Life is strange. Just when you've got a handle on things, when you can finally see the path ahead - everything you've taken for granted seems to vanish in the pure light of day. Paradigms shift, leaving you breathless and unsure of yourself. Your children grow up and leave to begin a life of their own. An uncle you hardly remember leaves you his prized Bill Evans collection - on vinyl. Your wife bails on you for no apparent reason, then you find out she was fucking your best friend. Your friend is diagnosed with some dread disease a few months later and begs for forgiveness. Instead, you get a puppy and are quite happy with your choice to leave all your life's nagging questions behind.
Because sometimes you fuck up, even with good intentions halfway in mind. You start digging a hole for yourself and keep on digging even when you know you're dead wrong. Then someone comes along and asks you a really profound question - something mind-bending like 'why did kamikaze pilots wear helmets?' - and you're left so completely befuddled not even another pint of Guinness clears away the rain in your brain. And just when you think the world couldn't possibly be any more pointless and fucked-up you hear there are going to be a bunch of faculty laid-off over the summer, even tenured profs like you. Your stomach burns, you can't sleep, but by that point the puppy has eaten all your running shoes and what the fuck, where would you run to, anyway?
Then one night you run in a girl so completely different your whole world comes unglued. Paradigm shifts don't mean a thing because nothing matters anymore; nothing's important - nothing but that sweet face, her easy smile, the soft, bubbling laughter that keeps you up all night. She digs Bill Evans so you find an old turntable at a garage sale and all of a sudden you're happy your wife took off. She loves your new dog and reading old books on rainy afternoons with her head propped-up on your shoulder. Her friends become your friends and Friday nights are suddenly fun again, the way they used to be - in that other life. She shows you the way to get out of the hole you've been digging by fucking you senseless three times a day. You look back into the hole and see an early grave staring you in the face, and that's just about the time she tells you she'd like to get down and screw your nuts off again.
So what the hell. Who gives a shit she was a student of yours once upon a time; that was like fifteen years ago and who gives a damn even if you were teaching at her boarding school way back when. You're on the high side of forty now, and she's like, what? Almost thirty? Still, nothing makes sense because nothing matters, does it? You're a leaf on a stream, just going with the flow. All that once felt old and stale is new again, and the only thing that matters is the way you feel when you look in her eyes. You're happy letting all those unanswered questions you walked away from drift away on the currents.
But be careful, Slick, because sometimes these things have a way of coming back at you.
How so? I mean, come on! Who are we kidding here?
Was she really so different?
Or was it that she was simply new? New and young? And let me guess: cute as hell, right? Aren't they all? Yeah, yeah... yada yada yada... remember that other girl - twenty five years ago? The one that used to lean on your shoulder and read Byron and Yeats? Forgive and forget? "Til death do us part, right? Right?"
Could it be you were just another middle-age crazy? That somewhere along the line you forgot how to forgive?
Or did you ever know how to?
See what happens when you start asking questions?
Classes start in late August; somehow you escaped the job-cutters' axe - this time around. Even so, you understand what it means when you've been loaded up with senior seminars and freshman intros. Your days are numbered, aren't they? You're being judged, graded, marked.
Feels good, don't it? Is the hair on your head a little whiter than it was last May?
"Why can't you pick up your clothes?" you say from the bathroom. "I mean, really, how can you mistake the floor for a clothes hamper?"
"Stop whining, would you?!"
"Whining? Me? I can't even see the floor anymore."
"Yeah. You. Whining. You seem so uptight..."
You knot the tie around your throat while you look at yourself in the mirror and you try to shake the feeling that a hangman has slipped his noose around your neck, and that suddenly this life feels like a never-ending trip to the gallows. Without saying a word you slip from the house and walk across campus to a classroom building, walk unnoticed into the seminar room you will call yours for the next three months. You put your case down on the table and turn to write your name on the blackboard:
'Dr Robert Drucker: American Foreign Policy - 1945-1989'
You scribble out your office number and student hours and take a seat, sit quietly while the early morning stragglers stumble in. Some wise-ass brings an apple and puts it on the table by your case. He smiles, says something witty and wholly unoriginal and you turn, look away, because the thought of having to deal with another pimply-faced Ivy League smart-ass makes you want to vomit. Your head hurts, you want to run away to... somewhere, anywhere. But hey, but no such luck. Not today.
