By three o'clock the blackbirds rocked quiet in the pine branches; but the winds were hot, accusing. I pointed to the trees.
“Do you think they could be ravens?” I asked.
"Go home," Corey said. ”They’re just some kind of crappy bird. Stop being an idiot.”
I didn’t want to leave. The plan was to hide myself there all day, finding one excuse or another not to be where I belonged.
“If she was really out looking for you, Matt, she’d know right where to come,” Corey said. “You’re no Houdini of Mystery, my friend.”
By mid-morning, I was sure Lisa had yelled my name down the fire escape and across the yard. She’d have checked the alley. She’d also have checked the shower, looked behind the couch. Cutting out on her this morning was one more thing for her to hate me for. Well, there are two more, if she counted last night. Which she will.
Last night was when Orff the landlord came by to say our air conditioner wouldn’t be fixed. He held his hand over the unit's vent, felt the pathetic spit of rancid air.
“We’re having a party tomorrow,” Lisa said. “Can’t you at least bring us another window unit?”
"But it ain't broken," he shrugs, "’til it don't work at all."
Lisa argued the point, and we agreed in advance that my part was keeping quiet and letting her handle it. The rent was cheap, and we couldn’t afford to move. Besides, Lisa was always better at cajoling. I’m not good with people.
While my wife did her best to reason with Orff, I looked down at his fat daughter. Her hair was clumped and tangled around Mickey Mouse sunglasses. Nobody combed it, which bothered me a lot. The kid sucked a grape popsicle that was dripping on our carpet, and some of it had puddled on her bulbous bare toes. Her toenails were painted a variety of low-class colors.
"Oink, oink," I said.
Orff and Lisa stopped arguing and looked at me. I thought I had said it under my breath, and knew immediately I had done something wrong. But they were both still staring, so I smiled at them and tried to make a joke. I pointed to the little girl's belly and blew my cheeks out like a blowfish.
“Stop it!” Lisa yelled.
Orff scooped his daughter into his arms and stormed to the door.
"You should die in your own sweat," he barked, banging down the stairway.
Lisa glared at me, her matted hair dripped sweat onto her face.
"You moron," she said. "I told you to stay quiet. What the hell is wrong with you? She’s a little girl!”
How could I explain myself? I’ve done this my whole life. It’s a “syndrome” according to all my old high school IEP materials, “characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction.”
“You know me, Lisa,” I said. “I don’t mean….”
“….I don’t care what you don’t mean, Matt. Is that how you treat a child? It’s getting worse and you need to make it stop.”
I knew what she meant. She meant I should go back to the therapies. I should go back to the old ways of ‘managing’ myself. I hate all of that. I don’t ever want to do any of it ever again.
“I’m done with meds,” I said. “They make me feel like shit.”
“Great,” Lisa said. “So you’re medication free and you make other people feel like shit.”
I didn’t want her to call my mother.
“Okay,” I lied. “I’ll see if our insurance covers any of my doctors.”
It was crappy insurance, subsidized, but with a huge deductible and a lot of “in network”, “out of network” complications. Neither of us had jobs that offered healthcare, so it was the best we could do. But the truth is, I’d already checked. Everybody was “out of network,” and we can’t afford to pay out of pocket for the doctors I used to see. I didn’t think it would be a big deal if I just went without, especially since like I said, I hated all that crap.
I’m only twenty-three, with six-figure student loan debt and loan companies that don’t give a shit when you tell them you’re working two part-time office jobs and still bartending for private parties and that you can’t afford to buy healthy food or get your bike fixed. Or, in my case, you can’t see the only doctors you trusted, the only ones who’d ever been able to help you with all your bullshit. I don’t like new people. I don’t trust new people. Probably because new people usually don’t like me.
I wanted a degree that would help me work in the music business. Like be a radio DJ or a music critic, or run my own music studio, or be one of those guys doing sound design for video games or movies or something. I love music. I’m the kind of guy who can tell you after listening to 8 bars whether a new band is something special or not. And I’m always right. I’d be a good talent scout…or whatever they are called this month. I’ve got an ear, and I’ve got a gut that tells me when I’m listening to real talent. Music makes me feel like life is worth living.
