Comfortably reclined on a well-worn, olive green sofa, Peter Healy eats take-out stir-fry while half-paying attention to a “60 Minutes” special on global warming. It’s Thursday night, and he’s going to fall asleep at a reasonable hour and then wake up early and spend the morning painting a craftsman cottage on the bay red and the afternoon painting a wealthy widow’s foyer yellow, and then he’ll take a quick jog along the beach at dusk, finishing at the tip of the island, and he’ll sit and watch the waves crashing on the jetty for a while and then go out drinking with friends until last call.
On Saturday he’ll have dinner at the crab shack with a plain, inoffensive-looking blond — the daughter of the wealthy widow — who will probably spend the night with him. After she leaves the following morning, Sunday, he’ll watch a baseball game — doesn’t matter who’s playing as long as the pitching is decent — on this same sofa. And as Peter lies there anticipating the weekend, there is absolutely nothing else on his mind — no plans or obligations or responsibilities — because he’s thirty-one years old and unmarried, handsome without prominent features, and self-employed in a simple profession at which he’s very skilled. The only form of unpleasantness occurs when he tries to spear a carrot with his chopstick and finds his left arm immobilized; he wills the bones and muscles and flesh to move, but they’re locked. This is highly alarming.
Then Peter Healy wakes up.
His mouth is so dry that swallowing is not a possibility, and the Miller Lite he drank last night to help him fall asleep is a standing pool in his stomach. He smells of fitful rest: pasty and damp and stale. He still can’t feel his left arm at all; he’s been sleeping on it, and the numbness is what woke him — otherwise he’d have opted for the dream, and sleep, to last awhile longer.
Instead he lies there, sensation coming back in pinpricks and burns while the morning light slanting through the window shade feels like a dense, solid mass: it pushes down on him, and he doesn’t see at first how he can move beneath it to rise.
An apprehensive glance at the clock informs him that the 7:27 train to Manhattan leaves in twenty-two minutes — he forgot to set the alarm, again — and the peril of lateness is what finally raises him from the mattress and drives him stumbling into the bathroom to begin his day: urinating, groaning and cracking his spine in multiple places, leaning over the sink to gulp water straight from the faucet, then splashing a handful over his face, farting, combing his hair without showering, dashing his armpits with two strokes of Speed Stick each — all the while angling his body in such a way as to avoid his reflection in the mirror.
When the reflection does inevitably draw his stare — this happens as he skims his face with an expensive electric razor that dispenses its own shaving cream from a tiny compartment in the handle — the man he’s looking at does not in any way resemble the man he inhabited in the dream; the man he’s looking at is a decade older, forty-one, with violet rings under his eyes, a slight paunch sandwiched by love-handles snugly perched on the elastic of his Fruit-of-the-Looms. This man has wrinkles radiating from his forehead, eyes, and mouth that all somehow appear craggier than they did at this same moment yesterday, jowls that hang lower, and stubble raining into the sink that seems somehow more speckled with grey. This man is getting divorced in twenty-four hours. This man has sold his house in the New Jersey suburbs. This man is being forced by his employer to leave the coutry tomorrow afternoon. This man has a son. This man wonders how he made the transition from fairly young to very old in the span of a few blurry years. This man is looking back at Peter Healy with the icy blue of someone who has achieved blindness by an act of will and means to keep it.
He thinks: Just make it through the day.
He thinks: Make it to tomorrow and this will all be over and something else will begin.
He squints in the mirror and sees the weary kind of expressionlessness that doesn’t want to be existing in this ninety-two-second-old day and thinks: You married the wrong person; this happened; deal with it; hate it; get over it; move on.
He looks down and thinks: At least you still get an erection every morning. At least you can depend on that, if nothing else.
Then he’s shoving himself into a grey Rothman’s single-breasted suit and he’s packing a handful of old gym clothes into his otherwise empty briefcase, and he’s walking around the hulking but ornate vanity that belongs to his wife, and he’s closing the door to the bedroom, creaking down the carpet-less hallway, rubbing his eyes so he doesn’t have to look into the deserted nursery he passes on the left. The scent of French Roast coffee brewing on the preset timer downstairs proves crucial in pulling him further into the day: down the narrow staircase, through the dining room where he bumps his hip against the $1,200 antique table from Prague and mutters the day’s first words: “Ow — dammit,” then pouring coffee, sharply squinting against the sun’s glare, clutching the lip of the sink with one hand while the other hurriedly brings the mug — a novelty gift from his wife reading: “Over the Hill” — to and from his lips and sucking short, shallow breaths between slurps. Every eight or nine seconds, he sighs.
