AT THE BOTTOM OF EVERYTHING / Ben Dolnick
I’ve noticed that whenever I tell the story of going to look for Thomas (all it takes is a couple of beers, like quarters into a jukebox), at some point whoever I’m talking to will say two things:
(1) You’re such a good friend!
(2) How could you just pick up and leave like that?
I was nothing like a good friend, and I could only pick up and leave like that because the thing I was picking up and leaving was no longer, in any recognizable sense, a life. But I don’t say this. My conversation self, the one I send out to bars and parties and weddings, is a half-truth-spouting machine. Here I’ll try to do better.
I’d spent the last couple of years (really the years since I was fifteen) ignoring the fact that Thomas needed me, as if his life were a flashing Check Engine light in the corner of my dashboard. I’d let emails from his mom pile up so long that it would have been worse, I convinced myself, to respond that late than just not to respond at all. I’d become an expert at changing the subject whenever his name came up (did you ever think he’d drop out of school? did you hear he was in the hospital? what’s he doing in India?
). I’d even, one especially unproud morning, turned and speed-walked out of Safeway because I’d seen Thomas’s dad, or someone who looked like Thomas’s dad, rooting around in the bin of red peppers.
But of course shame was going to catch up with me sooner or later. Shame or Thomas’s mom, who startled me outside the CVS on Wisconsin Avenue one day when I’d just bought a box of condoms.
“You’re just hell to get ahold of,” she said, smiling. I held my bag behind my back. “Do you have time to come back to our place? Richard would love to see you.”
“Oh,” I said, “I’m actually . . .” and pointed off vaguely behind me.
She nodded. “You know Thomas talks about you as much as anybody,” she said. My heart was racing, reasonably enough. “I know he’d love to hear from you.”
“I’ll write to him,” I said, and I did my best to sound as if the thing that had been stopping me until then was just that it had never occurred to me.
We hugged (this took some ginger CVS-bag maneuvering on my part) and promised to see each other soon. “Send your mother our love,” she called out as she got into her car (a new Volvo, this one blue). I was fake smiling and murmuring for a block and a half.
Thomas had been the smartest kid at Dupont Prep, the last person anyone would have pegged for disaster. And I, semireasonable soccer player and wearer of striped polo shirts, had been his best friend. We were, for a few years, one of those pairs, like Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, that no one could quite believe in or understand.
Anyway, childhood friends, given a decade or two, turn into strangers. Their parents don’t. I could more or less convince myself that the Thomas I’d been doing my best not to think about was someone else entirely, but his mom (who looked so pale and defeated, who was probably even then asking Richard to guess who she’d run into) was unmistakably the same woman who’d driven me home when I’d forgotten my retainer, who’d bought me calamine lotion when I came back from field day with poison ivy. But I didn’t turn around.
I won’t try to defend myself except to say that my own life still seemed to me complicated and demanding enough that I didn’t think I had room in it for Thomas. And that I turned out to be as wrong, in imagining the course of those next few months, as I’d ever been about anything.
But just then I only knew that I’d barely escaped a visit to the Pells, and that Anna was waiting for me. I hurried back to my car like a fish released, just in time, from a barbed and rusting hook.
When all this happened I was twenty-six, which didn’t seem to me at all young. I’d recently realized that I couldn’t say anymore, when people (great-uncles, overzealous librarians) asked, that I’d “just finished college,” and that no one wanted to know now what I wanted to be; they wanted to know what I did.
Which was: tutoring. “Ohhh! Tutoring! That must be so . . . [hard/interesting/wonderful].” It was hard, in the sense that all of life, particularly the bits you have to spend with sullen eleven-year-olds, is hard. And it was interesting, in that it meant I got to see a great number of strangers’ kitchens and bedrooms and medicine cabinets packed with antidepressants and Vaseline. It was only wonderful at the ends of sessions, when I would nod farewell to a parent or babysitter and spill back out into the world, free and light and finished.
For the two years after college I’d had a more conventional job, at a political magazine on Capitol Hill. This magazine was tiny and well respected, perpetually on the brink of bankruptcy, overseen by its eighty-something FDR-revering founder, staffed by young and exhausted and brilliant people who moved on after a year or two and haunted you forever after with their bylines. Every issue was an emergency, and in the middle of my first real assignment, something about the transformation of the domestic auto industry, I had a panic attack (my first in years), complete with a terrifying/ mortifying ambulance ride, after which my boss made clear, if it wasn’t clear already, that I was probably in the wrong line of work.
So that spring I became a tutor, which seemed, along with being a nanny, to be one of the loopholes people my age had discovered in the professional world, a way of making a reasonable amount of money without working particularly hard or doing anything more soul-crushing than absolutely necessary. My mom and stepdad were appeased by the thought that I was just biding my time before going off to law school and becoming a public defender (which I still thought I might do), and I was appeased by the thought that I got to spend all my nights with Claire.
I’d met Claire when we were undergrads, but we’d only known each other well enough to smile when we shared an elevator or when we passed each other in the library. She was one of the girls, of whom there were dozens at Penn, who I’d see and think, In another life, maybe, yes. Red hair, pale skin, freckles that weren’t so much countable as a kind of wallpaper pattern. She was in things like improv troupes and student movies, on the fringes of the theater crowd but not quite so pretentious or pleased with herself as most of them seemed to be. She always had a boyfriend, usually another actor.
I first saw her in D.C. at a party in Adams Morgan just before I left the magazine. It’s always unsettling, seeing people you’ve almost but not quite forgotten about—not because they’ve changed (she’d hardly changed at all) but because they’ve gone on existing, finding jobs and making friends and moving apartments, all without the help of your thinking about them. So there she was, Claire Brier, standing in front of the little table that someone had set up with bottles of vodka and juice and red plastic cups. We hugged when we saw each other, despite never having hugged when we’d seen each other regularly. We carried our drinks over to the window, because even though it was April the heat was on in the apartment, and while we talked she fanned herself with her hand. She turned out to be living alone on U Street, working at a think tank, still doing improv on the weekends. She finished her vodka and poured herself another. She looked, I thought and think, like a girl who should live on a rocky beach in New England, drink enormous mugs of dark tea, dig up clams.
“You always seemed like such a dude,” 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 break- ups 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 cold
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 wind- tunnel 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.
Excerpted from At the Bottom of Everything by Ben Dolnick. Copyright © 2013 by Ben Dolnick. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, 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.