Probably the weirdest thing about growing up working class and then coming into all this money was I’ve never liked good food. We went out to eat sometimes, sure, but I don’t think I had an entree over $10 until my college graduation. My mother’s menu consisted of an unfailing rotation of spaghetti with meat sauce (meatballs only on special occasions), honey-mustard chicken, broiled bluefish, this macaroni-and-cheese-dyed-red-with-ketchup casserole that was actually pretty good, meatloaf, split-pea soup, sloppy joes, and something called “Bobby’s Chicken,” the remnants of a boyfriend with a talent for legs, thighs, mushrooms, and wine. Late in life, she added basic stir fry, long after every kitchen in America already had a wok. Lasagna, every few years, if there were people coming over and she had a whole day to spare, and to this day it’s the only thing I can order from good Italian restaurants because my mom had a strange isolated capacity for quality lasagna. It’s not like we’re Italian. I can’t eat steak because on my birthday every year she made London broil, marinated overnight in some Worcestershire shit that was just about to die for, and I can’t eat a cut of quality beef without it. Seafood, forget it; I never liked bluefish, even.
Even more crazily, fast food draws me now like mosquitoes to the light. We weren’t so poor that we ate fast food all the time, and in fact it was almost completely verboten: maybe twice a year. I can afford (and get into) Lomita seven nights a week, but my condo’s garbage now is least 50% McDonald’s wrappers. Same thing with sugar cereal. I only got sugar cereal when we went to my grandparents’, which to be honest was the only thing I could look forward to on those trips to Lancaster County. But almost all my breakfasts now include the words “puffs,” “choco,” or “cookies,” and I’m in better shape than I’ve ever been because of my workout regimen, which works on six-day cycles and includes both cardiovascular and strength training, although I don’t lift to get big; I lift so that clothes fall off me in a way that seems effortless, although to be honest it probably isn’t worth the effort because not many girls want to stick around when they learn I’ll never take them out except to places with drive-thru windows.
I never wanted to be rich. Not that I grew up poor, but I wasn’t one of those poor kids who spent all his time thinking about how great it would be to be rich. After the divorce my mom got us into a good school district but all that meant was that I was the only kid in the neighborhood who had to buy the first-generation Nintendo with the Mike Tyson Knockout with his own money. You couldn’t let Mike Tyson hit you even once in the early going, was the thing. It’s one of the few video games I ever really mastered, in part because I couldn’t afford continual state-of-the-art-upgrades but also because I always kind of lacked the patience, which in retrospect may have been because I was always playing at friends’ houses, friends who were understandably less than keen on sharing their Atari and then Colleco and then Nintendo and Sega, so it’s a chicken-or-the-egg thing. The other game I mastered, also Nintendo, and which for a time served as a source of serious pride and local acclaim, was Super Mario Brothers, the original, the first of the narrative/shortcut/knowledge games which were all the rage until Doom and first-person, which I never got into. (Nowadays the first-person games contain way more involved storylines and require a far more complex store of knowledge than even SMB, like light-years beyond, which just about blows my mind.) I can still say with confidence that at the time I probably knew more about that game than anyone living. The thing was, you didn’t have to go through every level to save the princess. You could bypass huge portions of the game if you knew a few shortcuts. Most everyone who won the game used the shortcuts and then stopped playing--after all, they’d won it--but I reached a level so obsessed that I needed to win without shortcuts and also without losing a single life. You could get ninety-nine lives, by the way, if you knew which brick to jump into, and my goal was saving the princess with no shortcuts and the full complement of ninety-nine lives. That meant 64 total levels, as opposed to the ten or so you needed to win with shortcuts, and they saved a lot of the best, most dangerous stuff for those middle levels, knowing that most everyone would skip them. It behooved the video-game companies, early on, to make games relatively easy to win; people had to be incrementally trained to enjoy the challenge of a game that takes months and consultation with other experts to win, market research has shown. See, if they’d made everybody climb the wall of lava-breathing turtles, the majority would have given up. That was the video game industry’s early genius; they got who they could and addicted the rest. I did a case study in B-school. Of course, we never had the money to keep up, and by the time I’d reached all my goals people had stopped playing Super Mario Brothers I went through a kind of withdrawal, more from the acclaim than the game itself, I have to admit.
