The United States is, without question, the most religious country in the so-called developed world. If the pollsters are to…
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Do what you always do when you’re worried, I told myself. Look at the situation clinically – stripped completely of all emotional detail. Just reiterate the facts. Because within the simple facts of any problem one can find a middle ground, a compromise, a solution, a way of saving one’s ass.
Okay then. The facts of how this will play out:
The call will come at ten in the morning. Ten exactly. It’s a calculation based on the time she needs to find out what she needs to find out. This estimation is determined by several factors: the hour when the necessary ‘places’ open, and the fact that one such ‘place’ is just five minutes from her apartment. If she arrives there when it opens for business at nine, she will be back home no later than nine-fifteen. The procedure will take half-an-hour maximum. Knowing her, she’ll need at least fifteen minutes to break the news to me – because she is someone who (as I’ve come to discover) adopts a ‘role’ in every situation. So a quarter-of-an-hour will pass as she decides on a dramatic strategy, which means that I can expect the call no later than ten. And if all that sounds a little too methodical – a little too planned out – well, I plead: guilty as charged. Because I am one of those men who needs to be methodical at all times.
Which is why happenstance – the random music of chance – terrifies me. Because it leads to moments like this: a call that is out of your control. And that’s the only real ‘fact’ here. I’m fooling myself if I try to believe there is any room for compromise in this situation. There isn’t. If the news she gives me turns out to be what I think it will be, the only fact I’ll be grappling with is: changed circumstances. The upending of my life.
I light a cigarette. It’s a habit that I had almost completely curtailed until last night. But last night changed everything. Last night I felt something that had not touched my life in years: that cold hand on the back of the neck, which also goes by the name of fear. Last night – after she told me – I ran off into the night. Literally, ran off. I had no direction, no plan (and I am somebody who always has a plan). I simply got up from the place where we were sitting, threw some money down on the table and walked out. And then, systematically over the next five hours, I renounced my newfound Health Fascism – my vehement detachment from all things carcinogenic and alcoholic and high in cholesterol. Last night, I smoked an entire pack of Marlboro Lights. Last night, I went to three different bars and drank three martinis made from three different upscale vodkas; mused about the amount of consumerist choices we negotiate every day – such questions as to whether the martini tastes drier with Grey Goose or Stoli, or whether Beveldere speaks volumes about the universal boredom that underscores so much of life right now. Last night, I fell into a restaurant (you never do anything but fall after the third martini) and ordered a huge entrecote with big fat chips and a glutinous Bernaise sauce and a bottle of something Bordeaux and expensive, while the part of my brain that was still functioning came up with pithy, ironic remarks, like: the condemned man ate a hearty dinner. And last night, after careening off to another bar and finishing the pack of cigarettes and three drams of the Macallan (my favourite malt whisky), I found a cab back to my apartment and fell in the front door— tossed my coat and suit jacket on the floor, and passed out on the sofa. I didn’t come to until six this morning, when the baby started crying, and my wife emerged from the bedroom holding our six month old son in her arms.
It took my fogged-in brain several moments to discern the disapproving (yet simultaneously worried) look on her face, as I watched her watching me—sprawled on our sofa, like some derelict who’d staggered in off the street.
My wife stared at me for a good minute before saying anything. I couldn’t meet her cool, questioning gaze and looked away. She registered that immediately. And said:
“So what are you hiding?”
“You’re hardly hiding that.”
“I’m just… embarrassed, that’s all.”
“And why would you be embarrassed?”
“For ending up passed out on our sofa, fully dressed.”
She sniffed. Loudly.
“How many cigarettes?”
“Please don’t tell me you weren’t smoking.”
“About ten” I lied.
“I thought you had quit.”
“A momentary lapse.”
“Ten cigarettes isn’t momentary. Who were you with last night?”
“Clients. But you knew that.”
“The Utah clients?”
