Travelling Home Ch. 04bypodga©
Chapter 4: New York
The headquarters of our company are in New York City, and every September the accounting directors of all the subsidiaries and international operations meet for a week-long conference that would bore most people into a coma, but which we eagerly anticipate, and not only because of the venue. Hell, even the guys based in New York look forward to it.
Benny Siegel also looks forward to it, not because he works for our company or is an accountant, but because he lives and works in Manhattan, and I always extend my stay so that we can spend some time together. Which is a problem, at least this year, because the boundaries between best friends and fuck buddies are pretty much non-existent for Benny and me, and I'm not sure how I feel about that any more, given my thing with David. On the other hand, I'm not quite ready to talk to Benny about David yet; I'm not proud of it, but I don't want to ruin my thing with Benny, if my thing with David doesn't work out. And in terms of hours logged with me, Benny definitely has seniority.
So I try to compromise.
"Whaddaya mean, you're not staying with me? You always stay with me!"
At 47, Benny has long given up talking like an escapee from a Francis Ford Coppola movie. He dropped the act when he got hired by one of larger legal firms in New York and realized he wasn't good enough to want to stand out. Besides, there were too many real American-Italians from the boroughs in the firm, and they threatened to beat the shit out of him if he kept the fake accent up. He sometimes pulls it out and dusts it off for me, though.
"It's this project, Benny," I answer vaguely. "There's a few of us working on it, and the others thought that since we're all getting together for the conference anyway, we should put in five or six days on the project, move it forward. They've booked us all in the hotel for the extended period. I had nothing to do with it."
"Well, that sucks," he says slowly. "So you're not even going to have much time for us to hang out?"
"We can definitely spend some time together. Fuck 'em, the brownnosers, they're not going to tie my entire weekend up. We just need to work the schedules out."
He sounds happier when we hang up. I don't know if I am.
I put my phone down, but it beeps, indicating an incoming message, so I pick it up again, smiling when I see it's from David.
'Guess who one of the speakers at your conference in NYC is?'
I stare at the message, my heart sinking into my shoes. Speakers are one of the closely-guarded secrets of the annual conference, and they're arranged months, sometimes more than a year, in advance. This isn't possible. Unless he's known for a while, but then why wait until now to tell me? I jab at speed-dial.
"Hey!" he answers happily, but I'm no longer in the mood for happy.
"How long have you known?"
"About five minutes."
"What? Come on, they don't arrange these things two weeks beforehand. Are you sure you're speaking at this year's conference?"
"I'm a pinch hitter. Apparently one of your keynote speakers has been subpoenaed. They got in touch with our PR department, our PR department got in touch with me, I said yes."
"But... can you do this? I mean, at a moment's notice? Don't you need to prepare?"
He sighs gustily. "Jordan, this is what I do. I travel around, I make speeches, I press some flesh, hopefully people are impressed and they put our product on their to-be-considered list. I could make any one of several speeches in my sleep."
"Yeah, but... but, I mean, don't you have something else planned? I mean, your schedule is mapped out weeks in advance, isn't it?" I babble.
"You're being weird. Again." He waits for me to say something, but I'm out of words. "My speech is on Thursday and from what I understand, the conference ends Thursday night. I though we could spend Friday and Saturday together. I have to fly out Saturday night." He waits again. "I thought you'd be pleased."
I squeeze my eyes shut and try to swallow. Oh, god. I need to tell him, to somehow explain.
"I lived in New York."
"I know. You can show me your favorite spots." There's a faintly pleading tone to his voice and he clears his throat. "Or we can just stay in and order room service."
"The thing is, David... well, the thing is, I've planned to spend time with some friends." Fuck, man up, Petersen. "With a friend."
"Oh." His reaction is flat, emotionless.
"And, uhm, I haven't told him about you."
I can hear his breathing, and, more faintly in the background, a man speaking Italian.
"Where are you?"
"Yeah, I know." He knows I know, the shortest trip from Stockholm to Athens is with Malev via Ferihegy Airport, and it's some kind of sign of something that he's forgotten and thinks he has to explain.
"What's his name? This friend of yours?"
