Sunday, January 27, 2008
Listening Post: Memoir Edition
Over the course of this little experiment of mine, I've posted several excerpts from the manuscript which I've been shopping to publishers. One in particular featured at its center a song from PJ Harvey called We Float. This morning, I'm republishing that excerpt, but this time with the inclusion of the actual song. The following took place about two months after 9/11. I had been living in a hotel in New York City since the attack, covering the story for NBC. Immediately prior to the attack, I had been in rehab for a very serious heroin addiction -- one which forced me to leave my home in Los Angeles and go back to my family in Miami to seek help. My wife at the time, estranged and in the process of leaving me completely, remained in L.A. I was trying to patch things up with her, but the 3000 mile distance wasn't the only thing separating us.
I push my face up from under the water, inhaling deeply as I feel myself break free into the open air. My eyes open and the room comes into focus. I sit up and drape my arm over the big stark-white tub in my hotel bathroom, taking in the quiet serenity which is in such sharp contrast to the whirlwind of chaos in the outside world right now.
We're at war.
You now have two minutes to reach minimum safe distance.
It was pretty much the grandaddy of foregone conclusions. Somebody had to pay for the attacks of September 11th, and as retribution goes, the military response seems to at least be pointed in the right direction -- for the moment anyway. The ability to wield this kind of might is an iffy thing though. The rational part of me -- the part not wanting to satisfy some kind of primal bloodlust by seeking swift revenge on anyone who had even the most incidental role in the attacks -- knows that it wouldn't take much to push our military machine off the tracks and right into some paranoid fascist oblivion; the old saying about conjuring up the devil then expecting him to behave comes to mind. Still, unless you're Susan Sontag or some other over-educated, Northeastern intellectual who's contemplative to the point of sheer fucking paralysis, it seems practically impossible to be in this city right now -- to experience both its heartbreak and its strength on a daily basis -- and not want to strike back with everything you've got. Call it the inevitable result of some of America's more inequitable and obscene foreign policy decisions; there's still simply no justification for what happened here. The furious need to make the guilty pay with their miserable lives may not make sense on every level, but sometimes you just don't care. Cue the Pantera; somebody's getting a goddamn beatdown. I may live to regret this opinion in hindsight -- when there's a lot more distance between myself and the heat of this moment -- but for now the fires of rage burn too brightly.
I pull myself out of the tub, towel off and wander out into the space of my hotel room, which has evolved quite a bit since my arrival last month. First of all, with no end in sight to my status as a mere freelancer, I upgraded to a suite. What the hell; it was as simple as a walk downstairs to the front desk -- in my robe and slippers no less. At this point, I'm a regular fixture around here; the guy standing still while the crowd moves at hyper-speed around him. Guests come and go, but I remain; just one of the family.
"Hey Arben," I whispered, looking around as if I were arranging a contract killing.
The guy behind the counter, an Albanian kid I'd bought a couple of rounds of drinks for at the hotel bar a few nights before, leaned forward, smirked knowingly and extended his hand. I gave it a quick shake.
"What can I do for you today sir?"
"How about some goddamned hookers."
He leaned back smiling. If you ever needed any proof as to the vast cultural dominance of hip-hop, all you'd have to do is watch Arben for about two minutes. His accent may be Eastern-European, but his lingo and gestures are pure South Central. Sjoop Dogg.
"Aw bro -- this is Jersey. You don't want hookers here. For that you gotta go into Mahnattan," he smiled, looking like he might break into a freestyle rhyme at any moment.
"Too fucking expensive; out here they give you a discount."
"You want discount hookers?"
I paused for a moment.
"I have a coupon," I said blankly.
Arben laughed, which made me feel surprisingly good. It's easy to take for granted something as simple as the ability to make another human being laugh. Of course stripping away every ounce of your personality for an extended period of time has a way of changing that.
"Anything besides hookers I can get for you?"
"Yeah actually." Now I really lean in conspiratorially. "Do you have to call the network for authorization to upgrade my room?"
"They're picking up the tab, right?"
"I'm probably supposed to."
I just waited for a moment to see if that was the end of the sentence; it wasn't. Arben's smile returned to a subversive smirk.
"-- But because you bought drinks --"
"God bless you and the good people of your country," I said through a shit-eating grin. "I won't even tell anyone about the fat girl who blew you in your car the other night."
He shot me a why'd-you-have-to-go-there look. "We've got a suite open on five -- that okay?"
