September 16, 2016
by Erik Rasmussen
There began a hum. Is how he felt it. A tone of feeling. It wasn’t so much a mood. Like there were moods that came and went. Or changed into cousin moods. Normal stuff. But all happening in the environment of the hum. The hum maintained. Sort of grew, is how he thought of it. The hum enveloped, filled the spaces between moods like water. Then he slept.
When he woke. It was in there still. In his head? In his being. Don’t think that way. My being? So new-age. Which he ridiculed. While eating a banana, drinking a coffee. New-age was ridiculous. He dressed. Went to work. Ridiculous.
It was his birthday. He’d keep it a secret from his workmates. Not like Jimmy Zimmerman. How he’d come in, announcing it to the office. To be treated differently, like better, the whole day. Why didn’t he take the day off if he wanted to be special? If he didn’t want to work? Because he did want to work. To get ahead on his files and to still feel like it was a holiday. They slapped his back. Brought him a coffee. It was like a free day for Zimmerman. And, of course, he knew someone would take a collection for a god damn cake at lunch. To surprise him. Come into the break room singing happy birthday while he feigned surprise. What a clown Zimmerman was. Is.
He wouldn’t tell anyone. It’s no big deal. Another year gone by. He wasn’t looking for attention. Work was not a circus. He was not a clown. He was man. A real guy. Simple. Serious. Most of all? Private.
Maybe he was excited. It was a special day. Just for him and who loved him. You’ve got to be a banal sort of guy to announce your birthday. That’s all you got? Everyone gets it once a year. It’s not like he’d turned twenty-one or something. Him nor Zimmerman. They both were in their thirties.
The hum spiked. There, in the subway. Jolted. He felt a jolt at the thought of his thirties.
Recently, as in like last week, someone at work asked his age. He’d said, Guess. And they guessed thirty. He replied that he was closer to forty than thirty. He’d jounced then, too. Sans the hum.
It’d been a holy-shit moment.
Forty had always been abstract. A sorting grounds of fathers, grandfathers, winners, people who had a ways to go, people with dense histories, or losers cast in bronze … He wasn’t forty. Wasn’t capable of being forty any more than he could be Chinese. He was in too good a shape—the first of his friends to experiment with healthy living. He ate less red meat, more organic produce. He’d joined a gym at thirteen. Mostly because a therapist recommended he find a way to manage his anger. None of his friends had gym memberships. He even wore sun block. Drank water. Applied moisturizer.
He still wrestled. At thirty-eight. The first of what would start a chain of realizations? He was permanently sore. In his twenties it took just a day to recover from a workout. As in twenty-four hours. He was touchy mornings, sure. Stiff. A walk cleaned it out. He could wrestle every day, no warm up, no stretching. That changed like literally the day he turned thirty. Like a switch thrown. One morning he woke up sore. Stiff rusty joints. It wasn’t just joints, it was muscles. Skin. Blood even. His blood was thick. Cold. He’d gone to the mats that night, his thirtieth birthday. Open mats at Hofstra University to wrestle with the team. With whoever showed up. He found himself slow, easily fatigued. As if he were hungover, even though he didn’t drink.
He drank now. That, too, had crept up on him, after he started cooking at home. He liked a glass of wine while cooking risotto. He liked saving money. Saving money? For what? He had no family. What’d he need to save for? The future’s a long ways off.
It happened pretty much like that. A flaring chain of thoughts touched off by age. The idea of age.
No, the presence of age. He was thirty-eight. With a birthday card waiting on his desk. Coworkers asking as he passed, Is it your birthday? Really? Happy birthday. How old are ya?
He was closer to forty. Not old. Certainly not young. Was this middle age? Was that even a thing anymore? Hadn’t someone moved the goal post? Pushed middle age a decade out with pills, steroids, moisturizer? Hadn’t his brother-in-law met a life insurance agent who told him, the brother-in-law, “We’re estimating your daughter’s lifetime at 113.”
His personal father died at sixty-eight. That was premature. Everyone thought so. Life expectancy then was seventy-four. Thirty-seven years shorter than what his niece gets.
The flower on his desk was some kind of Lily. He wasn’t sure. He should probably know something simple like that. He had work to do. But first he’d Google flowers.