"Benjamin Siegel. Benny."
"I don't even know why I asked that. What the fuck difference does it make?" His laugh is bitter, ugly, not the one I love. Then again, what right do I have to expect anything from him that would please me at this moment?
"Well, I've accepted the invitation to speak," he interrupts me. "I'm going to be in New York. I'd like to see you. I guess the rest is up to you."
"David," I try again, but I realize I'm talking to dead air.
So these are my options:
One, the first man I ever fell in love with almost thirty years ago, the man who stood by me at my absolute worst and who helped pull me through, the man I sort of ran away from, because in the long term we were toxic together, and we both knew it, but the man that for five days a year I can love with all my heart and with whom I don't have to pretend to be something I'm not.
Or, two, the man I met three months ago, with whom I've spent exactly 9 days and 9 nights, most of these in bed, whom I have a crush on and maybe am even in love with, and who knows almost nothing about me, because I've tried to only show him the best bits of me and told him nothing about who I really am or was.
Dr. Bob, otherwise known as Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, graduated from Dartmouth College in 1902. It's one of the things people always said to me afterwards, when they heard that I'd attended Dartmouth. I never cared enough to find out more about Dr. Bob, and whether the roots of his alcoholism were to be found in the basement of a fraternity, like mine were. I don't think I cared much about anything those days.
When Benny introduced me to running, he also introduced me to the fraternity most of the track team rushed, and Freshman Spring I rushed as well. I knew I was a shoo-in; I'd been partying there since my second week on campus. We weren't Animal House, far from it, but, like all fraternities, drinking formed a large part of many things we did. Most of the brothers could handle it. Benny could. I thought I could; I'd been ordering drinks in dance clubs in Athens since I was fifteen, and I'd never had a problem. Maybe what had saved me until that point was the fact that I didn't like the taste of beer and that I could rarely afford to order more than one cocktail.
That all changed at Dartmouth. You couldn't not like beer, even when it tasted like horse piss. It was always on tap, and if your fraternity had run out, well, Frat Row offered plenty of other choices. Pretty soon, once I started drinking, I couldn't stop, not that I particularly tried to after losing the second game of quarters or the third of beer pong. I drank until I passed out. Benny could sometimes convince me not to even start, but there had to be a damn good reason, like a track meet the next day, or one of the harder days of training, or a test that my whole grade might hang on. There are complete chunks of time missing, lost to me forever, even during my sophomore spring, when Benny and I were falling in love, and when I was the happiest I'd ever been in my whole life. By my junior winter, we'd broken up; Benny couldn't handle a relationship with somebody so self-destructive, especially since he also liked to party and baby-sitting cramped his style, and I was sick of him constantly being on my case. Oddly enough, once we thought we'd pulled our hearts out of the equation, we went back to being good friends.
Benny was accepted to Columbia Law, and when he left, he made me vow that I wouldn't drink during the week, or on any weekend I had a meet. "This is important, Jordie. You have to graduate," he told me over and over again, and I'd nod, alternating between feeling grateful that he cared so much and resentful that he'd gone and left me behind. I'd long given up on my dream of pre-med, and had switched to accounting and math, and I was fighting for a grade average that would keep me from flunking out.
The real hell started the day I graduated and hitched a ride with a brother to New York. I had no idea what I wanted to do, or how to even start looking for a job, but I didn't want to go back to Athens, so I figured I'd crash out at Benny's for a while; his parents had rented a large two-bedroom in the Upper West Side for him, and it's not like he needed a paying roommate.
Things might have turned out differently if Benny had turned me away, but he didn't. I suppose we were still in love, though to this day I can never figure out why he stuck with me. Only this time around, Benny didn't really try to rein me in. For one thing, he was studying too hard. And when he wasn't studying, he wanted to party. I partied right along with him and, since I had nowhere to be or anything to do, I was partying the rest of the time, as well.
