I realized I was cracking one Saturday morning in July when I found a mouse in the half-full–well, half-empty–water glass by my bed.
The room was close and sweaty, suffocatingly so. It had been a hot and surly summer in Manhattan, and summer in the city is more than anything a psychological season, a season dictated by income bracket. (The lower your bracket, the longer and hotter and smellier summer is.) Summer in New York can make a loser feel more like a loser and a winner more like a winner. The winners usually beat the summer by leaving, and by now most of them had long since gone. My neighborhood was inhabited mostly by winners, so the streets were pretty deserted. I could see all the way to the Hudson River from the windows lining my loft, and the view was sullied only by a stray loser or two. My own summer strategies varied with my fluctuating income bracket. This year’s income said long summer.
I’d gone to bed very late the night before, though I knew that I’d have to be up early. I’d been invited to Long Island, and it’s easier to be a guest when you’re a little foggy. I hit the alarm without looking at it and made my way slowly toward the kitchen. When I went back into the bedroom I saw the mouse in the glass on my crowded night table, less than six inches from where my head had rested moments before. It wasn’t even dead. It was very much alive and struggling to get out.
I ran to the living room and called my brother, who was in no mood to help. He told me to go back in there and throw it out the window. I informed him that I was unable to go back in there. “Just go back in one more time, cover the damn glass, leave, and when you come home it’ll be dead,” he said. I told him that I couldn’t get that close to it, nor could I face a mouse corpse later. He said, “Jesus, I don’t know–call Mom,” and hung up. My mother had been a renowned rodent killer in our youth. I called her.
She said, “Go back in there, honey, bring the phone, I’ll go, too. What is wrong with you? Damn it to hell, just throw it out the window, honey, and don’t call yourself a feminist if you can’t even throw a mouse out the goddamn window.” I wasn’t sure that last comment made sense, but I let it go. Finally I called the feminist who lived upstairs, and she marched down and disposed of the mouse without incident. It was time to take a look at the big picture.
My slow but steady demise had begun with an unlikely encounter one night a couple of months before.
We had met on an early spring night that was damp and raw, after a particularly grueling winter from which no one had quite recovered. My neighbor, who generally made appearances at every party in town, had told me about a party–a trashy magazine party at a trashy new bar–a hot trashy new bar, which made it even trashier and even less appealing. This wasn’t exactly an invitation; my magnanimous neighbor said he would see to it that I’d get in, but not in his company. My neighbor is a slippery sort who prefers to move about town unencumbered so that he can adopt the appropriate persona for each occasion, and I am the kind of person who might inadvertently blow his cover. He also happens to be black, which means that his persona is a far more urgent matter, in some cases a matter of survival. Luckily, he is a master of disguise, and people of all colors are generally smitten with him. I am white, a white Jew to be precise, and smitten; he is an original, and he has no choice, really, but to be slippery. (My neighbor lives only a few blocks away, and he and I often pass the time by making enormous crass ethnic generalizations and congratulating ourselves on our brilliance.)
I felt it was my duty to go to the party in order to continue an ongoing, albeit desultory, mate search. I can simulate a suitably sociable façade as well as the next person, but an escort would make things easier. So I called Victor, who serves as my human oasis. He is something of a dandy who dresses in Victoriana and S&M jackets with exotic jewelry. On a summer day he is often decked out in a billowing skirt, or linen bloomers paired with a light cotton vest. His head is hairless except for several tiny, well-placed patches and some strategic twirly strands, and he sometimes sports Hasidic earlocks. But by now I no longer notice his appearance, nor do I question the purpose of his cane, even though he has no limp. Victor is not even remotely concerned with the mate search. He has his own ideas about the human condition. But he does love a party. And like me, he is an artist who is slowly losing the ability to do the fawning necessary to revive a faltering career. But neither of us had thrown in the towel yet, and there is really no place more conducive to fawning or searching than a party.
Outside the trashy new bar there was a groveling and expectant crowd. My neighbor had kept his word, and I breezed right through, and Victor–well, no conscientious doorman could refuse entrance to Victor. Inside it was cavelike. You couldn’t see out and you couldn’t see in. The walls were tinted the pale hazy ochre that is designed to flatter those who are getting on in years. It was almost embarrassing to be there when most people in our age group were home guarding their sleeping progeny, yawning and struggling through the last hour before they could respectably turn in, too.
Excerpted from Bad Timing by Betsy Berne. Copyright © 2/13/01 by Betsy Berne. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.