Sunday, March 25, 2007

Bulletproof Hearts

I don't function very well without my wife. Though I have no doubt that many would view this as an opportunity to lecture me on the gathering storm of inevitable co-dependency, I actually believe it to be somewhat quaint and -- in my case -- a damn nice about-face from a past that's overflowing with positively atrocious behavior. Unfortunately, this simple truth means that when Jayne and I are apart for extended periods, I find myself oddly disoriented -- unsure of what the hell to do or how to do it.

Case in point: she's gone right now -- away at a conference for two days -- and I've probably opened and closed the refigerator door ten times without actually removing anything. I just stand there vacantly staring into it as if expecting the margarine to stand up and begin explaining string-theory to me. So far at least, it's failed to do so and thus the mysteries of the universe remain just that -- mysteries.

I admit to having the monotony broken a short time ago by one of the more maddening quirks of the apartment in which my wife and I pay an unforgivable amount of money to live. Our intercom system -- the one which lets us know that any manner of small, non-English-speaking persons has arrived with our food delivery and would now very much like to be buzzed in -- creates a sound that rivals a jackhammer in volume and ability to irritate. This would be little more than a minor inconvenience if not for the fact that the button tends to get stuck, which means that if we can't explain the situation to the person six floors below -- this is where the whole non-English-speaking thing becomes a pitfall -- one of us will be forced to go downstairs and unstick the button while simultaneously stifling the urge to beat the utterly confused bastard at the door into a coma.

It's even more annoying when someone walks by and hits the button just for the hell of it.

Having not ordered food -- I'm still determined to allow my refrigerator the time it apparently needs to show some initiative and suggest something worthwhile -- I assumed that one of these phantoms was the culprit when the jackhammer unexpectedly went off in my apartment a half-hour or so ago. As is typical, I swore loudly, then put on my shoes and took the elevator down to the street level. When I threw the front door open in a rage, standing there, a few feet from it, was a small Asian man with a messenger bag slung over his shoulder.

"Did you hit 6C?" I barked.

He returned a look that I recognized; it was the same one my dog used to make when he had recently come to the conclusion that my couch didn't meet the required level of canine fecal matter necessary to be considered truly tasteful.

"No -- no," he returned, looking anywhere but directly at me.

I huffed, fixed the button and went back upstairs.

A few minutes later, I was making yet another trek to the refrigerator when I noticed a white leaflet on the floor directly in front of my apartment door. It was then of course that the full breadth of Fu Manchu's nefarious plot became clear: he had basically just punched a bunch of buttons until somebody finally let him in, then he littered our building with restaurant fliers.

Normally, this would've been thorougly infuriating, and it was -- until I picked up the flier and took a look at it.

It was relatively unassuming -- the latest in an infinitude of Chinese restaurant menus my wife and I find under our door. This one however was inscribed in bold letters with what has to be the best blurb in the history of promotion -- an endorsement so impressive that it no doubt has the Zagat and Michelin people contemplating a change of career.

It read simply:

"The best Chinese food I never try it before!"
-- Said by many customer

And with that, all was forgiven.

After a quick internal debate over whether or not my mastery of the English language was strong enough to become one of the restaurant's "many customer," I threw the menu away and went back to the refrigerator. Still no string-theory.

I'm loathe to admit it, but years ago I likely would've looked upon this sort of reprieve from a current relationship as an opportunity to at most fool around with someone other than my partner, or at the very least masturbate in every room of the house. The former is out of the question these days because I'm very much in love with my wife, the latter simply because, A) my sex drive isn't quite what it used to be since undergoing brain surgery last year, and B) I live in New York City, which means that there's only one room in my residence to speak of; any attempt to vary my masturbatory patterns would be sorely lacking in creativity. Instead, I willingly turn my attention to a combination of writing and mental preparation for tonight's season finale of Battlestar Galactica.

Oh yeah, and watching Blood Diamond again.

I say again because my wife and I curled up on the couch last night and watched it together -- each of us enjoying the movie quite a bit, which is what led me to make the rare commitment to a second viewing. In addition to being a disturbing and wholly necessary tutorial on both the reality of the diamond trade and the brutality of the constant political upheaval in Africa -- upheaval which goes largely ignored by many here in the states -- it boasts excellent performances from its lead actors. Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou are each phenomenal and unquestioningly deserved their respective Oscar nominations; Jennifer Connolly manages to capture the enigmatic quality -- equal parts seductive and repellent -- that drives someone to willingly and consistently travel to the worst places on the planet and risk his or her life in pursuit of the news.

I'm very familiar with this quality -- I've had plenty of personal experience with it -- and yet it remains "enigmatic" simply because I have yet to fully understand it, and I'm not alone in this nescience. I know this however: it's very easy to fall in love with; it is almost impossible to live with.

