort of charming. But it’s not as interesting as Clemence. If I ever wrote a book I probably wouldn’t name the character Emily.
That’s fine though, you can be an interesting person without an interesting name. Matt Damon is a pretty fucking lame name, but I’d trade lives with the Matt Damon in a heartbeat.
Emily and I didn’t get off to a great start. When she said she was from California I said I never would have guessed that and she seemed to get offended. I guess that makes sense. Californians are known for their beauty, so if you tell someone they don’t look like they’re from there you’re sort of saying they’re not beautiful. I just meant by her mannerisms. But she was from Sacramento, not LA or San Fran or even San Diego, so it all makes sense. Sacramento might as well be Dayton, Ohio.Max ran over to us and wrapped an arm around each of our shoulders and asked, “shots?”
Emily laughed and whined “nooooo.”
The bartender walked up from behind us and placed three shots on our table.
“Well….too bad. Bottoms up!”
Max and I tapped our glasses on the table once and threw them back. Fernet, gross. That’s something Max picked up on the west coast.
Emily sat next to her full shot glass, feigning a pout and looking at Max with her best puppy dog eyes. She whined again, “noooo.”
“Sorry babe, them’s the rules,” Max said, stacking our two glasses together to clear of the table.
Emily started to reach for her glass. I tapped Max on the shoulder and yelled, “Is that Eric?”
Max whipped his head around, scanning the room. I grabbed Emily’s shot glass and quickly sucked it down.
“Eric who? Oh fuck you man.”
Max grabbed the empty glass out of my hand and got up out of his seat. He turned to Emily.
“He can’t protect you forever. I’ll ice you at work tomorrow if I have to.”
Emily smiled and shot back, “isn’t there an intern here you can go flirt with?”
“Ahh touché, touche.” He looked back over his shoulder. “Alright, you guys can go back to making out now.”
We hadn’t been making out, but as Max walked away I slipped my right hand onto Emily’s left knee. We were facing each other on two stools and she looked down, brushing my hand away dramatically. She flipped her hair with her left hand.
“What do you think you are, my hero?”
“No I’m like your guardian angel of alcohol. And I don’t even like Fernet.”
“Ew that was Fernet? Fiiiine then.”
Emily grabbed my right hand and slowly slapped it back it down onto her thigh as dramatically as she had brushed it off. She grabbed her drink, a Hemingway Daquiri as it was called here, and looked at me, putting on her best film noir accent.
“But don’t try any fast moves, Stan.”
“I’m going to kiss you now.”
“You must think I’m a whole shot drunker than I am.”
I spun in my chair and shouted, “Ohhhh Maaaaaaxxx,” pointing a finger in the air as if to beckon my butler. She yanked my arm down.
“Noooo. Ok you can kiss me on the hand, and if it’s good THEN I’ll kiss you.”
“How can a kiss on the hand be good?”
“I’d say that’s your problem to figure out.” She offered me her hand.
I pulled a stick of chapstick out of my pocket slowly, looking directly in her eyes and leaving her hand hanging in the air. I rolled it over my top lip, then bottom lip. Top lip again, then bottom lip.
“I don’t have all night.”
“I’m just trying to make it perfect for you.”
“As you should,” she said luxuriously, flipping her hair again and tilting her hand as if she was offering it to show off a glimmering engagement ring to her friends. “I deserve to be kissed perfectly.”
I took her hand and rolled my shoulders once, fixing the lay of my shirt on my shoulders.
“Bonjour bella,” I whispered in my best French accent. I have no idea if bella is French.
“No don’t do that, I don’t like accents.”
“Oh ok, hello beautiful,” I said again, this time in an overdone American accent.
“I don’t think I like that either. Bella was good.”
“Yeah I think I like that. Now kiss my hand.”
I brought it to my lips and kissed it as normally as I could. There aren’t too many ways to kiss a hand.
“Well, what do you think?”
She leaned back and took a sip of her drink, swishing it around a bit in her glass and watching the daiquiri whirlpool.
“One more time?”
I kissed it again.
“I think I’d give it a 5.”
“What’s that out of? 5?”
“Oh no, oh no no no, honey no. Out of 10”
“What’re you, like the Russian judge of hand kisses?”
She put her hand on my knee and started to dance it up my thigh.
“I vill teach you how to kiss me properly.” She placed a kiss on my lips.