Oh shit, she remembered this half-truth. Because before meeting her, I did spend an hour with a couple of dry-as-dust, highly pious multi-millionaires from Salt Lake City who were sizing us up to oversee some of their interests in this part of the world.
“They were from Utah, yeah,” I said. “But…”
“Let me guess. They were alcoholic Mormons.”
“That’s an oxymoron,” I said, attempting a witty retort. No smile from my wife. “Actually, they had a Vegas lawyer with them…”
“And he happened to like to drink?”
“You got it.”
Another long assessing stare.
“You are a terrible liar.”
“You’re right. I’m a shitty liar. Which is why I can’t hide the fact that me – Mr Control – got trashed last night.
“As long as that’s all you did.”
“You know I wouldn’t…”
“Sure. But darling, really, you have to believe me. Yes, I got trashed. But beyond that…”
“Quit while you’re ahead,” she said and left the room.
During breakfast, she didn’t raise the matter further, talking instead about a hit-and-run thing she was handling (my wife is an accidents lawyer: an ambulance chaser, as she jokingly told me on our first date six years ago— and someone who is known in her trade as a real killer when it comes to winning a case). The nanny arrived at eight-thirty. The two of us –-now dressed in our respective suits—kissed our only child goodbye and headed down together to the street. Outside she hailed a cab.
“I’m heading straight to court,” she said. “Can I drop you?”
I glanced up at the sky. Deep blue, not a hint of cloud, with a mild tang in the air. A perfect May day. Except that it was going to be anything but perfect.
“I think I’ll walk,” I said.
“All the way?” she asked, knowing that my office was a good hour from here on foot.
“My diary’s kind of light until lunchtime. Anyway, you don’t get a morning like this every day.”
“You’re preoccupied.” Her tone was light, but direct.
“Am I?” I asked.
“It certainly seems that way to me.”
“It’s just the hangover, that’s all.”
Another of her piercing stares—the same ferocious eye-contact I’ve seen her use during cross-examinations in court.
“I hope that’s all it is.”
Then a light kiss on the lips and she climbed into the cab and was gone.
As soon as the cab pulled away, I had to fight off a bad case of the shakes. I leaned up against a lamppost and drew oxygen into my lungs and tried to tell myself: “Nothing’s known as yet. It still could turn out all right.”
Just as another voice in a darker corner of my brain hissed:
“You know damn well how this is going to turn out.”
There was a bar at the end of our street. It was open early—and also sold cigarettes. I walked in and bought a packet of Marlboro Lights. I lit one while leaning against the bar. I ordered a double whiskey, and tried to remember the last time I ordered a double whiskey before nine in the morning. The answer was: never. But I certainly needed a steadier right now. Make that three double-steadiers, each accompanied by an additional Marlboro Light. I chased the booze with three coffees, then bought a packet of mints in the hope that they might disguise the whiskey breath. My head swimming—courtesy of caffeine, nicotine, and a sizeable dose of 98% Proof Scotch—I hopped a cab to work.
My secretary was the first to notice.
“Sir, what has happened?” she asked.
“A bad night, that’s all.”
“I’m talking about your shirt, sir.”
I glanced down and saw a large congealed stain—a commingling of cigarette ash and spilt whiskey. There was a moment of befuddlement when I thought: how did that happen? This was followed by a moment of further befuddlement when I also wondered: now why didn’t I remember this happening…? Followed, in turn, by a more definitive thought: oh fuck it.
“Must have spilt something.”
“Yes, that’s what must have happened, sir.”
Her tone was cautious, controlled. I could see she was cognizant of the fact that something was very wrong with me, but was also wondering how to play this curious situation. I was someone who always appeared immaculate and—of course— in control. But now…
“Any chance of a cup of coffee, please?” I asked.
“Of course, sir. But do you remember—you have an appointment with Mr. DuPre at ten.”
“Cancel Mr DuPre?”
“Tell him I have a problem.”