A couple of weeks back, I left the insular quiet of the Upper East Side and hopped a cab down to, quite literally, my neighborhood's polar opposite -- the Lower East Side. I had been invited to a small party by one of my co-workers and relished the chance to spend a little time engaging in a ritual which long ago became foreign to me: drinking and complaining about the business. Before I even left my apartment, the party already had the distinction of being the first social event I'd be attending in years without Jayne on my arm (she wasn't feeling great and had decided to sit this one out); when I arrived, I quickly realized that the gathering was unusual for an entirely different reason: in attendance were reporters and producers from several networks' Baghdad crews, all of whom were not only familiar with my ex-wife, but had shared the kind of indescribable, singular intimacy with her that can only come from dodging mortar rounds together for extended periods of time.

They knew everything there was to know about her -- which meant that they almost surely knew everything there was to know about me.

A quick history lesson: my ex-wife and I were the worst couple imaginable.

Each of us was insanely passionate, notoriously short-fused and brutally caustic. Like many couples whose individual partners share combustive characteristics, we created a volatile mixture which simmered for quite some time before finally exploding altogether. It's only in hindsight however that our most indomitable shared trait becomes clear: neither of us was willing to accept that we were exactly the same; neither wanted to admit to having the same negative personality traits as the other -- it was easier to just blame each other and be done with it. I needed an escape, so I did drugs; she had looked for an escape from the beginning, so she subconsciously pushed me away. I was selfish and irresponsible -- constantly looking for something more, while trying to keep the status quo; she insisted on keeping the status quo solely out of obligation, while constantly craving something more. We both loved strongly, but neither of us would truly commit. We were each flawed in ways neither was willing to discuss or possibly even admit to. Our relationship never should've lasted more than a month at the most; we were foolish for trying to turn it into a lifetime.

The most common word I've heard used to describe my ex-wife is "rigid." She's indeed tough-as-nails -- exuding a masculine sexuality and drive that makes her enticing in a way that seems almost preternatural. It's likely always made her an object of infatuation to those who perceive the idea of taming her to be the ultimate challenge. I have no doubt that it's the progenitor of this kind of rough-and-tumble bravado which drove her to take a job as a network field producer. What that progenitor is, I have my suspicions.

Back to the party -- it was about an hour after my arrival that it became clear to the Baghdad people just who I was.

The reaction was, well --

"YOU'RE CHEZ?" one woman practically screamed, with equal parts shock and bemusement -- immediately calling the others over so that they too could get a look at the circus freak.

I just smiled and nodded in resignation.

Yes, yes -- it's me -- THAT GUY. The asshole -- in the flesh. Thanks for coming; make sure you tip your bartender and waitresses on the way out.

I was almost sorry I didn't have a pedestal handy.

Understand, it's one thing to have an unseemly past -- one in which you regret nearly everything you did and didn't do; it's something else entirely to meet people for the first time who already know every repugnant detail -- every rotten secret -- from that past. Disconcerting doesn't even begin to cover it.

For the next half-hour or so, I did my best to keep the conversation upbeat -- despite the knowledge that I had already been judged and convicted and now stood before my ex-wife's co-workers as exposed and vulnerable as the day I'd been born. I spoke highly of my former love; I spoke truthfully about my own mistakes -- my search for a measure of redemption -- and my recent successes and newfound happiness; I spoke honestly about my love for Jayne and the strength of our relationship; I smiled a lot and did my best to take the whole uncomfortable situation in stride.

I learned that my ex-wife is now dating a photographer who works with her. In fact, one noticeably strange moment came when someone actually suggested calling my ex, right there and then, and putting me on the phone. Another woman quickly dismissed the idea, intimating that it would upset the current boyfriend. Admittedly, the possibility that I might be perceived as a threat was something that I turned over in my mind for a few minutes, curious as to whether my memory existed as some sort of specter in my ex's life -- confused at this thought, given her abrupt and unequivocal exit from our relationship.

After awhile, the garrulity turned toward another topic and I was left to drink my beer in relative peace. Thankfully, my inquisition at the hands of the Babes of Baghdad was quickly followed by a quiet conversation with the host of the party -- my co-worker. She's a cool, sweet, funny, smart and attractive twenty-five-year-old with whom I've forged an odd little bond recently. This was initially due to the fact that she'd been unlucky enough to fall hard for an overseas field producer herself, and was facing the same obstacles and difficulties I had once faced in dealing with that particular personality type.

I offered an opinion or two -- refusing to lecture -- confident in the belief that she's doing just fine figuring it out on her own.

Discussing it with her however, had a surprising affect on me; it helped me to at least better understand what years ago was so torturously incomprehensible. I listened to what was happening to my friend and I recognized the behavior immediately. The man she cared about sought solace in her arms, but was never fully there; his passion was alluring and consuming -- but also fleeting; despite the trappings of adulthood -- particularly the dangerous, important job -- he was, in reality, little more than a selfish child.