Rob Healy feels something: it’s mushy and wet and reeking and all over his legs. The shades are drawn and his eyes are still closed, and he can’t consider opening them yet due to the probability — no, inevitability — of an immense headache once he does. Meanwhile his mouth is dry and burning like the earth on fire, and his chest his half-packed with ash from the thirty-plus cigarettes he smoked last night — smoking being the only element of last night that isn’t a fog — and it feels like he hasn’t brushed his teeth in forty-eight hours, and he can smell his own armpits, and the congealed wax in his hair is sticking to the pillow and his testicles ache and he’s famished and he had a dream last night that involved being lowered into the ground in a pink coffin that was too small for him and screaming to be let free and being heard by no one, or else ignored.
It’s the snoring he hears beside him — and doesn’t recognize — that ultimately brings his eyes to crack open, letting in a thin ribbon of light to rack his brain. The clock says either 1:16 or 7:16, but it’s block numbers and he can’t tell, and everything’s blurred as two more details become immediately clear: this isn’t his bed and this definitely isn’t his apartment — the walls and ceiling are pink, which must have informed his dream, with blue star shapes and a few ringed planets and a “Casablanca” poster. He revisits the stinging, wet sensation that first woke him and ponders the possibility he might have pissed the bed, leading him to cover his face and halfway sit and deal with the headache as it unloads its hurt upon him. The girl shifts and moans softly but keeps snoring, and the previous night of Rob Healy’s life begins coming together in dull-edged, not-quite-fitting shards:
Met Thebes and Charlie at 7B for beers around eight, went over the setlist for the show and had a Bloody Mary; Charlie uncharacteristically got the bill.
Went to CBGB’s and hung out while the shitty bands played, with maybe fifteen but probably more like ten people there watching a sandy-haired guy wail about his heartbreak while pointing at the stagelights as if they were stars.
Pounded a few beers in the back lounge to relax and then two whiskeys to sharpen up and then played a set, and even though most of the people had already left, the ones who stayed seemed to reach a consensus that Urban Sprawl rocked.
Put his guitar away and was going to haul ass and get to bed early for once, but Charlie convinced him to get one more drink because he wanted to talk about “something,” and he was acting pretty shady but, whatever, he was still buying.
Met this girl who was waiting for the next band — “old college roommate’s boyfriend’s band,” she said noncommittally — and ditched Charlie and took her across the street to Miriam’s before the next band’s set even started.
Talked mostly about bands and music — “The Strokes changed my life,” he remembers her saying, which was the moment he decided he wasn’t really into this girl — but he was still thinking she’s hot despite the thin band of flab between her belly button and crotch, and she was obviously into him.
They had a couple margaritas concocted with that too-sweet, electric green sour mix, which accounts for the headache, then had one last Vodka Red Bull since he read somewhere that Vitamin B-6 helps prevent hangovers — false, in this case. He doesn’t remember paying for drinks at Miriam’s but he must have at least offered.
Went back to her place which he has a feeling is pretty far east — maybe Avenue C, hopefully not D — and he learned that she works at the Independent Film Channel and he can’t remember if he pitched his screenplay idea about a young bohemian in New York City who plays guitar for a rock band and is trying to find himself.
It starts getting even hazier now in Rob’s mind, but he vaguely recalls them splitting a Corona Light from her fridge before he started working her panties off, and she was telling him how there was no way she’d sleep with him — “I’m not like that” — but he countered with “just for a little bit” and she giggled and a few minutes later was asking if he had a condom and then getting one from a twenty-pack on her beside table while assuring him that “I never do this,” and while she fiddled with the wrapper he had to play with himself to get semi-hard, and then she rode him awhile before he grasped the fact that there was no way he was going to shoot a load since he was drunk and sleepy and wearing a condom, so what was the point of coming here in the first place?
Tried to fake an orgasm, but by that point he was too exhausted to be convincing.
Her phone started ringing while he was unsuccessfully faking the orgasm — Rob thought: Shit, boyfriend – but she didn’t answer it and while he was jerking off in the bathroom to make the blue-balls go away, the door buzzer started ringing and didn’t stop: a prolonged, continuous screech inundating the universe.