There are twelve people in the seminar, and the waiting list for your course is a long one. You're very popular, or so you've been told. The kids love you. Hell, even politicians come to you for advice, and you turned down more than one offer to work in the White House last year. Big deal. Once was enough. Never again.
The fact of the matter is that you love Boston. You gaze at The Yard through trees full and green with summer at old red brick everywhere and this place feels like home. Teaching is what you do. All the old passion returns for a moment, and as the bell rings you're happy to be alive, to be here doing what you do best. You look at the assembled faces around you, inquisitive faces alive with bright promise, and you smile.
You walk in the house a little after four and the smell of shit hits you in the face like a cold slap in the face. The puppy has let loose all over the living room and you can see piles in the kitchen, too. The pup, a little brown and white spaniel, sits in the corner, cowering.
"What the hell have you done?" you scream as you advance across the room toward her. By the time you reach her she's shaking so bad, her eyes are so full of sorrow, that you pull back from the edge of wherever it was you were going and wonder just what kind of monster you've become. You pick her up, bring her to your chin and hold her.
'Where's Sara?' you ask as you carry her to the bedroom. 'Why didn't she take you out?'
You walk into the bedroom, see her clothes are gone, and most of her other things, too. You feel cold and a sudden emptiness fills the air around you. You put the pup down on the bed, walk around the house, see that even her books have been cleared-out and you understand all too well what's happened. There are some toiletries she's left in the bathroom, some Chanel you gave her on her birthday in July, but she probably didn't want to cart along the memories, did she?
You hear a key in the door, hear her familiar footsteps as she comes in.
"Bob?" she calls out.
"In the bathroom." You come out a minute later with a bucket and some cleaning supplies and head to the first pile.
"I just want to talk to you... one more time. Say goodbye, I guess."
"Not necessary. I get the picture."
"Okay," she says mildly. You hear her walk across the room, put her key on the table in the kitchen, then she walks out the door.
You never looked at her, did you? Not even once?
By the time you notice the pup has squatted and dumped a new load. On your bed.
"Appropriate," you manage to say. You get her leash and take her out for a long, long walk.
"Better late than never," you managed to say as you walked out the door.
It's going to be a problem, you know, this leaving the pup alone all morning, but there's not enough time between classes to walk home and back to walk her. You see Peter Kauffman leaving the faculty offices - with a huge Golden Retriever on lead - headed your way.
"Hey, Bob, didn't know you had a Springer," he says as he walks along. Your pup is curled up around your ankle now, shaking like a leaf as the bigger dog comes up and sniffs her.
"Got her in June. Trying to figure out what to do with her while I'm in class."
"Take her with you," he says as he stops by your side.
"Take her to class. At this age it'll only take a few days to train her to sit quietly..."
"No rule against it?"
"Nope. Not for faculty, anyway. How's Sandy?"
"Got on her broomstick and flew away."
"I got tired of her constant mess. Complained one time too many."
"Ah. Like C. S. Lewis."
"Dogs are much more practical," Kauffman said contentedly. "Right. Well, off we go!"
Seminar that next morning was a subdued affair - like you knew it would be. The first assignment you gave them required a solid two hundred pages of reading, and as you surveyed the red-eyed, coffee-stained seniors struggling to keep their eyes open you just had to smile to at yourself, didn't you. Except you'd brought the dog along, remember? You had her in your lap when the students filed in and all the girls in the class had to come over and ooh and ah all over her. Fun, wasn't it?
"What's her name?" one of the girls said. Her name was Jennie. Jennifer Westhoven. You'd noticed her the day before.
"Cute," Jennifer said. "My dad had Springers."
You smiled at that, didn't you? "Okay. Who wants to tell me the key differences between the Yalta and Potsdam conferences?"