That was last week. What should've been a simple move up one floor turned out to be a pretty serious undertaking, namely because I've spent the month since my arrival making quite the home away from home for myself. When I made the questionable decision to embark on this little adventure, I packed only enough clothes for about a week, figuring that if I actually did find any work at the end of the rainbow, it probably wouldn't be an extended tour of duty. Now that it's been extended indefinitely, I needed something to wear; so I took a break between shifts a couple of weeks ago and did what little our president asked of me as an average American citizen -- strong, proud and prone to completely ineffectual gestures which require no real sacrifice -- I went shopping.
I had to stock up on clothes for more reasons than one. As it turns out, my new body wasn't having most of what I brought with me. Everything now fit me like a tent, and I have to admit that getting a new and certainly sleeker wardrobe was preferable to the cheaper option: forcing myself to stuff my face with Twinkies and put the weight back on. I've even taken to hitting the hotel's gym lately to keep and perhaps even enhance my girlish figure.
I've also taken the opportunity to throw a little money in another direction -- one that's brought me a kind of joy I'd almost forgotten about. The CD section at the local Best Buy has become like a temple for me, as I revel in the healing power of music. It started almost immediately after I got out of rehab, and seems to get stronger with each passing day. I even shelled out a few hundred dollars for a mini-stereo system with a CD to CD recorder. It now sits on top of the desk in my room, adding to the image of this place as more of an apartment than a hotel suite. Hell, a place like this would easily cost me a small fortune in Manhattan -- and here I have a maid, 24-hour room service and a restaurant and bar right downstairs. As long as the bean-counters at the network continue their unbridled generosity, I could probably go on living like this forever.
I pop in a CD and crank the volume knob, watching the digital blue bars on the stereo's readout magically increase. Seconds later, the room is filled with the crushing guitar of Jimmy Eat World's Bleed American. That's another thing I love about this room: thick walls. I barely hear it when my cellphone rings.
"Hi," I answer back, genuinely surprised. "What's up?"
Kara doesn't call just to say hello anymore, so there's a pretty good chance that this conversation will end with me wanting to crawl right back into that bathtub -- this time accompanied by a hair dryer. I turn down the stereo to a reasonable volume and take a seat on the couch, mentally preparing myself. I'm also instinctively ready to ball up and make myself as small of a physical target as possible if necessary.
"Well, I want to know what you're going to do about the money you owe me."
And there it is.
Having already given her two checks totaling around a thousand dollars, my first thought is to answer obviously, "What money?" but I already know what this will get me. My response however is probably only slightly less combative.
"Hey Kara, I'm doing pretty well all things considered; thanks for asking. But enough about me, how are you?"
"It wasn't meant to be."
"My parents helped pay to move me out; I have to give it back to them."
"Well wasn't that a kind gesture on their part," I deadpan. "And my parents helped pay to move me out after your parents helped pay to move you out. They also saved my worthless life. In other words, on the payback priority list, the people who were actually there for me come first."
I recognize the spiteful huff on the other end of the line -- the one that takes the place of spitting out the word "typical," yet serves the same purpose. There it is again: bitter scorn. Yep, this conversation is almost certainly not going to end well. These days, my general disposition when it comes to my wife is overwhelming, paralyzing sorrow and sadness; for some unknown reason however, this morning I'm feeling feisty. She's being especially hostile, and I'm in especially no fucking mood to take it.
"Ah yes, the condescending sneer -- I know it well. You should patent that -- maybe get your own infomercial."
"I knew I was wasting my time," she says.
"You mean by calling or by marrying me in general?"
"Thanks, I practice in front of the mirror."
There's no denying that we each have a strange respect for the other's verbal sparring ability; it's part of what first attracted us to one another. Kara and I always knew and accepted that if the day ever came that we turned the heavy weaponry we normally point at the rest of the world on each other, the result would be mutually assured destruction. Now the doomsday scenario is here, and it sounds like Hepburn and Tracy in the middle of a meth binge. If sarcasm truly is the humor of the lazy, she and I are practically comatose.
"No, marrying you was a good learning experience," she shoots. "I mean, if I can put up with an irresponsible junkie, I can handle anything right?"
"Don't flatter yourself Kara -- you obviously couldn't put up with one for very long," I shoot back.
"Long enough to watch half the shit in my house disappear. Did you get it all back from the pawn shop before you left L.A. by the way?"
"No, some of it's still there. Swing on by and help yourself to it. Tell the boys there that I send my regards."
