You Could Feel Sorry for Them
I am standing outside of my friend Eric’s building with Jessica, who I’ve been dating for two years. This is prime real estate in Boston, an easy ten-minute walk from the Financial District, where Eric works 70 or more hours a week somewhere among a cluster of shiny and opaque skyscrapers, and nestled between many of Boston’s most historic districts, including Back Bay, the Theater District, and Chinatown.
The high rise Eric lives in is ornate and gilded. It boasts that it is one of the “best priced” full-service buildings in Boston, which I suppose is the euphemistic way realtors describe something as affordable to the wealthy. In real dollars that means, if you have the means, that you can own a studio apartment for a million dollars or live in a small two-bedroom condo for 1.5 million. At the entryway, heavy revolving doors framed with black marble guide us into a lobby with plush leather armchairs peppered around the concierge’s desk, which all give me the impression that I am entering a luxury hotel instead of a residential building.
After an awkward exchange with the concierge, awkward because I work as a concierge and don’t really understand how to comport myself on the other side of the desk, we are directed to make our way to Eric’s apartment and that he has left it unlocked, so there’s no need to knock. We get onto the elevator, which is paneled with what I think is brass and is so polished that I can see my grizzled reflection. My enormous T-shirt and large jeans, which I default to when I am not working to hide a flabby body that I do not like, contrast with Jessica’s carefully chosen floral print dress and crossbody purse.
“Dougie!” I hear as I open the door to Eric’s apartment, but it is not the voice or the greeting I expected. I am filled with joy and dread in equal measure. Both the name and the voice behind it are all too familiar, though outside of brief trips to visit family, I haven’t heard either in years.
I pause in the hallway and turn to Jessica, trying to disguise the flare of anxiety blazing across my face with authentic-seeming surprise at this reunion. I unknit my brow as best I can and paste a wide open-mouthed smile on my face, hoping to displace any lingering hints of uncertainty and fear.
I cross the threshold.
“Brett-EEE!” I reply, exaggerating Brett’s deep, booming voice as much as I can, the slight mocking gesture really just another attempt at concealment, smothering any ambivalence my voice might otherwise betray.
Barrel-chested and well over six-feet tall, Brett is sunk into Eric’s recliner, his legs sprawled out on the coffee table, taking up most of the available surface. A pair of black synthetic Adidas sandals, a signature piece of his wardrobe for as long as I’ve known him, dangle from his enormous feet. He has always taken up a lot of space, but, unlike many tall people with massive frames, he’s never seemed self-conscious about doing so.
Brett smiles broadly, swinging his legs off the coffee table to stand up. I make my way into the combined kitchen, dining, and living room, and Brett and I clasp hands, a gesture that quickly folds into a half-embrace. We whack each other on the backs and firmly grab each other’s shoulders, brimming for a moment with unrestrained joy.
As Brett returns to lounge again in what he probably thinks is the best seat in the house, Jessica presents the bottle of wine we bought to Eric. Eric, whose well-groomed salt and pepper hair had already started to turn gray while we were still in college, inspects the bottle and hands it to Kaitlin, his long-term on-again off-again girlfriend. Jessica relates the exchange we had at the liquor store where we purchased the wine. For comic effect, she draws out the details, reconstructing the scene with broad and rapid hand gestures, embellishing the difficulty of our decision as we puzzled over kinds of wine we couldn’t distinguish between.
She repeats, as the final punchline, the store owner’s comment about the brand being “very drinkable.” Everyone laughs agreeably, and I know that “very drinkable” will be repeated again tonight, and at least once by Brett, Eric, and me, until the original source is all but forgotten. Eric promises to try a glass, noting that he hardly ever drinks wine. He prefers beer and hard liquor. Though, if truth be told, he hardly drinks at all anymore.
Jessica adds that at under ten dollars a bottle, the wine is also very affordable. Everyone laughs a little more, though less comfortably. To change topics, I marvel at Eric’s success in cutting alcohol out of his life, reminding him of how heavily he used to drink. Brett and I claim that we have also cut back substantially while everyone inspects us dubiously.