“But sir, it is Mr DuPre…”
“I know who Mr DuPre is,” I said. The C.E.O. of the company that pays me absurd amounts of money every year to play high stakes poker with other people’s money.
“You know, sir, that he’s returned early from a trip to Frankfurt specifically to see you.”
“Yes, I do know that. Tell him I can’t make it.”
Now she was looking at me wide-eyed, especially as I had reached into the pocket of my suit and fished out a Marlboro Light and lit it up. Her shock didn’t just have to do with the bank’s rigid non-smoking policy, but also with the fact that she’d never seen me smoke before (I always kept my habit outside of the office).
“Yeah, I know,” I said, stubbing it out on the carpet. My secretary immediately started bending down to pick it up, but I covered the crushed butt with my shoe.
“You don’t have to clean up my mess,” I said. “I am responsible for my actions. Always.”
Did I sound a little on the loud side? Oh, fuck it. My new credo.
“Besides getting me some coffee, do you think you might be able to rustle up a bottle of Scotch somewhere? Preferably a single-malt. Macallan 15 Year Old would be splendid.”
“Are you serious, sir?”
Inside my office I pulled off my jacket and tossed it on the floor and kicked off my shoes and planted my feet on the desktop. I lit up a fresh cigarette and dragged deeply on it. I thought: What the hell kind of game are you playing? To which I replied: a game without rules. God, how melodramatic. But it’s true, it’s true. This is the first time in years that I’m winging it. It’s ‘terra incognito’… and weirdly intoxicating.
The phone rang. I picked it up. It was my secretary.
“Sir, I just spoke to Mr DuPre’s assistant. I told him that you had a medical emergency and that you had to see your doctor this morning. I said it was bad food poisoning…”
“Call him back and tell him the truth.”
“Tell him I’m hung-over and feeling rough and my shirt stinks of whisky and cigarette ash and…”
“I can send out for a new shirt. There’s a shop just three streets away. If I could know your collar and sleeve size…”
“I’m not changing the shirt. And I want you to call Mr DuPre’s assistant and tell him the truth.”
“Sir, I won’t do that.”
“Then I will.”
I hung up. I picked up the phone again. I hit Button 2 on my Speed Dialer. DuPre’s assistant answered on the third ring.
“Oh, sir,” he said when he heard my voice. “Mr DuPre wanted you to know that he completely understands why you had to cancel. He ate some sushi last month with some of our Japanese clients…”
“And let me guess what happened next? The old bastard then vomited all over those ‘slit-eyed cocksuckers.’”
A pause. Then:
“What did you just say, sir?”
“I said: ‘the old bastard vomited all over those slit-eyed cocksuckers. That’s a direct quote, by the way. ‘Slit-eyed cocksuckers’ are the old bastard’s exact words. He really hates the Japs…”
“Sir, I am baffled as to why you are…”
“And please tell the old bastard that I don’t have food poisoning. Tell him I got shitfaced last night and can’t face anyone today.”
“Did you hear that last sentence?” I asked.
“Yes sir, I heard that.”
“Cheers, then. And have a nice day.”
I hung up. I picked up the phone. I hit the intercom button.
My secretary answered.
“Any sign of that Scotch?”
“Sir, I really can’t order…”
“All right, all right, I’ll do it myself.”
And grabbing my jacket, I burst out the door, passing my secretary, high-tailing it down the corridor and into the elevator. Once inside I ran into Murphy who ran the company’s Due Diligence unit. Like anyone who spent his life absorbed in the minutiae of contracts, he was a stiff. And from the moment I joined the company five years ago, we had rubbed each other up the wrong way – my deal-making bravado playing badly against his anal retentive attention to detail. I knew he hated my uber-controlled need to win, whereas I considered him the original grey man. But this being a corporation, all feelings of contempt between us were kept sub-textural, hidden from view.