Casually asked who it could be and she said “no one” followed by “maybe that guy in the band I was supposed to see” followed by “you probably shouldn’t go outside if he’s there.”
Gave up on masturbating since it was taking too long and he was getting freaked out; this explains why his balls are still killing him the next morning.
The buzzer finally stopped ringing, followed by an eerie quiet.
Scarfed a Jell-O Pudding from her fridge and fell asleep while she continued to peer ominously out the window, reminding him of a threat as he drifted into oblivion.
Rob is fairly certain that he has last night straight in his head when he discovers that he did, in fact, piss in her bed.
She’s snoring loudly. A brief panic grips him before he locates his guitar, a 1995 Abel Axle with scalloped frets and a Kahlor tremolo that he bought cheap and proudly rewired. It’s leaning against the foot of the bed, safely tucked in its sleeve, and he’s beyond relieved that he didn’t leave it at CBGB’s or Miriam’s or in the cab. Then he quietly rises, more careful not to shift the mattress and wake her than he’s ever been about anything in his life. He wipes the urine off him with the T-shirt she was wearing last night, then dresses fast and grabs his guitar and picks a few dollar bills off the floor that he’s not sure are his but assumes might be.
That he should not be waking up in this apartment with this girl — and especially not on the most important day of his thirty-year-old life — is a thought that occurs to him.
At the door, he checks: cellphone, wallet, keys, guitar.
Then he’s gone.
Tuesday, October 3rd, 2004.
The date strikes Peter Healy as significant when he thinks about it standing there in the kitchen, but it’s too early to recall why. He glances to the personalized calendar tacked beside the window. Beneath the image of a gray and black monstrosity of a Siamese — the calendar was a Christmas gift from his mother last year, with twelve photographs of the stray cats she’s taken in and made obese with table scraps — his mother’s looping scrawl has filled the October 3rd box. He reads: DAD’S BIRTHDAY.
Since he’s in a rush, and he’s already sweating through his suit and the influx of caffeine is making his hand quiver, all he can do for now is make a quick mental note to call his mother later — a mental note he quickly forgets as he downs the dregs of his coffee and his eyes fall upon his son.
Oliver, named after his maternal grandfather despite Peter’s mighty protestations, is nestled beside the sandbox in the yard of the neighboring ranch-style home, wearing a baggy Osh-Kosh jumper while running a truck through the weeds. His arm jerks forward, backward, forward, backward in an endlessly repeating cycle that Peter has come to know by its medical term, “perseverative movement.” He watches this from forty feet away behind a window pane, overcome by a particular kind of grief regarding life-defining events beyond one’s capacity to control.
The grief, disabling as it may be, proves short-lived; it is vaporized the instant his wife walks out the side door of the house next door, past the sandbox and their son, through the short hedge separating her yard from his, and along the beige quartz stepping-stones leading into Peter’s garage.
The coffee mug drops from Peter’s hand into the sink with an abrasive clatter.
This occurs because, though most people — probably ninety-nine-point-eight percent of the world’s population, give or take — make Peter Healy nervous, his wife petrifies him, and never more so than when her feet pound the stones the way they do right now, ball of foot and heel of foot simultaneously with no natural rolling effect. Her eyes scan the windows with singular intent.
Fear escalates quickly into panic as she vanishes into his garage. He instinctively presses his body against the refrigerator. The shaving gel residue on his cheek sticks to a fingerpainting of Oliver’s, mindless smears of yellow, blue, and a sickly brown color, with the preschool teacher’s neat cloud-like letters reading “HAPPY FATHER’S DAY DADDY” across the top and “LOVE OLLIE” across the bottom. A rake falls over in the garage, taking a box of extension cords and a bundle of chicken wire down with it, which is followed by a knock on the door, and then, almost instantaneously, the not-gentle rattling of the hinges. “Peter? Peter open the door — I need to talk to you.”
He doesn’t move.
“I saw you in the window, Peter. Can you please open the door?”
More knocking and rattling. A plan — or the mangled semblance of one — materializes in his mind, and he peels the fingerpainting off his face and pads across the kitchen, back through the dining room, where he takes his keys from the side table with the minimum of audibility. Then he mutters his second word of the day — “Shitfuck!” – because he’s left his briefcase in the kitchen and has to rush back for it. The sound of her hand digging in the toolbox for the spare keys sets off all sorts of alarm bells in his brain and reprimands him for not finding a new hiding spot for them; he’s thought about it several times but never been motivated enough to get it done.
