Monday, October 3, 2011

Chin Up

Uninvited, this man, Duncan Chapman, pushed into Zach’s office and slouched on his couch.“Why are you sitting in the dark without even your computer’s illumination?”

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

Zach shrugged. He stood up and flicked on the lights. Back at his desk, he said, “What is it you want, Professor?”

"Don’t pretend you don’t know me, Severins.”

“I am pretending no such thing. And yet I must ask, what the hell are you doing here?”

“Is that so? If indeed you know me so well, what’s my field in SIPA?”

Before protesting—what an insufferable twit!—Zach said, “You teach that racism continues to ruin the global economy, destroying any hope for progress in the foreseeable future. All well and good but it hasn’t yet affected my own work in public policy.”

“Unfortunately, true. But congratulations. I didn’t expect you to know anything except that our wives are best friends.”

Duncan grinned and Zach glared. “I’ve never had any interest in Beth’s tennis or housewife coffee klatches.”

“I suppose not. But if you haven’t eaten already, what about dinner at that Mexican place?”

Zach hadn’t eaten all day. And he was no homophobe; just deeply aware, and proud, of his manhood as well as far too secure for this guy’s limp wrist to bother him.

Besides, he loved Mexican food and without Duncan’s invitation would have eaten alone with a sorry few at the nearest diner. So without directly looking at this intrusive weirdo, he said, “Mexican? Yes, I’m hungry.”

Duncan then smiled idiotically, crossed his legs like a woman, and watched Zach put on a new, well-cut sports jacket. Careful to block the man’s view, Zach nonetheless felt keen attention trained upon him as he straightened his jacket and buttoned it in the middle. He refrained, however, from adjusting the lapels while this creep stared at him.

They walked to the restaurant, which was distant enough so that Zach would have taken a taxi. Duncan stepped so close to him that their shoulders and hands might touch except Zach kept zigzagging, stalling, and even drifting off the curb and into the street.

At Alma’s Cantina, over an uncomfortably close table for two, they ordered enchiladas and Negra Modelo—on tap. Duncan asked for details about Zach’s impending divorce.

“Not open for discussion. Comprende?”

“All right,” Duncan said. “Can we talk about mine then? Because for me, divorcing Wren after so many years is devastating.”

Devastating? Fine, Duncan’s vocabulary tended toward theatrics. Zach had expected as much. Yet what he had not expected, after firmly setting the boundary, was for Duncan to allude to the Severin’s dissolving marriage relative to his own amicable split. Apparently, Duncan visited Wren often and more often than not, Beth joined them. Weekdays, while their children were at school, Wren and Beth spent hours discussing their marital disappointments. On top of which, they visited a fitness trainer named Leon together twice a week. “Leon coaxes them into important upper body-work with kettle balls—so crucial for the female anatomy—and on alternating sessions he gives one or the other an hour-long deep-tissue massage.”

Zach maintained a neutral, if frozen, expression.

“If I were a jealous man, I’d be bothered by this fellow,” Duncan said, and gave Zach a pointed look.

Zach presented a pained grin (fast becoming his stock expression with Duncan) and they split the bill.

Walking back, the man wasn’t so clingy and Zach managed to ask, “If you’re divorcing your wife, aren’t you too angry and frustrated to talk about other people and their situations? Specifically, Duncan, mine?”

“My divorce from Wren is all the more painful because we still love each other. My guilt toward her and about the child will haunt me the rest of my life. Every step of the procedure is awful, a notch below death on the grief-meter.”


“Laugh if you want, but you’ll see, the expression is apt. It may sound like psychobabble but I’ve yet to hear anyone else use the term.”

“For good reason.”

“Listen, Severins, at Beth’s request, I’m happy to help you.” Outside the SIPA building where Zach’s office was, the men stood in dim, yellowy light. “You don’t have to be my friend, but I’ve done you a huge favor. Danny Gibbons in University Housing is a very dear friend of mine and Beth and Wren asked me if I could expedite things for you. Danny has assured me you’ll be incredibly lucky with the UAH. The waiting list runs into the thousands.”

Zach saw the pieces fitting into place. UAH—University Apartment Housing. Still, Duncan, Wren, and Beth had anticipated this? And gossiped about it?

Swallowing his rage, he managed to say, “Unlike you and the wives, I had not anticipated a divorce until this morning. So thank you. Housing hadn’t dawned on me yet.” (Zach was far too cultured, despite his wish to shatter Duncan’s pointy skull, not to behave graciously.)

“Danny expects a vacancy in Lenfest Hall sometime this month. A furnished studio, top floor in a building reserved for law students. And Lenfest has that nice bamboo garden.”

Zach said, “Bamboo garden. Well.” He was anxious to escape. High time he returned to listing quick, impressive career steps. Now that he would no longer be jetting back and forth to Washington, he would be on campus nonstop, and needed to prioritize exactly how to turbo-charge his profile.

Duncan lingered; Zach felt unable to hurry away, let alone slam the door in Duncan’s face. Near the entrance, they looked at each other. Zach turned away but looked again.

“How is that you’re divorcing your wife if you still love her? I mean, if you don’t mind me asking, why?”

“Wren and I are still in couple’s therapy and will continue it long after the legal rigmarole. But we’re past delusion—and embarrassment.”

Zach seconded that; embarrassment was unmanly and ridiculous.

“At my age?” Duncan continued, “In these days? If I feel any stigma, it’s my own pathetic issue. Who knows why it took me forty years to come out? It’s not as if I didn’t know. But as much as I love Wren and my children, as much as I love being a father, sometime last year I just couldn’t hide anymore. I was tired of lying. My life is half over—time to stop denying who I am.”

Zach wasn’t surprised but he had never imagined he would have to listen to this—no retreat possible. By now he had recalled that Duncan was highly regarded by all of Columbia and uncommonly popular with both students and faculty.

“We’re all like that, Duncan. As long as you can fool yourself, you will.”

“Exactly. I misjudged you, Zach. The women led me to believe you disapproved of gay people—your commitment to Boy Scouts and such.”

Just when he assumed his queasiness had hit its peak! And yet, his career, his profile: he couldn’t afford to alienate this man. Hesitating, he managed to raise a non-hostile eyebrow.

Duncan laughed, shaking his head. “Please don’t be disappointed, Zach, but you’re not my type.”

Shit, Christ, Goddamn! Now Zach was embarrassed. “Good,” he said.

“So no hard feelings? None of us can have everything, can we?” Duncan Chapman then held a loose fist under Zach’s chin, as in, “chin up.”

(click here for the next episode) 


Dan Leo said...

The doubtful guest...

kathleenmaher said...

Manny wanted to know how much Duncan would factor in this story. He's not a main character, but I think his role is important. You can let me know.

Dan Leo said...

Zach seems like one of these guys who doesn't have any real friends, and now this strange bird is interpolating himself into his life. Should be interesting!

kathleenmaher said...

Always a little late on the uptake, Dan, I finally did remember "The doubtful guest..." from the brilliant Edward Gorey. Someday I hope to own his books. But the words rang in my head until I Googled them. Duncan is indeed the doubtful guest.