So... Molly was an instant success. She only jumped up to nibble your chin once before she started nibbling your favorite necktie. Within a week she sat quietly in your lap. You were pretty sure Miss Westhoven wanted to as well, weren't you?
That first Friday, as office hours drew to a close, the girl ran up just as you were about to leave.
"Is it too late to ask you a couple of questions?" Jennifer said breathlessly.
"You'll have to walk along with us."
She reached over and scratched Molly behind the ears and you could feel her nubby little tail wagging a mile a minute. The three of you walked down an old planked floor that had probably seen thousands of such exchanges over two hundred years, only this time everything was different, everything felt new and alive to you. You felt something for that girl, as dangerous and unethical as you knew that to be.
And she was trying to impress you, wasn't she. Asking questions she obviously knew the answer to, trying to show she had read all the assigned material - and then some. And you? Dancing around the topic like a boxer, probing, testing - trying to land that knock-out punch. She was old enough to know better, wasn't she? But, so were you. Soon you were in front of your house, trying to think of a way to make that feeling last.
"Uh, listen. I've got to see my ex tonight and I'll be gone a while. If you're not busy, would you mind staying with Molly?"
"Sure," she said. Remember how she said that simple word? Guileless enthusiasm, isn't that what you thought at the time? Charming?
Who was charming whom, do you think? What did Goethe have to say:
'Already fire and eddying smoke I view;
'The impetuous millions to the devil ride;
'Full many a riddle will be there, untied.'
Oh! Faust! Won't you ever learn?
You rode the Red Line from the square down to Mass Gen that evening, walked over to Oncology and rode up, lost in thought. A couple of residents chattered about drug interactions until the elevator doors opened, and it's funny, but why does "interaction" stick out in your mind even now? Margaret was at the nurses' station making additions in a patient's chart and you walked up to her side, leaned over next to her, as ever your charming self.
"Hey yourself. Howya doin', Kiddo?"
She shrugged, flipped through a stack of lab reports, scribbled furiously on one of the charts, cursing under her breath while she wrote.
"Well? What was so important you needed me tonight?"
"Tom wants to talk to you. And I want you to listen, alright?"
Maybe you can't remember the way you crossed your arms reflexively, belligerently, and while you could tell Margaret was prepared to be pissed... for some reason she wasn't. She seemed too tired that night to be angry anymore. Too tired, you thought, to feel much of anything anymore.
"Bobby, he's not doing well. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
"He's dying, right? I got that a while back. What's changed?"
"Okay, so what new ground do we have to cover?"
"You know, Robert, I understand this is hard for you to grasp, but we were unhappy. You and I. We'd been unhappy for years. Everyone knew it. Tom knew it, he wanted to help..."
"Just shut up and listen."
"He did. He got me to a counselor, worked his ass off to keep us together, and I fell in love with him all over again because he did... want to help. I can't believe you can't see it, Bobby. It wasn't what he... he didn't set out to do this, alright? And neither did I. But it happened."
"And God leaned over and tossed a few thunderbolts your way, didn't he? Just reward and all that..."
"Goddamn Bobby, tell me you don't think that way. I mean it. Are you some kind of a Goddamn kid or something? Can't you grow up? Or don't you have feelings for anyone but yourself?"
"None that I'm aware of."
You'd meant that sarcastically, of course, but do you remember the way she looked at you?
He was your best friend, after all. Come to think of it now, you'd known him since second grade. Since you were seven years old. You played ice hockey together all the way through high school, you both made it into Harvard, but he went on to Johns Hopkins for med school while you stayed in Boston to finish up at The Fletcher School. And Margaret had been there through it all, hadn't she? Well, at least since third grade. He was Best Man at your wedding and it was awkward because everyone knew he loved Margaret at least as much as you did. Once or twice in junior high they pretended to be an item, right?
Yet some part of you was always convinced Tom never got married because he was just waiting to swoop-in and take Margaret away from you someday. All the buddy-buddy doesn't mean shit when women are in-play. Isn't that what you always told one another? Way back when? Do you still believe that?
So, you were surprised when you saw not anger in her eyes, but dread. Maybe even fear.
