Chris and Tamara take me to dinner one weekend while I’m visiting Birmingham. They pick me up in their white Park Avenue and we drive for miles outside town to a place called Mangiani’s. The place is built into the first two floors of an old Victorian house, a place that should probably be torn down.
“You look good,” Chris says, slugging me on the arm and then waving at the bartender. “You like Rolling Rock, right?”
Tamara is 25. Which means she’s about 20 years younger than we are. She’s pretty. So pretty that I just want to blow my brains out, if you understand what I’m talking about. Chris, meanwhile, is old like me. We’ve long since lost any tilt at the wheel, any kick at the cat. He’s pudgy, bald, and except for his $300 Abercrombie and Fitch sweater, he’d fit in at any AA meeting, or any carnival operator’s reunion.
“You should hear him talk about you,” Tamara says when Chris goes to sign up for the next table. “He says you were the wild man.”
“Yeah, well that was a lot of years ago,” I say.
“Hey,” Chris says, coming back, “we get the table after those people.” He points at a wildly adorned group, husband, wife, kids all in matching red short sets.
My wife left me on a beautiful winter evening, right around Christmas. It was a gigantic relief. We hated each other, and the life we had made, and when she backed out of the driveway, her clothes and shoes in boxes I had taped up for her, it was like I’d won the lottery. I ordered pizza and opened a good bottle of wine, and watched a Drew Barrymore movie on DVD until I fell asleep.
At two in the morning I stood out on the driveway in front of our house and smoked a cigar. I let the cold seep inside me like it was a liquid. When I got tired of standing there I sat down, cross-legged, on the driveway. I listened to the sound of the wind working on my garage door. I flicked my lighter to make little sparks of light, and felt myself grow more and more anchored in the neighborhood, being so close to the ground and all.
The next morning my wife came by to get more stuff. I fried her eggs like she liked, and we laughed about something that had happened a long time ago. We talked about selling the house and splitting the money before we did the divorce. She stayed an extra hour so we could watch the Antiques Roadshow together, and she left again.
Chris is making us eat one of his shrimp. He’s got one speared on a three tine, water-stained fork that’s pointed right at my mouth. “You gotta taste this. It’s tangy in a way that tangy hasn’t been since we were kids.”
His head is sweating. His eyes are open and bright and I think he’s trying to hard to be young for his new young girlfriend. She, meanwhile, is smarter than both of us. Smart enough not to be with Chris. But they’re sweet together, and I don’t know why I think I have anything to say about it.
“So the wife sent you packing,” Chris says, smiling like he’s created the phrase just for this moment.
It makes me a bit hot and I’d like to tell him to stuff it. We’ve got enough past that I can think 200 things to say now that would reveal him in his true inadequacy in front of his child bride. But I don’t.
“It must be hard after all those years,” Tamara says, swirling around some fey California table wine that I saw cost $36 a bottle.
“No,” I say. “After that many years, it’s easy.”
Chris raises a glass and tips it at me like we’re all in a Noel Coward play.
Our busboy brings us some bread and sets in the middle of all of us. Tamara takes a piece. Chris tears a piece in two and dabs his half in the butter on his plate.
The walls of the place grow tighter.
I met Emma after college. She was working two floors below me at a conservation non-profit. I saw her at lunch some days, and after a while we’d sit together, talk about things. I was big and boorish, unschooled. She was brilliant and bright. She shone. She was like a new, freshly-minted person each day. When we married, suddenly, and at great surprise to her friends and mine, I thought I’d gotten lucky. I figured we were at an axis. She, rising. Me, falling. I had duped her enough to get in while the getting was good.
We became new people, though. I read what she thought I’d like. I worked harder at work. I became a better man over those years.
Chris and I ran together in high school. We drank Thunderbird and raced his Corolla around Columbia, Mississippi. His dad ran the bank. His mom taught at the high school. My folks worked at the Weyerhauser paper factory. We once stole Missy Rudolph’s car and rolled it right onto the railway tracks, waiting for a train. When morning came, nothing had happened. We took it back and parked it, careful to roll the windows up because it looked like rain.
We lost touch after I went to college. He moved west, and after messing around for a while, he went to college, got a degree, and started working for a newspaper in Spokane, Washington. He sent me a postcard once of large trees. This is all I know about Spokane to this day.
One day, ten years ago, while my marriage was going good, the phone rang. It was Chris. He was coming back to the South. He was moving to Birmingham to run the paper there. He wanted to catch up.
Tamara is spilling tens and twenties on the table while the waiter waits for us to pay. The place is empty. Everyone is long gone.
“The food was superb,” Chris says to the guy, for what is probably the third time.
“I don’t have enough,” Tamara says, looking at Chris.
“Did I give enough,” I say. “Here’s another twenty.”
She slaps the money together, gives it to the guy and we’re in the clear. A busboy clears the dessert dishes and lights start going off all through the place.
When we’re getting into the car, Chris says, “Didn’t you get any change? How much of a fucking tip did you give that guy?”
When Chris came to visit us in Atlanta, Emma and I had been going good. We were in the babymaking process. We had been trying for years, and had just gotten the go-ahead from our doctor to start up again.