Briefcase in hand, he scampers back to the front door, eases it open then closed again. Hunched like a cat burglar, he skirts past the orange and blue “For Sale” sign with the smaller placard perched atop it reading “In Escrow” in bold red, and he moves along the hibiscus hedge to the garage door, where he holds his breath to peer inside just as Shannon locates the ring of keys and begins sorting through them. “Jesus Christ, Peter,” she growls to herself, then calls louder, with convincingly forged gentility, “I have to talk to you about tomorrow morning!” He readies the car key between his thumb and index finger and charts his path to the car. She charges inside the house. “Peter? Are you upstairs? Jesus, what are you, hiding from me?”
As soon as the door slaps shut, he moves.
What he visualizes: with meticulous footsteps, Peter Healy stealthily navigates the mess she’s made in the garage and slips the key into the car door, ignites the gentle purr of the car engine (in his mind the getaway vehicle is a Jag) and roars away from his house and soon-to-be ex-wife, heading toward a deep red sunset filled with promise.
What actually happens: nervous and jittery, Peter Healy’s second step catches a loop of garden hose, and he stumbles forward against the side of the car with a thud and a grunt. Then, attuned to her roving footsteps in the dining room, he fumbles his way inside the car (in reality, it’s a Volvo station wagon) and tries to close the door, but it catches on the seat belt, costing him a precious four seconds. Then he allows himself to breath, but stops breathing when the engine turns and doesn’t catch. What at first seems like only a minor delay quickly soars into a full-fledged emergency as the engine keeps turning and threatens to flood. He pushes his entire weight into the gas pedal, believing that sheer force of desperation will start the vehicle. The kitchen door opens again. The fury with which Shannon stands there glaring at him, hand on hips, takes five to seven years off his life. Then the engine catches and roars.
“Peter!” She steps down and slaps a palm against the hood of the car. He half-waves, pointing a finger at his watch and trying to look distressed (which he is) and a little clueless (which he also is, though not to the same extent that he’s distressed). She motions him to roll down the window, but he’s already backing out of the garage. This is when she bolts upright, as if struck by an uppercut, and tumbles against the door in a theatrical display of flailing before she lands sprawled on the wooden steps, legs open.
He stops the car and blinks at her a few times. When he laughs, it’s a knee-jerk response that cuts off abruptly as her face turns red and those fiery eyes locate him through the windshield. He shifts out of reverse. The engine stalls — what he deems a too-cruel punishment for the misdemeanor of amusement — and so he’s left to sit helplessly as his wife stands up, brushes herself off methodically, approaches the car, and taps on the window. “Knock, knock, Peter.”
He rolls down the window as if nothing unordinary has transpired. “What’s up?”
She mock-scratches her head. “Let’s see, um, you just tried to run me over?”
“What? No I didn’t.” He’s stuttering. “Sorry, I didn’t see you there.”
“What if Ollie had wandered into your driveway, eh? You would have run him over, too!”
“I didn’t run you over! You flopped like a pro soccer player!” His mind gropes for an evasion tactic, and finds one: “Anyway, shouldn’t someone be watching him?”
“Barry’s watching him.”
“I was just looking in the yard and it kind of seemed like he was by himself.” Shannon smirks and gestures to the lawn where Barry Waxman — in his uniform of coffee-stained wife-beater, baggy Portland University sweatpants with rips over each knee, long ’70s-style hair, and Shannon’s sky-blue slippers — is now dangling an oblivious Oliver over his head while idly watching the scene by the car. He waves politely.
Peter grips the steering wheel with both hands, white-knuckled. “He wasn’t there a second ago.”
“You’re so defensive.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Saying you’re not defensive is defensive. Shouldn’t you know that, Peter? Being a lawyer and all?”
He grinds his teeth and looks away. “I have to go now, being late and all.”
“First, I need to talk to you about tomorrow.”
He turns the key. The engine roars again as if making fun of him. “Can you call me at the office in an hour or so?”
“Peter. It’s important. It’s about tomorrow.”
“I need to get today straight before I can even think about tomorrow.”