But I’m a fucking accountant. Why? Because my father demanded that I get a degree in something “marketable”, despite the fact that I was taking loans out myself for most of the stratospheric tuition.
I fought with him about it, at first. But I couldn’t point to one person I knew who got degrees in the arts or in humanities who could find good, full-time work in what they studied for. They were all bartending, babysitting, waiting tables, driving for Uber, delivering for Grubhub, serving coffee to the office workers at the neighborhood Starbucks. And the advising staff at the college offered little hope, pushing me into “business” classes as a “sensible option”. Sensible, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary means “having, containing, or indicative of good sense or reason.” I looked it up. But it isn’t reasonable to expect that there is a one-size-fits-all kind of sensible.
Thing was, I was too damned stupid to figure out more of what I needed to know before I followed the herd from high school right into college. My parents, who’d worried about me my whole life, were so relieved – they felt that just getting into college meant I would be okay. I didn’t know enough of anything; and when you don’t know enough, part of the problem is that you don’t know how much you don’t know.
Like – I didn’t know that the “sensible” degrees weren’t much better for being “marketable”….that since the Wall Street crash, most companies got wise to the fact that they could underpay everybody, hire part-time, withhold benefits. And also – all the people like me who knew what they loved and got talked out of doing that thing they loved, who then ended up in business majors or accounting majors or PR/marketing majors were now part of a flooded market of unhappy graduates with majors they hated, looking for jobs they were sure to hate in what was now a shit employment climate guaranteed to underpay them for the jobs they didn’t want in the first place. Oh, and they owed six-figure debt for a life they didn’t want to be living and now couldn’t afford to pay for.
I’ve figured out that much.
What I’m feeling all the time now feels like what people call a mid-life crisis. But I’m not mid-life. I’m 23. By traditional standards, I should have at least two dozen more good years before I start hating myself and feeling like a failure at everything. I cry in the shower in the morning. I have dizzy spells from misery. Sometimes I think about dying. A lot of the time I think about dying. Sometimes I can’t breathe. I wonder: does marriage mean Lisa has to pay back MY loans if I step in front of a bus? Then I wonder: shouldn’t an accountant know that sort of thing?
There is no use explaining this to Lisa. She didn’t listen to her parents, or to the advisors. She got a BFA in visual art, with a minor in art technology. Her debt is six-figures, too. She works at Blick Art Supplies, as a framer. She works as a dog-walker. She works freelance for a few graphic design studios. But she doesn’t hate herself the way I do. She still paints. Her canvases are set against the walls around our apartment, and her easel is up in the back stairway, where light is strong in the afternoons. Her friends are artists. When they’re here, our apartment smells of linseed oil and hope. They are earnest, and believe themselves to be on a path. They talk about moving to East Berlin. Some of them actually do. But now it’s too gentrified, they say in their postcards. So maybe we’ll try Leipsiz, or Tallinn, they say. Or Lisbon. Bucharest. Maybe Eindhoven. I don’t mock them. I envy them. They still believe in the search for that elusive thing that makes a good life. Not only do they believe in it, more and more of them are packing their bags and doing that searching.
Last night’s oinking incident led to Lisa throwing things, so I spent the night on the fire escape and woke up at five am from the birds screeching the way they do at dawn. The oily sweat on my face was so thick that my hands slid over my forehead, when I pushed the hair out of my eyes. I leaned toward the back screen door just close enough to peek through. My eyes focused and I made out the silhouette of Lisa's piled up art debris. Her drying canvases, jars of paintbrushes, bottles of tempra, sketchbooks; in shadow, it looked like a world in ruin. Beyond that, lurking in the kitchen, was La Rage herself, Lisa, cleaning cookie sheets in the sink, and it wasn’t even sunrise. I wondered: did she even sleep? In the growing dawn, I saw her short purple-black hair was matted to the back of her head, like a boy's. Sweat ran down her chest into the crack between her breasts, I saw that as clearly as if I were next to her. That dark wetness spread across her t-shirt like a developing continent. She was in there doing everything alone when I should have been helping her. Instead, I was lurking on the fire escape oozing sweat and self-hatred.
