Suarez messages me, wants to know my moisturizing regimen these days. Funny he should ask. I recently switched it up, bought an expensive little jar—not tube, jar—but my skin only got worse. I recently bought Stridex pads. Stridex pads. If you told me when I was fifteen that I’d still be buying Stridex at 30 I would cease to exist. My image would fade from photographs. Maybe it’s your SSRI, says Suarez. Remember the Lexapro? I sure do. Gained fifteen pounds and an oily lacquer. Maybe it’s stress, says Suarez. Get used to it.
I pop two Dayquil, even though I’m mostly just hungover. I am buying my first suit today. I call my mother to ask if she’ll help pay for it. She says she’s been sick in bed for two days. The suit is for my cousin’s funeral. He was 21. Sweet and broad. Seemingly indestructible. I remember going with my grandfather to Brooks Brothers in Boston. I was twelve and needed a suit for bat mitzvahs. I picked out a double-breasted pin-striped number. Both my grandfather and the handsy salesman tried to talk me out of it. I must have looked ridiculous, a cross between David Letterman and Henry Hill. So I relented, bought boxers and socks instead. Later, at dinner, my grandfather sent the harpist a drink.
It’s snowing. A once-enthusiastic editor won’t return my emails. Maybe he just found out his cousin died in a shocking, surreal way. Maybe he turned off his tablet, threw his phone across the room. Maybe he’s eating a vat of lasagna. Maybe he’s at the outlets, buying a suit, driving slowly through the snow.
I dress up for suit shopping the way some people clean for the housekeeper but I smell like vodka and pomegranate. I have blurry stubble, puffy sideburns. There are five people working this Brooks Brothers outlet on a snowy Wednesday afternoon. They greet me loudly at the door. They are all exquisitely dressed. I feel a pang of nausea. It used to be if I was going to throw up I would throw up at night. Now if it happens it happens the next day, sometimes the next night. Patricia Ann finds me a two-button 48 long and matching pants. I buy one suit and get a second one free. I don’t even like the second one, but I don’t complain. A part of me wants to tell Patricia Ann about the funeral. I buy black shoes next door. A man smokes a pipe outside Adidas.
My groceries are wilting in the fridge. Instead I eat lasagna at my aunt and uncle’s house. It’s heavy, tastes like nothing. I have lunch with my grandmother. Gumbo, chicken salad and ginger ale. I manage to pay but she writes me a check. On the way home I drive behind the bank to the ATM. When I circle around a police officer is blocking the exit. He’s burly, gold-rimmed badge dangling from his neck. Hold it right there, he says, hand on his gun. The manager waddles out to apologize, says the new girl accidentally tripped the alarm.
At home the red dot says Suarez is busy. Good for him. FYI, I write, BOGO suits at Brooks Bros…
I had a professor in undergrad who told me a lot about doing his MFA in the early 1970s. There were lots of anecdotal bits I pulled from our conversations, but the detail that was most interesting for me was about being in workshops with returning Vietnam vets, how as a young guy he’d felt intimidated by the intensity of the worldview evident in their stories. That—or at least a twisted form of that idea—stuck with me, how workshops can be places where you develop a kind of “reality envy.” Your representation of the world is somehow more authentic than mine. That’s why I sent Paul to an MFA program. Considering that this novel is largely about Paul arguing with his sister, by way of books, about whose version of reality is truer, writing workshops seemed the best place for a young Paul to develop this kind of insecurity.
The Struggling Humorist didn’t want to spend an extra second inside the laundry depot. He wanted an ejector seat, a spring-loaded stool behind the counter that would launch him through the plate glass storefront at precisely four PM.
Ninth grade. Basketball practice. Valentine’s Day Eve. We had this very intense coach whose whims occupied a good chunk of my daily brain space. I worried about how hard we would run that day, I worried about my position in the line-up and in his estimation. He had a powerful whistle, simultaneously shrill and deep. But his surliness had a galvanizing effect, building camaraderie, and we were good. Some games we even achieved a sync and flow that made the other team seem to almost disappear. I remain grateful for those moments of transcendence. It was a welcome respite from the rest of the day’s social jockeying and relentless self-analysis.
We were working on a press break. It was late in practice and we were exhausted. The whistle kept blowing, the defense resetting. Probably some of us had bombed Latin quizzes earlier in the day, some had progress reports on the way home to exasperated parents, and we’d all done another day’s battle with fierce, inopportune erections. One teammate in particular was having a hard time with the mechanics of the play. He apologized profusely, but after thirty minutes the apologies were just another distraction. Shut the fuck up and watch the ball, we grumbled, at first in our heads and then under our breath.
It should be noted that this dude was already under suspicion due to an inability to hide his academic hustle. He lugged giant binders to each class and wrote page after page of cramped notes even when we were just watching a movie or killing the rest of 8th period. That in and of itself was not exactly grounds for ostracization but he also didn’t seem to extract any joy from his hard-earned A’s. He was fueled by panic and anxiety rather than a love of learning or even a love of success. Bottom line, he didn’t adhere to the unspoken code of effortless achievement.
Later, after I left that school, former classmates reported that he had started blatantly cheating on exams and tests and even relatively meaningless in-class exercises. A teacher finally confronted him and he broke down hard enough to convince the teacher not to report it. The cheating continued and became more and more obvious, but it wasn’t to make up for a lack of preparation. He was still insanely, comically prepared for every class. It was an illness, a condition, and nobody was surprised or jealous when he got into the Ivy of his choice. But this was before all that and when we went for pizza or took long bus rides nobody ribbed him any harder than anybody else. We were actually a pretty sincere group, happy to spend time with one another.