Girls I like I take out once or twice to nice places and just pick at my food. It’s not that I couldn’t eat it if I were starving, I just make sure to down a Whopper or two before we go out. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but large quantities of fast food, like two or more Whoppers, three or more double cheeseburgers (four from McDonald’s), or four Wendy’s junior cheeseburgers deluxe, have an almost Xanaxian effect on you. It’s impossible to be nervous on a bellyful of Burger King, so the girl is impressed (by your serenity, not the Whoppers, which you don’t tell her about) even more. If she’s particularly uptight, I just drop the food into my napkin, if I suspect she’ll hassle me about not eating, and if I like them I take them out once or twice and then kind of drop the bomb on them, that we can’t go out any more. Almost invariably, they accuse me of not being really rich, which is usually a sign I ought to drop them anyway. But if I really like them I’ll try to explain things logically and rationally, without too much scary-sounding Oedipal business, and I’ll assure her I am very rich. This has never worked. If I don’t like them, I’ve set a personal limit of four dinners, which is half of eight, and if we haven’t had sex by that point I drop her. I usually only need to have sex with them once before the dinners become too onerous. Have you ever tried to sit through a professional dinner without eating? It’s Chinese water torture.
My condo: definitely old school, never gangsta style. A lot of my friends try to live somewhere trendy, close to South Street or in the Warehouse District. They do up their apartments in dark colors and abstract art (although I myself have two Callisons) and slight mismatches and have pride. Mine occupies half the floor below the top floor of a famous building overlooking Love Park. My understanding is that the original plans called for my floor to be cut diagonally: two triangular apartments. That’s gangsta style. I would never buy a triangular apartment. Even with my wealth I would never take a risk like that. My friends call me conservative, but I don’t think that’s it.
One of the great things about being rich in a city like Philadelphia is that you can get McDonald’s or Burger King (always the two-headed serpent kings of the fast-food world to me) delivered any time, day or night, if you’re willing to pay enough, which of course I am. I’ve become a profligate tipper, although I’m careful not to seem ostentatious. On a $14 delivery, I’ll hand a over a twenty, no questions asked. If the delivery takes more than forty-five minutes, I ask for $2 back, which is still nearly 30%. There is no better way to start your day than with three Egg McMuffins and two orders of hash browns in your own robe in your own home. My robe remains terrycloth, albeit high-quality plush terrycloth.
One of the last real girls I asked out worked at a café I never go to. A meeting ended early and I needed a cup of coffee, and I hadn’t wanted to ask my hosts because it’s a sign of weakness and these were high-stakes negotiations. You can’t flinch a bit. You don’t get to where I am without knowing how to fake alertness in the face of desperate exhaustion, or else use the outward appearance of sleepiness as a tactic. But now that things were over I needed coffee. I even considered a depth charge, a big cup of coffee with a shot of espresso, preferably cold-filtered. The place was right across the street (this was down on 29th, I don’t remember where), Le Café Mahon. The girl made pleasant banter, which I parried although ignored, but then out on the street I somehow dribbled my first swallow down my chin and onto my shirt. I ought to have been more pissed (that shirt cost almost $400 and was ruined now), but the negotiations had gone well and I just went back inside and she said, “Couldn’t stay away from me, huh?” There was no one in line, and I inexplicably smiled back and said, “No, just spilled some coffee.”
“Do you want a refill?” she asked, reaching. “The coffee is bottomless.”
“No, thanks, I just spilled a little on my shirt and I want to wipe it off.”
