It was Matt’s idea to meet for dinner to talk about our good friend Nick who was going through a hard patch out in L.A. Nick’s parents and sister were so worried about him that they had called us both asking if there was any way we were able to go to L.A. to see what we thought, or at least call him more.
Matt and I both live in New York City. As of the last few years Nick is the only thing we still have in common. There wasn’t a falling out, just a fade away. For instance, I would never have chosen a bistro on 44th and Broadway as a place to talk about our old high school buddy’s crack up. I would have gone as far to say, Way to be a fag, buddy. But I don’t feel comfortable enough with Matt anymore to do this, so I wrote back, Sounds good. And now I’m here, standing outside the restaurant pretending to fiddle with my blackberry waiting for him to show up.
Matt turns the corner in one of those pullover windbreakers I remember wearing for soccer practice in high school. There is a girl—a woman rather—walking beside him in business casual. Blond, leggy, scrubbed clean. The type who persistently wears pearl earrings and went to Princeton because her dad did. I mean, I’m guessing.
“Hey buddy,” Matt hollers, I slip my blackberry in my pant pocket.
“I’m so sorry. I’m a tagalong. Matt and I actually had plans, which I had canceled other plans for,” the girl reaches out to shake my hand. “I’m Kate.”
“Heman, this is my girlfriend, we had plans for dinner tonight so I invited her to join because—”
“I’m absolutely starved,” Kate started pawing through her purse. “Dammit, it’s work.” She propped her purse onto her knee and kept digging.
“Do you want me—”
“How you been buddy, haven’t seen you in an age.”
Kate had her blackberry and was skimming through a message, she stepped away from us.
“Good, fine, I’m at Barclay’s now, I don’t know if that’s where I was—”
“No, I remember Barclay’s, I remember hearing that. Maybe on Facebook. You like it? Kate, I mean, can we go inside? Can you do that inside?”
“Oh, sure, sure. I’m sorry,” she didn’t look up. I opened the door for Matt and Kate and followed them in. The hostess led us to a round table in the back where we were all positioned to sit against the wall facing the crowd. It was an awkward arrangement but I wasn’t going to say anything. Kate picked up the wine list and began studying it.
“So where do we start with this?” Matt kicked it off. “When was the last time you talked to Nick?”
“I talked to him after he was fired.”
“Well that was a stupid job for him, why was he in real estate? Remember when he had that random summer job in college at that real estate firm? Then he just goes along with the whole thing, accepts the after-college job offer because it’s easy. I mean, c’mon, Nick and real estate?”
“His father is sort of in real estate, if you think about it, he owns all those apartments in town.” I had never thought about this until I said it out loud then. Normally I tell the story how Matt is recalling it, to illustrate my crazy friend out west who never left the random job he started as a temp in college. He was majoring in Classics and Latin. I mean, that’s a whole other thing.
“Does a cabernet work for everyone?” Kate asked, setting the wine list on the table.
When the waiter came over Kate ordered the wine. The waiter left a plate of small cheeses. Kate inspected, then picked one. She sniffed it and put it on her plate.
“So,” she refocused to us, “did he begin to get this way after he lost his job?” Her white button up shirt was so clean and crisp it was remarkable that she had worn it for an entire day.
“Heman, would you say so?”
“No. Maybe. What did his mother tell you?”
“That at first she thought he had a drinking problem, but now she thinks it’s worse. That he babbles on, gets very upset over, minor things. How this isn’t like him at all. She said something about someone shoving him accidently on the street. I mean, Nick didn’t think it was accidental but that’s what it sounded like to his mother. How he babbled on and on about this to her over the phone. I mean, for hours. Nonsensical.”
“They weren’t even that close, were they?”
“I barely remember her, honestly,” Matt says. He picks up his menu.
“Well, his mom was a little a bit nuts though, right?”
“Remember when she busted in his bedroom, and we were smoking from that gravity bong he had–”
“And I freaked out, I grabbed that pillow, but didn’t want to tip the water out, so I just held that pillow out in front of it.”
