I. Manhattan in Winter
“What follows is probably bullshit,” she scoffed as she stamped her smoke out on Sixth Avenue in the sarcophagus of winter’s grip.
She paused. She held her breath. She always does before she settles into something of note.
“But I’ve got a theory. We could leave this place. You and I. Find a loft in some trendy neighborhood. Start fresh. Build bridges to replace the ones we’ve burned. But what will that do? Create more bridges likely reduced to smolder at some inexact future date. The point is: You spend your whole life building up a personal ecosystem only watch it wither, and when you can’t bare to watch anymore, you hole yourself up somewhere distant so you won’t be tempted to look back. Rebirths are hokey. They’re fallacy. There’s no such thing. Even the greatest cities — New York, Paris, Tokyo — are built upon the remains of the past.”
She lights another Parliament and huddles close.
“What you’re asking for, here, is you’re clinging to the idea that by hitting reset you’re somehow undoing what’s been done. But you’re not, man. You. Me. We hit reset but it doesn’t make the computer brand new again. It doesn’t even delete anything. Even if you format a hard drive, if your forensic mind is well trained — and it will be because you’re peering into your own self — you’ll be able to piece the data back together. And everything that’s been done before, said before, felt before, it will all return. And the distance you put between yourself and your past won’t mean shit. You’ll just keep tinkering, man. And you’ll think ‘Where did it go wrong? I can’t remember now.’ That’s what you get for running. Yeah, I could follow you, too, but I’d just be an anchor.”
She runs low on steam now. Gracefully settling into a monochromatic groove against the crackle-and-fuzz of the frosty moonlight.
“By running away, by starting fresh, you’re only encouraging more introspection. Don’t give me bullshit about clearing your head. You don’t get that from some fresh perspective. You don’t get that from distance, or eras passing, or even self-affirmation. You clear your head by doing shit, man. By waking up in the morning and just pressing ‘go’ instead of ‘reset.’ You build. You create. You design. These buildings around us, these old, Gothic pillars of human strength meant to build a basement for God to come and hang out once in a while, they weren’t built perfectly. Somewhere, somebody forgot a fucking nail. Somebody never checked their level. Shit, man, it was the ’20s. They were eyeballing most of this shit. Point is, they didn’t stop. They just kept building. And look.”
She leans against the brick facade and gently knocked the cold stone with her free hand.
She positively glowed in smug satisfaction at sounding truly, imperviously correct.
“Now, you can go wherever the hell you want. Do as you please. But don’t ask me to come with you on some adventure, man. By the time it’s over and you’ve returned from sailing around your brain in whatever voyage of self-discovery you claim to so desperately crave, the x-axis of time will still sprawl ever-rightward, and your place in this world will be somewhere totally different, and it won’t matter if we’re standing right here in front of this very same patio having this same conversation in these same clothes.”
This time, she casually tossed the blackened filter deep into ether.
“You can’t outdo yourself if you’re constantly trying to undo yourself. Now, stop being an asshole and let’s draw up a warm Remy Martin like we usually do when it’s too cold for you to come up with anything useful in that lost, scrambled head of yours.”
I touched the brick of the old, grey building one more time on my way in, the way Notre Dame players smack “Play like a champion today” sign pregame. It was cold. But it felt real. Still there.
II. New Orleans in Spring
“I am so over meth,” she exclaimed, without a hint of irony.
Her teeth, occasionally radiant but mostly dulled and frayed from years of foreign deposits inhaled, shone semi-bright in the glimmer of the two-p.m. sun. It was brisk, but not chilly. She was warm, but still cruel.
Neither of us had a desk to report to that day, so we were free to meander and dip in-and-out of epiphany as we saw fit during working hours. She draped herself in a grey cardigan with cigarette burn-marks tied haphazardly around her neck.
“How could someone work so hard to accomplish so little?” When she posited this, I was unsure if she was asking it rhetorically of herself, or sincerely to me. That I had to bother to think probably tells you enough about both of our prospects.