He met Emily in college. They were English majors. They sat next to one other in Composition. They had a brief intimate relationship. Like one week brief. But managed to stay friends. She got married. Moved to Westchester. He moved to New York City, proofreading magazines before they went to print. Bluelines, it’s called. Learned that on the job. Emily got an editing job at Joy, a women’s lifestyle magazine. Technically he was freelance, though he proofed only for Hearst. Twelve hundred bucks per magazine. Per issue. Roughly four grand a month. Not bad. Not great. Not like he was going to raise a family on it, buy a house.
Meanwhile he wrote stories that he never finished. He was a novelist by nature. Everything ran on and on. Then Cory quit.
Cory was a designer. Had gone to college to learn computers, programming kinds of things. Hired by a design firm Hearst once outsourced to, and then later bought. Which meant they bought Cory, too.
Eight years of college between them, him and Cory. Took Emily a weekend to teach him Cory’s job, flowing text into page layouts. Full-time at Hearst. Twice the work now: his and Cory’s. New title. New career. Same pay. There were benefits. That was the deal. Benefits were not to be taken for granted. You can never have too much security.
Anyway, thank god for Emily. Good ol’ Em. Whew. Got him a secure job. He had no time to write. Small price to pay for security.
Plus, who gets to switch careers mid-life? He did.
When he got to The Academy (a wrestling gym on Bond Street) the mats were pooled with sweat. He’d been arriving late since he went full-time at Hearst. That was a sacrifice he’d made. A small one, considering. For anyone else it was all or nothing. You came late, you didn’t train. Cinch. They’d made a concession for him. The instructor at the wrestling academy let it slide. He understood. The instructor did. Coach. Good ol’ coach. He was alright. Sometimes hard on the guys. They needed it, though. This wasn’t college. This wasn’t the Olympics. This wasn’t even very competitive. A kick in the ass helped motivate. The structure must be stricter, he thought. He laced his shoes. He’s one of the better wrestlers. Not the best. The best was Larry. Larry’s a fricken monster. Maybe if he were Larry’s size he’d be a monster, too? He was faster than Larry. But he was years older. Older than the coach even, by nine years. Which is why they had an understanding. An unspoken... He guessed. Or maybe because he finished second in the states his senior year wrestling in High School? Coach, he thinks, didn’t even place in the states, and he wasn’t an All-American at Hofstra University. Hofstra was no D1 school but even so. Where did coach go? Some community college? With corn kernels in his sneakers? Whatever, whatever. He was a good coach. Understanding. Walking on a slack line during drills.
The humidity was thick. He liked the smell. Irriguous t-shirts hung limply on bodies. Red faces scuffed. Shiny grimaces. Music piped in, washing out the heavy breathing. Across the gym shins hit pads with a meaty pop. The other side of the slack line—the official boundary between the wrestling area and the Muy Thai area. The coach crouched, arms winged, balancing as his wrestlers drilled lat-drops.
Coach hops off slack line, comes over. Shakes hand. Coach dismisses tardiness by way of asking about work. Tardiness? Lateness. He was late. His college coach would’a chewed his ass out. No ass chewing here. He is older than coach. But still, he called him Sir. When coach ordered him to partner up with Lance for drills he said, Yes sir. Took orders from a man a decade younger.
People were younger than him. Not like a few people. Most people, here, were younger than him. When did that happen? He’d noticed it last weekend, at a barbecue on a Brooklyn rooftop. He was invited by Rachel. A fashion stylist. It was a fashionable barbecue. Makeup artists, art directors, photographers and like … They were all younger than him. He finished their work, laying out their photos, squooshing in copy.
The week before, too, now that he thought about it, as he walked across the mat with Lance in a fireman’s carry, when he’d taken a train to Emily’s in Westchester. He didn’t know the area. Don’t people need cars to get around Westchester? How would he get to Emily’s? He’d figure it out. Look, there are cabs there. He headed through the station house. Opened the door, towards which a pretty young blonde rushed. Running for a train soon departing. He held the door open for her, smiled. Thank you, she smiled back. Thank you, Sir.
He’d checked his teeth in the window. Were they yellow? Had he facial-labials? Those wrinkles around the mouth that speak parenthetically (Older Gentleman) when you smile.
Clerks too. They called him sir, deferentially. That was different. It designated him a sort of boss. Not the pretty little train girl, he wasn’t her boss. He was aging so quickly.
One for ones, ordered the coach. Take down, control, pin, he ordered.
Yes Sir he said. They all said. To the twenty-nine-year-old coach.