“Morning, Murphy,” I said, falling into the lift. There were three other passengers in there, but it was Murphy I turned to. I could see him take me in: the rumpled clothes, the stained shirt, the lit cigarette protruding from a corner of my mouth.
“You’re smoking,” he said.
“You’re an observant man, Murphy,” I said. “You must work in Due Diligence.”
“Smoking is not permitted in the…”
“I know the rules, Murphy. The question is: do you know the rules?”
“I certainly know that smoking is completely forbidden in…”
“I’m talking about the basic rules of human decency. Like what you did to Hastings last year.”
His face turned a sudden shade of chalk.
“I am asking you to please put out that cigarette…”
I faced the three other passengers in the elevator. They were now my audience.
“Now consider this story. Hastings – the former head of Due Diligence – had a much-loved wife who was dying of cancer. And he was just a tad preoccupied, so his work was slipping a bit. So Murphy here—don’t let the dull-ass facade fool you… the guy’s a killer when it comes to self- advancement— he engineers that Hastings screws up a major contract…”
“Are you insane?” Murphy said, wide-eyed with horror.
“I am so sane that the earth currently looks flat. But you’re interrupting my story – and since we’ve only got around fifteen seconds before we reach the ground floor…”
“This man is talking rubbish,” Murphy said to the passengers.
“And this man set it up so his boss would screw up on a big contract with a big telecommunication’s giant, and cost the guy his job… around five weeks before his wife…”
Suddenly, Murphy had me by both lapels.
“You are finished in this company,” he hissed. “Finished”.
“See what I’m talking about?” I asked my fellow passengers. “When crossed he becomes…”
He began to shake me.
“You shut the fuck…”
That’s when I hit him. Not a ferocious sucker punch. Rather, an open-handed slap across one cheek. He fell away from me, crashing into a large woman and upturning the styrofoam cup of coffee she was holding in one hand. The coffee baptized his head. He screamed.
“You okay?” I asked the woman. She looked at me, wide-eyed, as if I was one of those lunatics whose next course of action is to walk into a McDonald’s carrying an AK47 assault rifle and announce to the terrified staff and clientele: “After I finish this Big Mac, I’m taking you all with me.”
I tried to soothe her fears.
“Sorry about the spilt coffee,” I said. “But believe me, the asshole deserved that.”
“Your career is through,” Murphy hissed. “Dead.”
I smiled back. How can I be dead when all imposed order and restraints have been lifted, and everything I now do seems like a great improvisation…
The elevator slowed as we reached the ground floor. I knew there was always a security man stationed at a desk at the front of the lobby. Would Murphy start screaming for someone to alert him and apprehend me? No, that would be too public. Instead, he’ll go straight back upstairs, get his head attended to (it doesn’t look that scorched), and meanwhile call Watson – the creepy head of internal security for the company…And then…?
As the door opened I turned to my assembled passengers:
“It has been a pleasure traveling with you,” I said. And I was gone.
I walked briskly – but not too fast (I didn’t want to arouse suspicion) – past the security man. I kept expecting to hear someone melodramatically shout: Stop that man! But no one did. Instead I was on the street, thinking: Just keep doing whatever you want to do… So I crossed the street and headed into a small store that catered to men with upscale tastes and large renumeration packages. Its shelves were lined with different brands of malt whiskey and cognac. There was a walk-in humidor brimming with cigars. There were two glass display cases, filled with high-priced useless shit: sterling silver cigar cutters and lighters, alligator skin wallets, fat lacquered fountain pens, and assorted other accoutrements to make the big fuck-you executive feel momentarily important (and thus worthy of such overpriced trivia); to soothe the deeper, all-pervasive fear that all the deal-making and the jetting around and the general hustle is nothing more than dressed-up salesmanship…and that, more than anything, what we are selling is ourselves…Which is why we all secretly fear that what success we have known is communion-wafer thin, easily fractured, and only has resonance for a brief window of time. Because the street is always just two bad deals away.