It was totally unlike me to talk like this. She laughed. Feeling something, I asked her then if she wanted to go to the Phillies game with me that night, saying I had been planning on going, which was kind of true. Baseball hot dogs just about can’t be beat, I said. She looked kind of stunned, and asked if I was serious. I said I was, still smiling but beginning to panic. She said she’d have to think about it. I asked her what time she got off work. She said six. I said I’ll stop back then. She said OK, and was smiling, which made me feel confident.
The girl was young, but I didn’t think about this at the time. She seemed normal-young. I did, though, when I returned at 6:20, mostly due to traffic on Chestnut, and she was nowhere to be found. I went inside and asked the ethnic man behind the counter, who seemed to be the owner, where she was. He said that she got off at 6 but had only left five minutes before, he wasn’t sure why she had stayed late. I tried to pump him and he said something about her not being allowed use her cell phone on school nights. I asked him if he had her cell number. He mumbled something about college someday, continuing to sweep. Then he said that this had been her last day, which in time took on a symbolic significance.
All of which is backstory to this really awkward exchange with the very last I girl I went honestly out with, whom I genuinely liked. The thing that doomed my relationship with Carla was that we had been friends first, peers, even, and the first time I took her out on a true date, by which point we’d already slept together twice, I kind of tried to play it real smooth. We’d been good friends for a long time, and then we started Xing, and I thought this would probably impress her: I said something like, “Just because we’ve been friends, I don’t want to be deprived of the opportunity to go out on true/real dates with you.” I thought this would make me the sensitive guy, and just kind of generally impress her with how much I liked and respected her, but not in any kind of needy or annoying way. And so we go out on this date, to a real nice restaurant, not Lomita, but still nice. You wouldn’t just go there under normal circumstances. It was a date. I paid, of course, and but so in the car afterwards, she says next time she’ll take me out. As in pay. And I kind of object to this, in principle. I say it would emasculate me. I really do feel this way. She says that’s no way for our relationship to proceed according to the egalitarian grounds on which it must proceed if it is going to succeed. She is half-joking, but also serious. She’s a feminist, but awkward. And she asks how I propose she can really keep her end of the bargain, if I’m always paying. Now I wasn’t saying that I would always pay, only that I didn’t really feel comfortable with her paying for me. We make about the same amount of money. Only I don’t say this. I say: “You can give me blowjobs.” And that was pretty much the end of the relationship right there. It wasn’t too much later that I found out about the Agency.
It’s an early Sunday in Eagle season and I wake drenched in sweat, sitting up for a minute staring, forgetting. It’s very cold. I can’t sleep if it’s not cold. I throw back a triangle of covers and swing around and plant my bare feet on the hardwood floor, cold. I wear a pair of red flannel pajama-type pants with no shirt. It couldn’t have been more than sixty in the bedroom.
Out in the hall I saw Amy as if from a great distance, standing at the kitchen counter mixing something with apparent deftness in a metal bowl, sucking on one finger. The microwave oscillated and hummed and pots and pans on two of the four burners bubbled on the stove. She stood there mixing, pleasantly tousled, in white socks going a little brown around the edges, one of my button-down shirts down almost to her knees, and pink panties, I knew, even though I couldn’t see them. I had mentioned offhand to my case manager that I liked them wearing my shirts over pink panties back at the beginning and it’s just stuck. She was very very pretty and saw me and took her finger out of her mouth and smiled and waved, and as soon as I was a little more awake I would throw her down somewhere and have sex with her. I sat down on a stool across from her, slumped, and didn’t say anything when she wished me good morning. I could see her trying to figure out whether to kiss me good morning. It was good that she didn’t.
Last night we sat in the living room with the lights out and listened to the dwindling Phillies on the radio and passed back and forth a bottle of ’93 St. Remy Beaujolais. The wine sometimes makes me miss Richie Ashburn, but last night it seemed OK that he was gone, although Harry Kalas still sounds woeful and sad. They pair him up now with these total assholes, guys who went to college and majored in Broadcast Journalism. But at least he’s still alive.
