Monday, August 29, 2011

Our Hearts Littering the Topsoil


Over the next few days, I'll be publishing some excerpts from Dead Star Twilight in the lead-up to the release of the book as a pay-what-you-want download this Friday. A couple of them will have appeared here on the main page before at some point; at least one will be brand new to those who haven't read the actual book yet.

The following took place about a month-and-a-half after 9/11. I had been living in a hotel in the New York City area since the attack, covering the story for MSNBC. Immediately prior to the events of September 11th, 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 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 3,000 mile distance was by no means the only thing separating us.


October, 2001: The Past Isn't Through with 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 assembles into focus. I sit up and drape my arm over the side of the big stark-white tub in my hotel bathroom, taking in the quiet calm which is in such sharp contrast to the whirlwind of chaos in the outside world right now.

It’s on.

We’re at war.

You now have two minutes to reach minimum safe distance.

It was pretty much the granddaddy 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. The rational part of me—the part not wanting to satisfy some primal bloodlust by seeking vengeance against anyone and everyone having 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 Sontag or Chomsky or some other professional intellect who’s analytical to the point of fucking paralysis, it seems practically impossible to be in this city right now—to experience both its heartbreak and its strength on a day-to-day basis—and not want to strike back with everything you’ve got. Call it the inevitable result of America’s admittedly obscene foreign policy all you want, there’s 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. Fuck ‘em. Cue the Pantera. Somebody’s getting a goddamned beat-down. I may one day regret this opinion in hindsight—when there’s a lot more distance between myself and the heat of the 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 open space of my hotel room, which has evolved quite a bit since I moved in 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 walking 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 crowds move 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 drug deal.

The guy behind the counter, an Albanian kid I’d bought a round of drinks for a couple of nights earlier at the hotel bar, leaned forward, smirked knowingly and extended his hand. I gave it a quick shake.

“What can I do for you today, Mr. Pazienza?”

“How about some hookers.”

He drew back, smiling. If you needed any proof as to the vast cultural dominance of hip-hop, all you’d have to do is watch Arben for two minutes. His accent may be Eastern European, but his lingo and gestures are pure South Central. He may as well call himself Sjoop Dogg.

“Aw, bro—this is Jersey. You don’t want the hookers here. For that you gotta go into Manhattan.” He grinned, looking like he was about to break into a freestyle rhyme at any moment.

“Too fucking expensive. Out here they give you a discount.”

“You want discount whores?”

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 being able to make another human being laugh. Of course sandblasting away every part of your personality for months on end has a way of changing that.

“Anything besides sex I can get you?”

“Yeah, actually.” Now I really ducked my head conspiratorially. “Do you have to call the network for authorization to upgrade my room?”

“They’re picking up the tab, right?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m 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 the subversive smirk.

“But because you bought drinks.”

“God bless you and the good people of your country,” I said through an exaggerated 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?” he said.

“Perfect.”

That was last week. What should’ve been a simple move up a floor turned out to be a pretty serious undertaking—namely because I’ve spent the month since my arrival creating 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 idiot president asked of me as an average citizen of America—strong, proud and prone to completely ineffectual gestures with no real sacrifice: I went shopping.

I had to stock up on clothes for more reasons than one. As it turned out, my new body wasn’t having anything to do with most of what I’d brought with me. Everything fit me like a tent, and I have to admit that getting a new and certainly sleeker wardrobe was preferable to the cheaper option: Stuffing my face with Twinkies to put the weight back on. I even make time for the hotel gym these days in an effort to keep and perhaps even enhance my girlish figure.

I’ve taken the opportunity lately to throw a little money in another direction as well—one that’s brought me the kind of joy I had almost forgotten about: the Virgin Megastore in Times Square has become like a temple to me, allowing me to revel in the healing power of music. My need to bring a soundtrack back to my life asserted itself not long after I got out of rehab, and seems to grow 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 the desk in my room, adding to the image of this place as more of an apartment than a hotel suite. A space like this would easily cost me a small fortune in Manhattan—and here I have a maid, room service and a restaurant and bar right downstairs. As long as the bean-counters at NBC continue their unbridled generosity, I could probably live like this forever.

I pop in a CD and crank the volume knob, watching the digital blue bars on the stereo’s readout magically jump. 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 cell phone begins to ring.

“Hello.”

“Hey.”

Great.

“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 the bathtub, this time accompanied by a hair dryer. I turn the stereo down to a reasonable volume and take a seat on the couch, mentally preparing myself. I’m instinctively ready to ball up and make myself as small 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 well over a thousand dollars, my first thought is to ask her what she’s talking about. But I already know where this will get me. The response I go with is probably only slightly less combative.

“Hey, Kara,” I over-enunciate. “I’m doing pretty well, all things considered. Thanks for asking. But enough about me—how are you?”

“Funny.”

“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 ass. 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. Scornful bitterness. This conversation is most definitely not going to end well.

These days, my general disposition when it comes to my wife is overpowering sorrow and sadness. For some reason, however, I’m feeling feisty this morning. 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?”

“Good one.”

“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. We always knew and accepted that if the day ever came when 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 on crystal meth. 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 apparently 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?”

Ouch.

“No, some of it’s still there. Swing on by and help yourself to it. Tell them I send my regards.”

“No thanks. I made one trip there—that was enough,” she says with vicious contempt, reminding me with absolute moral authority of the incident that broke the back of our relationship once and for all and led her to move out less than forty-eight hours later.

Well, you walked right into that one, stupid.

I wince—exhale through a grimace.

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 electronic rhythm and piano opening of PJ 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 part about ‘in sickness and in health?’” I say, barely more than a murmur.

“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 stood by me offering love and support. You spent months screaming that I was a fucking loser, then took off when I went to get help—when I needed you 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 you’re on one of their short lists.”

“Do you know what I did for two weeks straight while you were gone?”

I can hear her moving around her 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 things.”

“You know something? I don’t think I’m selfish because I wanted and needed you 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 hopes. Til something broke inside."

“I never stopped loving you—ever. I was a slave to something that wouldn’t let go of me. It turned me into a monster. But I needed help and I got it. All I’ve ever asked for is the chance to make things right with you,” I say.

“Yeah, but you did it to yourself. Nobody made you do heroin.”

“You think I don’t know that? I take full responsibility. Christ, that’s what practically made me a pariah in rehab—I wasn’t willing to give myself a pass. Yes, addiction is a disease because it’s degenerative and after awhile there isn’t a damn thing you can do about what’s happening to you—but nobody put a pipe in my mouth and a gun to my head to begin with. I did that all by myself, and I have no excuses.”

“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 decent point.

“So the only way to effectively learn my lesson is to lose the woman I love? I’m sorry, I don’t think the punishment fits the crime. I shouldn’t have to pay for nine months of stupidity for the rest of my life.”

“You’re so fucking thick-headed that you think everything should just go back to normal,” she shouts.

“Are you kidding me? What the hell is normal right now? We’re three-thousand miles apart and the whole fucking world’s turned upside down,” I say, standing and walking to the window to look out onto the shattered Manhattan skyline.

Polly Jean:

"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 enough 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 unspoken next thing out of her mouth should be: “Whatever the hell that means.”

“That almost sounded sincere,” I say.

I hear her sigh powerfully. 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: A calculator where her heart should be.

“You wanted this, not me. You left—and you took everything in my life with you. I’d say we’re 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.

Polly Jean’s voice turns hopeful and dreamy:

"But someday, we’ll float... Take life as it comes."


Photo Credit: Ville Miettinen

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