(College and some years after)
I started college in August 2001, at Montclair State University, barely three weeks before those men flew those two planes into the World Trade Center. College, then, began in an initial, froshy blush of flusterment and excitement that turned too suddenly into something far too somber and solemn. When once we had been undecided, we declared majors in philosophy and theology and biology and physics, as if we believed we might study our stumbling ways to understanding. Montclair was close enough to Manhattan that, during the subsequent autumn, our campus smelled like a construction site when the wind blew just right, and we students made it a point to always be aware of the national threat level before we left for classes. I remember the Anthrax scares and the admonitions to stock up on duct tape and plastic covering.
I pitched myself into my studies like they could be my salvation, burying myself so deeply in extra credits that I had very little energy left over to devote to much else; one of the benefits of doing this was that I stopped pining after Veronica. I put my head down and got the grades and studied literature and science, and by the time I graduated, I was engaged to a girl I thought I loved, which prompted me to find a crummy little apartment in Hoboken. My fiancée was Polish and came from a very strict, very conservative, very traditional family, which strained our relationship until finally it cracked under her pressure. Just a few weeks after I had graduated, and not even a full week after I’d moved into an apartment I’d chosen mainly because it was within walking distance of her house, my fiancée told me our relationship wasn’t fair to me.
It came at first as a shock until, a few dark, empty-feeling days later, I discovered a newfound sense of something I can’t describe as anything besides immense possibility. I suddenly had no ties, no commitments, and I could do anything, go anywhere, be anyone.
I think I reacted like most people in any such situation might: by remaining resolutely me. Waking up in the same bed, studiously checking the same hairline, buttoning the same shirts and shaving the same cheeks, walking the same streets and entering the same building to climb the same stairs to sit in the same desk . . .
There is some degree of comfort in the familiar. It may not be much to subsist on, but for a while it can be enough. Just after I’d graduated, I’d applied at a temp agency that had placed me at the New Yorker as an assistant to the advertising sales director, and there I stayed, performing menial tasks like updating databases and collating business cards into a rolodex. I’d leave my desk in the afternoon, usually at 5:30 or so, just late enough to be noticed as I squeaked out an hour or so of overtime every week but never so much to actually accomplish anything. PATH train back to Hoboken, take-out, and then writing. I was working on my second novel by then, after having completed my first, the afore-mentioned Dean Koontz rip-off, while an undergrad. My second, back then, wasn’t much better; I’d had the idea while still in high school, and its origins showed through in places.
By then, I’d also begun to split my weekends between home in Hoboken and home in southern New Jersey. Tom had formed a band called Foolish with some other guys from our hometown, and I started blowing off steam by attending their gigs all over South Jersey and Philadelphia. There are few things like a dance floor to get you feeling loose and young and without trouble, especially when the lights are dim and you have a few in you and you truly believe the night could last forever.
I saw Veronica a few times at those gigs. Each time I would buy her a drink, and each time we would talk in precisely the ways you’re just not supposed to in that sort of situation. Those situations are built for drunken debauchery and gratuitous youth, one-night stands with girls whose numbers you don’t try to forget solely because you never made the effort to remember their faces in the first place. Those nights are alcoholically and rhythmically engineered to exist in a nether-place between recklessness and responsibility, and though they might support crooked smiles and tipsy kisses, wondering if there is more to life and the world out there is the sort of tear-soaked question that usually signals the person asking it should be cut off.
But not Veronica and I; when we weren’t dancing, we were talking about what we planned to do in the coming years, and where and how we planned to do it. I’d graduated the year before, but still I was unsure, and still I felt as though I were in some vague, quarter-aged purgatory with fluorescent lights and blink-lighted telephones on fiberboard desks. Still I only wanted to write, and Veronica—a philosophy major who’d taken up acting in school plays and written her thesis on Ionesco—and I most often found ourselves nursing lite beers while talking about drama and words and books and life. I remember those nights as dimly as those bars: blurs of golden and pink neon, Tom’s loud music, the way Veronica moved when she danced.
If there is a better way to spend your mid-twenties, I’m not aware of it.