Was that what you wanted to convey that night? Did you want her to think you'd been a psychopath all your life? Did you know you succeeded beyond your wildest dreams?
"I hope you're able to get past all that now, Robert," she'd said. "Throw away the hate. If anyone deserves your hatred, it's me. Not Tom."
"No problem. I hate you. There. Satisfied?"
She turned then. Turned and walked away. Got in an elevator and disappeared. You saw a nurse had been listening and that the woman was shaking her head silently, reprovingly.
"What room is Tom Parker in?" you asked.
"I'll walk you down. I've got to adjust his IV."
When you walked in the door the sight of your friend ripped through your soul like a scythe. In your mind's eye he was still playing forward, passing the puck to you against Andover, helping you score the winning goal, and the State Championship. Winners never quit, do they? But this guy had quit, therefore it couldn't possibly be Tom.
But there was no running from truth that night.
You wanted to check the name on the door because there just had to be a mistake. That pale yellow scarecrow wasn't your friend, couldn't be - no way! No fucking way!
But it was. The eyes never lie and you could see it in those glassy-black orbs. You'd always loved him, and he you, the way best friends do. That's why the betrayal hurt so bad, right? Best friends don't stab one another in the back?
You went to the side of the scarecrow's bed, looked down into the stranger's searching eyes one more time. What did you see?
Hope? Scorn? Pity?
Or did you feel the love you'd known for decades. The love the three of you had known as kids and students and on Friday nights at pubs and Saturday baseball games. When he stood by you in the maternity ward and looked down at Stephen, then Bill a few years later. When your father died, who was with you? When his mother died, who did he turn to?
Why had it taken so long to remember all that?
Remember? You took his hand then, squeezed it gently because it felt like the bones in his hand might shatter. "Thanks for coming, Bobby," he'd said to you, and it was like the issue had been in doubt. In doubt! Can you imagine that?
How could he think that? After all that you'd been through together?
Yet all you could do was nod your head.
You sat with him that night for a long time, came to terms you could live with, and even Margaret dropped by for a while and it felt like old times again. Sure, he'll hop out of bed and off we'll crawl to another pub - any time now.
But no. We didn't do that.
And after a while you left his side, when sleep came for your friend. And Margaret was out there in the hall. Waiting.
She hugged you and cried into your chest. For a long time. You leaned back, wiped away a tear running down her cheek the way you used to, then you kissed her forehead and even her hair smelled the same and it all came back like a fierce tide leaving you washed and clean. Without saying a word you hugged her again, and your hands around her felt so right.
You sat in roaring silence on the ride out to Cambridge, lost in passing memory, and when you walked out onto the sidewalk in front of the Coop the world was bathed in moonglow. Silver light washed across The Yard casting plaintive shadows, and you thought the full moon looked unnaturally hot and bright. Maybe you'd looked across this landscape a hundred times before but everything looked new that night. Really new. Was it that all you'd lost had suddenly come alive again, that all the love you'd thrown away had come back to you on this moon-born flood?
You stopped, held your hands out in the silver glow and regarded your own flesh, your own remorseless humanity, and found yourself wanting. The thought left you breathless and unsure of yourself. Then you thought of Molly and the girl, Jennie, back at the house.
"What the fuck am I doing?" you said into the silver air. "What have I been doing?"
You walked to your house, slipped the key in the lock and opened the door. Molly came bounding up to you and you picked her up and brought her cold nose to yours; you could still smell her puppy-breath and it made your heart sing. Jennifer had been reading on the sofa and fallen asleep. You walked over and tapped her on the head and the girl woke with a start.
"Oh! Dr Drucker!"
"Hey there. Did Mighty Mouse here give you a hard time?"
The girl laughed, you laughed too as you walked into the kitchen.
"Sorry I fell asleep..."
"Want some coffee before you go?"
"Sure. That'd be great."
You talked a while, mostly about school and what to do 'after'. Polite stuff; chit-chat. She was easy to talk to and you enjoyed her company, then you made excuses and walked her to the door and you watched her shadow as it disappeared across campus. You put Molly on lead and walked her for a long time, praised her and loved her because that's what you're supposed to do, right?