We’re supposed to be having a party for our third anniversary. We got married while we were still undergraduates, after Lisa came back from her semester abroad in Rome, after we’d missed each other so much it was like coming through a long, deadly sickness, like cholera. Being married started feeling like something serious only about a year ago. Before then it didn’t feel like much of anything different, since we were sharing a house off campus with five other students and living like we were in the cast of Rent….probably because two of the women who lived with us actually were in the cast of Rent from the theatre department musicals and the songs were playing around the house all day every day.
As I watched my wife through the screen door, a kind of fear washed through my body, and I realized something: I didn’t want to be married if it was going to be just one more serious thing. One more disappointing thing.
Frightened to tell Lisa this, or to even talk to her at all, I slid away quick from the screen door and crawled backward down the stairs. I wound up at Corey's, but felt the pulsation of Lisa's anger growing through the hours, rising like the heat.
Corey was fixing a carburetor. "Your party's in four hours asshole," he said, as if my mind wasn't counting time all day. "You gotta face it sometime."
"I hate my life," I said to him.
"What's there to hate?" he said over his shoulder. "You're renowned around here. Philadelphia's worst accountant."
It's true. I stink at what I do. Each day I go into an office, I make a mess of somebody else's finances. I wear shirts Lisa bought for me at the AIDS Thrift store – where all the sales go to help find a cure, not where you go to get the disease. Most of these shirts have small blue geese flying east across my chest. I don't how she found so many identical, terrifying shirts.
"Why east?" I asked her. “These geese are flying the wrong way.”
“They were cheap,” she said. “Besides,” she squinted at me, “what do you know about the flight of geese?”
“They fly north or south. Are these geese fleeing a nuclear holocaust? Disoriented from the flaming landscape?”
“Matt, please shut up. You can wear them or not wear them. Don’t start obsessing about the damned geese. Don’t start researching geese, or lecturing me about geese. Burn the shirts for all I care.”
"All day I'll have to lean," I said, "just to move these birds in the right direction."
I leaned to the right to make them go north, to the left if winter is coming.
“Anyway, actually,” I said, “they are fowl.”
Lisa, of course, thought I said foul and it required a complicated bit of conversation to convince her I wasn’t insulting her gift. Or, at least, not continuing to insult her gift.
Corey says I’ve gotta face it sometime. But he's never had to sleep with a wife, or know how scary it was that you didn’t even feel an urge for sex anymore. He's never smelled a woman’s turpentine-soaked skin right up against his and had to be still, pretending to sleep all the time resenting her for the fact that she still got to be something similar to what she wanted. He's not bound by the endless stress and mortification of marriage that includes that kind of anger or regret you can’t ever express.
So I asked him, "What do you know?" and allowed myself the luxury of lying face down in the grass behind his garage, breathing in the earth's aroma, wishing that it didn’t make me think of Febreze commercials.
“We know each other since we were in diapers, man,” he answered. Which is true.
Still, what does Corey know? He’s the working class equivalent to a trust fund baby. His Uncle Vinnie retired and gave him his autobody shop. Corey worked there from when we were kids, and now he’s got a business with three bays, a booming book of customers, and no boss who can cut his hours, deny him sick days, torture him with “best practices” that change every week. He has no student loans. He’s already bought a house in the booming Passyunk corrider, where all the hipsters are dying to live. He even has a second place he rents to those hipsters, who like me, can’t afford to own anything. He was the one who clowned around in high school, who found time to laugh and blow off homework. He’s the one Father O’Brien said would be selling pizzas from a van in the school parking lot. Now he owns a parking lot, open air, in Old City. He says it’s all about building passive income.
Corey played it right, somehow. He never went through the humiliation of SATs or college applications, or the hell of the bullshit college “core” classes that you paid for but learned nothing from. He didn’t have to struggle with the Special Ed. Advisor who knew nothing about any of your accommodations, or about being “on the spectrum”. She sent a meaningless form letter via email to my professors, who also knew nothing about special education support. Every single semester I had to suffer through the same conversations and haul copies of my old high school IEP in, to talk to them about extended time, and sensory integrative issues, and how the fact that I don’t make eye contact doesn’t mean I’m disrespectful. I was so sick of hearing from my therapists that I had to “advocate” for myself. The truth was, most of my teachers just thought I was one of those spoiled brats who bothered them about their “emotional triggers”.