And then he pulls out of the driveway, glancing into the rearview mirror at the neatly framed image of Barry Waxman approaching Peter Healy’s wife with Peter Healy’s son perched on his shoulders as Shannon gesticulates lividly toward the receding car, and Barry places a hand on her back to console her. The car turns, and the image slips out of frame, and Peter follows the winding, maple-lined road through bland suburban tracts for a little over a mile until he nudges into the nine-deep line of cars at the traffic light at the edge of town-center. A DJ on 97.4 phone taps a conversation in which a wife, conspiring with the DJ on the joke in order to win a pair of U2 tickets, tells her husband that she spent $3,900 on Jimmy Choos, and then the husband, enraged beyond all rational comprehension, tells her he’s going to cut her heart out with the four-inch paring knife they were given off their wedding registry — his degree of fury flabbergasting everyone involved, especially the wife — which is when the DJ pipes in: “Hey dude, it was only a joke.”
He’s so immersed in trying not to let the broadcast take on greater meaning that he almost misses the Mercedes pulling out of a street parking space in front of Baskin Robbins, miraculously offering a spot forty feet from the train station. He parallels fast and crooked, desperate enough to eat the $115 ticket, plus the probable tow fee.
He summons his new mantra: that’ll be $115 Shannon won’t ever get.
There’s a squished cockroach on the bottom stair of the girl’s building and an eviction notice taped to the front door, but Rob Healy glides outside where it’s a clear, temperate day, and for him — though hungover and malodorous and crippled by the headache and hoping that he didn’t come out of last night with crabs or something worse from which latex can’t protect you, not to mention anxious about the next eighteen hours — it’s still rejuvenating, on a basic level, to appreciate a day as fine as this one, the way it’s wide-open ahead of him and filled with possibility.
A pleasant realization: he’s on 2nd Street between C and D, which is only about eight blocks from his apartment.
His only silent complaint — he needs sunglasses — resolves itself when, walking briskly through Tompkins Square Park, he circles around a homeless guy passed out against a rail with flea-market-chic shades on the ground in front of his face. Rob takes them, wipes them on his jeans, and puts them on.
He stops for a bagel, which he pays for with one of the dollar bills that by now he’s fairly certain he unintentionally stole from last night’s mistake conquest.
He remembers her name — Jessica, possibly Jennifer — and almost turns around to slip a flyer for his concert tonight under her door when it reoccurs that he did pee on her bed and on her and then flee the scene, and he probably shouldn’t risk waking her up since she might not be thrilled about any of those things. A few minutes later he’s turning onto his block, where the familiarity of every crack in the sidewalk substantiates his sovereignty here, and the dingy facades of the red brick walk-ups affirm that he never relinquished his creative ambitions, even in poverty, and the fact that, through the father of a friend of a friend of an ex-boyfriend of a girl he slept with three times, he managed to find and obtain a rent-controlled apartment in a neighborhood he loves in Manhattan (that he can’t quite afford, but still) reminds him that he knows how to navigate a city that frightens most people, and the way he fingers the right key off his chain of eleven — rehearsal spaces, his ex-girlfriend’s apartment, his mother’s house in Allentown — without having to look, and the click the key makes as it slips into the lock soothes him with the fact that he’s made it home alive, even if he has to stop on the second floor and again on the fifth thinking he might vomit over the railing, managing to hold it down through great triumph of willpower over bodily function. Then he’s in his bathroom drinking a glass of slightly discolored tapwater while admiring himself in the mirror: exhausted and hungover as he is, no real damage was done that some rest won’t fix.
There’s Advil in the medicine cabinet — a product of his Mom’s pharmaceutically-geared stocking stuffers every year — and he washes three down with an open can of skunked Bud Light on the soap platform above the sink, then steps out of his clothes on the way to the bed, embracing exhaustion, stopping to put Interpol’s “Turn on Your Bright Lights” into his disc changer and thinking in a surprisingly lucid manner of what he has to do today once he wakes up:
1. Call up everyone of importance who has been invited to the Slipper Room show. If they’re not planning on coming, charm them. If they refuse to be charmed, beg. Confirm guest list at least one hour before show.
2. Teach 12:00 p.m. spin class at New York Sports Club on Seventh Avenue.
3. Meet up with Thebes and Charlie about the show tonight — set list, last-minute promotion, how to make sure Brendan doesn’t get too stoned to operate drumset.
4. Hair appointment at Salon7 to ensure a professional level of disheveledness.
5. Call Julian Casablancas and get him to the show, for media attention and a spot on PageSix and general coolness factor.
