There is a woman at my office job, named Kirsten. She’s perfect. But it isn’t romantic. I’m not unfaithful. I venerate her, the way my religion venerates its saints. She's the mirror I hold up to my life, which reflects my incompleteness back at me. I adore her the way my mother always adored Padre Pio, even before he became a real saint. I could picture Kirsten appearing as a vision and guiding pilots through deadly storms. I believe if she concentrated, she could walk through barricades without needing a door. Kirsten makes living a fulfilled life look effortless in a way that must be God-ordained. You know those people, who always walk in celestial light, who have good credit, second homes in Steamboat, and Guatemalan housekeepers.
Her office was like a temple to her blessed state. Framed photos told the story: A Gladwyne family home. The Baldwin School. Clippings of her at cotillions cut from the Main Line Times. The Ivy League as a legacy. One of her great-grandfathers has a building on campus named after him. She was my social superior in every way. She was my age but already had her MBA, and was full-time at BDO where I only worked part-time on overflow. She’s engaged to a surgeon who invented some new procedure that got him interviewed on CNN.
I wished I could tell her that women were wrong to believe in grand marriages, perfect pregnancies, beautiful children. In my mind, I say to her: "Run away and be wild. Scream into the wind out the car window, and eat greasy food from a bag."
But Kirsten wouldn’t know what it meant to be wild. She would have to plan what passed as wildness, and dress appropriately. She is, in that way, incorruptible. And it’s stupid to think that somebody needs rescuing from perfection.
The truth is, it’s Lisa who would understand abandon. And, when I’m not feeling so damned sorry for myself, I think that she must miss feeling free, too. Especially now. There’s a small photo Lisa snuck onto my desk at BDO, even though I told her that other people shared the drawers when I wasn’t there. It’s a pose of her with a crown of lilies in her hair, which had pink highlights in those days, where she smiled slyly into the camera as if to deny that, two weeks before the picture, two weeks before our wedding, she was running wild through the streets of Rome with a crowd of art students from Naples. Running wild among the Berninis while I was back in Philadelphia struggling with classes where we studied abatements and accelerated depreciation, break-even units and defeasance. It hurt me to look at it, so I took the picture off the desk and slid it under the Coke machine in the lunch room. I should probably retrieve it and bring it home, since BDO just told me yesterday that they didn’t think they would have any overflow work for me next month. Which probably means no more overflow work from them again ever. Which means more bartending at weddings and holy communions and bar mitzvahs. I haven’t told a soul yet. I can’t even speak the words.
The hours passed and evening came. Though I did what I could to make amends with Lisa as the time of the party approached, the heat and the resentment kept building. We were barely speaking when people start showing up for the celebration.
"Matthew, my man," Corey said. He was standing at the kitchen door with a beer in his hand.
"Corrado," I said.
“I have something for you,” he said. “Anniversary present.”
It was in the yard, he said, and he could use some help carrying it up the fire escape stairs.
It was a 14,000 BTU free standing Mitsubishi air conditioner. I was grateful and mortified at the same time.
“Man, this is too expensive,” I said to him.
“Shut up and help me lug the damn thing up there,” Corey answered. “It’s heavy as fuck.”
It actually took a third guy, a friend from my bartending gigs, to help us haul it up those rickety stairs.
In the kitchen, Lisa hurried over. “What the heck is this?”
Corey nodded in my direction. “From your husband. In case you were wondering where the hell he was all day.”
Lisa whipped around toward me, “You bought this? I hope you didn’t put it on the credit card!”
I was too paralyzed by my friend’s lie to respond.
“Nah, no worries” Corey said. “We worked it out. My Uncle Vinnie still has connections down at the docks for some….let’s just call them steep discounts, okay?”
That much of Corey’s story was true. Working on the docks unloading shipments of all kinds of goods gave some of the men in our fathers’ and grandfathers’ generations access to some sweet merchandise.
Lisa hurried into the living room to make space for setting this giant cooler up.
“Man, Corey, I don’t know how to repay you for this,” I said.
“No sweat, Matt,” he said. “We’re square on one condition: that you promise never to do my taxes.”