“You old dog,” Chris said. He came in our house and hugged me. With one hand he waved at Emma, who he’d never met. “Hey there, pretty lady. I need the shitter first thing, is that all right, then we’ll get acquainted.”
Chris and Emma hit it off. She laughed at his stories about living in the west, about his writing, about a book he was trying to finish. We drank beer that I had bought just that day. It hadn’t gotten cold yet and it tasted pissy and weak.
“You sound like you’ve been everywhere,” Emma said once, and I got this sick feeling in my stomach. Like I was second best. Like I wasn’t good enough.
When Chris left after dinner and dessert, Emma and I cleaned up. “I know he’s an old friend,” she said. “But he’s an asshole.”
Tamara is pouting. Chris is driving back to my hotel. I’m in town to help negotiate the signing of a deal for my company. My watch says it’s past midnight, and that seems awfully late. Chris has got this CD playing that tells me all I need to know about him now. It’s something I’ve never heard. Loud and ugly music. It’s music for kids. If you’re 26, you listen to this. If you’re 45, like we are, you don’t. You hate it. You hear it for the dull, empty noise that it is. But he’s banging his hand on the steering wheel and shouting out the occasional line.
Tamara swivels in her seat and looks back at me. “Do you have any more of those cigarettes,” she says.
I pass her the last one out of my pack and she lights it with a small yellow lighter she holds oddly between her fingers. After she takes a drag from it, she passes it back to me, and I feel very good, like this is the thing I’ve been waiting for all my life, to share a cigarette with a pretty girl long after the evening has passed.
Months later, long after I’ve pretty much forgotten the trip at all, Chris phones me on a sunny Saturday morning.
“The chick broke my heart,” he opens with. “She took the love train back to an old boyfriend.”
“That blows,” I say. I’m standing over the sink flicking the bad parts of blackberries into the disposal.
“This kid she’s back with runs the Jaguar dealership. She said he had a kind of hold over her, even all this time. What do you make of that?”
I don’t have any response to Chris and I tell him. We talk about how many boxes she took out of his place, and about some scene they went through in front of some friends and then we hang up.
The next night I’m watching TV in the pitch black and the phone rings again.
“I don’t get it,” he says. It’s almost a whisper. “I mean, you’ve gone through this, right? You watched ‘em walk right out the door. What did you do?”
On TV a big burly man is carrying a car bumper on his shoulders as he runs up a steep and rocky hill. He’s wearing a racing singlet and black boots.
“Did you go crazy like this,” Chris says.
I just let the silence work a while longer. Then I hang up. I get up and look at the boxes all around me.
Emma and I are trying again. We’re giving up this house and our jobs and we’re moving south about four hundred miles. We’ve rented a little house on the water, and we’re going to take a few months off from the world. We imagine the new location, the new view will have an effect, a positive spin of some kind.
She had called a month ago to talk about all of it. I was sitting on the back patio, drinking some red wine of hers I had found long after she left. I told her that and she remembered the bottle and the price. “We got it that weekend in Virginia,” she said. “We got it that weekend it rained all the time.”
“I remember that the place we stayed had that really good macaroni. Do you remember that?”
Emma’s coming here tomorrow morning to help me pack the rest of my stuff. We’ve got a small trailer hooked up to her SUV and she’s already put her stuff in it. The big furniture is in storage. We have a key and a receipt, but it feels like everything we had is gone. I’d be happy to leave it all behind.
I’ve got some books, CDs, my laptop, some copies of my resume. I’ve got a cooler ready to be filled with some cold pasta and tuna.
I call Chris back after midnight. I can hear music in the background; his voice when he answers is slow and slurred.
“There isn’t anything I know that I could tell you,” I say. “There’s nothing to be learned. You don’t get it like magic. You can’t find it out from anyone else.”
I’m resting my head against my bedroom window. I’m looking over the ghostly back yard, the grass too long and the hedges casting shadows that look like little animals.
“I don’t know any more than anyone else. But I’ve put in the time. When there were opportunities to run away from things, to cut my losses and go looking for some kind of rainbow filled with 20 year old girls and endless sushi buffets, I turned around and took another try at whatever it was that was killing me that week.”
I wasn’t even sure why I was saying it. It may not even have been entirely the truth. I wanted nothing more than to hang up and get some rest. I wanted to hear Emma’s key in the door; I wanted to load boxes and close this place and leave everything behind.
“I’m slipping away,” Chris says, but I stop him.
“You’re a baby. You could slip into adulthood if you wanted, but you clearly don’t want to.”
“Tamara broke my heart.”
“You don’t have a heart. You traded it for leather pants and a cowl necked sweater. You traded it so you could gel your hair.”
I hadn’t intended to be so mean, but something in me wants to hurt him, to make him pay for whatever inadequacy he had ever made me feel back in the old day.
I remember that evening in Birmingham with him and Tamara and I remembered the envy I felt for them, both of them. And I realize what I fool I was for any of it.
“You could turn it around if you wanted to. You could be a grown up. You could have anything I have. It’s easy.”
On our first evening in South Carolina, Emma cooks chicken with pecans over noodles. I open a bottle of red wine and put on a Dylan album. I’m acting my age; I almost say it out loud.