Brett’s fiancée Julia, a small exuberant woman who prides herself on her bossiness and her cooking skills, tells us, as she sautées vegetables, that all men are kicked out of the kitchen. She laughs jovially but adds sharply, “But I mean it.” Thankful for the pretext to catch up with Brett and Eric, I don’t bother to call out the stereotyped gender roles we are being forced to play, convincing myself it wouldn’t do any good even if I tried.
I leave Jessica to ask awkwardly what they are making while Kaitlin and Julia bicker about cooking methods. Kaitlin stirs the sauteing vegetables with a plastic spatula, and Julia scolds her harshly for doing so. Seating myself in the living room, really only a few feet from the bar and countertop separating it from the small galley-style kitchen area, I am implicated once again, after so many years, in a version of manliness I despise as I join two of my best friends from college, at least one of whom knows much more about me than I’d prefer.
“Doug,” from my middle name “Douglas,” is a childhood nickname my family used to distinguish me between my father and to counteract the formal quality of “Linwood,” which I couldn’t stand. After my first semester in college, I abruptly switched names, convincing myself that this decision was merely one of convenience and efficiency. I told myself it was easier because I wouldn’t have to explain to professors the origin of my nickname every semester. I had also already begun to tire of querulous peers who discovered my first name and became alarmed, as though they’d been betrayed, as though I’d kept my true identity from them.
Doug, my past self, my childhood self, grew up in the Great North Woods of Maine, a region often derogatorily characterized as the “Deep South of the Far North.” There, people embraced the national stereotype of local culture, exclaiming “Ayup!” and “Down the road apiece!” with the self-conscious affectation of a Stephen King novel or unskilled Hollywood actors portraying “Maineiacs.”
Doug was a hairy and strapping teenager who only trimmed his hair, which sprawled past his shoulders, when the split ends transformed it into an impenetrable brush pile. Doug wore only flannel shirts and jeans, preferably carpenter pants with an actual hammer loop. When he was trying to be cool, Doug substituted the jeans for thick corduroy pants with immense cargo pockets, thereby maintaining the illusion, Doug thought, of Doug’s usefulness.
If asked about his summer job--and Doug always managed to find summer jobs that required intense physical labor, for that was the manliest pursuit and therefore the only real kind of work--Doug described it in short, clipped sentences loaded with dropped consonants and aspirated R’s. As in, “Yep, I’m hayin’ in Bradfahd this summah.” Or, “Gonnah pai-hnt Geohge Millah’s fahm.”
Doug didn’t see a major city until he was 17, and he saw it (Boston) only from the window seat of a bus he took to Upstate New York to visit an elite college. It was the first time he’d ventured outside New England. Enthralled by the glimmer of skyscrapers he glanced as he contorted his neck to see the tops of the buildings, he pressed his tilted head as hard as he could against the window as the bus ducked in and out of the partially constructed tunnels. He was entranced by the volume of raw piles of earth, the concrete dividers, and the sheer quantity of construction vehicles--front end loaders, cranes, bulldozers, excavators, and backhoes. Not understanding that the infamous Big Dig was underway, Doug assumed that all cities existed at similarly paradoxical intersections where buildings seemed so tall and sturdy that they must be eternal while the earth seemed oddly pliable and fleeting.
The spectacle sent Doug into such an authentic state of rapture that he immediately attempted to write a poem, which seemed the only available means by which someone could express such powerful emotion. But the task quickly overwhelmed Doug. He had no idea how to write a poem. And the mental exhaustion of trying to figure out how immediately led him to take a four-hour nap.
We make small talk. Brett says, “You look good.” An obvious lie. I have just completed a master’s degree while teaching part-time during the week and working overnight at a hotel during the weekends. On Mondays, coming off an overnight shift at seven in the morning, I pound two or three sugary energy drinks to stay awake long enough to teach at ten. This, combined with the despair I feel because of my job prospects, has led to some indulgent behavior. I drink heavily and often, and I eat constantly, living mostly off of large steak burritos, beef jerky, and Diet Coke.
