We’re on our way back from identifying Joan’s father’s body, in Joan’s freshly inherited 50-year-old vintage Porsche Carrera, when I realize what I’m going to get her for her birthday. It’s mid-July, the world flattened beneath the sort of shocking, blinding, heat that turns the grass white and gives the trees a dusty, tired appearance, like they might shed their leaves and lie down in surrender. Inside the car is no better. We have all the windows open but the wind only roars and buffets our heads and offers no relief. The humidity is palpable, constricting, like we’re in the digestive tract of some huge suffering beast.
“Maybe we should have the freon checked,” I yell, when Joan’s ear appears briefly through her whipping hair.
Joan turns, just her head, to look at me. Her eyes are dull, glazed, lopsided. Her hair, whipped by the wind, wraps around her face and some strands seem to fall directly into her eye, but she doesn’t push it away, or even blink.
“The freon,” I bellow. “For the air conditioner.” I reach forward and tap the console, then click the useless knob back and forth between the marked settings. “It might just be the coolant,” I add. “It wouldn’t cost much.”
Joan stares at me, her expression unchanged, then swivels back to the road. I didn’t really expect her to agree or even respond. Her father’s death has sent her into a downward spiral the likes of which I haven’t seen since I first met her. I’m not sure why she is so affected. Although I never met the man, her dad sounds like one of those guys who does the world a favor by kicking off, especially his family. He was forty-seven when Joan was born, and, from what I gather, spent more of her childhood with his various girlfriends than with Joan or her mother. He died at seventy-one of a massive coronary in an Atlantic City hotel room, probably with a hooker. Joan’s mother’s name and number appeared as his ICE, and since Joan’s mother couldn’t deal with the drama, she called Joan. I answered, as I do whenever possible when that name shows up.
“Charlie.” The catch and intake of cigarette smoke on the other end did little to disguise the accusation of that single word. Joan’s mother doesn’t like me, which is one of the reasons I answer when she calls. That, and to buffer Joan. “Could I speak to my daughter, please.”
“She’s not here, Mrs. Pitts.” I raised a finger to Joan and nodded reassuringly to show I had the situation well under control. Joan didn’t care. She was sitting in her favorite spot in the single chair on our balcony (her balcony, technically), enjoying a cigarette of her own and watching a crimson sun crater between the jagged edges of our hazy fevered city. “I’d be glad to take a message, though, Ms. Pitts. For her.” Joan still kept her father’s last name but after the nasty divorce her mother reverted to her maiden name, which must have been a difficult decision, regardless of the circumstances, given that her ex’s surname is Disandrio and her own being Pitts. I deploy it as often as possible when we’re talking.
“You would, would you?”
“Absolutely! How have you been, Mrs. Pitts? We haven’t seen you in days.”
“Fine, Charlie. And you?” There was something about her tone and the fact that she was willing to allow even this limited exchange that piqued my curiosity.
“Very well,” I said. “Joan had another callback for the Grantwood part, at Linwood? Her agent says it’s down to three people and apparently Joan’s look is precisely…” This was complete fabrication. Joan had already been eliminated for the part. But Joan’s mother once fancied herself an actress and if there’s one thing she hates it’s to think that Joan might become more of a success than she was. I went on for some minutes listing Joan’s various achievements, past and future, all the while listening to the small grunts and smoking sounds, pausing occasionally to give her a chance to agree more fully which she did automatically and with most of her attention still on that other subject. “So,” I said, finally unable to stand it. “About that message…?” And then I waited, respectfully silent.
“Well.” Joan’s mother cleared her throat. “Unfortunately we can’t all be in such high spirits, Charlie. Joan’s father, I’m afraid, is dead.” And then she went ahead with the sordid story in detail that made it pretty clear she had forgotten who she was talking to. “Anyway,” she finished. “She’ll have to go.”
“Joan? To Atlantic City?” For a second I’m afraid my excitement has betrayed me, but Joan’s mom is still too distracted to notice, or care. Or maybe she just can’t imagine that anyone in their right mind would see this whole thing as anything other than an imposition
“Yes. I can’t possibly. You do understand, don’t you Charlie? Have Joanie call me when you return.”