I should know: my desk drawers are filled with such extravagant trinkets. Just like the watch on my wrist is a Cartier Roadster, the pen in my pocket is a DuPont, the wallet with my collection of plastic instruments of credit Asprey, the suit (now, I’ve just realized, also dappled with the spray from that woman’s coffee cup) Ralph Lauren, the shoes…. Identities really are store-bought these days. Especially if you have the cash to do it.
“Morning sir,” said the gent behind the counter. He was sizing me over, checking out the evident disarray.
“What’s your most expensive bottle of whiskey?” I asked.
“Blended or single malt?”
“Single malt, of course.”
“Well, we do have a 1953 Bowmore—a single cask malt, ultra rare, only 400 bottles ever drawn from the one barrel, and a serious investment at one-thousand-seventy five a bottle.”
“Hey, I’m not Crown Prince Charlie from Riyadh.”
“Well, you did ask for the most expensive bottle. And though the price is steep, if you hold on to it for five years, its value should increase by…”
“I want to drink it today… in fact, like now.”
He smiled tightly, his eyes again taking in my scruffed-up state.
“Very good, sir. Then may I ask you a question?”
“Go right ahead.”
“What’s the year of your birth?”
“Excellent. Do you like the Macallan?”
“Well, I have a forty year old Macallan—excellent sherry notes, as always, but with a sublime spiced oak finish and a nose that intermingles…”
“How much?” I asked, cutting him off.
“Very good, sir. Would you like it gift-wrapped? It also comes in a stylish display box.”
“A brown paper bag will do.”
Another tight smile.
“Whatever you say, sir.”
Two minutes later, I was out the door, brown-bagged bottle in-hand. I stopped for a moment, clawed off the foil surrounding the bottle’s neck, then pulled out the cork, lifted it and drank. Excellent sherry notes? Sublime spiced oak finish? Whatever you say, Jack… but what the hell is spiced oak? Two more long guzzles from the bottle— during which all further sense of gustatory sensation was numbed by the significant quantities of alcohol that I was pouring down my throat. I also attracted a couple of horrified stares from fellow passing suits. One of them— a nebbish with thick horn-rimmed glances and a dull khaki raincoat—actually stopped and stared directly at me.
“Do I interest you?” I asked the guy.
“Uh… sorry” he said
“Sorry for what? Sorry for not having the guts to do what I’m doing?”
God, did I sound like a demented derelict. But I couldn’t/wouldn’t stop myself. It was runaway train time now – and I had to stay with the locomotive. So I shouted after him:
“That’s right, walk away from the truth. Go back to your grey little job in your grey little office and never know how good it feels to fuck up…”
A tap on the shoulder. I spun around. It was a cop. Big, beefy, schnauzer-faced, not looking amused.
“We’ve got a law around here about public intoxication – and you’re breaking it right now.”
“Is that a fact?”
“You wise-mouthing me?”
He took me by one arm.
“Put your hands behind your back, sir.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“I am very serious, sir. I’m placing you under arrest for public intoxication and abusive behavior, and…”
“Abusive behaviour? I was just having an exchange of views with…”
“Hands behind your back, sir.”
He was pulling at my arm, but I suddenly broke free and ran off, helter-skelter. Behind me the cop was shouting, telling me to halt, warning me I’m in breach of five different penal codes. But his words were a blur. The small logical side of my brain that was working wondered: might he try to impede my escape with the use of a firearm? But what cop would risk his job over gunning down a suit on a drunk-and-disorderly charge?
As I plunged down a back alley between two office buildings, I turned back once to see if he was in pursuit. He wasn’t – but I still kept up my canter, weaving my way down several backstreets until I hit a wide thoroughfare. I had been running for over five minutes. My clothes were now drenched in sweat. Ditto my hair. And my feet felt inflamed from an extended jog in black wingtip shoes. But at least there was no sign of the cop – though he might have called in backup, which meant there could be at least one cruiser prowling the streets, looking for a wreck in a pinstripe suit, holding a brown bagged bottle of whisky.