“So I passed?”
“Max has been telling me about you all week and showed me your Facebook. You passed before you got here.”
Eight hours later I woke up in her apartment with our clothes scattered around the room.
I brought Emily flowers on Monday night from my favorite little flower shop down the street. Wildflowers only. Roses and tulips and anything like that are a little too phantom of the opera for me. Roses are what the gas station guys back home probably buy their girlfriend once a year on Valentine’s Day with a box of $20 mass-produced chocolates. I bet the gas station even sells them that day, in a little plastic vase next to the lottery tickets and Slim Jims.
I always like to include a cotton stem in any collection I put together. That’s the one people will always comment on. If you buy someone flowers they’ll always say, “wow, these are beautiful.” They would say that about the cheapest grocery store tulip or the rarest of Austrian alpine flowers. But cotton they really notice. I always buy a girl flowers first thing in the morning so I can have them for myself all day long. If I go to the office that day I’ll put them in the cupholder of my truck. Driving flowers really bring out the photogenic, adventurous side of the Raider and deemphasize the “affordable old SUV” aspects of it.
I buzzed Emily’s apartment, 3B on the corner of Henry and Nassau.
“I swear to god I won’t let you up here.”
She buzzed the door open. When I got to 3B the door wasn’t open. I had to knock. I don’t like that. I don’t expect her to come running down the hall to jump in my arms, but at least poke your head out the door and smile as I turn the corner out of the stairwell. I’d smile back and pick up my pace a bit, like people do when they’re jaywalking through a crosswalk and a patient driver chooses not to honk but still looks a bit exasperated. But Emily made me knock. She was still happy to see me and she leaned up to kiss my while she held the door. I handed her the jar of flowers.
“Is this cotton? That’s so cool, I’ve never seen cotton and flowers together like this.”
“Yeah I wanted to make sure the flowers matched your shirt but I didn’t know what color you were wearing.”
“That was a bad joke, but I’m still going to let you come in.” She kissed me again and opened the door all the way. “I need to take a shower before we do anything, want to take one?”
“Can I control the water temperature?”
“No but you can see me naked.”
Just as we were about to get in, Emily turned and faced the mirror, where the two of us stood naked looking back at ourselves.
“Hmmm,” she said, staring inquisitively at what appeared to be my shoulders.
“You’re a lot taller than I am.”
“I barely have to lean down to kiss you.”
She turned to face me and went through the motions of kissing me very deliberately.
“Yeah you’re right. Ok I think it works for me. What do your tattoos mean?”
“Don’t lie, everyone’s tattoos mean something. I got mine when my grandmother got cancer.”
“What does it mean?”
“It means my grandmother died of cancer and I was sad. What about yours?”
“I just like the style. I almost got a tattoo when I was younger that had meaning but I don’t like the meaning as much anymore so I’m glad I didn’t get it. I think emotion and meaning is fleeting but the art you like you’ll probably like forever.”
“What was the meaning?”
“It was something for my dad. Sort of like a reminder to appreciate him. But it was dumb, if I got it I think I would have considered that to be appreciating him enough. I’d rather appreciate him and my mom in real life. So instead of getting tattoos for them I call and visit them.”
“That’s nice, I like your tattoos. We should get some more.”
“We should take a shower, because I’m getting cold and am about to start looking a whole lot less impressive.”
Emily stood behind me and traced her finger around the bottom of my stomach.
“I think I can change that.”
Half an hour later we laid in bed on damp sheets. We’d been in too much of a rush to towel off fully after the shower. Emily’s head was resting on my shoulder and strands of hair brushed against my nose. She was breathing in deeply as she dozed off, warm air flowing out of nose and onto my chest with every exhale. She’d put music on softly and lit a candle right after we had finished. This is one of my favorite moments in life, the quiet comfort of not wanting to be anywhere else, with anyone else. This definitely feels like happiness.
But I’ve lived this moment dozens of times in my life with dozens of different people and it feels exactly the same every time. Any moment that can be so easily relived can’t have been a perfect moment. Maybe it isn’t happiness. I don’t really know.
Emily woke me up at 2 AM with a kiss a cheek. I must’ve fallen asleep running my hands through her hair a couple hours ago.
“What was that for?”
“I forgot to thank you for coming to see me tonight.”