Then I was left with Joan’s dull, dead phone in my hand, and a new strange adrenaline anticipation rising from my groin, as if the dead father in question were my own. I was sitting at the dark-stained, Viking-sized, something-Empire long rectangular table in Joan’s huge, open living space, and for a moment I considered continuing a fake conversation, or my side of it anyway, just to buy time to compose myself, to figure the best way to approach all this with Joan. But I didn’t need to worry about that. Joan had already twisted from her spot on the balcony and was staring in at me with full recognition. In the fading light the winking spires of the skyline behind her appeared to sit atop her head like a sparkling tiara. “He’s dead isn’t he?” she asked. “My father is dead.”
The Vince Lombardi Rest Area Food Court is bright and cheery – air conditioned and splashed with a variety of reassuring ads and logos. Small children clamber around the form pressed plastic booths, crying out shrill demands to their parents or narrating the behavior of this or that action figure. In the background a synthesized brassy muzak version of ‘We Are The World’ combats PA voices from the various fast-food kiosks.
“I don’t want air conditioning,” says Joan. She’s sitting in one corner of the booth, tucked all the way against the window, picking at a salad with her fingers and glaring at me. “Are we very clear on this matter, Chuck?”
Contrary to what Joan might think (and her mother too), I’ve always loved being called Chuck. There’s an openness and simplicity to the nickname that makes me giddy, like I want to dance. Nobody named Chuck can really suffer in this world, or cause suffering, for that matter.
“Chuck!” says Joan. She raps on the table with her knuckles. “Do you hear me? Can you pay attention to me for one minute? To me?”
“Of course,” I say. “I hear you, Joan.”
“I don’t want air conditioning. I’m not about air conditioning. You know that, don’t you?”
“Of course. It’s no big deal. It’s your car. I just thought—”
“Well don’t think, okay? About that anymore.”
“Okay,” I say. “Jeez.”
Beside the rest-rooms, the recessed Vince Lombardi vending nook is carpeted and lined with candy and soda machines, a couple of video games, and another vending machine selling Vince Lombardi souvenir trinkets and memorabilia. One selection coil holds a row of cellophane-wrapped joke “disguise” kits, catering, I guess, to public nostalgia for New Jersey organized crime. This kit comprises, as far as I can tell through the Plexiglas window, a black eye-patch, an oversized plastic ear, and, most intriguingly, a small bloody bandage.
“Hey mister, are you kissing that machine or what!”
Two small boys wearing identical muscle shirts and identical stick-on Marilyn Manson biceps tattoos are standing beside the video game watching me. I quickly wipe my breath fog off the vending glass, straighten and face the kids. “No,” I say, gathering my smile. “I need a disguise so I can escape this place without being arrested.”
“Oh what’d you do?” sneers the bigger one. “Steal your gaaass?!” He lets out a victorious high pitched cackle. It’s meant as a sarcastic jab, to show that he doesn’t for a second believe I’m capable of any kind of crime.
“Shh.” I glance around to make sure nobody is in earshot. Then I take a step closer and lean down and lower my voice. “It’s not what I’ve done,” I say. “It’s what I’m going to do. You know what I mean?” I don’t change my expression at all from the same, easy-going friendly smile, but I think the younger one senses what I’m thinking because a puzzled shadow passes across his face. “No,” he says, edging behind his brother. “What are you going to do, Mister?”
“Nothing.” I straighten and shrug good naturedly. “I’m just pretending.”
“I know that!” says the bigger one, flexing like he might step forward and punch me in the crotch.
In the bathroom, I spend some time splashing cold water on my face and trying to get my breathing back under control. Back at the vending room, the two boys are facing the video game, the bigger one on his tiptoes aiming the plastic rifle and making a variety of shooting noises (as if the machine noises are not enough). They don’t see me, but as I pass the little one tugs on his brother’s shirt and I hear him say, “But what was he going to do, Jack?” And the bigger replies, “Nothing. He wasn’t doing nothing. Now shut up and get off of me.”