I return the comment, but in Brett’s case, it’s true. As long as I have known him, his weight has fluctuated to extremes, even more than mine. When we met during our first semester in college, he was trim and muscular from spending all his free time lifting weights and playing basketball. Like many first-year students, he quickly gained weight, but well in excess of the so-called “freshman 15.” Every year he went through a period of dramatic weight loss powered by a mixture of chain smoking and extreme dieting, including “juicing” and Atkins-esque diets.
But now, he looks comfortable in his body. He indicates that in this case he’s tended toward a new extreme--a healthy and moderate regimen. Since he quit his job in New York a few months ago, he has been running several days a week and training for races. He recommends running barefoot on the beach to strengthen feet while also reducing the risk of injury. He says vaguely we should run together some time. I agree, equally noncommittal as I tug at my shirt to conceal my girth.
We can hear Kaitlin and Julia’s debate about sautéing vegetables intensify. Julia, the shorter but more energetic of the two, has adopted a wide protective posture facing the stove, her bright red hair whipping in rhythm with the wooden spoon she brandishes to enforce her cooking methods, preventing Kaitlin from infiltrating the dish. Kaitlin, her plaintive voice always carrying much further than she intends, appeals to the wisdom of experience and to home-court advantage as she paces back and forth, looking for an opening in Julia’s defenses. Julia counters with a lecture about length of contact time required to lock in flavors while keeping the vegetables crisp without burning them, adopting a dismissive and scientific-sounding tone that momentarily silences further opposition.
Brett suggests we retreat further, onto the balcony, ryely adding, "We need to leave the women to their work.” Half-serious, he examines me for the reflexive twitch of protest I don’t bother concealing. Eric asks if either of us want a drink. I say I’ll take a beer as I glance at Jessica, who has established her own distance from Julia and Kaitlin in the opposite corner of the kitchen, a bemused expression on her face.
Despite the differences that always seemed apparent to me, I thought I could conceal my background, that I could fit in. After all, I was, like the majority of them, white and relatively good-looking. So, as long as I was careful, as long as I didn’t gawk or brazenly declare my sense of injustice at the signs of privilege that surrounded me--including expensive cars and clear evidence of enormous monthly stipends furnished by parents eager to make sure their children had everything they “needed”--as long as I didn’t sneer when peers revealed, genuinely dismayed, that their parents had placed them on strict budgets to teach them “discipline and financial independence” even as they purchased expensive dinners and made travel arrangements to spend Spring Break in Europe. If I ignored all of this, if I overlooked not just these signs of privilege but also the reluctance and often blatant inability to recognize that privilege, I hoped my difference would remain undetectable, eventually invisible even to me.
Still, no matter how much I tried to ignore and conceal these differences, they always seemed undeniable. I knew that my college peers couldn’t, for example, know the misery of moving every few months as their mother pursued the stability she hoped to find with a reliable man and a job that paid a living wage, neither of which ever seemed to materialize, which meant that she was perpetually working two or three part-time jobs, leaving us mostly to raise ourselves. It was obvious that hardly any of my peers had ever endured the lack of privacy and constant chaos of cramming 11 people--two chain-smoking single-mothers, their children, and the men that frequented the mothers’ lives, into a two-bedroom apartment.
At the balcony table, Brett picks apart the remains of cigars he and Eric shared to celebrate before I arrived. I gaze out over the apartment complex’s half-sized outdoor pool. It is windy, and there is still a chill to the spring air.
I twist my neck absurdly to take in the seventh-floor view, in awe of the sheen of glass blazing with the reflected light from the setting sun, behind which the city’s wealthiest peered down on us through their private one-way mirrors.
The sweet smell of cigar tobacco wafts between us. Brett has successfully torn open the paper. Dumping the contents into the ashtray, letting the wind catch some and toss it in my direction, he finally tells me what I already know.
“Julia and I are moving to Boston.”
Eric and I have both lived in Boston, with a few brief exceptions, ever since we graduated. We have made it a point to get together for dinner every few months to catch up. From these dinners, I’ve learned Brett has been considering a big move for a long time. For a little over a year, he had a high-end administrative job at a janitorial services company where his brother worked as the CFO. Though he made relatively “good money,” he hated the long commute and the long hours.