6. Don’t drink too much.
7. Focus. Eliminate distractions.
After sorting through the list twice, something else still nags. There’s an absence somewhere in the list: a promise he made that somehow involved October 3rd. He suspects the promise has something to do with his mother, since she’s the only person to whom, per a very strict policy, he ever promises anything (though, also per policy, he only fulfills those promises about half the time). And he easily relieves himself of the responsibility of having to remember, because whatever it is cannot be important enough to distract him from tonight; it cannot possibly outweigh the magnitude of the past seven years spent sending out mass emails to fill up concerts in shitty venues on the Lower East Side, posting flyers on telephone poles and thrift store windows, getting too high or wasted to remember the guitarlines, going home with three, four, five, six different girls in the span of a week, living on bagels and hamburgers and mozzarella sticks, waitering when he could to pay rent, praying he wouldn’t get an STD, praying some rare record executive possessing a modicum of intelligence would see the heart and soul, not to mention the mass appeal, of Urban Sprawl’s music, fueling each day with a dream of something greater — something that changes people — and if that dream happens, then he and Thebes and Charlie and Brendan will be heading cross-country on tour, and on the road between towns he’ll be able to sleep off all the booze by marveling at the distance between this life and the one he once had, the one in which he was a twenty-two-year-old paralegal at his brother’s patent law firm who used to weep in the bathroom stalls some afternoons simply at the thought of spending one more day — one more hour — in that office, complete with wall sconces and creepy portraits of the firm’s decrepit founding partners in the hallway, and he missed the reckless collision of college football games and meanwhile two out of every three dates seemed to be standing him up and the one who didn’t would never have sex with him.
And besides, there’s nothing he would say to his mother right now that can’t wait until tomorrow — or maybe the day after if the show goes well and he spends tomorrow fielding record offers from some of the major indie labels — even a small one would be fine as long as it included tour support, since money only ranks third on his list of important things to achieve, after “Win a Grammy” and “Thrill people.” She’ll still be sitting at her windowsill, crocheting and surrounding by cats, whenever he gets around to calling, and he’ll report the news to her, and she might even be proud of him.
Unburdened of guilt, Rob Healy picks up the book lying beside his bed, creased from use, and he decides: I have no choice but to make this a great day, an earth-shaking day. He sprawls out on his bed and flips to one of the dog-eared pages and, knowing he’ll be asleep in twenty seconds or less, sets the tone for October 3rd by picking up “Tommyland” and scanning his favorite passage ever written, his lips forming the words but not speaking them:
You realize that you have the power to move the entire audience with every beat you play. It’s scary and amazing at the same time. You are dictating the cadence, sending out the energy to the fans. It isn’t a one-way street — that electricity goes through them and comes right back at you, amplified. It’s the World Series and the Superbowl taking place on New Year’s Eve and that night, you’re fucking your favorite porn star. Still… that’s not even close.
The book closes and falls gently down onto his chest, and Rob Healy sleeps, and he resets.
Running across the street, Peter scatters pigeons around the quaint fountain, bolts through the thick glass doors and down the concrete steps as the bell of the 7:27 dings twice, and he side-steps into the train as the sliding doors close, pinching the hand that still bears a platinum silver wedding band. Still, since he won’t be late, he dares to hope that maybe today won’t be such a grueling disaster after all; maybe he can coast through it and do what needs to get done and go back to sleep on the early side. The clean open Times waiting for him on a vacant seat reinforces this possibility of the day to come, agreeable if not wholly enviable, and he permits himself to feel like the hero of some TV prison break drama, wrongfully convicted, who escapes through phenomenal cleverness and lives out the rest of his life in some small, nameless town with a beautiful red-haired woman who is uncomplicated and loyal, free as long as he left no careless traces behind. He leans back and for thirty-eight minutes scans the headlines without really reading the articles — assassination attempts on Third World leaders and surging unemployment and military death tolls and obituaries of great men and other topics informing them that no matter how he feels today, he doesn’t know what true suffering is — and then he’s staring out the window in the tunnels near Penn Station, the steady bounce of the train a vibration instead of a progress, such that it is the rats and graffiti and hunks of scrap metal that seem to move, and not the train, or him. Then he’s scuffing across the cement platform, joining the amorphous clump of commuters funneling onto the escalator, drifting along the tiled main hallway. He waits in line at a Sbarro for coffee and a stale bagel, so hungry that he’s suddenly dizzy. When the skinny woman in a black pantsuit suit ahead of him sends her first bagel back because it “looks gummy,” he visualizes striking her, wondering where this violence is coming from before attributing it all, naturally, to his wife.