I listened to the endless off-key mixing of metal on metal until I could no longer stand it and I got up from the stool and went around the island and stood behind Amy mixing, pressing against her. I put my arms around her soft middle and squeezed, wanting to squeeze her much harder than I did, as hard as I could. But that would have hurt her. Instead I pressed my face into the gentle upward arc of her shoulder and neck, my impatient chin and two days of stubble digging past my shirt, my own goddam shirt, it belonged to me and had cost almost $400. I struggled past her brilliant red hair entangling my nose and cheeks and closed my eyes, cleared it away with a series of gentle plosives, my skin to her skin. She smelled like the wordless gestalt flight of pigeons from power lines, like the atelier storage of objet d’arts, like she had just woken up, like possibility, which always gets me going. She stiffened and then relaxed, reflexively. I felt the sharp intake of air, and then thought she might be smiling. I know these girls. She tried to turn around, but I held her.
“Rich,” she finally said. “Breakfast’ll burn.”
My great-grandfather worked as the night doorman in a big downtown hotel. I never met him, he died before I was born, but my grandmother used to tell me that he called whenever Bernini came on the radio he kept playing quietly behind the desk, no matter what time it was. Sometimes I get nostalgic for the radio. I haven’t listened to the radio since I was a kid, barely, except for baseball. Before I took my first bite of something vaguely fishy, I felt an intense longing for the radio, for that uncertainty. They might go months without playing Bernini, but even though you have the record right there the surprise is so much better on the radio. Then he left the hotel and opened up a shoe store that failed. This was down on Bainbridge, where Bernini and de Bussy were my young grandmother’s favorites.
The girl sat on the floor and leaned against me and kept perfectly still while I ate, slowly, which made me like her a little more. I don’t keep the rest of the house as cold as the bedroom, but it was still pretty fucking cold. The bare hardwood must have been literally freezing her ass off.
After I was done I got up and told Amy it was time to take a shower. I like long hot showers, long enough to fuck her twice. I felt much better as we dried each other off. I always feel good after a long hot shower, which is one reason why I hate work, because you can’t take a long shower and still be at the office by seven. Or that could just be why I love long hot showers so much, and hate work for entirely different reasons. But that train of thought just left the station, and I had no interest in getting on.
Then I remembered the screaming matches of the early ’80s, how I always got up before my older brother so I could shower first, and how in the winter I just stood there in the steam, hunched over, trying to get as much of my body under the water as possible. Every morning was the same, him pounding on the door and screaming, Mom finally telling me that I was taking too much time, infringing on other people’s rights and wasting water and costing too much money and I’d better get out within a hundred-and-twenty seconds, and finally I would and Eric would punch me in the arm, hard, as I walked out. I had a permanent yellowish bruise on my right arm and couldn’t wear short-sleeved shirts until Eric graduated to college. But it just felt so fucking good to be in the shower. Alone. I didn’t blame him for being pissed, even at the time, not really. But I couldn’t stop.
“What are you thinking about?” Amy asked, playfully slapping me on the ass. I broke into a full-fledged grin for what felt like the first time in a long time. I snapped her with my towel and she shrieked and ran from the bathroom. I lurched after her, ignoring the Achilles I burst playing squash and that still acts up when the weather changes. We ended up on the bed again, still unmade and smelling more like her than me, cuddling, I guess, snuggling, or whatever. I lay there, propped up on two pillows, and she lay next to me with her head on my chest. We were both still naked. I turned on the TV. An NFL Sunday is damn near a holiday, but a commercial snapped me out of my reverie. One of those bankruptcy attorneys.
“Is the debt piling up? Do you see no way out? Are you afraid to answer your own phone in your own house because bill collectors are harassing you? You didn’t kill anyone …” All of a sudden I remembered something I didn’t even know I’d forgotten. Remembering was like a handful of coins scattering across a metal surface.