So the party kept going, with Lisa liking me a little again, thanks to Corey and his lies on my behalf, and at one point I was standing in the yard around a trash can filled with ice and beer. One of the guys from the old neighborhood – Corey, or Mousie, or Stickman – dared me to do the old bobbing for beer cans trick I used to do when we were all still at Bishop Neumann High.
So I dipped my hand in, coming up with a palm full of ice to hold against my face, a way I learned that helped to prepare me for the shock of full immersion. Then, I lowered my face to the bin, breathing in the cold air and trying to loosen my jaw so I could open wide enough to snatch a can. My balance was off, probably from all the bourbon, so my face ended up deeper in the bin than I expected. Ice water rose over my forehead and into my hair and ears, and the cold shocked my brain as I fell farther into the chunks of ice and freezing water. I guess I stayed that way for a while, because when I came up for air, without a beer can in my teeth, the guys were laughing, and I was gasping. And when I came up, Kirsten was standing there, watching.
I never expected she’d really show up.
Right away I felt upset, imagining her inside my shitty apartment with its thrift store furniture and frayed carpets. She'd pause over the dead plants, fingering their parched brownness; the dust of vegetation death would come off on her fingertips. She'd see the rusting cage left behind by a parakeet, also long dead.
I quickly wiped the ice chips from my hair. “Did you meet Lisa?” I asked, afraid that she did.
She nodded. “It’s the strangest thing, Matt,” she said. “There was a framed picture of your wife that I found the other day, shoved under our soda machine in the break room. I pulled it out, but didn’t know who it was, or what to do with it. If I had known, I would have brought it to you tonight. I guess one of the other part-timers who use your desk must have done it.”
“Who’d be such a prick?” I asked.
Kirsten was standing beside someone who looked like Apollo, who was wearing a crisp white shirt and khakis. The surgeon. I knew without a doubt that I carried more germs than he'd seen in a lifetime, and couldn’t imagine how he was wearing a crisp white shirt in a heat wave that had been hitting us with temperatures in the 100s. The guy didn’t sweat.
"Welcome to the party," I said, gesturing wide. "Where you’ll see that my life is a steaming pit of impurity and sorrow."
It was probably the wrong thing to say. But I couldn’t get past the feeling that they were there to witness a person like me in my natural habitat. That being in this tiny back yard in a modest part of Bella Vista was something like standing at the Natural History Museum, looking at a diorama of a Cro-Magnon family.
“You know, I sometimes bartend private parties at the Merion Cricket Club,” I said.
Kirsten and the surgeon nodded, with looks of uncertainty on their faces.
“What I mean is that I’ve been to the natural habitat of the Muffy and Todd genus of human. Would that be homo opulentos? Or fortunatas sapiens? Anyway….. I’ve seen your dioramas, too.”
It was one of those times when I realized too late that most of the conversation I was having took place inside my own head, and that when I finally spoke out loud, no one would understand what the hell I was talking about.
Suddenly, Lisa was standing beside me. I was actually relieved. Somehow, she could always tell when I was getting myself into conversational trouble. I realized with a kind of shock that she looked very pretty. The purple in her hair caught the light of the moon, and her long vintage hippie dress looked kind of romantic.
“Forgive Matthew his catholic school Latin,” she said. “We really should try to speak it around the apartment more often, just to keep from getting rusty.”
Then she steered the conversation away from my incomprehensible topic. She started talking to Kirsten and the surgeon about their wedding.
“You two will have to come,” Kirsten said.
“I’d never pass the smell test, Kirsten,” I said. “I’m just a low life Italian kid from 9th and Wilder. The fact that somebody let me rent here at 8th and Bainbridge is a miracle thanks only to Lisa being beautiful and more classy than me. We’ll never get official papers allowing travel to the suburbs.”
“He’s funny,” said the surgeon.
The way he said it made me feel, again, like I was being observed behind thick glass. The Echo Spring I’d been drinking for the last several hours suddenly lurched into my throat and I knew I was going to be sick. Not having enough time to head upstairs to the bathroom, which would almost certainly be occupied by one of the party-goers, I waved a quick goodbye and left Lisa to smooth over my departure, as I rushed out into the alley.
There, I moved far enough down the row of buildings to muffle the sounds of vomiting, and I did my best to aim onto a grassy place where none of my neighbors would have to step over or into what decided to exit my body.