“Oh, you’re welcome. Anything else?”
“Nope, that’s it. You can go back to sleep now.”
I had never called Emily babe before. We’d only been seeing each other for two weeks, maybe it was too early. She didn’t seem to mind. She looked pleased as she grabbed my right arm and wrapped it around her, flipping 180 degrees to face away from me and press her back into my stomach.
In the morning we woke up to the sound of trash cans clanking around on the sidewalk and the deep rumble of a garbage truck stuttering into gear. Our sheets were warm from bodies and sunlight and the apartment smelled like Sunday In Finland, the candle Em had left lit the night before. She rolled over and looked straight into my eyes. I was holding mine closed tightly, hoping the silent treatment might coerce her into sleeping later, but her gaze penetrated my eyelids so intensely I couldn’t hold back a smile.
“Oh good, you’re up.”
“No I’m not.”
“You have to be I need to get ready for work.”
“What if you skipped?”
“Max would have to do all my work for me.”
“Oh perfect, so you’re skipping.”
“No way, he owes me a favor and I’m not wasting it on a Tuesday.”
I started to make shadow puppets on the wall. I never expected her to skip today.
“Besides, Max probably needs a day off more than me.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know, he’s Max, you know Max.”
“How’s he doing at work anyway, I feel like he’s been there for years and hasn’t moved up at all.”
“Yeah, that’s what I mean.”
“I haven’t seen him as often since he moved out.”
“Doesn’t he live in Bed Stuy now?”
“Yeah, he has a nice place though.”
“I don’t know, he just drinks a lot.”
“And he had to move out of his best friend’s place because he couldn’t afford it.”
“And he smokes now.”
“And he hasn’t had a girlfriend in a year.”
“When you put it like that it doesn’t sound great.”
“Do you ever talk to him about how he’s doing?”
“No I talk to him about girls and the Trail Blazers.”
“Ok, well I’m not making him do any work for me today.” She snuggled into my neck and bit my earlobe. “Now get up and come have sex in the shower with me.”
I drove Emily to work that morning. It was freezing cold but she kicked her feet up on the dashboard and hung her hand out the window. I could see the tattoo for her grandmother wrapped around her ankle. A small heart-shaped locket that her grandmother had always worn until she passed it down to Emily’s mom. Emily would probably wear it someday when her mom passed away. I wonder how often she thought about her grandmother. I wonder if it still hurt at all. I don’t know what that emotion feels like at all. The only person I know that’s died is my neighbor. He was a nice guy but the only interaction we ever had growing up was him waving to me from his porch, or sometimes yelling at me when a baseball got too close to his house. My parents went to the funeral but I was away at college at the time. I didn’t give it too much thought. This is the first time I’ve really thought about him since my parents called to tell me he passed.
I know it’s a good problem to have but I get antsy sometimes about that. I don’t want anyone I love to die, but I want to know what grief feels like. That’s like a core human emotion. Falling in love and experiencing loss. That’s the real bucket list. You could visit Macchu Picchu a dozen times but if you never fell in love or experienced loss you didn’t really experience life. At 28 I haven’t gotten to experience either yet. The most emotion I ever felt was winning a basketball game.
I want to be in a real life or death situation someday too. That’s something I want to feel. A couple years ago I was waiting for the subway and my left arm went numb. I thought I might be having a heart attack. I used to say that was a life or death situation because even though I wasn’t having a heart attack in my head I thought I was. I guess it’s sort of like Schrodinger’s cat in that way. But in hindsight I don’t think I was ever actually scared of death. Sometimes I’ll watch Band Of Brothers and wish I could have experienced something like that. That was really life or death, bullets whizzing by your head all across Europe. I know I don’t actually want to go to war. War is hell. But those soldiers got to experience an emotion I’ll never get to feel. Just like some people get to see Macchu Picchu and some people don’t.
There are probably other feelings too. I’m definitely fortunate to have gotten to hear people chanting my name. That’s pretty rare. Out of everyone in the world, only rock stars and athletes really get to feel what that’s like. Maybe dictators too, but it requires a certain extent of delusion to think people mean it like they do when they celebrate their favorite athlete hitting a game winning shot. If I ever went pro, I’d probably commit suicide after I retired. I wouldn’t miss the money and the houses and the cars and the girls. I’d miss the intensity of the feeling. The stomping feet echoing through the stadium that swell inside you and make you feel like you could jump through the ceiling. You can never, ever experience that ever again after it’s gone. You just have to live the rest of your life feeling lesser emotions until you die. Unless you go to war.