Her contract work was steady, but hardly sufficient. She was one of those girls who drew calligraphy in chalk on supermarket displays — “A price-artist,” she proudly boasted, to anyone who cared, and there weren’t many — “Bananas, $0.49/lb.” was some of her finest work. It paid alright, but the gig ran weird hours and often involved her coming home covered in musky chalk-dust and causing her precocious toddler to fend off sneezing fits for 45 minutes or so.
I often asked her what the next logical step was from such a unique position. I asked again this afternoon: “I don’t know,” she said between sips of dark roast Cafe du Monde. “I suppose open up a graphic design agency for interior commercial displays, but, like, that’d require start-up capital and industry contacts and I’m fucking lucky if I can pop enough Adderall to make it to the studio without forgetting why I went there in the first place.”
“Well,” — and I didn’t mean to force the issue or put a blunt edge to such a soft skin, but — “don’t you think if you sat down for a few hours in between jobs, you’d be able to develop a course of action? You know, complete the DADA?”
DADA was an acronym from one of those overly-powerful self-help conferences the two of us earned free tickets to after graduating the program together. You know, the kind where some charismatic Ivy League-graduate from Old Money caustically preaches on stage and looks like the spawn of an NFL Coach and the Cheerleading Captain.
Anyway, DADA stands for:
Dream, Analyze, Decide, Act.
It’s stupid. So much code. As if you can distill life’s essence into something so cute and cuddly as to sap the complexity right out of directing the human vessel through a stormy sea of incomprehensibility. I’m not even quite sure why I brought the damn DADA out of the dusty bin of recycled cliche. Perhaps as a half-joke, since full-on earnestness is tough to achieve when you’re only half-invested in someone else’s well-being.
“I suppose I could,” she replied. “But, between feeding Alicia and my illness, I can’t even begin to keep up much less think about how I’ll get ahead.”
“Remember what we talked about in Baton Rouge?” I implored her.
– “The night we …”
“Yeah, that night. We talked about how many hours a day we’re given. A finite quantity, but the same vast expanse of seconds as Nelson Mandela and Kurt Cobain and LeBron James. We can become the masters of our destinies if we simply become the masters of our days. At least … I think that’s what we said.” I briefly perked up, only to be blown back into a slouch by a stinging gust of wind.
Sometimes I feel like a blind man pulling a paraplegic across a river. Getting clean wasn’t difficult. It never is. Cessation of a bad habit is as easy as surviving the first 21 days. If you’ve ever held a day job long enough to understand, then you know how quickly three weeks of doing the same thing over and over passes once you look back and wonder, “The Fuck am I Doing Here?” It’s a reverse-engineered DADA which fittingly resembles a Darkest Timeline of Omission. (That’s a phrase for a progressively deteriorating condition forged not through actively poor DADA management, but through a lack of implementation altogether. It vaguely sounds like a third-rate Gothic Metal Cover Band.)
That’s the rub on getting clean — and why so many fail, not just in staying clean (and sometimes not even staying clean) but at progressing beyond a grey, idle homeostasis.
It’s well known in English that the opposite of Destruction is Construction, but the program, the DADA, and all the self-help books, seminars and quick-fixes fail to connect the distance between the two. Too many of us are told, “Stop Destroying Yourself.” Or “Build A Better Life.” But not, “How to Go From Destroying Yourself To Building A Better Life.” That involves a reallocation of time, capital and energy. Of “Inputs.” It means “Being The Masters of Our Days.”
“Yeah, but,” she said, trembling a bit yet gathering steam as she fumbled through her imperfect thesaurus, “I know I’m supposed to eat good foods and exercise and think avoid “triggers.” But, like, I feel like I’ve only been trained to be a very healthy, very clean agoraphobic. And I don’t see how I’m to derive any meaning or pleasure from any of that! Do you? Shit, you spend 22 hours a day either sleeping, sitting or watching cooking shows. You know what’s better than watching cooking shows? ACTUALLY COOKING. But I feel like nobody gives us the tools — nobody inspires us — to succeed in the kitchen.” She clearly derailed into metaphor halfway through finishing her thought, there’s no way she would’ve been clever enough to do that on purpose.