On the 9 train downtown, he finds himself squeezed between a man in an orange vest whose skin is webbed with rivulets of sweat, an obese woman with a sleeveless T-shirt and a bare midriff reading a Terry McMillan novel, and a group of pre-teen kids on their way to school who are all using the words “fuck” and “cunt” with the frequency of conjunctions while they take turns gut-punching each other. Passing Christopher Street station, one of the children, a girl taller than any of the boys, pushes another, who in turn falls against a man in the vest, and he falls forward into the obese woman, and she drops her book at Peter’s feet. Sliding his hand down the filthy pole, he squats to pick it up for her, and he feels a twang in his back. If she says thank you, he doesn’t hear it — possibly because she’s so flustered about losing her page and he’s preoccupied with standing back up very carefully, keeping his back perfectly rigid. She glares at the oblivious children and mutters, “The future of our great nation,” and a few people chuckle. Peter closes his eyes and wipes his perspiring face.”
And this — this – is the moment during the morning of October 3rd, at 8:25 a.m., corralled in the subway between people who bewilder him, when Peter’s memories finally rise up to claim him completely, confusing time with its mathematical progression, as the distraught do, such that all his past is not a diminishing road but instead a sprawling, bouldered meadow from which the scrape of winter never recedes, divided from him now by the narrow bottleneck of this most recent morning: his chest tightens; air becomes a scarce and viscous commodity; he remembers the summer painting houses in Charleston between college and law school and the simplicity there, and he remembers law school and the briefcase his father gave him on graduation day and his first paycheck as a patent attorney for Covington & Associates, LLC; his vision becomes narrow and blurry, the people around him are earth-toned splotches; he remembers the nights spent drinking imported tap beer at Odeon with backslapping, cock-talking friends, and falling in love with Anna Liu; he remembers trips home to Allentown for Christmas and Thanksgiving and his parents being proud of his successes and understanding of his failures; he remembers Shannon and their wedding and living in Singapore for his job and weekend trips via plane and bus to Buddhist temples and Angkor Wat and the blueness of the Indian Ocean, and he remembers how gorgeous she used to be; he struggles to breathe and to see and he flashes on the Spearmint Rhino stripper with the wart-off Band-Aid on her lower back giving him a lapdance at his bachelor party in Las Vegas eleven years ago, and he remembers little league baseball and how he would swing as hard as he could but invariably miss and his father’s encouragement grew weaker and weaker until he stopped playing entirely, and he remembers growing up in the weedy, aimless rural trading post known as Allentown, Pennsylvania, escaping said rural trading post for college and law school and being deposited from the cinderblock security of his dorm room into that yeasty ferment his father liked to call “the real world,” and he panics and shudders and sweats and he relives his father’s stroke; people stare and shift away from him in the traincar and he places a hand over his heart as if he’s able to control its raging pulse, and he remembers how Shannon nicknamed him “The Gas Guy” because he filled her up like no one else ever had, and how her pregnant stomach rose and fell while she slept on her back, her hands resting on its peak, and he remembers her post-partem depression and his son’s diagnosis with autism and the anger and the blame and returning from Singapore to their colonial house in Chatham to heal their wounds and then buying the ranch-style house next door so that they’d have more space in which to store the wounds that were never going to heal, and the separation “conversation” a week after he turned forty, and Shannon moving into the new house with Oliver and three-quarters of the furniture but without Peter or her vanity because she couldn’t figure out where the thing fit, and the sudden materialization of Barry Waxman in that house, and her reply when he asked in passing who this guy was: “my high school sweetheart,” and the nights spent alone peering out the window at the house next door, the solitary beers to fall asleep and no willpower to exercise or work hard or love anyone, the chilly sensation of waking up each morning to the same somnolent face in the bathroom mirror that holds inside it the same vast quantity of how’s and why’s that have landed him here, now, in a screeching subway car rocketing down a subterranean tunnel, clutching the pole in the middle of this throng of people at 8:26 a.m.
He finally gathers himself enough to move, knifing through the crowd and ignoring the “watch it”s and the “most people say excuse me”s until he’s pressed against the glass window. This is where he can start breathing again, barely.
Because what else can Peter Healy do except breathe and try to ignore forty-one years of memories and the memories’ debris — especially since he knows that, before the day is over, he’ll have no choice but to relive them all.