Because his skills were quantifiable. His experience demonstrable. The coach had competed. Not in a reputable program. But he won ribbons, medals, accolades. That got him hired at the Academy. He had a position of authority. By joining, signing the line, providing a credit card, he submitted to the agony of training under the coach’s authority. There existed a chain of command. Coach. Then you. His orders > your will. Age simply didn’t enter the equation. Except he had a job that made him late. Which was no excuse. Not for the others. You couldn’t find the time = find another gym. Why was he an exception? What went unsaid but understood? His responsibilities > the dictates of this particular coach. Understanding = he was old. Older. Age > or at least = academic authority.
He knew he would never again train as hard. Wrestling was no longer real. The exhaustion? Yes, that was real. The pain? Check. The competitiveness? Mais bien sûr! But what would no longer emerge with the same intensity: the exact earnestness of failure-is-not-an-option to prevail over his opponent. Wrestling was a game. Stupid.
Is this how you age? Release by release? Until you’ve let go everything but the essential?
He was momentarily sick with regret—a secret, latent disappointment at having no children, no wife, nor many friends. Responsibilities that one way or another he’d incessantly avoided. He’d clung desperately to his youth, which, like ice, diminished more quickly the tighter he held it.
The next day, birthday, he was not very sore. This pleased him.
Still a beast, he told himself over a bowl of oatmeal.
Then he remembered how easy he’d taken it at wrestling practice, even faking a groin injury to get out of suicide sprints.
Eating oatmeal = good for the cholesterol. Not that he had cholesterol. Not that he’d had his cholesterol checked. He hadn’t seen a doctor in seven years. Had no medical insurance. Which shocked anyone he told. Because he’s old, he guessed.
There was one time. He went to a clinic. Right? One time for that one thing? On his thing. After he’d slept with what’s-her-name on his thirtieth birthday. He hadn’t even wanted to go out. Garret had forced him. Not forced, manipulated. His neighbor Garret. He lived downstairs. Made a big deal about turning thirty. Old man, Garret called him. Which was alright. Un-insulting because … He didn’t know why. Maybe because thirty was the beginning of a decade. It’s all the same, thirty-six or thirty-one, no diff. The dirty thirties, and he had the whole decade, just beginning, to himself.
Anyway, they went to Le Bain, a club on top of a hotel on top of the Highline Park. Big deal. Fashion industry types. Very stylish. Everyone wore black, and accessories. Kissed both cheeks. Had accents. They smoked indoors. Tres defiant. Tres young. Also very gay. Which was a good thing, according to Garret, who explained it: half girls, half gay, and then us. You’re a blue-eyed jock. Blonde hair. You can bang these chicks.
Heard that before. Not to brag. But he was quite the looker. Healthy. Always told he could have any girl he wanted. That was true and untrue. Depending on what was meant by have. To have. It was enough to be wanted. Liked. Just to talk with a girl and know she liked him that way? He didn’t need to fuck them. They needed to fuck the girls. They needed him to fuck the girls. Someone had to fuck the girls and they’d rather it be him then some rich... No. They didn’t want anybody to fuck the girls. Whoever got to fuck the girls were richer or luckier or better looking than... Anyway, girls were worse than guys anyway. They’re all...
That’s not why he stayed in shape. It wasn’t for the girls. Like what Garret thought. Which is why Garret couldn’t understand when he sat in his damn apartment, thumb in ass, every weekend instead of going with stylists and photographers to parties at Le Bain. With models from Latvia or somewheres that he could probably...
He wrestled because it was healthy. It was good for him. No, that’s not it either. He did it for that zap of dopamine, a reward squirted a la brain glands for healthy behavior. He didn’t know why he wrestled. What’s-her-name from Le Bain on his thirtieth birthday saw his cauliflower ear and knew he wrestled. She’d gone to college in Ohio or whatever, where wrestling was like the sport, she told him at the crepe shop on the roof of Le Bain, ordering some kind of bourbon ice cream. I’m a bourbon man myself, he’d said to her, really suave like. He bought her a few Maker’s Marks for about a thousand frickin bucks. Everything was affordable on his birthday. He was thirty. He didn’t tell her about the birthday. He had experience. Knew not to play his cards too quickly. He waited. First he talked about his tattoo. Mr. Optimistic inked on his forearm. He explained the irony of it. Anyone that knew him knew he was a pessimist, he told her. In the order of Schopenhauer. Like don’t get him wrong, he doesn’t see the glass as half empty. Nothing to do with glasses. He simply sees pain as something real. Active. Pleasure was the negation of pain, or the extinguished desire. In other words: negative.