“Outputs,” I said. “Input management. What do we do? We have 24 hours. We have our health. We have all the money we have right now.” I sighed. “What do we do with it?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “But I am so over Meth.”
Sometimes it’s hard to believe it. Just because you’re finished with something doesn’t mean you’re over it. Sometimes it just means you’re avoiding it.
“I know you are,” I said, and I stared out into the bright, blue yonder through dark Oakley knock-offs. “Come on, it’s a beautiful day. We should go to the park.”
“And do what? We’re already outside, here, on this sidewalk. How can we make our lives better there in ways we can’t do right here?” She sounded defeated, dejected and discerning.
“I don’t know,” and I sighed. “A change of scenery might inspire us to think of something grand. We only have the rest of the day and light’s growing dim.”
I knew in my heart she was right. She was right the whole time. We graduate from the program. We learn how to “manage” time. We learn “healthy” habits. But nobody ever tells us what to do. Nobody ever does. And so we do nothing, because everything else seems too daunting, too out-of-reach, too foreign.
But at least she’s so over meth. So that’s something else we’re not doing. Which I guess is better than doing something bad, even though doing nothing is still technically bad for you.
We climbed in my car and headed toward the park, hoping to find meaning in the trees, the greens and blues cascading together to swirl into a magical earth-toned canvas piece where we are just accent hues on a vast landscape.
But we really just wanted to enjoy a couple of hours, before we try again in vain to be masters of our days tomorrow and forever and ever, till death render us moot.
III. Phoenix in July
The first thing you feel is the scald.
Before the automatic doors part, it barrels into the airport and clocks you in the kisser.
“Phoenix in July,” I sigh. “An infinite sprawling meth lab. The Fin de siècle of American anti-intellectual exceptionalism. A slight-of-hand orchestrated by the real estate industry’s inside joke division, cackling at the stupidity of a middle-class who paid ballooning prices to live so far from fresh water or shade.”
You can’t wrap your neurons around the omnipotence of the sun, which is why you must close your eyes, feel your skin moisten, crack and bristle at the awesome power of UV-drenched Vitamin D, and ask yourself if you like your sunstroke medium rare.
I duck into an onyx towncar, and let the elastic recoil of my lungs soak up the crisp climate control. The seat smells of Orange-Glo and incense. I glance to my left, and she’s waiting for me, in a razor-thin white cocktail dress so short it could pass as a hand towel, with black around the thighs.
She wears aviator sunglasses, her shoulder-length wheatfield hair twirled between her second and third fingers. Her name might be Katie. She looks like a Katie.
“Hi, I’m Katie,” she speaks. She rattles her head, slowly eases her sunglasses off the bridge of her nose, and licks her lips like LL Cool J after a powdered donut bender. “It’s hot, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” and my eyes lock with hers briefly, and I get a cool, refreshing splash of ocean water that tingles down the back of my neck. “I never get used to it.”
I’m upsettingly transfixed upon her face. It’s youthful, but cracked from an unspecified titration of sun and cigarettes. It’s smiling, but restless and concealing a desert melancholia you don’t ordinarily find outside a Queens of the Stone Age B-Side. She strikes me as complex. She probably is.
If God were to destroy Phoenix in the book of revelation, he’d probably whisk a poisonous wind into the home of every debutante and socialite in Scottsdale first, and that poisonous wind would carry with it a surround-soundtrack of Diplo and Skrillex. And He’d probably ease Katie into permasomnolence, too, and do it before she could finish her metamorphasis into the world’s pre-eminent sugar-coated dragon … which she’s most certainly more than halfway to becoming now. I’d heard about her from our CFO, who used to take routine sojourns out here to the desert where they’d alternate between sweaty tantric sadomasochism and developing a Fiscal Year Marketing Plan, for four days, mind you, on the company dime, and that sonuvabitch wouldn’t stop whispering about her moans and whimpers for weeks at a time … and a month later I’d catch wind of a fancy new title adorning her e-mail signature, and the fellas in the office got a rise out of it.
She brushes my three-buttoned blazer as we pull away from the terminal and asks, “Would you like some coke?” I tell her I quit years ago. She follows a single chuckle with a soft-T sound. “Yeah,” she says, bemused, as she winks and sniffles. “Me too.”