I glanced down at my left hand. Miraculously, the whisky had not been dropped during my flight from justice. It was, verily, still there. So verily there that I uncorked it and took a steadying swig – though it did little to slack my thirst.
Get off the street. I glanced around, looking for somewhere to take shelter; a temporary (and not very obvious) hideout. Across the road there was a Chinese laundry, a coffee shop, a Korean deli, a designer soap shop, a travel agency…
The travel agency was a small-time operation. A one-room office with one desk and assorted posters for quasi-exotic destinations— Club Class beds on high-end airlines. The woman behind the desk was late middle-aged, badly dressed, evidently overworked, but nonetheless friendly in a direct sort of a way.
“I’m glad I’m not having the day you’re having,” she said as I threw myself into the steel chair opposite her desk.
“That’s the first honest thing anyone’s said to me all day.”
“You don’t mind me saying so, sir, you look a little rough.”
“Guilty as charged.”
“You need anything? Water, aspirin…”
“I need a plane ticket to somewhere very far away from here.”
“What do you mean by ‘very far away from here’?”
“You’re the travel agent, you tell me.”
She glanced down at the paper bag in my hand, and I can see her think: the asshole’s been drinking.
“Well, sir, if I could have some hint of where you might like to go…”
“The ends of the earth,” I said, then added: “I know that sounds a little melodramatic, but…”
“Do you have a valid passport?”
“I do.” In fact, I put it in my suit pocket this morning before I left the house – not knowing at the time why I was pocketing it, but never underestimate the subconscious when it comes to leading you down curious paths.
“And when would you like to leave?”
“As soon as possible.”
She was typing something into her keyboard, but was simultaneously staring at me out of the corner of her eye, wondering why I looked like a wreck, whether I’m on the run from the law (well, sort of), and why I had to leave the country in such a flash. But I could tell that the businesswoman in her was thinking: his mess isn’t my business. Getting him on a plane is – and it could be a lucrative sale.
“Now when it comes to the ‘ends of the earth’, you have several options. There is, for example, South Africa…”
“Only if you get very unlucky.”
“I’ve been getting very unlucky recently.”
“How about Patagonia?”
“Isn’t it almost winter there?”
“All right, then: Australia. And yes, it’s winter there too. But the continent is massive – and if you go right to the top of it, you’ll find it still sub-tropical and hot.”
“Sold” I said. “When’s the next flight?”
She did some rapid tapping on her computer keyboard.
“There’s a flight tonight at 6.15. You’ll have an hour stop over in LA, then on to Sydney, then a change of aircraft for a direct flight to Darwin.”
Darwin. He knew a thing or two about the laws of the social jungle.
“I do have to warn you, sir, it is a thirty-four hour flight.”
“Then I’m going Business Class.”
“Do you have a return date?”
“That will also make the ticket rather more expensive.”
“And when you arrive in Darwin?”
“I’ll figure it out.”
Ten minutes later, I left the travel agent with a confirmed Business Class flight to Darwin that night. The price of the ticket had given my American Express card a coronary: six thousand three hundred and twenty. But my credit was good… for the moment anyway.
Back on the street, I scanned the thoroughfare for prowling cop cars. Nothing. The police had wisely decided that they had better things to do with their time. There was a cash machine nearby. I stood in front of it, and whipped out my wallet and the seven credit cards that were lodged within, thinking: I have more plastic here than in Michael Jackson’s face. Systematically I inserted each card into the machine and tapped in the Pin number (I knew them all by heart), and withdrew the maximum amount of cash permissible. The entire operation took only five minutes and I walked away with a wad of bank notes totaling five thousand.
What next, what next? I glanced at my watch. 9.55. She’ll call any minute from now, and I need to be somewhere quiet when she rings. Somewhere where I can deliver the spiel that had been forming in my head ever since I ran away from her last night.