“I remember when my father bought that car,” says Joan. She hasn’t finished her salad. Beyond her, through the plate glass window, the last chemical tinge of sun wavers through the highway diesel and power lines of the industrial skyline, then is gone, leaving the highway, the parking lot, the gas pumps, awash in gray. “I was nine years old.”
“So it was already like twenty years old then?” I ask, doing the math. “Did the air conditioning work okay?”
Joan doesn’t say anything, still gazing out the window at the cars in the parking lot, shining and greenish in the settling dusk. When she does turn to look at me, her eyes contain a cold-edged fury that makes me feel excited and scared and sick, like how I used to feel when I got in fights. “Why do you have to do that?” she says.
“It was a joke,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
Joan stares at me for a long moment, then looks back out the window. “I was nine,” she says. “It was when we still lived on eighty-third street in the apartment and we only had one parking space in the garage. My dad brought us down to where he had parked the Porsche behind our other car. He pretended he didn’t know whose car it was and started looking around trying to figure out where the driver was who had blocked us and how we were going to get our own car out. My mom got all pissed off in her tight shrill way, talking about a petition and co-op censure and asking what kind of ostentatious shitbag would buy such a stupid car in the first place. And my dad winked at me, and I knew that it was his, it was ours.”
Joan lapses back into silence, gazing out at the red trails of taillights passing on the highway. A motorcycle pulls up just outside the window, the rattling exhaust muted by the glass, then cut into silence. Overhead, the muzak blends smoothly from one to another almost undifferentiable song. It’s like someone has chewed up a bunch of songs and spit out the paste and that is muzak. A small child with a pierced eyebrow and a loose muscle shirt and a Red Gallows biceps tattoo peers at me over the back of an adjoining booth. I wink at him.
“So then what happened?” I say, as if I can’t perfectly well picture it for myself.
Joan shrugs, shakes her head. “I don’t remember,” she says. “It was a long time ago.”
But later, when we’re back on the black highway, in-between towns, in that long stretch of rural New Jersey where the highway has curved inland, away from the shipyards and oil refineries of the coast, still south of the real traffic and orange-lit overpass tangle of the city, she says, “I didn’t want to sit on my mother’s lap.” With not many other cars and nothing to see but our headlights on the black-top and the trees pressing in on either side, I’ve entered a state of semi-hypnosis, staring straight ahead at the white hash-marks and the spaced embedded road reflectors scrolling endlessly toward us. Actually, I’m still thinking about the disguise kit at the rest area. Stuff like that gets me going, even when it’s phony like a big waxy ear and a bloody Band-Aid. It’s like when I see the ads on the internet to send away for instructions on how to forge a new identity or disappear. It makes me feel creepy but also excited, like bad pornography.
I look at Joan. Even with the seat pulled all the way forward, she can barely reach the pedals. She has to sit up straight to see over the dash. “So your mom and your dad went for a drive,” I say, “and left you waiting for them to get back. You felt abandoned?”
“No. My dad and I went for the ride,” she says. “My mom had to wait. I don’t think she cared anyway. They were already hating each other so much by that point.”
“Oh,” I say, rearranging the scenario. “That is better,” I admit.
“He would take me places,” she says. “Sometimes he was so much fun.” She lapses into a brooding silence. We’re going across a wide bridge, the spaced road partitions thudding steadily beneath the tires. I look out and down and see nothing but blackness to either side and suddenly I get the creepy sensation that this is it: Joan and I in the car, like we’ve blasted off planet earth into space, together, alone, forever. “One time, maybe it was that first time, he told me that we were just going to keep on driving, west, just him and me, and never come back. I knew he was making it up, just mad at my mom for not liking the car more, or whatever. He also liked to scare me, you know I told you about that, and this sort of thing is just what he would say and push it until I would start crying, begging him to turn around. But you know that I also liked it. I liked the idea of running away with him, of being some kind of outlaw renegade couple, beyond the reach of school and the law and everything.” She returns to silence. Joan’s relationship with her dad was complicated to say the least, and involved some degree of sexual currency, probably abuse, but maybe not, she’s never been quite clear on it herself, although if you go by the book it’s pretty obvious what the truth is, or at least the law would say. But she can’t get out from under the fact that he was always so tortured by it, so crazy about her, that she was the one responsible, maybe even in charge. That’s her bone to gnaw, and she does.