"No thanks, I made one trip there; that was enough," she says with utter contempt -- reminding me with absolute moral authority of the incident that broke the back of our relationship once and for all and prompted her to move out less than forty-eight hours later.
Well, you walked right into that one stupid.
I wince -- exhale softly.
That's the coup de grace and she knows it; the champ hits the canvas with a satisfyingly resonant thud.
As if to punctuate the deafening silence in the aftermath of her knock-out blow, the song on the stereo ends. I hear the mechanical click of the CDs shuffling, a pause, then the hypnotic rhythm and piano opening of P.J. Harvey's We Float.
I shake my head at the fates piling on like buzzards on a carcass. "Fucking perfect," I say.
"Look Chez, I didn't live with it because I didn't have to," she continues.
"So I guess you zoned out during that whole part about 'In sickness and in health?'" I say, barely above a whisper.
"I couldn't take it anymore."
In the background I hear Polly Jean Harvey's world-weary voice over the music:
"We wanted to find love.
We wanted success.
Until nothing was enough.
Until my middle name was excess."
"What do you mean anymore? It's not like you ever stood by me, offering all kinds of love and support -- or at least a fucking hand to hold. You spent months screaming at me that I was a loser, then you took off when I went to get help -- when I needed you the most incidentally."
"You have no idea; that was the hardest thing I've ever done."
"I can imagine Kara," I say, more defeated than anything else. "I'll give the Nobel people a call and make sure they short list you."
"Do you know what I did for two weeks straight while you were gone?"
I can hear her moving around her new apartment -- the telephone shifting. I imagine her getting ready to go to work. I say nothing.
"I cried," she says.
"I remember. I'm sorry."
"I know you are, but that doesn't change anything."
"Kara, I don't think I'm selfish because I wanted and needed my wife during a time that I was desperate and alone."
"No, you're selfish for a whole shitload of other reasons."
I can't argue with that.
Polly Jean sings:
"You shoplifted as a child.
I had a model's smile.
You carried all my hope.
Til something broke inside."
"I never stopped loving you. I was a slave to something that dug its claws into me and wouldn't let go -- for that I have absolutely no excuse. But I needed help and I got it. All I've ever asked for is a chance to try and make things right," I say.
"Yeah, but you did it to yourself. Nobody made you do heroin."
"You think I don't know that? Holy shit. I take full responsibility. My God, that's what practically made me a pariah in rehab, I wasn't willing to give myself a pass. Yes -- I get it -- addiction is like a disease in that it's degenerative and after awhile you have no choice but to succumb -- but nobody put a pipe in my mouth and a gun to my head to begin with. I did that all by myself."
"Yeah, but you don't take responsibility because you're not willing to accept the consequences," she says, making what I have to admit is a point worth pondering.
"That's a lovely zero-sum argument. The only way to effectively learn my lesson is to lose the person I care about most? I'm not sure the punishment fits the crime. I shouldn't have to pay for nine months of sheer stupidity for the rest of my life."
"You're so fucking thick-headed that you think everything should just go back to normal."
"Are you kidding me? There is no normal right now. We're three thousand miles apart and the world's in total goddamn meltdown," I say, standing and walking to the window to look out onto the devastated Manhattan skyline.
"This is kind of about you.
This is kind of about me.
We just kind of lost our way.
We were looking to be free."
"Look, you've got a lot on your plate right now -- you really can't be dwelling on this. Just do your job, stay healthy," she pauses, then adds with bizarre emphasis, "work the steps."
Hearing her mechanically parrot this phrase makes me chuckle as I continue to stare out at the city -- my adopted home. The words roll off her tongue as if the next thing out of her mouth should be, "whatever the hell that means."
"That almost sounded sincere," I say.
I hear her sigh loudly; she's had enough.
"I've put together an itemized list of what you owe. I'll e-mail it to you."
That's Kara -- all business.
"You wanted this, not me. You left -- and you took my heart with you. I think we're pretty much even."
"Just look it over and get back to me. I've gotta go."
She hangs up before I can say anything else -- specifically for that reason. I slap my phone shut.
Polly Jean's voice turns hopeful and dreamy:
"But someday, we'll float...
Take like as it comes."
(By the way, I've received a couple of e-mails inquiring as to the status of the possible book deal I mentioned a few months back. That's still in the works, although nothing is concrete at the moment. We'll see what happens; I should know more soon, but I'm not likely to talk publicly about any details until it's a sure thing.)