I suppose not many people can say that being raped changed their lives for the better. I don't remember all the details, and I can't say for sure that I ever said the word no, or that the guys, who ganged up on me, were any more sober or capable of making decisions than I was, but I know that my near panic at having my head held when I'm giving someone a blow job stems from that day. What stopped me drinking after that wasn't the fear of getting hurt again. Rightly or wrongly, that was something I believed I could easily survive. It was the terror of AIDS; by this time, we all had friends we'd lost, and we'd seen up close and personal what the disease could do. I no longer considered myself invincible and I needed to stay sober in order to avoid putting myself in harm's way.
I relapsed twice, both times while I was still with Benny, though not because of him. I'd always enjoyed wine and cocktails, and after a year and a half of being sober, I figured I could control things. Benny was encouraging; I'd been sick and now I was okay, and it was time to get on with life and have some fun. And as long as I was with Benny, I was okay. But he was still studying, and I'd started temping at an accounting firm, and going out with the guys for drinks after work to kill a few hours. I 'controlled' things for about three months, then ended back in rehab.
The second time was when I was admitted to NYU for my graduate degree in accounting. Benny wanted us to celebrate and he couldn't understand why I wouldn't have even one drink. As far as he was concerned, it all came down to willpower, and willpower required practice, just like running did. This time I managed to stop on my own, but DTs are not pretty and I hated Benny seeing me when I couldn't stand to be in my own skin. Once I felt semi-human again, I took a long, hard look at myself through his eyes. For him, total abstinence did not equal self-discipline, but cowardice. He loved me, but he saw me as weak and self-indulgent and I wasn't too sure I disagreed with his assessment of me. Escaping myself wasn't really an option; escaping him was.
We slowly drifted apart, and after grad school, I found a job and moved out. I worked in New York for a further two years, then I got myself assigned to our company's internal audit team, traveling all over the world, and the rest, as they say, is history. I heard through a mutual friend, an old teammate and brother of ours, that Benny had a partner, and a few years later, I heard through the same friend that Benny's partner had passed away. I contacted Benny to offer my condolences, even though by this time we hadn't spoken in almost fifteen years. I was flying through New York on my way from London, where I was then based, to San Francisco, and arranged a 24-hour stopover, so that I could see him. Seeing Benny again gave me the same feeling like that first time all those year ago, on the third floor of McLane Hall: Benny felt like home, only by this time I knew that, once you've left, you can only go back home for short visits.
I arranged to meet Benny at Columbus Circle. I suggested a run, because running is when he and I are most at ease with each other, but he told me he's recovering from flu, so the best he's up for is a mosey.
It's a cool, crisp day, and the leaves are just starting to turn. There's been more gray in Benny's hair every time I see him, so the fact that he's almost completely gray now doesn't surprise me. What shocks me is how thin he is; even the sweatshirt and windbreaker can't hide his gaunt frame. I'm not sure whether I should comment or not, but he sees my face and grimaces.
"Yeah, I know."
"Jesus, Benny, that must have been some flu."
He shrugs and nods his head towards the park entrance. Benny's not very demonstrative in public, but we always hug when we meet, and the fact that he avoids it makes my gut clench. At least he's walking firmly, though not very quickly.
"Are you okay now?" I ask hesitantly.
He flips an impatient hand. "Stop. I'm fine. I just need to put on a few pounds again. So how are you?"
He always fucking asks me this, and in the same condescending tone. What he means is, still depriving myself of the occasional cocktail or flute of champagne, still pretending I'm drinking alcohol rather than water at company functions, so as not to stand out or have to explain, still too weak to stop myself from drinking myself blind if I start. I generally just say yes, and move on, but today I don't want to move on. I'm through apologizing to Benny for doing what I know is right for me.
"You know what, Benny? You, more than anybody, knows what alcohol does to me. I have a job that I'm good at, and I hold down a responsible and demanding position. I'm in good shape. I'm in a relationship. So fuck you, if you look down on me, because I don't want to risk all of that for a fucking shot of tequila."
"You're in a relationship?"
He stops and turns to look at me, his hands in his pockets.
"You said you're in a relationship."
"Uh, I did?"
"Stop playing stupid, Jordan." His eyes narrow in sudden realization. "You were lying to me, you fucking asshole," he roars suddenly, pointing an accusing finger at me. "Accounting project, my ass. Go fuck yourself."