“So, I’ve been made aware that you’re a man who knows how to handle pressure. This Emerson Account,” she starts in. “Is everything on the up-and-up?”
“Of course,” I said. I pull out my Samsung Galaxy and show her some bullshit technicolor graphs I concocted that look like American Apparel shit all over a Quarterly Earnings Report. “You see this pie that looks like Pac-Man slurping Spaghetti?”
She inched closer to me, and the incense smell grew stronger, more floral, with subtle strawberry notes. “Yes.”
“That’s the percentage of our funds that closed above their 36-month high.”
“Wouldn’t you use a bar graph or a scatter plot to illustrate that?”
“It doesn’t look as impressive.”
“Graphs aren’t really built to ‘impress.’”
“I believe that’s all they were meant to do, unless they were meant to cause panic.” I gain steam. The car becomes increasingly warm. “You wouldn’t take the time to visually represent a set of data if you weren’t trying to solicit an emotional reaction. Otherwise, I’d just show you some numbers and tell you to tie off with me if you had questions.”
“What if all I want to see are numbers?”
“Then I would’ve just emailed you.”
“So you came here to impress me.”
“In a way,” I said, and I turned my phone off. “You’re what, 26? 27?”
“I’m 34,” she offered a half-hearted grin. “And it’s not polite to ask a woman her age straight away.”
“You’re a Vice President of International Marketing already. What’d you make … 150K last year after taxes?”
“220K. Before. I haven’t looked at a paycheck since I was an Intern at Excelsior Capital.”
“You see, I’m a little younger, and I’ve had the same job since I signed on here — merely a shadowy figure in Financial Operations. A nebulous unspecified V-Level blip who looks at crooked numbers all day and decides whether to buy, sell or hold our current array of properties.” I slow down. “The difference between you and I? I’m really fucking good at what I do. You’re really fucking good at getting promoted.”
“Well, I’m here to promote you.”
She smiles, but doesn’t have the slightest look of shock in her body. She expects good luck and good grace after every meal. She pisses rainbow sherbet. “To what?”
“To retirement.” I said. And then I took a deep breath, making sure to sound methodical without sucking the energy out the trunk of the car. “We’re dissolving our assets. I have determined we cannot continue to make any more money and so I want to pay you to leave since we will no longer have a company to run anymore since there won’t be a company. The good news, is, you’re free. The better news is, here’s $800,000. Severance. And a thank you for your hard work and strong moral compass. The best news is, here’s a killer letter of recommendation, in case for some reason you ever need to work again. Which you probably won’t.”
“But … but … I love this job.”
“I know you do. I know. Let’s grab a dinner and some wine over at Rustica and we can work out the particulars of your new career path. Sign some NDAs and EDCs and the like. Do you like Italian?”
“Yes, I love Italian. It’s not that White Trash Italian they sling over at Olive Garden is it?”
“Katie,” I said, as I fiddled with my AmEx Black like a fresh pack of cigarettes. “I’m giving you a golden ticket out of this soul-sucking cash-grab of a company. If you think your Last Supper’s going to be Fettuccine Alfredo then I’ve got a cross I could use some help with …”
“Good,” and she gazed deep into my glazed-over eyes and warmed me over. “Because I would totally fuck a man with the audacity to fire me and offer me almost seven figures to go away quietly. In fact, I still might. But not if he bought me the type of dinner ignorant, snaggletooth plebeians consider “Authentic Italian.” So it better be spec-fucking-tacular.” And she brushed the palm of her hand against my jaw.
“Don’t fuck this up.”
I snickered. I looked deep into her eyes. I told her to close them and to hold out her hand. She did. Grinning. Tossing her hair back. Licking her lips again. I sweated.
“Okay. Open them.”
And in her hand was an 18K gold band, seven years, four months and three days old. Inscribed on the inside was my name, and another name that was definitely not “Katie.”
“I won’t. Now … may I have my wedding ring back?”
And for the first time since I’d been in Phoenix, I felt cold.