Skip to content

Chapter 13

Because Jude had been traveling between Chicago and St. Louis, Daria’s training with him was delayed until the Tuesday following her first week at Hap. In her book—and there now was a physical ledger for the record—it was Day 7.

For whatever reason, Jude elected Times Square. He avoided the awkward situation of having to talk to her en route by arranging to meet there.

Already she was dreading the encounter. In addition to serving as Grammar Nazi, Jude was The Guy—not The Friend of the Guy but The Guy. Jude was to Hap what Brad was to George in the Ocean’s franchise, not that Jude looked anything like either movie star. But he carried himself like he had a fan base he was always maneuvering to avoid.

Jude’s shtick was “Unconditioned Responses”: “You need to retrain yourself to say ‘Yes!’ at least fifty-one percent of the time.” That was his gimmick—fifty-one percent. He liked numbers. “Scientists say that forty percent of what makes you happy is within your control.” “When you’re able to experience positive emotions seventy-five percent as much as negative, you can flourish and thrive in an upward spiral of well-being.” He’d walk the width of the stage with the microphone, asking, “How often do you say or think”—and then he’d pause to point to specific members of the audience. “That’s not right. I don’t like that. I don’t agree with that. They don’t like me. I’m not very good.”

He kept her waiting for fifteen minutes on a chair that was vaguely associated with a table chained to pedestrian mall on Broadway. Almost instantaneously she was engulfed by a rapidly enlarging swarm of high school groups wearing elaborate track suits. Their adult supervisors were yelling in some Eurasian-sounding language that Daria randomly decided was Croatian. When she saw Jude she vacated the mayhem. “Why here?”

“The scammers in the Elmo costumes,” he said. “The tourists. This is the game, Daria.”

“You mean like if I can make it here I can make it anywhere?”

He didn’t answer, just led the way to a bench some distance from the thick of it. When they sat, someone dressed as Wylie E. Coyote stopped in front of them and cocked his head, training two large unblinking white orbs on absolutely nothing.

“Do you want your picture taken with him?” she asked.

Jude decided to sing: “I keep the wolf from the door, he calls me up, calls me on the phone, tells me all the ways that he’s gonna mess me up.” The coyote moved on. Jude pointed to the busker strumming along to an annoying made-to-order children’s song and sang again: “See that boy with that guitar, he’s got a blue Toyota like I always wanted.”

He reminded her of Compton Pruitt with his small, handheld world; thus she found him insufferable. She made herself smile and shake her head at everything going on.

“So what did you learn at Harvard, Daria?”

This “training” was going to be useless; she knew it. He was already working the clock against her.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she told him. “Some secret names for the types of people they invite to alumni events that are really just cultivation for fundraising.”

“Such as?”

“LM stands for Leeches and Moochers—the free lunch people. You don’t want to invite them to anything that costs if at all possible. Mortars are accomplished people who have a little money—the ones you want at a function because they’re good at holding it all together. The trust-fund types—people of High Net Birth—are practically never Mortars. Flockers, on the other hand, are donors you can always get to show up for any crap event, like pigeons, because they have hardly any money. Jo-Jo’s—as in Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy—are the wildcard invite. Random celebrities of the moment who are living their fifteen minutes. And then there’s The Manchurian Candidate, the class agent who’ll do anything Harvard asks him to. And also HWEs—Hitler’s Willing Executioners. They’ll happily snub a fellow alum who’s been asked repeatedly for a capital gift and says no.”

“Wow. Wowie wow wow wow.”

She smiled without looking at him. “You wanted to know.”

“So what did you learn from Mariette?”

This one was easy. “That she looks great being flat-chested because she did lightweight crew.”

He laughed.

“I can’t believe she was a rower.”

“It gets worse,” he said. “She was an English major. Ask her about the confessional poets.”

“I thought all poets were confessional.”

He rolled his eyes. “I’d keep that thought to myself.”

She was angry but persevered. “Well what about the confessional poets?”

He looked from side to side as if all this were beneath him. “Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton. Mariette is obsessed with Anne Sexton.”

“Wasn’t she the one who masturbated in front of her children?”

She could tell he was shocked—not at the content but that she knew this element of lame esoterica. And it was only because when she was desperate for money a few years ago, she babysat the old woman who lived next door to her cousins—the woman whose TV was stuck on one station, New Hampshire public television.

“She wrote a poem called ‘That Awful Rowing toward God,’ ” he told her.

Daria nodded as if somehow this explained everything. “And I suppose Mariette got there while rowing—to God, I mean.”

“What about SML?” His tone had become less charitable.

“You mean Ted?”

He cracked a half-smile.

She made a face. “SML sounds like he’s available in every size.”

“He needs to pick a size and stick with it. He’s probably closeted.”

“I don’t think he’s closeted.”

“Oh, you don’t think so?” he said with a laugh. And then, after a pause: “Someone floated a theory that he liked Ace Ventura too much as a kid. He doesn’t have the language for coming out.”