When I was finally okay, I raised myself to full upright standing, and walked from the back of the building to the front, through the alley way, into Letitia Street and back around to Bainbridge. Dampness from somebody’s sprinklers seeped into my canvas shoes around their edges, where the rubber soles met the toes. I stopped walking, feeling the spread of cold clamminess across my feet, looking up at the large, shining window of my apartment.
The cell phone in my pocket started ringing. It was my mother.
“Matthew, we’re running late,” she said. “Angela had an appointment with the nutritionist.”
I knew by her voice that Lisa had called her. There was a tone I knew from childhood that meant, “I’m acting normal, but you’re in deep shit.”
“Ma, it’s really hot, and the apartment is already really crowded….”
“….I didn’t say we aren’t coming, Matt. It’s your anniversary. “
I tried honesty. “Things aren’t good, Ma,” I said.
There was a silence, and then she said, “You think I don’t know that? A mother knows things.”
“Especially if a daughter-in-law tells her,” I said.
“It wasn’t Lisa,” she said.
My stomach sank. Mrs. Manzini, Lisa’s mother, who I still couldn’t call “Mom” because she terrifies me. It must have been her. The South Philly women’s network had been activated, and that meant real trouble.
“You keeping up with Dr. Stanfield?” my mother asked.
“She’s out of network,” I said.
“WE will pay,” she said. “Your father and I will pay.”
“NO,” I said. “You paid my whole damned life. You know, ma, you should have done it the old-fashioned way. Once you knew I was a deficient, you should have taken me to the woods and left me there. I would’ve been adopted by wolves, or eaten.”
“Fat chance,” she said. “I didn’t carry you in my body to feed you to wolves. Besides, you tell me where there are wolves in South Philadelphia.”
“Gypsies, then, or over the bridge with the Pineys,” I said. “You and dad could’ve bought a house down the shore with all the money you shelled out for me.”
“What are you talking about, Matthew?” my mother said. “We could’ve bought THREE houses. Who cares?”
“What about Angela and her nutritionist?”
“That quack,” my mother said. “Her advice? Stay off the cannolis. For that we paid $345. Oh, and we got a print out of some boiler plan diet plan.”
She said she was here to help. She said that she loved me. Then she hurled the grenade. “It’s more important now than ever, Matt. You have to think of the future.”
So she knew everything. Probably knew more than I did.
“Is Lisa leaving me?” I asked her.
Silence again on the other end. This time it lasted longer. Finally, my mother said, “We’ll talk when we get there. We’re picking up Lisa’s mother on the way.”
“Oh, God,” I said.
“Oh God is right,” my mother said, and hung up.
I was having trouble breathing. I was feeling dizzy. To try and calm myself, I listened to the mingled sounds of voices and music coming from my apartment, and tried to unscramble some of it. That was tiring, so I stopped and trained my ears to listen to sounds from greater distances. Finally, I found the songs of cicadas out there, floating on the evening air. I concentrated, and discovered that I could raise and lower the volume of their song by imagining a little knob in my head, turning in one direction for higher, one direction for lower. But then I heard the voice of Kirsten, among the cicadas.
She and the surgeon were on the sidewalk a few feet ahead of me, heading home. I watched as she walked toward me, Holy Kirsten of the Blessed Life, and I realized something: She was one of the exalted Kirstens of the world, who know how to sweep through doors in a cloud of perfume, glide through rooms in fancy silk or casual linen. They know how to stun and daze and thrill, and finish their MBAs on schedule.
But don't believe in them, brother. I understand now. They have nothing to teach.
“You’d crumble in my arms like rotted sticks,” I whispered. I actually did whisper that time.
The Kirstens of the World don’t stand by a person in times of trouble. They don’t have to. They always have someplace else to go.
“I hope you’re feeling better,” the fiancé doctor said.
“Not yet. It’ll take a few years and some serious life changes,” I answered.
Kirsten kissed me on the cheek. “You’re just sad, Matthew. We are all really sad.”
Then she walked into the moonlight. Before disappearing from sight, she and the doctor put their arms around each other. Up until a few minutes before, I would have asked her, “What do you have to be sad about?” But now I knew. They were walking into a future of expensive homes and cars, European vacations, landscapers and maids, private schools for their intensely perfect children, infidelities, concealed hostility, alcohol abuse, mind-numbing pharmaceuticals and polished, upper middle class misery.