It’s like calling a skinny guy Stretch, why Garret was un-insulting calling him Old Man. Like telling a skinny guy, Hey, why don’t’cha eat a sandwich. Because he can do, by nature, what others, by ridicule, cannot. Old Man. With killer good looks. Who can rattle off Schopenhauer at an exclusive party, take home a girl, have sex sans condom then forget her name. Rock and fucking roll! And don’t you forget it! Forever young. With a pimple on his dick.
So he’d gone to the doctor. Who took the opportunity to sell him a litany of blood tests by way of terrified appeals to his modest hypochondria.
It was just a pimple.
“I didn’t know they came on your penis doc.”
“They come anywhere. They usually come on your face, chest and back. But not always.”
“Ha ha, doc.”
His clear conscience was worth the 300 bucks. Ha Ha!
He wasn’t rich. Anyway his lifestyle was the envy of... Only because he was single. No responsibilities. Like a teenager. The company = his parents. A Hearst trust fund. That would be nice. Is nice. When they throw parties for magazine closings. Dinners at restaurants with a star awarded by … What is it called? The tire star?
He could be a ditch digger, after all. He used to literally dig ditches. When he was a teen. That was a fine enough job. He had no responsibilities is the thing. Pure disposable cash every Friday. Now he had rent. Credit card bills. There was some responsibility. Michelin stars, is what they’re called. Fine food prepared by famous chefs. Models sitting across the table. They assumed he was rich. Assumptions, perceptions. That was enough. Plus the good looks.
It was only lunchtime. The day trickled by. The sensation of time was a mild depression, not unlike a headache: a placenta through which enjoyment must chew.
It’s not like there was nothing to enjoy. Look on the bright side. You see them gathered, whispering, darting twinkling eyes in your direction, is how his inner monologue went. They are going to do something special for you. Surprising. Act surprised. Say, Wow, you guys! That’s real thoughtful. And I was trying to keep it secret. You’re a great bunch of...
Probably it would just be a cake. Not even. Cupcakes probably. God, they always did cupcakes. When did cupcakes become so popular? Spicy chocolate frosting, or chocolate with sea salt? Sea salt, for fucks... Where has ice cream cake gone? Or just ice cream in a box?
Cupcakes are individual. That’s why. Each one different. Unshared. If you closed your eyes and took a bite, you wouldn’t know the difference between red velvet and chocolate. Bet you wouldn’t know! God, people really annoyed him.
No, it’s nice of them. Relax, it’s your birthday, went the monologue. You should’ve taken the day off. I bet it was Emily that left the card. With the flower. Of course it was Emily. But why not leave her name?
Weird. She’d been acting weird.
That’s okay. Cupcakes were good. Especially from Butter Lane. He took a class there once. A baking class. With Emily, who thought they used too much butter. Ha. Funny ol’ Em. She put extra sugar into her mix. She’d warned her, though. The baking teacher at Butter Lane warned her that baking was a special kind of cooking. It’s more precise. More like chemistry than art. The smallest deviation...
Her cupcakes cracked. The fissures grew as they cooled. Butter Lane provided paper boxes to take the cupcakes home. Emily dumped hers in the trash by Tompkins Park. The bums would eat them. Em had a good heart.
She hadn’t seen his apartment before. Isn’t that crazy? He’d been there for years. It’s small. Not like her four bedroom... Her house wasn’t fancy or anything. But she owned it. Couldn’t be kicked out. It was an investment. Every mortgage payment brought more security. Her children were walking, talking, demanding, running up the stairs. He lived in 400 square feet. Alone, with zero savings. If he had kids now, god...
Once upon a time he thought he’d have kids young, he told Emily over coffee at his place. That was how to do it. How she had done it. With her husband. Another what’s-his-name. But so then he’d be able to play touch football with his son, have a catch. He could wrestle with his son’s friends. I mean, look at the shape he’s in. At his age? He coulda had an eighteen-year-old by now. The fastest wrestler at the academy. And there’re some studs in the class! He’d surely whoop his son when he turned eighteen. Why he could...
Being a parent doesn’t start when your kid turns eighteen, Emily had said.
And he’d said think about it, you’d be able to do all the things you want to do after your kids grow up. You’d still be young, still. My niece is gonna live to 113. You and me? Probably got fifty years left. Your kids’ll graduate. You can take cruises.