But like all such times of perfection in one’s life, it could only last so long. No matter how idyllic life might seem at any moment, it’s always in danger of tipping dramatically over; when it’s as good as mine was then, it can only get worse, and when it does, it can only get worse hard:
Coming on autumn, 2006: I was still at the New Yorker, still in advertising sales, performing in addition any go-to work anyone needed completed, PowerPoint slides for the CFO, Excel spreadsheets for the VP of Marketing. Part of the reason I remained on was in the hope that it might provide me an in if I decided to write a short story; I’d met some of the people in editorial, and I figured that handing someone a manuscript at least skips over the slushpile.
I can’t pretend that coordinating ads was the most fascinating job in the world, but I enjoyed it. I always was a people person and, as my ex had once told me, I gave good phone. Plus, I was popular in the office, which was gorgeous; the entrance to Condé Nast is just off Times Square and its building looms above it, a great gleaming skyscraper among thousands very much like it. Those walls house multiple magazines—the New Yorker, Wired, Vogue for both men and women, Glamour and GQ, Details and Vanity Fair, a handful of Brides and a couple of Golfs—all with distinct floors and departments and teams of workers, and if you really want to know just how achingly metropolitan it really is, how hip and modern and urban, how it embodies everything about Manhattan without ever really trying, you need look no further than its cafeteria: designed by Frank Gehry and featuring great, waving walls and Spartan fixtures. There, in the cafeteria, no cash is tendered; all transactions use debit cards. There in the cafeteria, the floor seems off-white but is, in fact, ash, and the custom-designed booths sit a handful of people each, all of whom wear designer suits and designer shoes and designer watches, and the blue titanium walls undulate like City waves without ever actually moving at all.
I went on a few dates during that time, or at least I think I did. I might have. I’m pretty sure I did. I “did lunch” with pretty girls in midtown. Heirloom tomatoes as an appetizer at Grand Central Station and clam chowder at some famous soup place near the train platform. Drinks at happy hours after work, where all the gals sipped pink cosmopolitans and probably should have been smoking menthol cigarettes long and slender as their legs but couldn’t because it was recently illegal. I went out with artists who daylit as administrative assistants, directors who spent their afternoons maintaining records for a dental office, and dancers of hip hop and ballet alike, but I still alternated weekends between Hoboken and home, and so very few of those oft-awkward first dates ever made it onto slightly less uncomfortable second dates.
I never minded much, as I’d continued to work on that second novel. After a while, I gave up on short stories, as I discovered that I was more interested in, long fiction, not to mention that I finally realized that the only people who really get published in the New Yorker have names like McEwan, Proulx, and Moody; basically, writers I’d never gotten into because I much preferred the action and fun to fancy writing. I’d begun to expand my reading, picking up Michael Chabon and then the Nicks, Hornby and Earls, trying Dickens—
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.—1
and then Austen—
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.—2
which at the time only made me relieved I wasn’t yet in possession of a good fortune.
I thought I was doing fine until my dissatisfaction caught up with me. It began gradually; I started to wonder if I really wanted to stay on at the New Yorker, and why. I started to consider that I was nearly 24 and still working temp jobs; I didn’t want to become an aspiring anything daylighting in an office.
Perhaps I put too much into the idea that all I wanted to do was write: I began to devote more time and energy to it, eventually to the point that I basically stopped dating altogether in favor of focusing on words and pages. I even started bringing a flash drive with my novel on it into work, keeping the document open while I laid out ads. If my bosses ever suspected, they never said, but then again I have a feeling they were all doing the same thing; the cliché is that everyone in Hollywood has a screenplay, and I think everyone else, everywhere else in the world, either thinks they can write a book or is already working on one. Most of the people I spoke to were at least somewhat interested in writing, and all universally believed that they could pen either the next bestselling memoir or the Great American Novel.
Me, I wasn’t sure about the Great American Anything, though I’d already begun to realize that working in advertising at the New Yorker wasn’t really going to get me anywhere besides that fiberboard desk.
And that was when I had one of those perfect moments the likes of which remain indelibly with you all your life.