We got to Emily’s office and she hopped out of the truck, poking her head back in through the window she neglected to roll up.
“See you tonight?”
“Yeah are you free? I want to take you somewhere.”
“Ok, I’ll be out around 6:30ish.”
“Call me I’ll pick you up.”
My favorite view of the city is from a giant cliff on the Hudson in New Jersey. You’re not supposed to go there after dark, and you’re definitely not supposed to go there after dark and sit with your feet dangling over the cliff, but if you straddle the binocular things that are mounted on the ground I think it’s safe enough.
Maybe I just didn’t feel like driving two hours to the Catskills, but I took Emily to the cliff that night instead of the frozen pond. Every relationship I’ve ever had in the past two years has felt exactly the same. They start out amazing and I think I’m falling in love, but it’s not a unique feeling. You could replace the girl I’m dating at any given time with about ten thousand other girls and I’d still feel the same amount of happiness. Then over some period of time the interest fades away. Sometimes I don’t even want it to. That’s a horrible feeling, your interest in someone slipping away even though you don’t want it to. If I could, any time I met someone new I’d like the fast forward two months ahead, because I know for at least two months it’s going to be perfect if I want it to be. It always is, so why even bother doing it. I’ve felt that feeling so many times by now. I want to get right to the part where I can feel something more intense than flirtation and mutual attraction.
That’s why I brought Emily to the cliff. I had just taken Constance to the pond earlier this month. In the past year I had taken Claire and Jen and Hannah and Molly to the pond. I didn’t need to feel that again, as amazing as it always was in the moment. Emily liked the cliff anyway, she said she liked how massive it all felt at such a tiny scale. When you’re standing in Midtown you’re surrounded by so much giganticism you can’t really appreciate just how much bigger it is than the rest of the world. From this vantage point you can see this megaplex of a city sprouting up in between the Jersey suburbs and the ocean. I think most sightseeing is overrated, but New York City from the right angle will always be a little bit special.
Emily always did the right thing with her hands, that was my favorite thing about her. When you’d put your arm around her shoulder she’d put hers around your waist. When you drove and put your hand on her thigh she’d run her fingers up and down your arm. When you kissed her she’d run her hands loosely through the back of your hair. And tonight as she sat behind me toboggan style on the edge of the cliff, she let the tips of her fingers trace up and down the inside of my thigh as she kissed the back of my neck. Not everyone gets that right. These are the subtleties that make someone a someone that you crave.
“What’s the most you’ve ever felt? Like, a moment, what was the most emotion you’ve ever felt at once?”
Her fingers moved a bit slower now until they came to a complete rest on my leg.
“That’s a serious question.”
“These are the kinds of questions you’re supposed to ask when you’re out at night looking at the stars.”
“I don’t see any stars.”
“We can pretend the planes are stars.”
“Ok, so what’s the question again?” I already appreciated that she was taking it seriously.
“It can be good or bad, just like, what was the most intense thing you ever felt in your life.”
“Let me think for a second.” She slowly tapped her chin on the back of my neck. “I’m trying to think of good one. Hearing my grandmother had cancer was definitely the bad one. That was the worst I ever felt.”
“What about when she passed away?”
“That wasn’t as bad, there was no surprise. The way the treatment worked she basically got to choose when she wanted to die and everyone got to see her one last time. But when she first heard she had cancer that was like, a shock. And I had to watch my mom hear about it. It was the first time I ever saw my mom as a daughter just like I’m a daughter.”
“What does it feel like now?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you think about it a lot?”
“Really just on Mother’s Day, because I think about how that’s the day mom is thinking about it. Or maybe on my mom’s birthday when she doesn’t get a call from her mom anymore. I don’t know.”
She trailed off and I could tell by the way her face now laid on my back that she had turned to gaze out towards the city.
“It doesn’t really hurt anymore to think about. Like I’m not crying now like I would have right after it happened. I’ll just miss her forever and wish she could come back to have dinner with her family again.”
