The morning sun streams through my bay window and illuminates a cheap print of Crane Beach and a row of golden vials in my double-wide medicine cabinet. I stand there pondering this week’s big question: Vicodin, Ambien, or Heineken—what do unemployed people have for breakfast?
Lately, making even the smallest decision has become an ordeal. Cash or charge? Draft or bottle? Girl-on-Girl or Teens-with-Toys? I wash down a Vicodin with a beer and crawl back into bed.
The phone wakes me at noon. I lift my sleep blindfold to check Caller ID. It’s Abe. He’s been my closest friend for ten years, but in recent months I seem to have slid off his priority list.
Whenever I call him, I get voicemail and maybe three days later an e-mail. If I e-mail, it takes a week for a response. I know he’s alive and ambulatory because I see the posts from Amy, his wife of one year, about their trips to Vermont, weekends in Newburyport, and drinks in Boston’s South End with people I don’t recognize.
When he does call to get together, it’s always at the last minute: "Hey Burns, the wife’s busy tonight. How about drinks at the Minuteman?"
The phone rings and again and again and finally goes to voice mail. I take a sip from the lukewarm beer on my nightstand. Through a Vicodin fog, I consider the $25 print of Crane Beach, which I picked up three years ago at Costco. Every time Abe sees it, he says the same thing: "Burns, you got fleeced."
Abe is an abrasive guy. I’m drawn to abrasive, angry people. My therapist, Dr. Moody, says I’m attracted to people and things that make me uncomfortable. Maybe so.
- I’m shy, but drawn to women with rabid, foaming, over-the-top personalities.
- I’m terrified of cancer, but crave Marlboro Lights and cheese-burger clubs.
- I’m afraid to be alone, but find most people dull and annoying. Except for the abrasive, angry ones.
This doesn’t make much sense. Therapy hasn’t made much sense and neither has paying $125 an hour to a shrink named Dr. Moody. I stick with it because I like Moody. He’s kind of a dick. Like Abe.
The phone starts ringing again. I imagine Abe cursing on the other end because he knows I’m home and not answering. Fuck you, Abe.
Moody says that I take people’s actions too personally and that relationships naturally ebb and flow. He may have a point.
Over the last year, all my close friendships seem to be ebbing. Maybe it’s because we’re all in our late-forties and preoccupied with the developmental milestones of our age group:
- Finding a reliable sleeping pill.
- Acquiring a long-term care policy.
- Securing a relationship with that special someone who will pick us up after a colonoscopy.
When Abe had a colonoscopy two years ago, I found the time to pick him up. But now that Amy manages his calendar, can I count on him to reciprocate? I decide to take his call.
"What’s up, Abe?"
"Burns, you wouldn’t believe the fucked up thing that happened to me last week."
This is how we begin all our conversations. It’s our standard greeting, our secret handshake. Generally, the ensuing monologue covers his job and today is no different:
"In the weeds…"
"Goose-eggs in sales..."
"Zeroes in accounting..."
I half-listen. His voice soothes me like the satin lining of my sleep blindfold.
Abe pauses to tell someone that he’s on an important call.
Maybe I should cut him some slack.
"Sorry about that," Abe says to me. "Some fag from human resources. Anyway, this is your first Monday without a job, how are you holding up?"
"I’m holding up." I take a sip from the warm beer on my night table.
"I knew you would. Ask Amy, if you don’t believe me. So, how’s the miserable game?"
The "miserable game" is online dating. Years ago, we met women at parties. Now, no one gives parties because no one wants to subject their throw pillows and tufted rugs to the spilling crowds. Including me. Especially me.
I take another sip. "Match.com is a horror show. ShiksaMingle, a freak show. Last week, I signed up for a new one called Fish in a Barrel. It’s like casting into a wading pool filled with old band aids and dirty diapers."
"So you wouldn’t believe the fucked up thing that happened to me yesterday. Ricki e-mailed."
"Holy Crap! Not her again. She’s bonkers. Burns, please tell me you ignored her. You need to meet some new people. Why don’t you hit the Museum of Science?"
I put the blindfold back on. "I’m not up for culture."
"Who said anything about culture? Where do you think divorced babes take their kids during the day?"
"You’re kidding me, right?"