It all finally added up.

"Baghdad" isn't merely a place -- not for people like the man who has my friend's heart; not for people like the woman who once had mine -- it's an idea. It's where you run to when bullets and bombs don't terrify you but commitment to another human being and the very thought of an ordinary life does. It's where everything is transient, nothing lasts, and caprice is not only accepted but rewarded; rationalized as an unavoidable by-product of the job; in actuality, the very reason the job held such appeal in the first place.

The progenitor I mentioned earlier: fear.

Fear of never being able to lead a quiet life; fear of becoming restless and unwittingly hurting someone who loves you; fear of failure.

The job becomes the perfect excuse for never having to take on that most daunting yet rewarding of life's responsibilities: the care of a human heart.

About two-thirds of the way through Blood Diamond, Leonardo DiCaprio's character asks Jennifer Connolly's why she does what she does -- why she puts herself in the line of fire time and time again. He asks if she's a thrill-seeker; she responds, "Three out of four ex-boyfriends say that I'm not happy unless my life is in a constant state of crisis."

At least one ex-husband understands, and he's happy not to be a part of it anymore.

He's grateful though for the learning experience -- and even more grateful for what's come into his life since.


rasaustin said...

OK, we get it... you miss your wife, you realize how lucky you are now, blah blah blah...

Tell us the real truth... which pay-per-view nudie movie did you plunk down $12.50 for?

Jayne said...

I miss you too, baby.

And I really wish I'd been at that party.

TK said...

Beautiful piece, and I'm glad that a) you've turned your life around, and b) you've been rewarded for it. This is one of those rare posts that really made me think, and it ended up spilling over onto my own site. So thanks for the inspiration.

Manny said...

Powerful stuff, Chez. The writing I mean, not the E.

Be careful with that fridge when Jayne is gone. It's a cruel, cruel mistress. Whenever my fiance is away on business I have a habit if concocting what I would refer to as culinary dirty bombs.

Chez said...

I'm actually a pretty decent cook, but my kitchen is the size of an airplane bathroom -- and at the moment probably smells just as bad. (I wouldn't know; I'm nursing one of my usual I-have-no-immune-system-thanks-to-the-surgery sicknesses.)

Jayne said...

why would it smell bad? What have you done to my kitchen in my absence???

feel better, sweetie. I'll be home soon enough.

Manny said...

On a side note, your piece as well as TK's inspired me to put down some thoughts on parenting. You'll see the correlation to yours once you read it.

Anonymous said...

Chez... You always blow my mind with your insight. It also gives me hope that an asshole (me) can reform and be a good guy. One day.

Chez said...

I'm not that good -- just slightly more aware of the consequences of my actions.

choenbone said...

did someone say BOMBS...I can think of some concoctions ive made that look like vomit but tasted like prime rib. really, ask my wife. Oh and beware of the Ramen rabbit...its got sharp pointy teeth, and guaranteed to give you heartburn.
Snack well.

Harris said...

Blah, blah, self-actualization. Yadda, yadda, maturity. You did jerk-off right? I mean, shit, you're paying for the high-speed internet connection so you might as well get the full use out of it. Use her expensive lotion from Bed, Bath and Beyond and wipe up with the good towels; Make the evening special.

girl with curious hair said...

first: it wasn't bad enough that i was constantly checking to see if you had written anything, now i'm reading from your blog roll. i'm REALLY hoping i don't make blog reading my full time job--it won't support my mortgage.

i'm impressed with how you write: it can't be easy being this honest about yourself.

and finally--when my husband travels, i curl up on the couch like an orphaned kitten. i don't eat (eating alone is painful) or sleep much until he gets back. it's not co-dependancy; his absence is just a new routine i have no interest in adapting to.

and if you don't mind my saying, margarine is sadly lacking in its knowledge of string theory. cheese on the other hand...

mrmook said...


Enjoy. Indulge.
and keep writing.........

Christy said...

I love this.

keenEddie said...

I'm a little late to this party (no pun), but when I read, "The job becomes the perfect excuse for never having to take on that most daunting yet rewarding of life's responsibilities: the care of a human heart", a hydra with forgotten faces sprung to mind – including a younger version of my own, when I immersed myself in work to (a) avoid my own pain and (b) to avoid getting too close to anyone else.

Sounds simplistic and adolescent when described in a blog comment, but, despite the years I've had for introspection between then and now, it feels just as real (laced with some regret) as if it happened this morning.

John said...


I'm an avid reader of your blog. Every so often, I sit down and just roll through past blogs to read whatever sounds interesting. I admit being touched by your honesty, here-and it just makes me think (like so many posts do). Thank you.

karabee said...

Wow. Pieces like these should be categorized as a public service. What a gift to be able to share one's experiences and connect to hearts & minds of people whose paths you may never cross.

Color me profoundly affected. And grateful - thank you.