I wasn’t comfortable with the way I felt about what Emily was telling me. Here she was, having this really personal moment remembering the worst day of her life and I just wanted to know more about what it felt like. I wanted to ask her if she was grateful that she got to feel something so powerful, because that’s what makes life so special in the first place. That would be a fucked up question. I obviously know I can’t ask someone that. I wrapped my arms behind her back and she leaned in to kiss my neck. Her lips felt frozen.
“What about you, are your grandparents still alive?”
“Yeah, all four of them.”
“That’s lucky, I hope you get to see them still.”
“We’re a really close family, most major holidays.”
“What’s your most intense moment?”
“I haven’t had one yet, and so that’s kind of it. Like this weird desire to have one.”
“Good ones maybe.”
“That would probably be better.”
“You can’t rush the good ones though, and you don’t want to rush the bad ones.”
“Have you ever been in love?”
“Not romantically. I love a lot of things. I love my family. But probably not in the way you’re asking. Have you?”
“Nope, not yet.”
“Well maybe you’ll get to if you keep bringing me places like this.”
“Want to go make out on the hood of the truck like we’re in a teenage party movie.”
“For like ten seconds, I’m freezing cold.”
We kissed twice against my car until the exposed skin on our hands felt the frigid metal and we decided to retreat back to my bed. Emily came over every night for the rest of the week.
Idaho is probably a horrible place to visit in the winter if you’re not from there. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a great place to visit even if you’re from there, but at least I have normal indoor activities to do as a formal local. My dad and I will got to the rec to play roller hockey, one of the few sports that doesn’t aggravate his shoulder. Cory still lives two towns over so I’ll call him down and we’ll challenge high schoolers to games of 2 on 2. Cory still talks trash with the confidence of a spry 17 year old, but he now lives in a 28 year old's body that’s been weighed down by a decade of watery beer and gas station fried chicken. He and Max never really got along back in high school. Or at least they never hung out. They played together on the freshman team but were part of separate team cliques. Cory was part of the clique that was good at basketball, and Max was part of the clique that would soon become tennis players.
After the gym I usually meet my mom at the grocery store so we can pick out dinners together. She likes to use this time to pry at some information about my life. How’s work, how’s my love life, how’s the truck running, that kind of thing. She asks about Max too, I guess everyone is a lot more worried about him than I am.
“Do you still see Max a lot since he moved out?”
“Yeah, we’re best friends.”
“But I never see pictures of him anymore.”
“Hah, I don’t think our friendship is very photogenic then. My apartment’s photogenic, but he doesn’t live there anymore. We just hang out in dark places.”
“I bet you do, you should get him a girlfriend.”
“Like a mail order bride or something?”
“Don’t you have someone he could meet?”
“Yeah but I’m keeping them saved in case I need them.”
“You could stand to see fewer girls. Did dad tell you I showed him your Instagram?”
“Ahh, every son’s dream.”
“He thought Molly was pretty.”
“Remind me to give him a high five when we get home.”
“I don’t want to know any of that.” She put a goofy grimace on her face and grabbed a stalk of romaine off the shelf. “Just make sure you and Max stay close. You guys have a good thing.”
“Max is fine, he’s just getting a little fat.”
My mom threw her head back and laughed out loud, “I know! What’s up with that? He used to be so skinny!”
“He had a good run.”
The three of us had dinner together in the living room that night. My brother had just graduated college and moved to Seattle and didn’t have enough vacation time yet to visit as often as I did. Someday he’s going to be the richest one in the family probably. He’s a developer at a startup that does something with AI now, but if that doesn’t work he’ll probably start his own thing. He definitely took better classes at Stanford than I did.
Emily facetimed me during dinner and my mom demanded I answer even though I tried my best to hide my phone in my pocket before she could see who was calling. We talked for five minutes, most of which was between Emily and my mom who called her very pretty four times and asked how Max was doing twice. Everyone is so worried about Max. He’s fine, he’s just getting a little fat. When I hung up my dad and I air fived from across the room and my mom told us we were gross. Idaho vacation was off to a very Idaho vacation-y start.
That night in bed I watched a handful of staff picks on Vimeo. Every once in a while I like those more than big time movies because they’re made by cinematographers and writers unburdened by the demands and constraints of an investment studio. Stories feel more relatable when some suit isn’t demanding more buildings blow up and more people die at every turn. Emily stopped typing mid text at 11:18 PM. It was a work night for her, and morning was two hours closer in Brooklyn than it was in western Idaho.