Perfect Everything Novel Excerpts
An except from the new novel “The Perfect Everything” (released July 2014)
ELDEN LEWIS, THE GREAT SEER, the Zen master of the human psyche, the perpetual barstool philosopher and my best friend, predicted a necessary one-third-life crisis for me this year–attended by mental contortion, crying three times and reinventing myself altogether–and he will be wrong. This is the thought that gushes to mind just as Cassandra throws her espresso martini at me across the dinner table in the middle of a busy Manhattan restaurant. The drink nails my linen shirt–an amazing shot actually–and the utter shock and embarrassment of the spectacle must have me blushing, but there’s no way I’m crying. I say it just like that too, while looking away from her as though I’m addressing a T.V. audience.
“You don’t see me crying, do you?”
The restaurant hushes and I hear the clangs of forks dropping on plates and I don’t look yet sense that all eyes are suddenly on us, the two 27-year-olds acting like teenagers.
“Excuse me?” My girlfriend can scarcely believe her ears. After all, we almost never fought in our five years together.
“Yeah, sure. You’re excused,” I say. For a moment, I even conjure up a smug smile. But this isn’t me at all. It isn’t her either. Call it the irrational by-product of nervousness and confusion, call me a nouveau asshole, call anything whatever; the fact is, we’re both in extremely un-chartered waters, flustered, going by what we’ve only seen in movies, and here in front of a live audience no less. People are always hungriest for drama, even if they do have an excellent meal in front of them.
“You know what,” Cassandra says, grabbing her purse. “You’ve become impossible to love. And I’m leaving.“ To be honest though, all I hear is her friggin’ volume. Suddenly that’s the worst part. If she smeared moist cat food in my hair it wouldn’t be as bad…just keep it the fuck down. And how did I become that guy in the cliché public shouting match anyway? For the first time I sorta buy into the shock value that Hollywood’s selling. Hell, I’ll even buy into spontaneous combustion.
“Ssshhh. Can’t you keep it down?”
“Fuck you Allen,” she yells, standing up.
“I know you want to,” I fire back after her. She turns and gives me the finger and scurries off for the exit. Gone. There’s nearby laugher—-some blatant, some poorly concealed behind cupping hands-—but I hate this rebuttal. I know you want to? Why am I insisting on quirky jokes now? I can laugh and cry at the same time. But if I cry, that’s only from embarrassment and that doesn’t count now, does it Elden?
And why the drink toss? What acts could I possibly have committed monstrous enough to warrant such a proverbially furious response? I’m dazed and as curious to know as anyone. Moments after Cassandra leaves the restaurant, my check is mercifully handed to me. I pay for only drinks since we hadn’t ordered food yet, and then tip a make-believe hat to the facetious round of applause I’m getting. Then I gather up my wine buzz and pour out onto Lexington Avenue.
Sunlight bathed us on the walk to the restaurant, but now a slow May twilight has begun descending on the city, along with a gentle rain shower that coats the streets wet jet black and streaks them with reflections of car lights. I walk slowly despite not having an umbrella because the water washes the espresso from my shirt and helps me blend in with society. After the restaurant episode, I’m thankful that my 15 minutes of negative fame are up and I’ve never appreciated anonymity more as I walk past the throngs of early Saturday evening pedestrians. I walk in the general direction of uptown because I live downtown with Cassandra. I know it wouldn’t be wise to go there straight away. For one thing, it would be awkward, like when you say goodbye to someone and then you realize you both still need to walk in the same direction. More importantly, she needs to cool off. If she goes home, she’ll probably use the deadbolt for which I have no key (as I learned in a lesser fight a month ago). Or–worse–if I did manage to get up there, she’d probably slap my face to complete the square. Above all though, I need to sit down and have a drink and replay and analyze what the fuck just happened.