Then Brett tells me what I didn’t know.
“I got a job with Eric!”
Linwood, as I imagined him, was studious, and he shaved as regularly as the razor burns that traced the length of his neck would allow. He took up smoking and chose the most stylish brand of cigarettes, Parliament Lights, which, because of their recessed filters, Linwood and his circle of friends agreed, were light years ahead of the cigarettes other chumps smoked. Not only did the recessed filter offer a cleaner, more enjoyable smoking experience, they also provided another touchstone for the numerous inside jokes Linwood and his friends accumulated over the years, eventually referred to affectionately as “the nipple.” So, whenever someone in Linwood’s circle, which of course included Eric and Brett, lit up, he was urged to “find the nipple.” Once he had, he was congratulated with a hearty and maternal “there there” as he took a deep drag from the cigarette, allowing a detached expression of childlike serenity to wash over his face.
In contrast to Doug, Linwood seemed surprisingly worldly wise, to Linwood. Linwood spoke Spanish (almost) fluently, and maintained a layman’s interests in physics and mathematics. Hastily and in his spare time, he read challenging books that he only partially understood. Following the conventions of standard English, Linwood pronounced all words, granting all consonants, especially R’s and G’s, their full force.
Linwood was pretty convinced he understood the world. He knew that Boston’s Big Dig was seriously over budget and behind schedule--eventually by eight years and almost $20 billion--and he did not marvel at the size of Boston’s skyscrapers or even the scale of this urban renovation as Doug had, for Linwood understood that, as far as cities go, Boston is tiny, not nearly as global or well-planned as New York City. Instead, he marveled cynically and judgmentally at the epic mismanagement of the project. And Albany was a pit, to be avoided at all costs, best viewed only from a bus window though Linwood hoped he wouldn’t wake up at all when the bus stopped there.
At Brett’s announcement, Jessica emerges from the apartment, takes a swig from my beer as she declares that Kaitlin and Julia have the food situation “under control.” Brett and Eric glance at each other, and I grin unabashedly, proud of Jessica for her unwillingness to tolerate Kaitlin and Julia’s petty game of oneupmanship and envious of how easily she crosses the invisible boundaries that have defined my relationship with Eric and Brett for over a decade.
“Oh Jessica, you’re such a feminist!” I say, hoping the exaggerated lilt in my voice will make it clear to Eric and Brett that I am mocking their unease while telling Jessica that her trespass is welcome. Later, Jessica will ask me why I was so critical of her, and Eric and Brett will probably feel secure that I’ve indirectly scolded Jessica for upsetting the order of their world.
I ask for more details of Brett’s new job. He fills in the details he can, and Eric helps supply the rest. At first, Brett will cold-call people with a lot of discretionary income, doctors and lawyers and well-paid professionals. Eventually he hopes to be able to make contacts with older people sitting on life savings.
“So, you’re kind of like a telemarketer,” I quip, buzzed enough to not hold back. I hope the comparison stings a little.
“Exactly!” Brett replies, “but a telemarketer starting at six-figures and earning a commision.”
Having explained his professional aspirations, he asks me about mine. I tell him now that I have my degree, I will start adjuncting while making progress toward a first book “slowly but surely.” My response is loaded with vague half-truths, concealing the tumultuous routine I know is coming, which will include daily commutes between three different schools to teach five or six classes a semester, living from paycheck to paycheck and constantly worried about making ends meet during the summer.
We wander back inside, only to discover that there’s not much left to drink as Eric rummages through the refrigerator and freezer. Describing all liquids he finds as “very drinkable,” he presents each for our inspection, including the last remaining beer, a mostly-empty bottle of vodka, and iced tea.
Kaitlin, welcoming an excuse to disengage from Julia, offers to make a trip to the liquor store. She retrieves a credit card from the bedroom. Holding it up like a trophy, she announces that it is Eric’s as she heads for the door. Brett’s voice trails after her, insisting that she pick up an acceptable mid-level Scotch. He tells me there is nothing better than a good Scotch (neat), a glass of ice water, and a cigar.