“And she goes, Kate are you listening? I mean we lived in the suburbs, to be caught with pot was a big deal, I think we were in 9th or 10th grade.”
The waiter pours a little wine for Kate to sniff and Matt keeps going with it. “Nick’s mom goes, in that little accent of her, Boys, I know you are smoking marijuana and that is OK, you can do that here as long as you don’t take heroin. In Yemen all the boys do and it ruins them. She said something like, I know you are good boys.”
“And so then, obviously, Nick’s house becomes the after school pot house because his mom basically blessed it. I mean for the rest of high school.”
“That’s weird, the wine’s good.” Kate let out a delicate grunt. Or was it a laugh? “Nick, I never realize how much pot you used to smoke.”
“Oh, come on Kate.”
I take a sip, then another. We order. I can tell I’ll pay too much for this meal no matter what so I order steak. So does Kate.
“I mean he lost his job, his girlfriend dumped him a few months ago. He’s alone in L.A., has absolutely nothing to do.”
“Quarter life crisis,” I interrupt.
“We all go through it. I went through it,” Matt goes.
“When did you go through it?” Kate is holding her cheese again.
“I don’t know, a few months ago, before I got the promotion and I hated my boss and I hated working in production and was editing shitty reality TV. I mean that gets to you. Doing something 9 hours a day that you don’t care about—that you don’t respect.”
“What was I doing when this was all happening?”
I poured myself more wine and reached for the bread.
“Nick’s just not mentally equipped to handle this, not having a job, a support system. He’s always been out there. What was his major again?”
“Classics and Latin.”
“Jesus what a nutbag. So yeah, he took this real estate job. Got into it, made money. He made a lot of money, do you know how much he made last year?”
“How would I know that?” I was interested again.
“I know for a fact two years ago he was bringing in about 100K. So he got caught up in that. Now he’s lost his job. He realized that was never him. And he’s freaking the fuck out because what’s he going to do, go back to Latin?”
Kate worked away at her steak. Sawing off one piece as she chewed, popping it in, and then sawing another.
“Maybe.” She starts then swallows, “But what if something is unhinged, something went wrong in his head. I mean his mother talking about that babbling stuff. Babbling is a bad sign. Quote-un-quote quarter life crisis are kids drinking too much in a bar and being hungover at their temp jobs. I don’t know Nick. But if his family is so worried, if he’s babbling-”
I have started to feel a bit uncomfortable recently. This has been something that has been happening but I haven’t talked about, I mean, why would I? I get a sudden flash of fear that I am about to scream very loudly. Or piss my pants. Or something. It passes in a microsecond but I become anxious that for a moment my body could have done that, without my consent. I mean, this doesn’t keep me up at nights. But there are little triggers. I stopped thinking about it and poured more wine for Kate and then for myself. She said thank you.
“The elephants! They’re coming!” a woman sitting at the table next ours cried to her table. She was reading her blackberry as she yelled out. “They’re on 42nd now. They’ll be here any minute!”
Kate set her fork down. I scratched at my head and we considered one another. The table next to us stood up and went for the door. Then another table.
“Should we?” Matt laughed.
“It’s terrible how circus elephants are treated, they’re abused to do those damn tricks for a bunch of idiots,” Kate was gaining speed, “they’re such smart animals to think that, those circuses are so. It’s shameful.”
We continued to sit at our round table facing the restaurant that was quickly emptying as diners stood and followed one another onto the curb. Beyond the tables were windows and beyond that the crowd was forming on the sidewalk. Clapping started. Matt was saying something about animal shows teaching people animal awareness so it’s for the greater good of the species. Or something. I wasn’t listening. I saw the first elephant make its way above the crowd. Marching slowly, with his head and trunk hanging low, as if it was too much of a weight, of a pressure, to look up. Another big dark thing in the night. More elephants followed. The crowd had stopped clapping. I was afraid I was going to scream again.