Sunday, September 25, 2011

Misery Loves Company

Zach backed into the cul-de-sac and changed his mind. He had nothing more to say to Beth—nothing. Shifting gears, he returned to the driveway. When he pulled his key from the ignition and looked up, Beth in her new PT Cruiser honked the horn, gave him the finger, and peeled out of there.

(Click here for the first episode; here for the previous one.)

Meaning: he was free! He stormed upstairs and crammed his stuff into a suitcase, a garment bag, and two backpacks. Heading for the university, he bought a supersize meal at the first drive-through—wolfed the food and spilled Diet Coke while speeding and switching lanes in a fury.

His computer shed a nice light inside his stale, little office. Regulating his adrenaline, he emailed the local BSA Council, resigning as Scoutmaster. His next impulse? He made the mistake of phoning Vida, hanging up before the first ring fully sounded. No doubt the call registered at her end, but what were the odds that in her cumbersome state she caught the caller ID?

Before his own phone could ring in retaliation, he hurried to the gym, changed, and hopped on a treadmill. Vertigo threatened his stride, but Zach slowed his pace and hung on. Sweating profusely, he survived sixty minutes. In the locker room, he sat on a bench in oblivion. Was a colleague, in fact, laying his hand on Zach’s bare thigh? The pale, skinny man seemed to know Zach a lot better than Zach knew him. Delving for a name, he thought—Duncan, who said he missed them being neighbors but now that they were both going through a divorce they could be neighbors again. The noisy crowd faded away, and Duncan blathered about an optimistic spirit and then listed the pros, cons, and intricacies of his own divorce. Blinking as if Duncan’s uninvited confessions might dissolve like a daydream, Zach allowed his apparent friend’s hand to remain where it was.

“Guess we’re in the same boat,” Duncan said.

“What boat?” Awakening to fact that the interaction was all too real, Zach shoved Duncan away.

Heading for the shower, he walked slowly and cautiously in case his ex-neighbor and equal in the poli-sci department followed him. Luckily, he did not. Zach stood under the shower, alternating the blast from as hot as he could stand it to as cold. Yet his mind continued to match details that evidently had filtered through Beth’s chatter with Duncan’s surreal litany. Beth and Duncan’s wife, Wren, played tennis twice a week. That was how Duncan knew Zach’s marriage was limping miserably through its last lap. While Zach knew—none of this was a hallucination—Duncan had been living in graduate student housing for months. He and Wren had retained lawyers, who were partners, both benefiting from the shared billable hours. His children were small, which probably made everything easier. At least their questions were easier to answer.

In twilight, he headed back to his office. Throughout the walk, he vacillated between dismissing Duncan’s sticky camaraderie and admonishing himself: Why did he suppose his personal situation was uncommon?

In any case, he knew what to do and booked a room at the Hotel Belleclaire through the weekend. His children, Matt and Rosalind, were old enough to be absorbed in their own lives. They might protest or even take sides, but what choice was there? Zach would assume all the blame, because he could bear it, not because he deserved it. The compelling, intelligent, lifelong Eagle Scout, blond, strong, disciplined Zach, who had once practiced his gestures in a mirror to check his ambition—which had raced, and still raced, faster than he could metabolize it—required no justification. He owed nobody anything.

Certainly, he owed Beth nothing. Zach had managed to play his role in their marriage by not limiting his energies. She did not possess the sophistication to appreciate how Zach might figure in the world-at-large. He had reached the juncture where he could no longer live with such a simple-minded woman. When she looked at him now, with her round blue eyes, her plump cheeks burning with hope and desire, he understood all too well she would never comprehend a fraction of who he was. What could he possibly tell her? They were already divorced. That much was indisputable.  Done and done, Q.E.D.

He skimmed through random documents on his computer, looking for a way to salvage his career, which he had ignored for years. The accolades from V.I.P.s raining upon him while he stood beside Vida had blinded him. His connection to her, which had put him front and center among the serious, more original thinkers at the Institute, had suddenly hurled him, body and soul, into the undergrowth. For Vida had gotten what (in hindsight) she had wanted from him all along. Zach had to pull up his bootstraps and publish an important book, posthaste. Make it known he was available to serve as keynote speaker wherever and whenever. Above all, he must wage a take-no-prisoners campaign to impress Dorothy Zimmerman, with or without the Institute’s imprimatur.

Unfortunately for him, Professor Zimmerman, the university’s dean for the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), had never seen Zach in action. Their entire acquaintance consisted of faculty meetings and tenure reviews. He should have written a few serious papers that examined Developing World political strategies. Dorothy topped the list of authorities in that field. Of course, she valued the Institute’s efforts to rally the private sector. How else would Zach have come to be the Julian Wilson Professor of Policy and Economic Dialogue? Tenure or not, however, he would lose his stature unless he found another benefactor. Those carefree days of squiring the beautiful Vida in the company of deep-pocketed men and women; of directing and leading his sweet little family; of volunteering as Scoutmaster, and teaching a few graduate courses in Environmental Economics, had vanished.

If his telephone rang, he would have ignored it. But someone was knocking on his office door. Without looking up, he said, “Not now. I’m busy.”

“This cannot wait,” someone said.

When it dawned on him that whoever kept knocking was not going to quit, Zach swung open the door and grunted at Duncan. “What it is?”

(click here for the next episode)


Dan Leo said...

Goddam Duncan!

kathleenmaher said...

You think? I suspect he's harmless, perhaps even helpful.

Dan Leo said...

I'm thinking of what Zach is thinking.