Without anything else to talk about, Brett, Eric, and I quickly begin reminiscing, a code which I partially decode for Jessica, who joins me on the couch.
“Do you like the VHS?” one of us queries, and we all reflexively laugh at the memory of our Greek friend who had mostly mastered English when he used this pickup line our first year in college. “It was already 2000!” another reminds us all.
The conversation at Eric’s proceeds like this, a mixture of one-liners and allusions to shared experiences, until our memories strain, until one thread of our years living together no longer connects to another. To delay the clumsy and sober intrusion of the present, Brett abruptly looks at Jessica, directly acknowledging her for the first time during our reminiscing, and says, “What stories of Dougie can we tell to embarrass him?”
“What about the night Dougie drank so much he went to the hospital?” he continues. I try to convince Jessica I have told her about it, half-certain that I have at least fleetingly referenced it, half-hoping to discourage Brett. I have heard his version so often I could almost tell it myself.
He found me passed out under his desk, head down, throwing up on his floor. Also drunk and underage, he picked me up and tossed me into one of the shower stalls. He checked on me periodically, and he even tried to convince the Resident Advisor that I was just sleeping when I was finally discovered.
By the time I came around, an oxygen mask was strapped to my face and an EMT leaned over me, still crumpled in the shower stall, reporting in a relieved voice that my heart rate was now at 40 beats-per-minute. I shivered as I came to, in part from the effects of alcohol-poisoning but also because Brett had turned the shower on briefly to try to wake me up and rinse off some of the vomit. I was wearing a new shirt; Brett had dressed me in one of his enormous long sleeve T-shirts.
I threw up whatever was left in my stomach in the ambulance. After a few hours of observation at the hospital, I dry-heaved in the cab most of the way back to the dorm, as Brett explained to the driver multiple times that there was really nothing left in my stomach, so there was no need to pull over.
Every time he’s told me about that night, I learn something new, always with the same result. No matter how well I know Brett’s version of the events, I am always estranged from my own experience, outside of my own self-inflicted suffering, rendered incapable of accounting for myself.
Brett jokes about how he left me slumped over his desk, half awake and half-heartedly smoking a Parliament. How he returned after having a beer with Eric and watching an episode of the X-Files to find the chair toppled over, the cigarette scattered across the floor, and me laying as though I’d been shoved under the desk, my butt sticking up in the air. He jokes about doing rounds, cycling between Eric’s room and the bathroom, to check on me and gather paper towels so that he could return to his own room to clean up the mess. He jokes about turning on the shower. He says he knew I would be fine.
Whenever he retells this story, always in the presence of a third party, he concludes with a smirk directed at me, exclaiming that he didn’t know what I was thinking, drinking so much, taking so many shots.
It’s never really been a question. But, in the past, when Brett flashed that smirk and not really asked, “What were you thinking?!,” I’ve tried to explain what seems so self-evident to me now. Trapped between two impossible versions of myself--Linwood, who I could never afford to become, and Doug, already a caricature of the person I had been--I felt lost, and yet foolish masculine pride prevented me from trying to articulate my problems to anyone. I drank so much--simply, lamely--because I did not know how to cope with who I actually was.
Kaitlin returns with the alcohol just as Brett finishes with his story. Brett offers me some Scotch, and I take a sip but tell him that I stay away from hard alcohol. The conversation falters as Julia finishes preparing the food, fajitas or something like it. As we eat, we silently acknowledge that we’ve run out of past that we’re willing to remember, that we’ve reached the boundary of our shared world--a departure is already inevitably underway.
We nevertheless try to talk about the present and our hopes for the future, but feel awkward doing so. I ask Julia and Brett where they plan to move. They mention Newton, but we all agree it’s too far from the city. They mention the outskirts of Brookline, Julia insisting that she doesn’t want to live in a busy urban neighborhood again.
As we run out of things to talk about, Jessica and I eat quickly and find an excuse to leave. Eric tries to give us back the bottle of wine we brought. We refuse, insisting it’s a gift, insisting that it’s actually very nice as we collect Jessica’s purse so we can go home.