Tuesday, October 02, 2007
Life's What You've Made It
A Side: The Psychedelic Furs -- Love My Way
B Side: The Plimsouls -- Oldest Story in the World
A couple of years back, my wife Jayne read a novel called The Frog King.
In case you've never heard of it, the book is author Adam Davies's seemingly semi-fictional account of a young would-be writer and menial-media-job holder's attempts to both eke out a living in New York City and forge an at least respectable relationship with the woman he's in love with but to whom he refuses to admit as much.
These efforts unfortunately are hampered by the fact that the character in question is an asshole: he's severely damaged, typically selfish, willfully misanthropic, he hates his job and he drinks too much -- qualities which are, contrary to his own delusional beliefs, not, in fact, invalidated by the excessive amount of intelligence and charm he wields.
Obviously, Jayne "suggested" I read this book about two seconds after turning the final page.
I finally got around to it last week. Suffice to say, I wish I'd read it earlier instead of making the requisite excuses involving a backlog of reading material on my nightstand and/or some sort of general malaise; as my grandfather used to say, I mighta learned somethin'.
There are of course several big differences between the nominal protagonist of The Frog King and myself: For one, he works at a publishing house, whereas I work in television news. Also, his name is Harry.
It's a disconcerting feeling on par with having those naked pictures turn up on the internet to know that a complete stranger has written a book which nails your entire existence in such an impeccably precise manner. The similarities are indeed uncanny: Harry fancies himself a writer but -- mostly out of fear -- never gives it the full push that might get him noticed; the love of his life meanwhile is a bright, beautiful, funny, supportive, upwardly-mobile and preternaturally tolerant young woman, who also happens to suffer from an acute and extraordinarily painful case of endometriosis.
Despite a big heart and genuinely good intentions, Harry is constantly making all the wrong moves and all the wrong decisions. Even the densest of readers can understand that he needs to grow the hell up, stop taking his soulmate's seemingly bottomless reservoir of love and forgiveness for granted and begin putting his talent to good use instead of using it to ridicule everyone he believes to be beneath him.
For awhile, there's something almost noble about Harry's willingness to assume the role of the loveable but difficult eccentric; as the story progresses though, he becomes intolerable, insufferable, and by the time it's all over -- in more ways than one -- he comes to the sad realization that everyone else came to long ago: he's the one thing he's always despised -- a stupid, worn-out cliche.
Harry believes himself to be in the right in his relationship because he's always there during the bad times -- to hold Evie, his love, during her excruciating endo attacks; to ride in like Gallahad and save the day when there's a crisis. He knows nothing if not the art of the passionate statement or sweeping gesture.
His favorite chant of exquisite praise: "Viva la Evie."
Harry never asks himself if such histrionics are enough to sustain a truly adult relationship, and it's this nescience which leads to his inevitable fall from the grace of Evie's favor.
The Frog King is subtitled "A Love Story." It is, but it's an absolutely heartbreaking one.
A Side: U2 -- A Sort of Homecoming
B Side: The Smiths -- These Things Take Time
Last weekend, I went to my 20 year high school reunion.
The experience was as surreal and mildly unnerving as you might expect; simply coming to terms with the fact that it's been two decades since my high school graduation required an extra hit off the Wellbutrin pipe. Seeing my teenage classmates in their late 30s seemed just fucking preposterous on paper, even before my arrival at the Palms Hotel on Miami Beach; actually taking it all in for three hours last Friday night was far beyond my powers of worthwhile description.
On the whole, the Pace High Class of 1987 aged surprisingly well: A receding hairline here, an extra couple of pounds there, but otherwise my old friends didn't look all that different from how I remembered them from back in the days when we camped out on a sidewalk for Pink Floyd tickets and likely played a substantial role in driving at least one teacher to drink himself to death. The women especially looked not only exceptional but by and large better than they did as kids; the girls who were once cheerleaders or simply the mental kindling for many a teenage boy's bathroom masturbation ritual retaining their allure in ways which seemed slightly supernatural.
But really, when push came to shove, there was only one woman I was interested in seeing; the girl I chased for three long, psychically catastrophic years; the girl who changed everything about the way I would deal with women for years to come; the girl I hadn't laid eyes on in two decades.
To say that I had a crush on Suzy during high school would be like saying that the Khmer Rouge came up with an effective solution to Cambodia's population problem. I was utterly smitten with her. She occupied center stage in my mind and heart from the moment we first ran into each other outside of school, at the Immaculate Conception carnival sophomore year. I dreamt of her. I burned for her. I was her willing but ultimately frustrated lapdog for most of our high school career. I would've sold my soul for that girl.
So, you can imagine what it would be like seeing her after all this time.