“Then sometimes,” she continues, getting bitter again, “he would just leave for weeks at a time, or start hitting on my friends when I was older, well you know all that.”
Back in Manhattan we spend almost forty five minutes trying to find a parking spot near Joan’s apartment before she finally relents and heads to a garage. This is typical of Joan. It’s not about money. Unlike most rich people, she doesn’t bother to pretend she’s not. It’s about this perception she has of herself, or wants to have. It’s the same thing with the air conditioning. It’s not really about air conditioning at all. It’s not like Joan has an aversion to cool air. She just doesn’t want to think of herself as pampered. “Life isn’t about comfort,” she told me once. “It’s not about getting through the whole thing as comfortably and easily as possible, is it? I mean, you agree with that, don’t you Charlie?”
This was soon after we had met and I was ready to agree with just about any philosophy she might propose. I’m sure it’s like this with all relationships, when the couple is just getting to know one another, eager to forgive, to overlook, to excuse. It’s even more so, however, when the couple meets in a forum for survivors of attempted suicide, when it’s distinctly possible that a misjudged phrase or a careless gesture could have real consequences; could send the other person back to the emergency room, or better.
“I see what you mean,” I said carefully on that day. “Pain, I mean, it can be reassuring, right? It proves you’re alive?”
“No. It’s not that,” said Joan. “I’m not some emo cutter.”
“I never thought so,” I said quickly.
“I just don’t think comfort should be the end-all goal. I don’t think it should be the ultimate ambition – to get through life with as little pain as possible, without ever really noticing that you’re alive, if possible. Or ever questioning why you’re alive. It’s like a giant distraction – all the effort we put into maintaining comfort. A lot of that is just an effort to distract us from the real, true mental discomfort, that itch of boredom or fear, or whatever it is that can never really be relieved. You know what I mean, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I get it. I know what you mean!” I tried to act like she was putting exactly into words what I had always felt but never been able to say. Like I said, this was early on, before we had even begun to talk about our specific dark truths, before we had compared scars or shared the details of our own failed (aborted? botched?) attempts (pills, I originally guessed for her, given her size and gender, and because I knew it was what she would want me to guess. But no. As it turned out she had tried to drive her mother’s car off a bridge). I didn’t care. This was before we were really dating, certainly before we had had sex, when my one guiding impulse was that I didn’t want to blow it. That I wanted her to trust me.
“I’m sorry I’ve been difficult,” says Joan, when we’re finally back in her apartment, in her bed, with the lights off. She lies tight against me, her naked body pressed all along my side, her free hand running up and down my chest, down to my hip, as far as she can reach. She’ll lie this way sometimes all through the night if I let her – her face pressed into my neck, gripping me even in sleep. “I just…” she says. “You know it’s been hard for me, don’t you Charlie?”
I maneuver my chin so I can awkwardly press my lips to the top of her head. “I know,” I whisper. “I know it.”
“And when you say stuff like that – about the air conditioning – it’s like you don’t even know me. Like you don’t even know who I am. And I can’t stand that, you know?”
“I know,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
Joan holds me even tighter for a moment, squeezing against me. Then she relaxes and lies there, breathing against my neck. “I just need somebody to know who I am.”
I first discovered Lights in the Darkness purely by accident. I was wandering the city a lot, without aim, feeling a bad combination of aimless and reckless, mostly, just marveling at the anonymity of crowds. I didn’t think much about where I was going or why. Often I would spend the better part of an afternoon riding the same subway back and forth, up and down the island. Or I would sit in a park – not Central or Riverside or Bryant or any of the famous, rich, designer parks with their excessive manicure and jazz bands and evening tourists – but rather one of the numerous small shabby neighborhood parks that can hardly be called parks at all, that are really just an aberration in the grid, an odd corner where nothing else will fit. Often there’s no grass in these places, just a fenced off bit of pavement between streets, empty meth vials floating in the puddles, a series of cement chess-board tables where old men sit day after day arguing in foreign accents and playing strange card games.