Perfect moments—you know the ones I mean, tight little barbs of time that cling hard enough to your heart to draw tears—don’t come often, but if you’re lucky, you recognize them when they occur. Perfect moments: the first time you see a new woman nude; the first time you hold your child. Moments that, should you be so lucky, you recall when you’re old and grey and ready to move on from this world to what happens next.
That night, I was sitting on my big ugly yellow chair I’d picked from a neighbor’s curb, in front of the piano bench I used as my desk. I could feel the heat of the processor or harddrive or whatever else spins hot in a laptop even through the gym shorts I was wearing, and I remember the white screen with its blur of black text, though in my memory the words are neither legible nor intelligible. I remember I was on page 68, and I had begun to read what I’d written the day before when suddenly, instead of characters and images and plot, I realized I was just reading words—
words, words, words—3
without any meaning. Words without any magic behind them. Words like lightning bugs in the middle of an August thunderstorm, words—
full of sound and fury, signifying nothing—4
that were no more than the sum of the letters that made them up.
And what difference did they make?
Because isn’t that the question? Hamlet might have mused otherwise—
to be or not to be—that is the question—5
but really I think we all seek little more than a way to make a difference, and I realized, then, that I hoped to somehow change the world by writing about it.
But how might I do so if I was just sitting there with a laptop and a blinking cursor? How might I do so by putting one letter after another? Surely better men than I had done so many times upon a time, and where had that gotten the world? Sitting there in my ugly chair, staring at those thin words on that glowing white screen, I realized I didn’t know—
When a man is in doubt about this or that in his writing, it will often guide him if he asks himself how it will tell a hundred years hence.—6
and I don’t know that I’ve ever been more scared than that moment I doubted something I had always been so certain of. Prior to that moment in that chair in front of that screen, I’d never once considered that I might not become a successful author. Not that I thought it was anything so overstated as my destiny, but I had never for a moment doubted that if I just worked hard enough and put in the proper amount of time to tell the stories I wanted to tell, I would be successful.
And not just successful in the sense of publishing a handful of novels, either—perhaps it was because Jo Rowling and her bespectacled hero had prompted my realization of my own vocation, but writing novels and becoming a mega-bestselling billionaire author had always, in my head, gone hand in hand. Even to the point that, as an undergraduate in college, my plan had been that I would sell my novel by the time I graduated and could, rather than enter the workforce, instead go out on a massive, multi-venue and international author tour in support of said novel.
Obviously, we see how that worked out for me.
Which may have been the prompt for that moment of sitting there, in front of that screen, and realizing, for the very first time since I had closed Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, that there was no guarantee any story I wrote would go anywhere. I could write all my life, I realized, and never sell a book. Never find a reader.
This is, I think, where I’m supposed to tell you that I closed my eyes and took a deep breath and allowed that next word to come. That I typed it, and then I typed the next one, too, and the next one again, because that’s what I was supposed to do, right? That’s what separates the novelists from the hobbyists; no matter what, no matter when, no matter how, when the going gets tough, the tough write it down, and I’m supposed to tell you that when it came right down to it, when I faced that moment, I stared it down and said—
yes yes I said yes I will yes—7
and I kept writing.
But I didn’t.
I’m not proud of that. In fact, if I’m to be honest, I am embarrassed to say that instead, I closed my laptop, set it back on my piano-bench desk, and walked away. I am ashamed to admit that, when the going got tough, I walked away.
I left my bedroom and crossed the hallway of my crummy little apartment, where floorboards I could see between groaned beneath my feet, into my kitchen. I figured I would grab something to eat, read a magazine or watch some television, get my mind off writing, off my job at the New Yorker, off being in the City, off living for an hour or so, but I opened the fridge to discover pretty much nothing in it: a six-pack of Corona, half a lime, and a packet of chocolate-frosted donuts. I decided to order some Thai instead, and I speed-dialed the local place as I popped a Corona. I finished that six-pack alone that night while I ate my chicken panang, watched bad network reality television, and surfed Internet porn.