“Shit,” I said, and sat up so suddenly my torso kind of threw her head away from my body. I couldn’t remember Bill’s last name, maddeningly. He was George’s partner. George was my best friend, from college. He is gay. We hadn’t spoken in more than two years. Where had my best friend gone? Not since I went out to visit them in Oregon, where George is an orthopedic surgeon. It was a good visit, a great time. Bill, in finance like me (venture capital, I’m in investment banking), could really hold his liquor. I was impressed.
During Senior Week, just before graduation, George and I picked up this slob in a bar. He wasn’t gay yet. She was just some slob. We bought her drinks, I guess. Who knows what we said, and then we went back to our apartment and fucked her. We fucked the shit out of her. George did her from behind while I fucked her mouth, and the bitch was just loving it. We had talked about this. We high-fived over her bent body, just as we’d planned, if it ever happened. Neither of us believed it would ever happen.
It wasn’t too long out of college when he told me. I’ve never asked him about that night, and never told anyone about it, not even one of these girls, and you can tell them anything. It wasn’t one of those, “I always suspected” kind of things. I had no idea, but we were still best friends. I was always proud of myself for that.
I sat there in bed, rigid, thinking about all this. I sort of distantly noticed Amy still lying there beside me but not touching me, looking up at my face for an explanation. It occurred to me that I had no idea what Amy’s last name was, and that under the circumstances that was entirely appropriate. It was that second fact that made me sad. I got out of bed for and began putting on clothes.
“Rich?” I pulled up and cinched closed a pair of navy slacks. I hated that I couldn’t wear jeans into the office, not even on weekends.
“Rich? Do you want me to ...” But she just kind of stopped. I couldn’t think of any good way for her to finish that sentence. I walked out of the bedroom, shirt still untucked, still half-unbuttoned, for Christ’s sake. I called back to her, “I’m going to work,” and I packed up my briefcase and walked out the door and got in the elevator with the patent attorney down the hall. We’ve played squash a few times, but I really didn’t feel like talking. I walked out into the stagnant underground parking lot. I got in my car, which I had first seen and liked in a certain James Bond movie, and pulled out with a good deal more squeaking of tires than was absolutely necessary.
I kept my mind blank during the drive. This made me admire myself, quietly. It wasn’t that long a drive; the streets were deserted. Early Sunday afternoon. I sat at the final light before I could pull into another underground parking lot, thinking nothing. I didn’t even have a CD going. I looked left and saw two men sleeping on park benches. It was unseasonably cool for late September. You got a hint of fall. I saw the light turn green but there were pedestrians right in front of me, a man and a woman. The man was nearest to me, maybe my age but very fat, and he wore a stretched and stained and threadbare T-shirt that I just knew before I even read it expressed something witty, some witty burbling thought. He didn’t even seem to be thinking about holding up traffic. Someone behind me honked. He was holding hands with a tall thin girl, taller than him, and of course much thinner. She was very homely, long stringy hair and ugly glasses, just like you’d expect. She had her right hand over her mouth, laughing at something the fat man was saying. I had the top up, so I couldn’t hear what it was. They walked past me and the road opened up like a ribbon on your big Christmas present, a straight shot to our building and right into another garage, but I couldn’t look away. I watched them step up onto the curb, and she took that hand away from her mouth and used it to smooth the front of her floral print dress. She was very ugly, but still smiling. Now people were honking at me. I couldn’t even see their faces any more. He had to lean back when he walked, he was so fat. The girl looked like she might be one of those unfortunate ugly girls who isn’t even very smart. His jeans stretched taut across his thighs. The honking situation was now getting extreme. A bus sped by, blocking my view of them, briefly. It broke whatever spell, and I turned the wheel hard right and gunned the engine and sped off down the side street, away from the office. The car doesn’t have as much power as you’d think, which always pissed me off. But it is a very beautiful car.
I didn’t know where I was going until I got to Veterans Stadium. I had the sudden idea that I might see a Phillies game. I might even call Amy and tell her to get her ass over here, too. The traffic seemed awfully heavy for a meaningless late-season Phillies game, though. There’s always another Pat Combs. I paid my $12 and parked, but I didn’t get out. I turned on the radio to listen to the pregame. The Phillies were in Atlanta. It was an Eagles game, a hour from kickoff. I looked around and it all made sense. A small group of tailgaters staring speculatively at the Beemer. I pulled out my cellular phone, which I’d bought just weeks before. Early adopter. Rich.