Since I didn’t get to eat at the restaurant, I stop at Subway–the sandwich chain–and I have to wait for this one jerk-off who can’t make up his mind about what he wants on the terrible sandwich he is ordering. I find I’m always criticizing other people’s sandwiches, their choices on toppings and how they get something toasted when it shouldn’t be. This gazoon has the works on roast beef with a pound of olives and a sea of ranch drooled all over it. The shittiest sandwich I’ve ever seen in person.
The rain shower lets up and there’s a warm wind as I approach 60th Street, and it occurs to me that I’m near a place I’ve always wanted to check out. It’s called The Book Bar, which is supposed to be a semi-private cigar lounge. Translation: it’s one of the few places in New York that I heard will let you get away with smoking cigarettes. Not that I’m a much of a smoker–I have to stop and buy a pack for this state of disarray–but when I get stressed I can use one, and right now I can use a pack.
So here’s the deal: everyone needs to wear a suit jacket at this bar. I guess they get around the no smoking law by posing as some sort of semi-private club with a dress code. I suppose if I don a tux I can light a joint, but any clothes will do now as I’m fairly soaked.
“Well I don’t have a jacket on me,” I say, half in jest, to the rigid hostess.
“We will be happy to provide you with one at this time,” she says. She snaps her fingers the way billionaires must and a man materializes to my left. He pulls out a tape measure and I’m a 40 regular and two minutes later I’m looking sharp. I just love getting all dressed up to defile myself.
“What can I get you sir?” the bartender says before I reach the bar. I can tell this place calls for scotch, which is something Elden got me into.
“Scotch on the rocks. 15 years. Something peaty.”
“Would you like to see our menu?”
I say yes only to buy time to decide what to do, where to sit. In light of the rare opportunity to smoke in a public building, I pull out a cigarette like an emancipated slave and begin fishing for a light while scanning the congested bar area. Three very old men in various checker-patterned sports coats are sitting to my left talking over pipes. Their chatter is of the slow and sullen variety that you might expect from this dark, smoky place, which isn’t entirely different from a VFW or Polish-American-type club except that there are leather-bound books instead of the usual collection of color-faded flags. I tune everyone out because I’m too busy trying to dissect my own feelings. I’ve never been truly in love with anyone before Cassandra–or Cassan as I much prefer. Nor have I been in a lengthy relationship before. I’ve certainly never been in a fight with a woman like we just had either. If her threats about leaving me were legit, what would happen? How would I react? Is heartbreak really as bad as it’s cracked up to be? I should be all devastated, but I’m not. Will I be? I’m just sort of confused and in shock I think. My fingers shake noticeably as I drink, but I’m not sad per se.
My attention turns to my immediate right, where two attractive and slightly older (30-something) women are seated. A tall brunette and a short blonde, both smoking cigarettes and discussing the cons of the latter’s recent date or boyfriend.
“It’s just that he’s too inconsiderate,” the short one says.
“How’s that?” The brunette is listening intensely, nearly falling in her lean. She seems to think she’s having a drink with Moses as he confides in her that there’s actually an 11th Commandment.
“Just like he has no sense of manners. He always walks ahead of me and he never opens doors. Oh, and he never says thank you for anything.”
I don’t want to interrupt, but all I have in my pocket are wet matches for my own cigarette I’ve longed for.
“Hey, sorry to bother you. Do either of you have a light?”
I cringe, hoping their anger won’t transfer to me. They turn and look me over a second, and the shorter one sticks out a lighter and flicks it. I reach towards the flame until the tip of my cigarette crackles orange and take a long, soothing drag. After I exhale, we all sorta watch the smoke unravel into the air for a moment. Then I look them both in the eyes.
“Thank you,” I say, with an added touch of sincerity. They laugh in unison, realizing I overheard them.
“Made up your mind?” the bartender says.
“Another one please. I’m gonna grab a table too.”
I give the girls a toast with the remainder of my first drink and they smile back. I trade up for a fresh new snifter glass of scotch and walk away and sit at the last free table in a cozy little nook beside a collection of encyclopedias.