He starts walking again, and I fall in beside him. I can't believe I told him I'm in a relationship. This is the problem with my temper. Most time I try not to take things too personally, but then my brain short circuits at the worst possible moment, and I say a lot of stuff I don't really mean or even think, however much I might wish them.
"Is he a colleague? Is he here with you?"
"No, I met him at a conference a few months ago, and we've seen each other a couple of times since. He'll be here next weekend, but I didn't know that, when I was talking to you on the phone. That just sort of—"
"Stop explaining, Jordie," he says, not unkindly. "Do you want a pretzel?"
He buys two pretzels, a bottle of water for him and a Coke for me, and we sit on a bench.
"I'm sorry, Benny. I should have been honest with you."
"So why weren't you?"
"It's not really a relationship yet. I'm not sure it will ever be. And you and me... well, I didn't want to ruin what we have."
"What we have? Jordie, we fuck once a year. That's about it."
"That's not true," I protest, my heart suddenly racing at his assessment of what I've considered so important in my life, of my one anchor. "You're my best friend, Benny. I love you."
"You know what I never figured out, Jordie? Why you're willing to settle for so little, why you're afraid of wanting more. Why is that?"
I shake my head. I'm not afraid of wanting more; I've just rarely gotten it, and I don't want to waste my life dreaming too big. I think that's the main mistake people make in their lives, wanting too much.
After finishing our pretzels, we meander through the park, heading up towards Umpire Rock and from there to the Carousel.
"If I ask you something, will you promise to answer me honestly?"
"Would you rather spend next weekend with him or with me?"
For three years in college, and then again for two years after I came to New York, Benny and I ran alongside each other, sometimes joking, sometimes arguing, often silent, our breathing and steps in perfect cadence. Some reckon friendship in terms of time; I also reckon it in distance, in miles of asphalt and dirt track, of crisp autumn afternoons when our feet crunched on leaves aflame with color, of freezing mornings when each breath seared our lungs. Benny and I have been friends for close to thirty years and over ten thousand miles, and he's the closest thing I've had to one true love. Over the past couple of years, the idea of asking to be reassigned to headquarters, of maybe our trying again now that we're both older and wiser, seemed increasingly attractive, even comforting, and despite Benny's description of our relationship earlier, I know he's been thinking along the same lines. It would have been nice, and nice is not something to scoff at. I look at my long-time friend with a surge of affection. I don't want to have to choose between Benny and David. I hate doing so.
"Him," I say miserably, aware of what I'm throwing away, but the choice is suddenly so blindingly obvious.
For a moment I think he's going to be protest, but instead he smiles, and flings an arm around my shoulders, hugging me to him.
"Then go for it, Jordie. For once in your life, go for it."
David picks up on the second ring.
"Can you talk?"
"Hold on." I hear him apologizing to somebody, then a door closing. "Okay, I'm with you."
"I'm done being weird," I try to joke.
His voice is neutral. Unlike the other times, he's not meeting me half-way.
"I'd like to spend next weekend with you. If you still want to."
"I want to."
I sink onto the foot of the bed. I don't think I knew that it it's possible to feel both relieved and extremely anxious at the same time.
"David? Do you see this, us, going further?"
He sighs. "I don't think that depends on me, Jordan."
"Yeah, but what do you want?"
"I'm too old for this shit. And so are you," he says harshly.
"What shit?" I bristle.
"This. The back and forth. The way you retreat and then try to pretend that it's because of something I might be wanting or thinking. The way you make the simplest things more complicated than they are or need to be, and how every time we see each other or speak to each other, I need to break through this fucking wall you put up."
I lie back, covering my eyes with my forearm. He's right. Other than the part about things being simple, he's right.
"You don't know me."
"I'm trying to. God knows I'm trying to."
"If you knew—"
"Don't go there. Don't you fucking go there! If I knew what? That there are things in your past you don't want to talk about? That you've made mistakes? That you're far from perfect?"
"Welcome to the club, Jordan." He laughs shortly. "I guess you're going to have to pick another excuse to bow out of this."