There is nothing to venerate, anywhere.
I understood this clearly as I watched their figures until I couldn’t see them anymore. I stood, long after there was nothing more to see, staring into the growing darkness that now contained this important new perspective. It was a genuine epiphany. Or at least that’s how it felt.
Maybe Corey was right, and I didn’t have to accept where I was in the world. Maybe I could pick a new direction and stick to it, find my right place and know it when I got there. Or, maybe there is never a “right place” and I could wind up someplace worse than this, wearing hand-painted dog ties from Salvation Army bins and sucking my fingers for lunch like old Tony, the guy who sits on the bench in front of Geno’s Steaks every day, talking into his plastic walkie-talkie. I understood only one certainty: If I tried to escape this life I hate, there would be a price to pay. I’d be pursued by loan collectors, hounded by creditors, on the run, like Jesse James pursued by modern-day Pinkertons. I’d have to devise a serious way to disappear. No more taking stupid risks. This time, it would have to be a risk that actually meant something important, like going back to the person I wanted to be. When everything is wrong, you can’t fix it with small adjustments. It needs really big, bold action. A blow-it-all-up kind of decision. Defaulting on this whole “phony life that gave me nothing” sort of risk.
If Lisa wasn’t leaving me, maybe I needed to leave her. One way or another, I’d have to tell her we couldn’t have this “not-the-cheeseballs” baby. Assuming she didn’t already figure that out.
Lisa asked what I knew about the flight of geese. I knew that their old directions weren’t working any more, if they were all flying east, just like our friends flying east to Berlin and Lisbon and Bucharest. But here’s another thing I know: geese mate for life. I’ve always believed that I did too – and that stealing the rose from the Blessed Holy Virgin when I was seven years old made me both Lisa’s husband and her outlaw for the rest of our days on earth. So here’s another thought: maybe Lisa and I run away together, and find a way to believe in that future my mother was talking about. My religion, if I could get back to believing in it, celebrated miracles and holy outlaws and resurrection. Jesus hated money lenders. I could start with that.
We had friends who spread their wings and took flight. We could do it, too, I realized. Then I realized something else: Lisa already knew this. Lisa had already been free. She came back from Rome for me. She stayed with me and watched as her friends boarded planes and flew into better futures. Lisa posted all their postcards on a corkboard in our kitchen. I started to wonder: were the geese shirts meant to be a message that she was trying to send me? Now I really wanted that picture of her, with its sly and knowing smile. Now I understood it. My Lisa. What I total dope I’ve been. What my grandmother would call stunod as she slapped me upside the head.
We could fly direct one-way Philly to Rome and function with what we remembered of our grandparents’ Italian dialects. Lisa’s art school friends would help, and we could explore lots of places since they were scattered all over Europe. We could be poor but free and wild together, eat greasy food out of paper bags, take big risks with a faith we’d have to rediscover, a love we’d have to reclaim. We could leave all the lies we got fed about an American dream behind, along with the shitty low wage jobs and debt misery, and not give anybody two weeks notice since we owe nobody nothing. It would be one giant middle finger to it all.
Maybe we could even have this baby, as long as we don’t bring it into this life.
So I was standing there, thinking all this, realizing all this, still standing on the sidewalk under my livingroom window, still hearing the music and the voices and the celebration that I was not a part of. I was thinking about how to propose to Lisa all over again – how to tell her that I finally understood. I knew: if I could talk it through with her right then, get her alone that very minute, she would understand that I finally caught up with what she already knew, and we could turn this into our bon voyage party. Maybe then by tomorrow, we could go to Blicks on her discount while it’s still good, and buy up packaging materials. We could start making plans, putting all our dreams back on the table, not letting anybody talk “sense” into us ever again.
But there was no time to waste. I’d have to manage to convince Lisa before our mothers marched in on us with whatever plans they’d been hatching. Lisa and I could be a united front again, like when things were good. Back when I was robbing holy processionals for her.
I took a step toward the front door, then waited to see how it felt. Was I dizzy? Could I breathe? I took a test breath. Yes, I could breathe. Another step. This could work, I thought to myself. This could work. This could work.