On that particular day I had ventured into a nearby building to find a restroom, and through an open doorway I spotted a group of people sitting in a circle of metal chairs all listening with attitudes of intense concentration that could only mean two things: a recovery meeting or a church group. It was pretty clear this wasn’t a church group, but it took me quite a bit longer to figure out what sort of recovery it was. As I stood just out of sight, in the hallway, listening, I assumed at first it was some derivation of AA. The language was similar. But I’ve been to enough of those meetings to know the format inside and out and something in this case did not fit. There was an underlying energy in the room – an excitement even – that did not jibe with substance abuse. There’s a wistfulness to AA or NA meetings that was not present in this room, an unstated regret about all that must be sacrificed in the name of ‘recovery’. In this room there was none of that. There was a sharpness to it, a thrill, that initially made me consider that they were Jesus freaks. But they weren’t Jesus freaks. They had seen an answer, all right, but not through salvation.
“The first time…” One man was speaking and I inched closer, my ear quivering at the edge of the door. “…I didn’t even recognize what I was doing. I was… fourteen years old. A friend of ours in school had died. He was a wrestler and somehow got tangled up in the neck machine in the weight room. He… asphyx… he choked to death. They said it was an accident, but I don’t know. Later I would think about him and apply pressure with my hands to my own neck to the point where I couldn’t breathe. Later, I used a belt. Then I rigged a piece of rope in a tree. But I wasn’t trying to… do anything like that, really. It was just play-acting. A game.”
“Many people associate asphyxiation with sex,” offered somebody else.
“Well that’s what we’re talking about here, isn’t it?” said the first man. “I mean, that’s what it’s really all about in a way, isn’t it? Isn’t it?”
I didn’t wait to hear what followed. As I tip-toed away I was nearly running, not because I was afraid of being caught, but because I wanted to get away as quickly as possible to where I could begin to use what I had heard.
I dated two women from Lights in the Darkness before I met Joan. Intimacy is strictly forbidden in the manifesto, of course, but there’s nothing they can really do to enforce it, and it goes on all the time. Everyone in the real world searches for lovers with common interests and hobbies, depressed people are no different. And really, once you’ve established camaraderie in that particular hobby, all other interests and pursuits become relatively insignificant. And also, that guy I had first heard when I eavesdropped into the room, he had a point: in some way it does all slingshot back to sex in one form or another.
The first was named Robin Lowry. She was British, had come to NYC to study writing at NYU. She fancied herself a poet. Many of them were artists, as far as I would tell – everyone who frequents Lights in the Darkness meetings. Robin would sit in the bedroom and listen to great booming Brahms symphonies through her headphones – so loudly that I could hear them in the kitchen – and write in her journal. She never technically allowed me to read what she wrote, but she strategically left the journals in places that I would literally trip on them – in her bathroom, for example, or on the coffee table in her living room or, once, on the coffee table in my living room. It was total bullshit. I didn’t even want to read it, and not out of respect for her privacy. It was all so highly insipid: homage to tombstones and nightbirds and vast loneliness. It was as if she gathered her ideas from a girl’s high-school locker-room, or from other girls’ middle school diaries. Well, she was nineteen years old, not that far from middle school herself. I had to forgive her immaturity. But the entire “relationship” began to feel as lifeless and predictable as a teenage soap opera. She eventually tried to OD again on Xanax. She did it right in front of me, however and so I stopped her. She then went back to her family in London.
The second woman I dated was named Sydney Shmidt and her big thing was German guilt. She had grown up in Hackensack, New Jersey. Her parents had both grown up in Hackensack, New Jersey. All four of her grandparents had grown up in Hackensack, New Jersey. It steadily emerged that her entire lineage of ancestors, on both sides of her family, as far back as she knew, had come from somewhere in or around Hackensack, New Jersey. But her surname was German and she clung to this fact the way any otherwise unremarkable person will cling to the one sorry detail that they imagine makes them special.