Here’s where I can finally gather my thoughts, and they are good thoughts. Memories–as if my relationship is a thing of the past already! And I can see how painful everything could be if we do break up, because five years of dating someone translates to five years worth of sweet and heart-wrenching reminders; Five years worth of favorite shared songs and movie lines and parties and discoveries and trivial experiences of joy together in the city, not to mention the bedroom. There’s a photo of a violinist on the wall next to me, and I remember how I was handed tickets to a symphony orchestra once; how Cassan and I reluctantly decided to check it out. We started at a pub and drank too long and had to run to Lincoln Center drunk; at the performance, how we yelled “bravo” far too loud and much too often, and other times quietly jeering or giggling like we did as early as college in the library, and really, as we always do in places we shouldn’t. It’s nothing to speak of to anyone–just simplistic snapshots in time–but they occupy my mind.
I smile at the thought that if Cassan were here now, I’d call extension 207 to ask her what happened at dinner. By saying “Extension 207,” she would know to immediately take a time out from our humor and be serious. Our relentless absurdity requires such a safeguard and we somehow we arrived at Extension 207, which is essentially like verbally dialing the other’s sincere attention. She would quickly shut up and be all ears.
Because so much of our relationship was predicated on our mutual sense of humor, the growing arguments of late and especially what just happened are so crazy to fathom. We have always been a bit cocky even about our particular brand of humor, referring to it as “The Humor.” If I told her someone was funny, she’d ask, “does he have The Humor?” Invariably the answer was no. Elden has it when he wants too, but nobody else we’ve met.
I remember one night vividly when Cassan and I first moved in together. We had a small party at the apartment and everyone took turns introducing drinking games.
“Let’s play Shit Ass,” I yelled. Everyone looked at me puzzled. Everyone, except Cassan.
“Yessssss! Great call,” she yelled, even though she knew it was something I was just making up on the spot.
“What the hell is shit ass,” somebody (rightfully) asked.
“I can’t just tell you because it’s sort of a puzzle game, but you’ll figure it out.” The key to messing with anyone is to talk fast and sound distracted. Cassan and I exchanged devious glances, fighting back laughter. We knew the road was paved for levels of ridiculousness normally reserved for when we were alone. The idea of the game was making people think there were actual rules they had to discover and that they had to drink when they screwed up. The only real trick was how long Cassan and I could keep up the charade until we were made.
“I’ll start,” I said. “Just try to follow along. OK, 1, 2, 3…” I took a sip of beer and slammed my cup down and pointed across the table at a girlfriend of ours, yelling, “shit ass!”
“What do I do,” the poor girl asked.
“Just drink,” Cassan said. This made me nearly spit out my own drink in laughter. Naturally she was right there with me in this fake new game, her beautiful blue eyes beaming with anticipation.
“My turn.” There were about seven of us seated around a long coffee table that was littered with bottles and cups of beer, vodka and wine. “OK, Wild Bill!”
Everyone stared at her perplexed, but I leapt into action as if it was obvious what to do. I jumped up onto the table and air-rode a make-believe horse before throwing an empty red party cup at a guy I didn’t know.
“What the fuck,” the man yelled.
“Drink Chris,” Cassan said.
“What for?” He protested, not happy to have to drink on top of getting hit.
“He got you with Wild Bill. Drink and then you start.”
“Start what? How do I start.”
“Drink for not knowing.”
And on and on like that.
I fast-forward to the changes in Cassan and I; the decline of our witty and goofy conversations and the passion in the things we shared. Then came weeknight nights on my own chasing my dreams of stand-up comedy while she hung out with new friends she made in the fashion industry. Frustrations and arguments began to mount. The whole turn for the worse has been a slow capitulation that makes it difficult to both see and feel where things started going south. Regardless, I could never imagine that a love built on a mutual sense of humor and creativity and respect could lead to what happened tonight. And so I shake my head suddenly with this thought: Screw her that she threw a fucking drink on me!