This practice was not our best moment. In our fatigue we started to see each other as flawed individuals, rather than a struggling unit. We finally executed the play to the coach’s grim satisfaction and headed to the locker room, where we commiserated and changed into street clothes. I looked around the crowded room, thick with body heat, and, not seeing the object of our frustration, ripped into him.
I don’t remember exactly what I said. It was a rant, a release, and it felt good. Others listened, some nodded, most hurried to get out to their parents waiting in the parking lot.
“The guy’s a loser,” I said. “Sorry, but it’s true.”
Unburdened, I got up to take a piss. The locker room was separated from the showers and facilities by a wall of lockers. As I approached the urinal I heard violent weeping coming from one of the stalls.
These were deep, guttural noises, and suddenly a terrible feeling whipped across my entire body and settled in my stomach. The kid lurched out of the stall. His face was red and he was sweating harder than anyone had sweat in any of our practices, even the Saturday morning sprints that left regurgitated donuts under the bleachers.
“Is that really what you think of me?” he managed.
“Um.” My shoulders slunked. The floor’s drain hole beckoned. “I was talking about someone else.”
He ran out of the room amid a flurry of paper towels.
I spent the night tossing and turning, certain my teammate was going to off himself. Despite whatever other pressures he may have been operating under there would be no question as to who had pushed him over the edge.
Somewhere around 3 AM I crawled out of bed and went downstairs to the kitchen. My younger sister had left some Valentine materials—construction paper, markers, glitter—out on the counter and so I got to work and made him a card. To this day it remains the most elaborate and nakedly heartfelt Valentine I’ve ever bought or made.
I was worried I wouldn’t know what to say, but then it all poured out in a surge of guilt and late-night honesty: I said I was jealous of his commitment, as I had a hard time committing to anything, that he was brave to work as hard as he did while so many of us tried to skate by on charm or wile. I said that he was an indispensable member of the team, an invaluable low-post presence, a solid friend. I said I couldn’t imagine the team without him. I didn’t realize how true this was until I’d written it all down. I signed it Love, Mike. I slept for a few hours, showered and skipped breakfast.
Ninth grade. First period. Valentine’s Day. Our lockers were close. This school didn’t have locks, so I pried his open and slipped the frilly card between textbooks. I avoided him for the rest of the morning. During lunch I was scrambling to copy some Latin translations I had been too preoccupied to do the night before. I was cursing myself for always finding these corners—delaying the inevitable, waiting until the last second and leaving time only for a superficial effort that would just lead to more work later, when it would likely be too late—when he walked into the room to begin his own pre-class rituals. We were alone. A confrontation was inevitable. I was mostly just happy that he was still alive. It was okay if he hated me. I deserved that. I said hello. He said hello. He sat down and we returned to our work for a few ear-burning minutes. Then he got up, walked over to my desk and gave me a hug. It was a good hug, too, full of forgiveness, eyes squeezed shut and brows buried into shoulders.
Vodka Bread Bowl
Red Bull & vodka in a sourdough bread bowl.
Prosecco, grapefruit juice, Abilify.
The Mug Shot
A mug of single malt Scotch.
Listen Tanner, it’s a tub of moist cilantro. Deal with it.
When Tanner went away to camp her mother rented a house on the other side of the lake.
No bread no sugar no escalators.
A liquorshed moment over coagulated cheese.
The Hot Lunch
A mouthwatering napkin, a blood-flavored toothpick, regrettable DMs, cuticle grime, productive coughs, a Technicolor mustache zone. George sweats, Googles local locksmiths, tongues the Tums clay between his molars and fires up the old excuse mill.
A high-pressure system moves north as Seth’s medley of library drugs dreg up acidic memories, podcast recaps, overdraft fees, dusty gossip, bad tidings, kind words sharpened with time, court-ordered epiphanies, damp foreheads and a chalky drip.
Hair of the Hairless Dog
Tanner endlessly waffles over the cocktail menu. She mentions plans to run later in the afternoon and quotes articles culled from her newsfeed.
Licorice liquor. Smooth but menacing, like the idling armored Mercedes sedans that lined the street outside Tanner’s day school. She is writing a screenplay about a rich girl and her sexy, damaged bodyguard.
The Shit Talker
Riding a wave of drunken eloquence, George unleashes a slew of doozies on most everyone he knows, speculating wildly as to what gruesome childhood traumas might explain current annoying tendencies. Their mothers are narcotized idiots, their fathers are crooks, their horses died suspicious deaths. Heads pivot, brows lift. A slanderous high warms his belly. He smiles, shrugs, prickles.
My holiday newsletter leaked to The Billfold:
It was another great year for Masters of the Universe and the benefit concert industry. Still, 2013 was not without its disappointments. The following so-called “Get Rich Quick Schemes” fell flat: a Tumblr dedicated to movie theater carpets, self-published “creature erotica,” “Mike & Molly” fan-fic and an Oral History of a Well-documented Celebrity Gaffe, menial labor, Mega Millions, literary busking, ghost writing, day-trading, power-washing, paywalls and NYBR personal ads.
The Struggling Humorist returns.
The Struggling Humorist surveyed the local sprawl, pained by the possibilities. A cousin had spent three years casting about southeast Asia and everyone treated him like some swashbuckling market disruptor. Why couldn’t the Struggling Humorist do the same in southeast Connecticut?
The Struggling Humorist thought maybe he should take some time off and visit all of his ex-lovers. Those trips seemed to guarantee adventure, insight, some necessary cosmic jostling. And there was nothing here holding him back. His barista crush was pregnant. His files and porno passwords were in the cloud. He could crowdsource the travel expenses, jack up his SSRI dosage, dissolve those nagging shreds of desire and bask in the pure, cold regret. Finally the garage door opened and there was Maguire, smiling like goddamn.