“It could happen again,” she wailed, once, hysterical. “I’ve got it in me, Chuck. I know I do.” She clutched her ribs through her shirt and ground her teeth together like a woman possessed. “I’m capable of committing the most… horrific… atrocious…” Here she choked up entirely, her eyes bugging with inarticulate distress.
I told her I was Jewish, of course. It wasn’t really a lie. I was adopted. I might be Jewish, for all I know. Anyway, it was what she wanted to hear, and it got us sleeping together. She would lie hugging me in the darkness, much like Joan does, sniffling into my armpit. Once she cried out in her sleep and woke up screaming, hugging me and saying she would never let them get me. It was burlesque, really, but I was too exhausted at the time to fully appreciate it.
Finally I decided to shock her out of it, give her the rare gift of a glimpse of her own true self. I told her that I had lied about the Jewish thing. I told her that to the contrary I was from California where I had been in a skin-head gang. I showed her a tattoo of a swastika on my ass cheek, told her it was a badge I earned for curb-kicking a freak. The tattoo was obviously Sharpie. It wasn’t like she had never seen my ass before, unblemished by any fascist regalia. I didn’t intend for her to accept the whole act as “real.” I just wanted her to examine her stupid beliefs. But I guess her mind wasn’t processing logic. Next thing I knew she was standing in front of me holding her biggest Cut-Co butcher knife. I thought she was going to stab me – very Fatal Attraction and all that. Instead she swiped it across her wrist. Fantastic! She got everything: tendons, arteries, even nicked one of her bones. There was blood everywhere – all over me, her… I got her to the emergency room in a cab. I saved her life.
The next morning Joan’s mother comes over to take Joan shopping for birthday presents. Joan doesn’t accept money from her mother and step-father. She says it’s all filthy, contaminated by greed and exploitative capitalist business tactics. She has the apartment, however, and she has a huge invested trust fund that she draws off for the monthly maintenance fees and various co-op charges, and for all her other needs as well. The biggest hypocrisy, however, is the way she accepts her mother’s constant “gifts.” It’s a torturous arrangement that has them in constant opposition (although if it weren’t that it would be something else). Joan wants the stuff, but in order not to feel guilty has managed to convince herself that she’s doing her mother a favor by accepting it. Her mother realizes this and presses merchandise upon Joan with ever greater persistence, always hinting at tremendous personal sacrifice. Neither of them really wants the charade to stop either, however. It provides them each in their own way an odd satisfaction. Besides, it’s all they have together.
Today is no different. We all sit in the breakfast nook of Joan’s kitchen, eating pan chocolát and drinking cappuccino delivered from Rasputin’s. It’s only ten AM, but outside is already another scorching day, as evidenced by the unrelenting sunlight on the streets, the pedestrians clinging close to the building shadows, like cockroaches scurrying along the baseboards, trying not to be stepped on.
“Oh my,” Joan’s mother says, upon arrival. “It’s insufferable.” She says this with a small, self-deprecating laugh, accepting my offered handkerchief to dab at her neck. I return a level gaze. It’s rare that I have such a clear advantage over Joan’s mom and I have no intention of letting her off easy. I just stand and watch as she dabs at her neck and her forehead and tucks one wisp of humidified hair behind her ear. “Oh my,” she says, slipping past me into the apartment and spotting Joan. “You’d think you had no air conditioning at all in here, Joanie. Did you forget to turn it on, or are you trying to conserve energy costs?”
“It’s on full, Mother,” says Joan, arriving reluctantly by my side and assuming her tone of patient martyrdom which I know from past experience will quickly evolve to aggravation, and finally to exhausted surrender by the end of the day.
“Well,” says Joan’s mother. “These old buildings…” She squares her shoulders and steps further in, fully recovered (flushed face or not), and drops my handkerchief strategically onto a nearby bookshelf. I consider retrieving it and putting it into the trash compactor or maybe burning it later symbolically in the sink, but as usual witnessing these encounters between Joan and her mother, my displeasure is tempered by curiosity and I hurry after them, anxious not to miss anything important.