I crossed the street. I turned left, then right – no sense of direction whatsoever, just forward movement, hoping I would end up somewhere like…
As I turned another corner, I saw a small park. Bingo. I headed in. I collapsed on to a bench. I took in a deep toxic lung-full of bad urban air. I thought: it will all be over in a few minutes now. I fished out a cigarette and lit it. I opened the bottle of whiskey. I took a swig. The phone rang. I checked the LCD screen. It was her. I took another swig. I answered the call.
“Hello” I said.
“Thank you for walking out on me last night.”
I immediately twigged the tone: controlled rage. And I knew that her intention here was to scare me.
“I don’t like sitting around, trying to talk to unreasonable people,” I said.
“Don’t you dare tell me I was unreasonable when…”
“Threatening me like that…”
“That wasn’t a threat. That was a wake-up call for you to accept responsibility…”
“If there is something to be responsible for. Did you go to the pharmacy at nine?”
“Yes, and I bought the test.”
“Did you take the test?”
“Of course I took the test. Just fifteen minutes ago.”
“And the result was…”
“I’m going to have a baby. Our baby.”
Pause. Then I said:
“I will need other independent corroboration before…”
“You are entitled to your opinion. As I said last night, if it turns out you are pregnant…”
“I am fucking pregnant…
“… and that I am the father…”
“You are the fucking…”
“… I will assume certain responsibilities for you and for the child. Financial responsibilities… but nothing more.”
Silence. I could hear her agitated breathing. I thought back to when this all started, a mere two months ago. How this very smart, very sexy, very available financial journalist came to interview me about a derivative fund I was running rather successfully. How I suggested a drink afterwards. How she flattered me in the bar and kept touching my hand and knocking back gin martinis and then suggested we take a taxi to her apartment. How, later that night, she hinted that a thing with a previous married guy had gone all wrong (“He thought I was a little too crazy about him”… why didn’t I twig that danger sign at the time?).
How I patiently explained that, though I liked a little extra-curricular adventure, I would never do anything to fracture my marriage. How she seemed fine about this. How, little by little, over the ensuing weeks, our Tuesday and Thursday trysts weren’t enough for her. How, just two weeks ago, she suddenly lashed out at me as we were undressing and called me a shit, a coward, a user. How she made an exit into the bathroom and slammed the door behind her, and emerged ten minutes later an oasis of contrite calm, and then proceeded to fuck my brains out. How, halfway during the act, I kept thinking that I wasn’t feeling the trampoline effect from her diaphragm. How the next time she called my office, I quietly told her that this little adventure had no future. How she raged at me and told me I wouldn’t be left off lightly. How the call came yesterday that she must see me, and when I tried to dodge it, she said: “If you don’t want me phoning your wife, you’d best show up…”
And when I walked into the bar and she told me she was certain she was pregnant, I knew then-and-there that I was finished, trapped, snookered. And now, here I was, listening to her agitated breathing while thinking: I set myself up, didn’t I? I avoided all the warning signs, all the little hints that she was a dangerous customer. I wanted this to happen… even though I didn’t want it to happen. But now that it’s happening…
“Financial responsibilities will not be enough,” she said, her voice quivering. “I want a life with you and our child.”
“That will not happen.”
“Then I am going to call your wife.”
“That is your prerogative. But know this: you telling her will change nothing.”
“We’ll see about that.”
And the line went dead.
My hand was shaking as I reached into my suit pocket for my cigarettes and lighter. I took another swig of the whiskey. I checked my watch. Just six hours before check-in at the airport. As soon as I calm down a bit, I’ll take a taxi to another corner of town, go to some big retail outlet that sells outdoor gear and buy myself a large backpack and all the clothes needed for a trip into the Outback. I’ll change into new clothes in one of their booths, and tell the clerk he can keep the suit (hey, it cost me a cool thousand), and call a taxi to the airport and then…
This was when the fear hit. This was when I found myself thinking: what happens then? Do I really flee everything? Kiss my wife and son goodbye forever? Maybe I’ve done that already… just like I’ve just upended my career. Funny, isn’t it, how you can ruin all that you have built up in such a few small moves.