This annoyed her, this adolescent fixation on sexing people. When Quentin came out to his parents, he did so during winter break of his senior year in college, when they had pleaded with him to join their “just us” vacation to their all-time favorite destination, Disney World. He decided to tell them on the It’s a Small World ride because they smiled like they were medicated all the way through. And he did, and they smiled even more. “Oh, we figured that, honey,” said his mother. After the first thirty seconds of being stunned, Quentin felt completely liberated, like there was nothing he could hold back on. “This is so great,” he said, “because I have also for some kooky reason managed to rack up eighteen thousand dollars on my Visa card that I have absolutely no idea how I’m going to pay for.” And here was where the county waste disposal engineer attempted to publicly strangle his newly outed son.

“Ted’s still looking for his real dad online,” she argued. “That’s got to be hard.”

“Ethylynn was worried about him not getting laid. She offered to sleep with him.”

She found that offensive. “Why can’t all of you accept him as he is?”

“Because he’s miserable.”

“How do you know who’s miserable and who’s not?”

“He’s not getting sex.”

“What makes you so sure that the problem is that he’s not getting sex? What if he got sex that he didn’t want? Maybe he was abused at Horace Mann.”

“He wouldn’t keep quiet about that.”

“He was exactly the kind of kid pedophiles prey on—absent father, offstage mother. Don’t you read anything in Oprah’s magazine?”

He shook his head.

She was rather disgusted. “Look at him now—he works for an ex-priest and he blogs for an ex-priest. It’s like he’s returning to the scene of the crime.”

He laughed. “Thank God we’ve got Miss Marple on the case.”

“He was a victim of identity theft—it’s like he has this bull’s-eye painted on his back. Don’t you think he knows that? You and Mariette should be helping him, not making him feel worse.”

“Are you done with the soapbox?”

She was surprised she had said all that and was upset.

“So what are you going to learn from me?” he asked.

She was losing all patience. “Just tell me what a goddamned épat means.”

The style of smiling he now applied seemed stolen from Hap the man. “Épater la bourgeoisie. It comes from the time of Baudelaire and Rimbaud and the decadent poets. Stick it to them, shock them.”

She shook her head. “You can’t do that anymore. Everyone’s decadent.”

“No shit.”

“So what’s the point?”

“Irony, Daria. The only way to deliver an épat in the Age of Apple is to conceive and execute a flawless parlor charade that will eventually reveal the absurdity of bourgeois desires. And what are bourgeois desires but to be happy all the time?”

Trying to follow this logic caused her to frown, which she told herself never to do on account of wrinkles. “It seems to me the key word is eventually.”

“You could look at it that way.”

“So when will eventually come?”

He shrugged. “When all of us no longer want to make money.”

The thought that, for Daria Rahill, this milestone would never be reached had the makings of a headache. Who even used the word bourgeois anymore?

“To really grasp the concept,” he continued, “you have to grasp the alternative. I see the antithesis of épater la bourgeoisie as the character Tony Last in Evelyn Waugh’s novel A Handful of Dust.

He paused to allow her to reply whether she knew it. Of course she shook her head.

“Tony’s an aristocrat with a wife who finds him dull, so she has an affair with a social climber. The affair is discovered, and this being 1930s Britain, a reason for divorce needs to be invented. So Tony plans out this absurd pretext for divorce, but when he realizes the divorce will mean selling his ancestral home, he stops the proceedings. Rather than face humiliation with his wife, he runs off to join a gentlemen’s expedition in the jungles of Brazil. Well, dontcha know Tony falls ill with malaria or whatever, and his traveling companion dies while seeking help. Tony stumbles into an isolated tribal village where he is nursed to health by the illiterate Mr. Todd. But Mr. Todd has other plans for Tony. He holds him captive in the jungle, forcing him to spend his days reading him Little Dorrit.” He paused. “This is what life does to you if you don’t act first.”

She felt the same greater confusion that she did with Mariette talking about Michael Caine standing buck-naked with a shotgun. “So you’re saying that he should’ve had the affair with the social climber?”

He shook his head her to indicate she was hopeless.

“Why does it have to be so black and white?” she pressed.

“You screw the world or the world screws you. If you make the first move, you don’t have to be as mean as the world would be to you.”

She looked at him perplexed. “Didn’t you ever have any plans for your life? What did you want to do when you grew up?”

He looked like he wasn’t going to say anything but then relented. “I wanted to take pictures. I wanted to create scenes out of time and space. Cartier-Bresson called it ‘the decisive moment.’ I wanted to take pictures, and then with digital, picture-taking became uncoupled from artistic expression. Or maybe what digital did was disembowel art as a vocation. Everybody and their grandmother is an artist. Everybody and their grandmother is creative. Because anyone can be a curator of the self, every self is worthy of being curated.”

She agreed with him so far, but as opt-out clauses on life went, this one seemed pretty lame.