“What I want to know, Joanie,” says her mother, selecting a croissant from the basket, “…is was he wearing anything at all.”
“For God’s sake, Mother, stop it! I already told you, I don’t know what he was wearing.”
“I can hardly imagine that the specifics were not there for the asking.” Joan’s mother takes her time applying a thin veneer of jam to the pastry before slicing off one corner with a knife and popping it in her mouth. “A simple question to the right authority would surely have clarified—”
“I didn’t ask any questions, Mother. If you want to know how he was dressed I’m sure you can call the Atlantic City police department and ask them. I. Don’t. Know.” As if to contradict her mother further, Joan takes her own croissant and tears a large flaky strip with her teeth and chews aggressively. Generally Joan is as finicky and discriminating in her eating habits as her mother, but when they are together like this, face to face, she reverts to the contrary rebellious teenager.
“It’s not an issue, darling,” says her mother. I was simply asking.” Here, for the first time, she glances at me. I freeze my face into what I hope is an unremarkable smile. The details of Joan’s father’s final wardrobe were available, and it was one of the first things that Joan had asked about upon our arrival at the police station. In point of fact, he was not naked – he was wearing a paisley silk scarf looped once around his neck – nothing else (at least not unless you count the ten-inch dildo which was still bobbing around in the toilet where the hooker – yes there had been one – had tried to flush it). But eager though I am to share this tableau with Joan’s mother, I wouldn’t dream of undermining Joan’s more discreet tactics. The truth will come out, at the appropriate moment. I know Joan: her sense of timing is unimpeachable.
“So, Charles,” says Joan’s mother, shifting the conversation in the name of harmony, “Is there anything you need while we’re at Bloomies?”
“No, thank you, Mrs. Pitts. It’s very generous of you to offer, but I—”
“New socks? Underwear? Everyone needs underwear.”
“Chuck doesn’t wear underwear, Mother,” grumbles Joan, but her heart isn’t in the game – she’s probably still thinking about her father bloated and blue on the hotel bed with that coil of paisley scarf around his neck.
“Oh, I see,” says Joan’s mother, tapping her lips with the tip of one long finger and appraising me. Now that she’s recovered from her unseemly safari through the heat of SoHo, Joan’s mother sits very erect and regal looking on her side of the table, fully possessed, again, of the simple fact of her wealth. “How marvelously Bohemian,” she adds with an intrigued tilt of her head. “How unconventional.”
“Chuck isn’t about convention,” says Joan, warming to the challenge.
“We’ve established that,” says Joan’s mother. “What are you about, Charlie?”
“Why don’t you ask him, Mother?”
“Well I am asking him, Joanie. Charlie and I are having a conversation.”
And then they both turn toward me and I have to concentrate to keep my mouth from hanging open. “People,” I manage to say. “I’m about people. Helping people.”
After this there’s a long, tight silence, as both Joan and her mother consider me curiously. Then her mother takes a breath and reaches for her cigarettes. “Well,” she says. “I’m going to help my daughter get something for her birthday. That’s what I’m about, today. Because everyone deserves a birthday present, wouldn’t you say, dear? Certainly we can all agree on that.” She reaches and cups Joan’s hand and smiles brightly back and forth between Joan and myself.
“Whatever,” says Joan.
“I’m getting her a present too,” I say. But neither Joan nor her mother seem to hear me.
I’m not sure why Joan’s mother doesn’t like me. At first I thought it was simply about money, or a lack thereof. But one time I listened in on a phone conversation between Joan and her mother where her mother addressed that very fact.
“I don’t care about his financial resources, Joanie. You know that,” she had said. “My objection is that he’s not trustworthy.”
“Because he’s not a member in the right clubs?”
“Because he doesn’t love you.”
There was a brief pause and I held my breath on the extension phone, feeling suddenly dizzy and scared. When Joan spoke, however, her voice was brittle and my body went warm with relief. “That’s hardly for you to decide, is it mother?” she said, icily.
“Please, Joanie, I’m appealing to your sense. I’ve seen the way he looks at you, when you don’t know it. He’s not good for you, sweetie.”
“This conversation is over, mother.”
