40. I Saw What That Guy Did
The Year Of Paying Attention
The French teenager reminds me of Ellen, my college sweetheart. Sarah and I are in Westhampton for a few summer days and nights, the guests of her dear friend Melanie, sharing her rental with her two toddler daughters, her three dogs, a nanny, and a Parisian nineteen-year-old named Zoe. I don’t actually know where we are, that is to say, how close we are to wherever P. Diddy is entertaining the glamorous people. I’ve spent my whole New York life avoiding the Hamptons, but then Melanie invited us, and it’s beautiful here, despite the growling engines of the Maseratis.
Zoe seems sophisticated. We met her once before, in Brooklyn at Melanie’s birthday party, where Zoe told us she was taking an improv comedy class. Eating lunch by the pool yesterday with another Brooklyn couple, Zoe talked about suffering from crippling anxiety from age eleven while growing up in Paris, where nobody understood or cared about it. Now she wants to create an online group with friends she made in treatment, she says, to offer community to young people coping with anxiety and other issues.
I thought of my sisters, and my daughter, and how anxiety and its treatment are all the rage here in the States. I also thought about how not to be distracted by this girl. Sarah and Melanie took the dogs for a walk. I was alone at the pool with Zoe, she reading her book and I my magazine. It was quiet. I was slogging through a tedious article about Julian Assange. I dozed, then heard Zoe enter the pool to swim laps. Later, when Sarah asked if I’d talked to Zoe, I was pleased to report that I hadn’t.
That night, as I was falling asleep next to Sarah, the first great love of my life came into my thoughts. I met her at the very start of my freshman year at Boston University. She was from New York City. Ellen was beautiful. The second year of college we lived together. She was nineteen. She mesmerized men. She was very smart, talented, funny. She played the clarinet.
In my mind, Ellen and Zoe are contemporaries. I see Zoe and I see Ellen, young, beautiful, not in her sixties as Ellen must be now, but still nineteen. I could ask Zoe a question and Ellen would answer. More than five years ago I noticed a woman who’d been walking into my regular church basement 12-step meeting. She’d occasionally share something, but mostly she listened, keeping her distance. Sarah was slender, had a serious face, and she was beautiful. Listening when she did speak, I got to know her a little. She was too young to think about. I was happily married, and planned to keep it that way, purposefully oblivious to the dubious state of my marriage. I couldn’t imagine what would happen until it was collapsing around me.
“Oh, please come back,” I cried, straddling my bike as the driver leaned out his car window and hollered something unintelligible. I’d given him a long, exuberant middle finger after he blasted his horn and gunned past me on the road to the coffee shop. Sarah noticed shop patrons watching the show. She parked her bike on the other side of the shop. I saw only the driver in his car. I had an uneasy feeling, realizing I lacked a solid plan should he accept my invitation to come back to where I was standing.
“Come on back,” I cajoled, “please!” What was I doing? Risking injury, most likely. When the driver eventually drove away, I waved goodbye the way an eight-year-old waves goodbye to a favorite aunt on a cruise ship. I had won. Unless he came back later and killed me. I pedaled the remaining few yards to the coffee shop. “I saw what that guy did,” a woman said, walking towards the door to get her muffin. “What a jerk!” Vindicated. Sarah and I went in and got coffees and a scone and a muffin, and took them to a table outside. “You had a little something with that guy in the car, huh?” said a man sitting with a woman and two tiny dogs. I was the star of a reality performance piece in Westhampton, New York, and it wasn’t even eight am.
For a spiritually advanced seeker of ultimate truth, a man whose deepening compassion for all sentient beings appears boundless, I keep getting into pissing matches with assholes, and because such matches always require no fewer than two assholes, my part in these scenes is clear. I’ve experienced a sort of shitty epiphany in the last day or two: Long Island really does suck. It’s beautiful, the ocean and the bay nearby, farm stands and swimming pools, tall trees arching over quiet streets, and dull-witted troglodytes piloting impractical imported racing cars up to the valet parking sign. I’m clearly looking for trouble. This morning’s pas de deux with the moron in the luxury SUV says more about me than the local citizenry. So what’s biting me?
Is it the ostentatious wealth all around me, the people with more stuff, cars and beach houses bigger than anything I’ll ever live in? Is it the clear knowledge that I’m in Trump country, despite the proximity to Manhattan, that the people so casually partaking of the finest life can offer on the East Coast of America think the President is doing a great job? It doesn’t matter. We’re driving home to Roosevelt Island tomorrow, so I can take the car back to the mechanic in Queens and continue to explore the mysteries of the “check engine” light. It’s overcast, so I’m not required to frolic at water’s edge. I noticed while swimming in the heated pool yesterday that the “floaters” ever so slightly impairing my vision seem to be getting more pronounced. My eyesight will fail, my teeth fall out, my hearing degrade, and then I’ll die. Unless somebody runs me over, or shoots me to death after I give him the finger from astride my bike.
How did my mother feel at the end of the summer of her 63rd year? Her children were grown and moved away. She had stopped working as a nurse. How did my father feel, still boarding the train to Boston, not interested in the oil industry he worked for? Who escapes regret? Who gets old and feels satisfied? Did my parents have a vision for their later years when they married? In their sixties, they continued to worry about their kids, and doted on each new grandchild.
As far as I can tell, their primary concern was being good parents, without being overly involved in their kids’ lives. They provided steady encouragement, braces and piano lessons, pricey college educations without scholarships or loans, rehearsal dinners and weddings, outfits for the grandchildren — they remained focused on their kids’ success and comfort. They might just as well have been my loyal senior staff, reliable and wise counselors who didn’t complain, and whose demands were few. I went to sleep last night pondering how I could have paid so little attention to the private lives of my parents, outside of how they were meeting my needs.
Unless I notice and disrupt the chain, my thoughts lead me donkey-like around the same circle of fretting: are my children safe and happy? Does my partner still love me? Are my friendships weakening? Is there any hope of my transcending the unconscious, pre-programmed choices I’m making all day long, mostly not noticing? How did this chocolate get into my mouth? Where did the morning go? What am I forgetting to do?
Next week: Someone Knows You’re Coming