Go to Greece or whatever. Back to school.
Be all the things I wanted to be?
Yeah, like ...
Get rid of my ego? Fix my shortcomings?
Shouldn’t you do that before you have kids? You lose those ideals. Everything is the family. I’m a closed system.
Then he thought, Jesus, like what? Is Don—that’s her husband’s name, he just remembered, Don Lambert—is Don pressuring the kids? Pushing them too hard, to be all the things Don had wanted to be? Making mini Dons? Perfect Dons. Is Don hitting the kids or something? Hitting her? Does that still happen these days?
He studied Emily’s eyes. Which is dumb. Windows to the soul. Yeah, right. Nobody’s eyes ever told him anything but I’m looking that way.
Still, eyes or no, there was something wrong. He could tell. Tell by the whole face. It tightened over the skull. He put his cupcake down. Got closer to Emily. Put his arms around her.
Here’s the weird thing.
He held her. So that she could cry. Poor thing, you know? Trapped in a family. Trapped by a future cloaked mostly in debt. Relied upon. So much responsibility. And a husband who forced his children into molds, aided by mommy who did so much to... Let’s be honest. It happened by chance, the marriage. If not Don then someone else. Maybe him even. Him. If their week-long intimacies had … We’re made to love, is the point. Trained to be families. It’s a one-two punch. A trick. Go ahead. Cry, Em. Let it out, he wanted to say.
He put his arms around her. Felt not the hot, salty wetness of her tears on his cheek but the cool stickiness of her lips on his neck. Her warm breathe curling around the base of his skull. Her hand on his lower back.
Extra Marital Affair flashed across his mind like a headline. Infidelity! Plus he was breaking a commandment, right? That was an old person’s concern. Not his. He hooked up with floozies at parties. Got pimples on his dick. Physical stuff. Could this be worse? It was different. Were actions defined by results or intentions? What was this? Metaphysics. The stuff morals are made of. He was sure legal ramifications would be pursuant. Like if they divorced. Which they would when Don found out.
What about the children?
Ugh, how bucolic. How pedestrian! is how he dismissed it. The concerns of middle age! An affair? Torrid is how she’d probably describe it in her diary. Shit, did she keep a diary? The thought depressed him. He was sure Don read it. Probably read her emails, checked her text messages. If he was so domineering over the kids imagine how he ruled his wife with an iron... No wonder she needed a torrid affair! No wonder!
She acted differently around the office. He was sure people noticed. He felt it. So uncomfortable. And for what? What changed? Nothing. All that’d happened … It was only physical. The insertion of an organ into the opening of the alimentary canal. When you thought of it that way it was even funny. Ha ha, Doc.
Don wouldn’t think it was funny. Hell no. There were feelings involved! Which, if you think about it, are only physical, too. It’s chemistry, like baking, with some added electricity. Big frickin deal. But his gut reaction, Don’s reaction, that would involve things far outside the closed system of Emily, her family and, of course, him: the tiniest little rupture in their bubble. I mean, divorce? With all the paperwork, court dates, lawyers, all those extra agents. It just adds to the chaos, the entropy...
It was only a blowjob. A friggin blow job. Okay, he gets it. Who does that? What is this, Junior Prom? Who demurs from sex and asks his friend for some quick head while promising, No this won’t change our relationship, I swear?
What an idiot. He was too old for blowjobs. Ugh, all at once. All at once how old he’d become.
There was his desk. Good ol’ desk. Not exactly solid. Not even like real wood. What kind a material was that? Some kind of composite. It probably leached toxins into the air he breathed. The legs and drawers were metallic. Grey. Probably aluminum. It was an ugly desk. Here was a building that housed a design company, for Chrissake, filled with ugly...
Useful. The desk was utilitarian. Held his stuff. There was his stapler on his desk. That was a hell of a design. So much like a gun in simple efficacy. Made a noise so relatable. It sat atop the card. Pinned it. Ha! That’s ironic, he thought. The stapler pinned the card with its weight not...
Take the card. Read dedication.
From all of us.
Look around room. People standing. Looking. Smiling. Regard eyes. They say I’m looking that way. Look that way. That way is the break room. People coming through the door holding cake. Something on fire. Real flames. No, something emitting sparks with a lispy brisance. Sparklers on top. Burning out their embers, black scintilla showering onto frosting. Can you eat that stuff? Is it toxic? People singing. Humming. For him. For him.
Happy birthday they sing.