The following morning, I woke up with a tongue so alien I had difficulty enunciating to my supervisor that I would be unable to report to work that morning (now, years later, is the first moment I’ve ever wondered if they called in a temp to replace me for the day). In fact, I ended up calling out the following morning, as well. I remember those being a dark couple of days, though not in the sense of daylight and brightness; outside, November glittered even if it didn’t do so warmly. Rather, I spent those couple of days venturing into Midtown to skim the bargain CD racks while I considered what I wanted to do from there, and all the while I did so I tried to determine whether writing truly was a part of it.
I had always thought it was, but where, I thought, had it gotten me? I was far enough beyond college I should have begun to think about an actual career, and I was realizing there was no guarantee writing would be part of it, which made me wonder if I really cared to devote so much time and energy to it. I could see doing so for something that would offer some reward, but I realized I no longer knew, and hadn’t ever, that writing would.
I returned to work on a Thursday, and I asked my supervisor, who had a perfect head of salt-and-pepper hair and called me ‘sport,’ if I might have a moment of his time. He agreed to fit me in during his lunch, and so, while he chowed down on a chicken teriyaki salad from the lunch place around the corner, I asked him if he thought there might be a place for me on staff. I told him I had thoroughly enjoyed my time there, and really, I wasn’t asking for a position I hadn’t already fulfilled for nearly a year by then.
He listened carefully while I made my case, then told me that it might be a problem if only because of the budget. My position, apparently, took funds from a budget for freelancers and temporary workers; that money was separate from human resources and payroll. “Which means that it would have to go to board approval to allocate the necessary resources. I won’t say it’s unlikely, sport, only that it would require some budgetary juggling the board might be reluctant to attempt. You know how the board is,” he told me.
I’m sure I probably nodded even though I actually hadn’t a clue how the board was.
As it turned out, the board was composed of a group of individuals who were good at having meetings but somewhat worse at keeping track of their finances. When my supervisor brought it up to them, rather than realizing they had a dedicated worker already on their staff, they realized instead they had a freelance contract employee whose paycheck pulled from a fund they had forgotten existed. The sudden discovery of my presence caused a minor kerfuffle among the board and its members, and a week before Thanksgiving, the not-so-delicate task of revealing that our company was freezing the fund they used to pay my salary fell to my supervisor. He told me the board regretted the decision, but it could no longer keep me on, and then he handed me the bottle of Scotch he’d already bought me for Christmas.
As severance packages go, it’s more than some contract employees get.
So there I was, out of work and uncertain about both what to do and how. Luckily, knowing that the holidays were coming up (which meant both travel and presents), I’d saved enough to pay my rent through the upcoming January. Unluckily, that meant I had pretty much cleaned out my savings, so I called my temp agency to find out if I couldn’t pick up a few short-term assignments. Being that it was the middle of November, though, the job pickings were slim and far between while most companies slowed for the holidays. My contact at the agency assured me that there should be more openings come January, and in the meantime, why not take a couple of weeks off? Hadn’t I mentioned I was working on a novel? Why not finish it?
Not something I particularly cared to be reminded of. Why not indeed. Mainly because I hadn’t actually written anything since the moment I’d seen all that work as nothing more than words; I had signed up for direct deposit when I started temping, so I hadn’t even had to endorse a check. I won’t say the well was dry, because after all I still had ideas, for the novel I was then working on and for several others besides, but rather I was wondering if the water was still any good, and that wasn’t conducive to getting anyfuckingthing done whatsoever. I’ve always been the sort who refrains from doing anything until I just can’t hold back anymore, and I didn’t have that feeling with writing right then, that feeling that I wanted to, that I had to. I had always thought there was something perfectly Zen about a blank page, all that white, all that possibility, but I had also always believed that the intention to disturb such perfection came with responsibility. When it came down to it, I thought those pages were better off blank than with my random words spewed onto them.
So I did what any self-respecting creator of something should do at precisely such a moment: I high-tailed it out of Dodge. One can only make so many pointless treks into midtown, shopping for used CDs you can’t actually afford anyway, and it was already too chilly to relax in Central Park. So I told my agency I’d be unavailable for a couple of weeks, and I hopped on a Greyhound home the week before Thanksgiving.
That was when the trouble really started.
Could our narrator be any more emo? Will he stop writing? And what about Veronica Sawyer? Find out next week in another exciting installment of Meets Girl!)