"Burns, I know you don’t like kids, but you can’t be so picky anymore. Not every chick with kids has a blown-out body. And you’re no prize. You’re forty-eight. You got no job. Your car is an embarrassment. Amy’s no hard-body plus she’s two years older than me. But she makes me feel normal. I’m not that sour guy eating alone at the bar every night. I have a date on New Year’s. Burns, everyone settles. Or dies alone."
I stifle a yawn. Abe continues.
"You say you want a relationship, but look at all the women you’ve had that went nowhere. And now you’re in a drought and it’s all Boston’s fault: Everyone’s too young, they hate middle-aged white guys, there’s nowhere to meet people over forty. You think that’s going to get better? My brother just turned fifty and the only women on Match who write him are in their sixties. He’s moving to New York. Are you ready to move? You’re out of work. How you going to afford it?"
I lift the blindfold and take another sip.
"So you’ll stay-put like you always do. You’ll be the hero, the man of steel who won’t settle. You’ll keep waiting for an outlier, a babe who’s thin as a wand and kooky and skis and likes noir and porn and the Red Sox. An introvert like you. She’ll have the magic, the x-factor, the secret sauce. Burns wake up: There is no outlier. Your dream woman doesn’t exist. All that head-over-heels stuff is Hollywood crapola."
Maybe I deserve this. I’ve been dating for almost thirty years and have nothing to show for it. I had always accepted the boom and bust of dating as predictable, inevitable, what we all did. Then Abe decided to get married and I began whining to him about being alone, as if it were somehow his fault.
I put the beer back on my night table.
"Burns, are you drinking?"
I don’t bother answering.
"Burns, look, you can’t get back with Miss Borderline Personality and you can’t spend your life in the Dark Place. How are you fixed for meds? Amy just got a root canal, so we’ve got inventory."
I check the Vicodin vial on my nightstand: It’s half full. "I’m good for now Abe, but thanks for the offer. I should let you get back to work."
Two hours later, the phone wakes me again. It’s Rachel. I run a mental search for recent offenses and can’t find anything except she’s got a new boyfriend, Arturo. It’s only a matter of time before she’ll backburner me, too. I answer the phone: "Hey, Rachel."
"How are you doing? I heard Ricki e-mailed."
"Good news travels fast."
"Do you think maybe she’s worth another shot? What else have you got going?"
There are two things Rachel does that annoy me: She offers advice in the form of a question, and now that she’s hooked up, she worries about me, which should be nice but feels patronizing at times. Like now.
"I hear the tenth time is the charm," I say.
"Relationships take effort, right? I read that romantic love last for maybe two years. I love Arturo, but we’ve got our issues. We work on them every day and we’ve only been dating for six months."
I want to say that this doesn’t sound like much fun or that maybe Arturo isn’t right for her or that I just got laid off and I’ve had it with work for a while.
But she means well.
Abe means well.
So what if they both settled?
I take a swig. Backwash.
"Abe said you’re spiraling down. Have you tried the Cambridge Whole Foods? That’s where I met Arturo. Just a thought."
I met Rachel and Abe ten years ago at the bar of the Minuteman, a health club a few blocks from my apartment in downtown Boston.
The three of us liked the same things: Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, The Three Stooges, and a weekly cigarette. We also hated the same things: everyone under twenty-five and uptight Massachusetts liberals.
After Rachel hangs up, I reach over to shake the snow globe on my nightstand. Little white flakes dance around a photo of me and my childhood dog, Harold the basset hound. In the picture, I’m looking into the camera and Harold is looking up at me.
I think of Harold and my childhood in New York. Relationships were simpler then: People loved you or they didn’t, no grey areas and no confusion.
Maybe I need a dog.
Maybe I need to relocate.
Maybe I just need to get laid.
Definitely I need to get laid.
I’ve never liked crowds, sight-seeing, or public spectacles, but the next morning I fork out $20 for the Museum of Science. Inside, women whizz by with tricked-out, all-terrain strollers. Most have short hair and no make-up. I picture them in housecoats.
When Abe was single, he would have referred to this crowd as a bunch of blown-out bust-ups. Now, it’s pay dirt for guys ready to settle. I try to picture myself in a housecoat.
I finger the $20 ticket stub in my pocket. I’ve only been her for ten minutes, that’s $120 an hour, about what Moody charges. I can’t leave yet.