It's probably right about now, by the way, that I should mention that Suzy -- despite professing a love for boys during high school -- eventually turned out to be gay. (Don't ever let it be said that I don't know how to pick 'em.)
It goes without saying that this little infatuation set the stage for the seemingly endless cavalcade of absurdly Quixotic endeavors to come throughout my lifetime.
I noticed Suzy the moment she entered the bar area where our informal re-meet-and-greet cocktail party was being held. I happened to be across the room at the time and worked my way over to where she was standing, pushing through the heavy crowd until it birthed me directly in front of her. Her eyes widened. Somewhere an ancient electrical switch covered in cobwebs was thrown. We smiled and pulled each other into a warm hug. It was, admittedly, wonderful to see her.
A little while later, we found ourselves camped out on a couch in the hotel's lobby -- with its tempered lighting and cool music -- talking about the ghosts of high school past. We reminisced not about specific events but about overall feelings and emotions.
She told me that I was the only man she ever truly loved.
I told her that I regret having been at her disposal for three long years in a misguided crusade to win her affections.
And that's when something dawned on me: At face value, she and I had vastly different views of what happened between us all those years ago; my memories involved heartache and suffering; hers involved good times spent with someone she considered her best friend. It was a reminder, however trite this may sound, that two people can look at the exact same relationship in completely different ways.
It took only a moment though for me to realize -- and maybe this is simply the benefit of years of emotional padding -- that her view was, if not completely without fault, at least a "better" one than mine. She remembered something that I'd stupidly allowed myself to forget -- that we were as close as any two people can be at that age. We loved each other dearly, regardless of the secret agendas and occasionally underhanded machinations that may have come into play during our time together.
I loved that girl, and I understood her -- and what's more, the feeling and understanding was undeniably mutual.
It was a couple of hours later that Suzy suggested a handful of people continue the party at the high-rise apartment she shares with her partner.
I was looking for an excuse to relive my Miami Vice days anyway, so I piled two friends in the Audi A4 convertible I'd rented and sped along the beach back to Suzy's place -- and it was a gorgeous place indeed, the kind about which a New Yorker like myself can only dream: two bedrooms, a big kitchen with stainless steel appliances and granite countertops, an incredible view of the beach, and a rent that's about three hundred less than what Jayne and I pay for our Manhattan Matchbox.
We each had another drink before my Chased Amy once again sat down on the couch with me -- this time though, the topic of conversation was life after graduation.
It was as revelatory as it was utterly tragic.
I told her about my recent personal troubles and my sad history of broken relationships.
She told me about her self-destructive tendencies and inability to believe that love can fully heal her.
I spoke softly as I voiced my wish that my wife could be with me at that moment.
She pulled down the waistband of her pants and showed me a tattoo of a zero with a line through it. Literally, nil -- nothing.
"How did we get this way?" I finally asked. "What happened to us?" There wasn't a hint of humor in my voice; I was all-but-begging her for the answer I'd been looking for for years.
A resigned and bittersweet "I don't know" was all she could muster.
A Side: Depeche Mode -- Everything Counts
B Side: Howard Jones -- What is Love?
At the end of The Frog King, Harry loses Evie.
He screws up badly. She leaves him for a recently established author whose career she helped launch. She gets a big promotion and enters a new stratum, a place to which she's convinced he simply cannot follow her. Despite a heartfelt attempt at redeeming himself -- he writes the basic outline of a manuscript which centers around her and their relationship, then shows it to her -- she tells him that she just can't do it anymore; she reached her "saturation point" and has moved on.
In one final grand gesture, Harry dresses up in a frog costume (one of Evie's friends refers to him as the eponymous "Frog King" earlier in the story) and crashes a New Year's Eve costume party to confront the love of his life and plead his case.
When finally face-to-face, he reminds her of all the wonderful moments they shared; all the times he took care of her; all the times she took care of him; all the love they gave each other.
Except that Evie doesn't remember it that way.
Evie's memories are laden with pain, difficulty, uncertainty; all the times Harry wasn't willing to commit; all the times Harry hurt her.
To her -- there's nothing worth trying to get back.
Two people, seeing the exact same relationship in completely different ways.
Before walking out of his life forever, Evie insinuates to Harry that the true test of a partnership has less to do with being willing to swoop in when things are critical than it does with being strong and steadfast when things are thoroughly mundane.
It's security she craves -- something she believes he can't provide.
On the final page of the book though, Harry takes a deep breath and the first step in the journey toward becoming the person he needs to be -- the person he's always wanted to be, even if he was never willing to admit it to himself.
Viva la Evie isn't a life plan.
Neither is Viva la Jayne.