Since then I’ve felt an odd mixture of fear and awe in Joan’s mother’s presence, and I’ve found myself more than once becoming freakishly aware of my own face when I’m around her. On more than one occasion I’ve excused myself to the bathroom and tried to make it there without blinking, without altering any muscle in my cheeks until I make it to a mirror. When I get there, I always look perfectly ordinary, as far as I can tell: smooth freckled forehead unlined by worry or guile, wide candid eyes, the same small helpful smile that I’ve struggled so hard to perfect over the years. The only explanation, and the one I have no choice but to accept, is that Joan’s mother was lying. Her dislike of me is about money. Which is ironic since I have money. I don’t have a trust fund or anything, but I have an inheritance. I don’t say much about it, but it’s there. It’s certainly enough for me to live on for the rest of my life. Still, I can never quite shake the sound of Joan’s mother’s voice as she spoke to Joan on that day through the phone. “I’ve seen the way he looks at you when you don’t know it.” Sometimes I wake up, sweating, those words circling like black birds in my brain.
But the fact is, I do love Joan, which is why I’m getting her this birthday gift. And as soon as they are out of the apartment, I’m out also. It’s not about air conditioning, it’s about helping Joan to confront herself, to see herself as she really is and to know that it’s okay to be that way, to be herself. This seems to be something that nobody else is willing to do.
It takes me the better part of an hour to find the garage that specializes in vintage sports cars and that has a complete working coolant system that will fit this fifty year old Carrera. It takes me another forty-five minutes to get to the place. It’s been years since I had a driver’s license and even more since I drove a car with standard transmission. But I’m determined and eventually I buck and jerk the car up the rise into a small garage in an obscure finger of Queens.
“It’s a beautiful machine,” says Russ, the mechanic, circling the car, squinting at the sun-reflecting metal and caressing the hot rounded panels with his palm. “Sure you don’t just wanna rather sell it?”
“It was my wife’s father’s car,” I reply. “It means more to us than the sum of its parts, if you know what I mean.”
“I do, I do,” says Russ ruefully. “I do.”
“Which is why I’m going to surprise her with the repaired coolant system,” I say. “Which is why I need it done today, good man, if you would be so kind. Right now, in fact.”
And ninety minutes later, all the vents on the Porsche’s dash are expelling air that Russ assures me is just north of 32 degrees. “Ice cold, in other words,” he adds. “Your wife’s gonna give you some extra added nasty tonight!”
“It’s none of your concern,” I say. “What type of nasty she gives me, or how much of it.” I try to summon some snappishness to show I have no interest in his lewd insinuation, but really I’m way too thrilled by all this to be offended. We share a brotherly laugh and I tip him absurdly.
And so, when I come back across the 59th street bridge into Manhattan, I’m whistling and happy and I turn left, downtown, rather than right toward her apartment. I’m a bit early still – Joan won’t be back for a few more hours – and I’m feeling light and free as a feather dancing on the breeze. It’s not just the fact that the vents are spewing cool air, I’m feeling refreshed for the first time in days; it’s because I know I’ve finally done something good in this world, something unquantifiable and pure. I drive a roundabout way back to Joan’s garage. It takes me along some of the shabby back streets where I used to walk, when I was alone and lonely. And I stop for a while beside my favorite shabby park. I haven’t been there in ages, nearly nine months, but the same men, or identical, are sitting around the same stone chess tables. Across the street is the six story squat brick building that houses, amongst other small shabby businesses and barely funded public agencies, Lights in the Darkness treatment center. I haven’t been to a meeting in nearly nine months. Neither has Joan. If nothing else, this should be evidence enough of my positive influence as her friend and companion. As I look at the building, however, I get the overwhelming urge to park and go inside. This is absurd – meetings only happen once a week. Still, as I sit there I realize that one of these days, soon, I’ll be back. And as I start the car up and pull away from the curb, this idea sends a shiver of premonition, or excitement, up my spine, and for a moment I shudder so hard that I can barely keep my hands on the wheel. It’s like I’m finally feeling the effects of all the cold air pouring through the old car’s vintage vents.