My face is buried in my arms. I reach blindly for my glass and swish the ice around with the stirrer. I guess I knew this was coming. Things haven’t been right in a while; I realize that now.
“Are you meeting someone here?”
I look up and the girls from the bar are already placing their jackets and pocketbooks on empty chairs at my table.
“Um…no. Is this a communal seating bar?”
“No, but these are the only free seats at any table, the brunette says.
I don’t know how I feel about this. First off, this isn’t supposed to be how it works. Women sniff out confidence in men, and if they do initiate things, their motives are typically predicated on that confidence. Me, I’m a bit of a wreck right now. Pounding scotch and smoking with my wavy wet hair tousled about like a flustered Muppet.
“No. I mean, sure. Please.”
“Cool. I’m Stacy,” the taller brunette says. She sticks out her hand to shake, revealing a large diamond on her married finger in the process. This annoys the hell out of me. Why come over if you are married? I picture cupid as some sleazy dick just above her, cackling in accusation that I botched my own relationship. But in the same nano-second, I know what this all means about the married girl: Stacy is the wingman for her single girlfriend.
“I’m Kate,” she says while putting away her phone. She has that sort of hotness that’s probably still in place even when she wakes up in the morning sans makeup or while sweating out a fever. With her model nose and turquoise eyes I’m sure she is much more attractive to the general public than Cassan, but not to me. Kate’s hair is something out of a conditioner commercial, all long and light and silky smooth, and she has to clear it from her face as she talks.
“Kate Winslet, actually,” she says with a laugh. “Like the actress.”
It’s not funny though, so I just toss her a complimentary smile to be polite.
“Alan Jones, since it’s all formal.”
“So what brings you two over? Is it the suit?” I tug on my lapel.
“I live around the corner and we like that we can smoke here,” Stacy says.
“But otherwise it’s boring,” Kate adds. She shoots Stacy an obvious set of facial codes that I read as either, “he’s cute” or “he seems cool,” and then she revs things up.
“Actually, we had a bet. We debated what could bring an attractive young guy to a stuffy bar like this by himself on a Saturday night.”
“Somewhat,” Kate snaps back immediately, right on top of my question. Then she smiles at me.
“Is it Girl trouble?” Stacy asks.
“Is there any other kind?”
“Actually,” she says, “My grandmother just passed away.”
There’s an awkward silence, but I want to laugh. I’m reminded of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G character who fed on awkwardness. And she’s right of course. There are plenty of other troubles out there, but the only trouble you can profoundly feel is the kind you have. I take a gargantuan slug of the golden scotch liquor like some down-and-out cowboy in a melodramatic B movie and feel myself slipping into the part seamlessly.
“Well, at least she’s peaceful I guess.” I can’t help to let a little smile out at this–at the comedic value of being out of line. It’s the first moment I’ve felt a bit like myself all night actually.
“So what happened with this girl?” Kate says.
“Well, I just came from this intense, ridiculous fight with my girlfriend and I’m not sure if we broke up.”
“Whoa!” She reaches to pull her hair back and I notice for the first time that her breasts are huge–much bigger than they should be for her frame–and there’s this uneasy feeling that she might topple over at any moment. They must be fake though. And I hate fake tits. Why does anyone like them? It’s no different than if I stuffed one of those long frozen cookie dough tubes in my pants.
“Yeah, but what I mean is, I’d rather not get into it.”
The girls sip at their martinis with boiling curiosities and I think I’m right: I think that I’d rather not talk about it.
“So what do you do Alan,” Stacy asks.
“Copywriting for an ad agency.”
“Cool. What accounts do you work on?”
“Sports mostly,” I say. “Right now I’m working on Major League Baseball.”
This is all true. In fact, I’m supposed to hear back Monday on approval for a major campaign I pitched that compares baseball to a soap opera.
“So what about you,” I ask Kate.