“Beautiful day for a football game,” someone was saying. “Almost fifty-five degrees right now, should be up to sixty by half-time. Not a hint of a breeze. No clouds overhead. Beautiful day for a football game, as young Donovan McNabb is scheduled to make his first pro start.”
I listened to this and leaned back against the headrest and closed my eyes, phone still in hand. I thought about Bill and wondered if I had hugged him, even once, that time I visited. I sure as hell had hugged George, I had no doubt. But I couldn’t be so sure about Bill.
“Doug Pederson …” Some kind of ionic burst of something dissolved the broadcast into static for a few seconds and I didn’t hear what they had to say about poor old Doug Pederson. I don’t follow the Eagles too closely. I wondered why Harry Kalas, the voice of NFL Films for chrissakes, doesn’t do Eagles games.
“Let’s go!” someone outside shouted. The car was still running and the a/c was on and it was fucking freezing in there. I could barely feel my fingers well enough to dial the phone.
I realized I didn’t know their number. I swore, was more dismayed than angry, and rooted around in my leather briefcase for my address book. I tried to remember a time when I hadn’t known George’s number by heart. I found the book and dialed again. I prayed to God that Bill didn’t answer.
“Hello?” It was a woman’s voice. I hung up quickly and looked at the number again and redialed slowly. The same voice. My handwriting was very clear, though.
Driving home, I listened to young Donovan McNabb’s first NFL start turn disastrouss. By the end of the first quarter and he was 1 for 7 for 7 yards, with two interceptions, three sacks, and a fumble. The Eagles trailed 21-0. But I didn’t feel sorry for him at all. He’s young, it’s natural. Things would get better. It’s tough to be an NFL quarterback, and besides that he’s already rich.
I pulled back into my parking space at home and wondered when the last time a whole weekend had gone by without my going into the office. But I didn’t worry about it. It would be fine. I nodded and smiled at Jim, our doorman, whose wife just had a baby. I had my secretary send over a very expensive gift of some kind, but I’m not sure what it was. I really smiled at him, though. Genuine.
The elevator dinged softly as it sped up to the nineteenth floor, but not so quickly as to be crass. I unlocked the door to the condo and walked in and closed and locked the door behind me. Amy came out of the bathroom with an armful of toiletries and then stopped short. I didn’t know, and didn’t want to know.
“Oh,” she said when she saw me. “I didn’t expect you back so soon.”
“I didn’t go to the office,” I said. She nodded and then averted her gaze downward. I didn’t say anything. She wore jeans and a cashmere sweater I had bought her, hair pulled back in a classy casual ponytail.
“Listen,” she said, and looked up at me, but that was another sentence she couldn’t finish. She just kept looking back down.
“What’s all this?” I said, walking toward her.
“I know you’re not happy. And I just thought ... I’d save you the trouble. I don’t want you to stop using the Agency. That would look bad for me.”
The great oak grandfather clock in the corner said it was almost two. It was a beautiful piece, the only thing my family had ever owned that I had on display. My mom had a thing for clocks. It was the nicest thing anyone in our family ever had, until I got rich.
“No.” I thought of young Donovan McNabb, who had gone number two overall in the most recent NFL draft. “That would look very bad for you.”
“So I just thought …”
My mother had been talking about that clock for years. It was handmade, somewhere in Europe. I have no idea how much it cost, but I’m sure it was a lot. More than we could afford, when I was a kid. She had a real thing for clocks.
“You just thought,” I said. I closed the short distance remaining between us. Her hands were too full for me to take one of them in mine. Instead I brushed the back of my hand along her smooth downturned cheek and cupped the back of her neck with my hand, gently. It seemed unusually warm there.
“No,” I said. “Please stay.”
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