But what’s even funnier is the realization: this is what you really wanted.
The phone started to ring. I glanced at the screen. My wife. A long swig of the whiskey. Then:
“A woman just called me” she said. Her voice was quivering. “A very angry woman.”
I said nothing.
“She told me she was having your child. Is this true?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“I don’t believe this…”
“It’s not what I wanted,” I said.
“But you still went ahead and fucked her.”
Again I said nothing. She started to talk again, her voice quiet, clenched.
“Just before your lover called, your secretary was on to me, wondering where you were. She sounded very upset and said that you had made insulting remarks about Mr DuPre to his assistant, that you assaulted a fellow executive in the elevator, and that someone from the office saw you fleeing the police on the street. Is this also true?”
“Yes. It is.”
“Would you mind explaining: why?”
“I don’t know. A bad day, I guess.”
Now she was angry.
“A bad day…”
“That was an attempt at humour”.
“You destroy everything in your life, and you think it’s a joke. Who are you? What was I married to for five years?”
And the line went dead.
“Would you mind explaining: why?”
I lied when I said: I don’t know. I knew all along what I was doing. I was acting out that strange unfulfilled dream all men have of breaking free; of tossing away all the responsibilities and careerist maneuvers they have accumulated, and telling people exactly what they think of them, and bitch-slapping the office asshole, and evading authority, and deciding to run away to the geographic end-of-the-line.
I’ve done all that now. And yes: the mechanism which triggered it all was the impending call. And yes: knowing that the call would upend one aspect of my life, I decided to …
Oh, come off it. You decided nothing. You just acted. For the first time in your life, you didn’t calculate, you didn’t scheme, you didn’t weigh the consequence of every action. You simply did.
And now that the ‘did’ is done…
Get off the bench. Get yourself into a cab. Go to the outdoor warehouse. Buy your gear, discard the suit, get another cab to the airport, start anew.
But I suddenly couldn’t get up. I was rooted to that bench. I wanted to leave, but my mind was racing, my stomach churning.
Damage limitation… damage limitation… call Mr DuPre… plead temporary insanity… tell him it was an out-of-body experience… mild anti-depressants mixed with booze… grovel… he’ll like that… and he does know you’re the biggest rainmaker in your division… grovel in front of Murphy as well… and get down on bent knees in front of your wife and beg her to…
Too late. Too late. The war is over – because you’ve flattened everything. There’s no way you can reconstruct anything. Accept the denouement. It’s what you’ve always wanted.
Yes, but now having gotten what I wanted…
Don’t tell me you’re suffering from the lifer syndrome?
A guy sentenced to life imprisonment dreams all the time of his freedom. Out of nowhere, there is a reversal in legal fortune, a re-trial, and he’s suddenly told: you can now walk out of jail. But he tells his captors: I can’t leave… because I’m scared of what’s out there.
Freedom is a terrifying idea.
You’ve got yours. Use it.
Do you know how many men dream of such a moment?
Dreaming is different from ‘doing.’
This is not the moment for regret.
Yes, it is.
Get in a cab. Now.
I threw back the remains of the Scotch. I stood up. My legs buckled, but I still forced myself to walk. I left the park. I stumbled into the street. I hailed a cab. It stopped. I climbed inside.
“Where you going?” the cabbie asked
“You know,” I said, “I’ve been wondering that my entire life.”
Just as I also wonder: is it always like this? Wanting what you don’t have. Having what you don’t want. Thinking there’s another life out there. Fearing losing the life that is here. Never really knowing what it is that you’re after.
“Did you hear me the first time?” the cabbie asked. “Where you going?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Do you have any ideas?”