“I’m a commercial actress. And I’m a Scorpio and I want babies.”
And this isn’t the conversation I want to have. Not because I don’t know birth signs (I do: we did a campaign for the PGA tour that attempted to bring more personality to the sport by defining the best golfers by their horoscopes), but rather because my mind is too fired up in all directions at moment for small talk. Besides, what can I say about Scorpios except that they’re all about willpower and optimism and include legendary golfers Fuzzy Zoeller and Gary Player.
“No, not that. Tell me something juicy. Who’s smarter out of you two? Who’s better in bed?”
I’m really just a ball of apathy now and I feel like some seasoned player.
“I’m better in bed. Stacy’s smarter. Where are you from?”
I explain how I grew up in Stamford, CT just 40 minutes by train to Midtown Manhattan. How I had the best of both worlds with the beaches and trees and nice coastal towns that are ideal for growing up. But I bore myself talking about it.
Luckily Kate is already loaded with a different question.
“What’s your dream job?”
I pause, letting out my usual breathy laugh that makes me sound like a stoner. Then I tell her how I always dreamed of doing standup comedy.
“Cool. So why don’t you?”
“Well I had been doing it for a bit actually. I took a class at Caroline’s on Broadway and did open mics and shows at lesser-known comedy clubs.”
“Nice. Why did you stop?”
“Well for one, my style doesn’t translate to stage. But also my girlfriend didn’t like losing me to the shows on Friday and Saturday nights.”
“But that was your dream right?”
“Yeah, but I wasn’t very good at it. Plus I need to pay the bills and I did the comedy for free.”
The ice has melted into the remainder of my drink, diluting the glorious golden hue of the scotch. We carry on for another 20 minutes about NYC living until I remember that I still have two tickets for a comedy show tonight. Nearby too. The tickets were for the defunct Cassan and myself, so I decide to invite the women to join me and hope we can get a third ticket at the door. What else is there to do now, and why not? Laughs are in order. Laughs are always in order, damn it.
“So who wants to see some comedy over on 82nd?”
“I do!” Kate yells.
But then they exchange the sort of advanced non-verbal communication that only long-time friends can before Stacy stands up, gesturing towards the restroom. Kate indicates one moment to me with her finger and follows her.
As I wait I realize this: I’d prefer to go with Stacy to the show. After all, she’s married and so (presumably) she is safe company. As for Kate, the thing I’ve learned in my distant past about going for attractive women like her is that it will always come back to bite you. There’s always some sort of baggage or drama. And not that it matters tonight being that I am presumably still in a relationship, but hot women like her are always being pursued 24/7 and you know that every second you’re not with them another man is trying to be. Another thing with Kate is this extremely shallow attraction-personality theory that Elden and I crafted one drunken evening. The basic idea is that terribly unattractive people tend to be less socially skilled thanks to a less engaging social life (i.e. less “practice”). The same goes for those on the other end of the beauty spectrum like models, who are often pretentious and conceded divas and mere reflections of the socially skilled. This means that the average-to-cute-looking people in the middle often have the best personalities. To visualize this, you have to imagine a bell curve with personality on the vertical axis and attraction on the horizontal. Except the curve is slightly skewed so that those who are above average looks-wise but not hot fall at the apex of the personality curve, like Cassan. I know, I know: It’s a mean and gross generalization and whatever. My only point is that Kate is too hot to be cool and probably not the sort of laidback fun type I go for. God, maybe I am an asshole.
“I’m in for the comedy,” Kate says when they return from the bathroom. “I live in that neighborhood and I like the idea of staying local tonight.”
“I have to meet some other friends downtown soon,” Stacy says.
I sigh inwardly, not sure if I buy it, but it does solve the ticket problem. I suppose I’m lucky to have any further company tonight too. Almost like an instant rebound, but without the sex. Just a night to remind me the world is bigger than Cassan. We grab our check and say our goodbyes to Stacy outside on the street, and then Kate and I start walking east towards the show.