A three-wheeled jogging stroller with full-suspension, bicycle tires, and a rain canopy dodges me. The operator has long hair and lipstick. She pulls up at a nearby exhibit. She’s wearing a Red Sox hat and a ski vest. An outlier. Her little boy is wearing a Red Sox hat and a ski vest. I observe for a few minutes, and then idle a few feet from them. I grip the exhibit railing. It’s sticky.
I make a cast. "Having fun?"
She smiles half a smile.
"This is some rally," I say.
She offers the other half a smile.
Her little boy licks a lollypop and then licks the railing. I open my sticky palms and think about saliva and strep throat and rabies. I try a new line: "Can I borrow your Purell?"
She loads the kid and peels out.
That night, Cambridge Whole Foods is sponsoring a poetry reading and wine tasting. The evening’s theme: Writers of color celebrate diversity.
I don’t care for poetry or wine, and as far as I’m concerned, diversity means everyone except middle-aged white men. Like me. But the event is free, so I go in.
The reading is at the back of the store. The crowd is mostly fussy-looking guys and women in logging boots. The M.C. is a women’s studies professor from Harvard. She’s big. Her boots are big. I set the timer on my watch for five minutes and stand near the exit.
First a black poet reads, then a Hispanic poet, then a Samoan. All their poems are about "the man":
"The man got me down"
"The man got my check."
"The man got my babies."
The poets seem to be looking in my direction when they read. I scan the crowd. I’m the only middle-aged white guy here.
I imagine grabbing the microphone to deliver my own tirade, which Moody refers to as my "Great White Whine." It goes like this:
I’m a middle-aged guy, the worst thing you can be in this country. In sitcoms, we’re portrayed as buffoons with wives and cute kids who are always putting something over on us. In commercials, we’re wimps with enlarged prostates and erectile dysfunction – guys with dicks that don’t work.
We have no feelings and no right to complain because our forefathers are to blame for the last 200 years of suffering of women, minorities, and snail darters.
Women no longer want equality, they want to get even. They’ll take our flowers, little boxes, and fancy dinners, but they don’t really want us. They can support themselves, have babies on their own, and marry each other. They refuse to put up with any crap, including the kind of crap we put up with from them. Look at all the fat, happy lesbians. They act like they’re on a permanent vacation because they don’t need to diet or exercise to please a guy.
At the end of this monologue, Moody always gives me a round of applause and says, "Bravo, bravo. A tour de force. How can any woman resist you?"
At home, I consider myself in front of the double wide: bald head, graying eyebrows, a parenthesis of lines around my nose and mouth. Forty-eight, never married, and the way things are going, I’ll be hitch-hiking back from my next colonoscopy.
When some people get depressed about dating, they consult friends, relatives, or an astrologer. Me? I consult a dating spreadsheet that lists women I’ve dated over the last twenty years, how we met, and how long we lasted. Analyzing past trends reminds me that I’ve survived droughts before and by projecting the data forward, I’ve even been able to predict when I’d next meet someone. But when I open DATES.XLS this time, the forecast isn’t good. It’s late spring and historically summer is my slow season. Worse still, there’s no data for how I’ll fare without a fancy job title – I am literally and figuratively in uncharted territory.
A lesser person in this situation might languish in the Dark Place, but I’m a man of action or, as Moody says, reaction. Take "Jackie" listed in Cell A30. I dated her on and off for three years in my thirties until she finally gave me the heave-ho for offenses too numerous to recount. For weeks, I moped around the house. Then I moped around a Barnes & Noble where I spotted a book on how to grow marijuana in a closet. I figured if growing the plants didn’t help me forget Jackie, smoking the crop certainly would.
I stocked up on organic potting soil and high-potency fertilizer, and then scored a fluorescent light large enough for a two-car garage. After lining the walls with aluminum foil to reflect the light, my four-by-eight-foot closet replicated the climate of a Jamaican ganja farm.
Within four months, I had five bushy plants and a new girlfriend (Alex, Cell A31). True, the relationship didn’t last long, and I’ll never know if she wanted me just for my Maui Wowie, but at least the pot project kept me out of the Dark Place.
Now, it’s 2007, I’m out of a job and fifteen years older. I need something big, an all-consuming distraction, a project to get me out of the house and away from online dating. I head to Barnes & Noble.