“Sometime around 1992,” he continued, “civilization made a Faustian bargain. I don’t know who initiated it. I don’t know if it was the Wall coming down or the Internet autobahn going up. Whoever jiggered the system, the announcement was made loud and clear: ‘Sorry, kids.’”

He spoke to her as if she were ignorant of culture. She knew it was no use reminding him she was an art history major, that she knew practically everything there was to be known about the world’s fairs of the nineteenth century. “So I guess you gave up on originality in 1992.”

He again looked like he was through talking. But he wasn’t. “The only teacher who ever motivated me was this crazy French guy who taught a film class when I was in junior high. He was upset at the demise of a journal called Tel Quel.”

As it is.”

He reached over to pat her head like a dog. “Only more like As Is—as in ‘You have to take me as is.’ Just your typical deconstructionist literary journal born with the nineteen sixties. Tel Quel was the avant-garde publication across Western Europe during the decade. When it folded in 1982, people like this crazy French guy felt there was this big gaping hole in the culture. He challenged us to commit our lives to finding another As Is. It could be any format, any kind of project. And I used to think I’d be the one to do that—find the As Is.”

She laughed, not so much at him but at what she wanted to say: As if. “So how come you haven’t done it?”

This made him laugh with her. “I wanted there to be this . . . this way of thinking that the world would come round to. To realize, ‘Yes, this is right. We were all douchebags and you were right.’ And yet everyone tries and everyone fails. The people who are original are completely anonymous.”

“You really believe that?”

“You know who Rémy Bricka is?

She shook her head.

“I rest my case.”

“Well who is he?”

“This French singer and one-man-band. One of those oddball guys you see outside Pompidou. The Marceau mimes, the fire-eaters. But what makes Bricka fascinating is that he decided he was going to walk across the Atlantic—on floating skis, propelled by oars—be what he called ‘an aquatic pedestrian.’ And he did this in 1988. He tried to walk the Pacific in 2000, but he failed and had to be rescued. He wrote about the Atlantic crossing in L’Homme qui marche sur l’eau. You can’t make this stuff up. The world saw him as this freak-show novelty act, but he was absolutely fearless.”

Daria sighed. “I wish I was fearless. I’m turning thirty in August and it scares me.”

“Been there, done that.”

She nodded. “After you they broke the mold.”

This only compelled him to sing again. “How young are you, how old am I? Let’s count the rings around my eyes.”

She was too tired to pursue any thread of continuity. He apparently wasn’t. “Are you afraid of wrinkles, Daria, or is it your biological clock?”

She would never admit to the wrinkles. “I’m afraid of losing time I’ll never get back.” She thought for a moment. “My father died when he was fifty-one. He was always trying to get somewhere.”

“So was mine.”

“Yeah, but your father is famous. And rich. He got to a lot of places.”

“Must be nice.”

“My dad had an obsession with time running out on him. When he was a kid he heard this story about a woman whose Volkswagen Beetle went off a bridge and was submerged in water. The windows were all up and she couldn’t open the doors. But there was an air pocket inside the car that she found. She had just enough air to keep her alive, but it was running out. He couldn’t remember anything about the story’s outcome, but he had nightmares about the same thing happening to him. He would say to me each time he had a setback. ‘The air pocket’s getting smaller.’ ”

This made him inhale heavily. “Dreaming about drowning is pretty common for people in debt. Nothing organic about it. Our brains pull the metaphor from our conscious lives.”

The metaphors were exhausting her. “I saved a woman from drowning once.”

“You were a lifeguard?”

It was during that Hawaiian Christmas in 2008—the five Cantors plus Daria and Jonathan’s two favorite boozing cousins—while the group of genetic ineptitude was learning how to snorkel for the zillionth time.

“Jonathan,” Daria said through the mask, “your mother is drowning.”

“Dad,” Jonathan called.

The instructor was Hawaiian but spoke fluent Japanese to a couple with three beautiful little girls in braids. The Cantors stood farther from shore than the instructor and the Japanese family she was fawning over.

“Dad,” Jonathan repeated.

“What?” his father snapped.

“Daria says Mom’s drowning.”

“Ronnie,” he yelled in the deep voice he reserved for when the dog was ripping apart the neighbors’ trash, “pay attention to what the instructor is showing us.”

Jonathan’s cousins stood swaying back and forth in the waist-high ultramarine water, their pale skin a fluorescent blue against the inane tattoos on their bony shoulders. Their eyes were closed under their masks, owing to it being the 364th hangover of the year.

Jonathan’s mother, her snorkel like the hand held up counting down by fingers, was going under in successive turns. Daria flipped back her mask and swam out to the whirlpool the woman’s struggling body mass had caused. Veronica Cantor was well into her forties but wore this Juicy Couture one-piece that was essentially an elongated string bikini. She looked like Donatella Versace but fat in addition to old, over-tanned, and saggy—all these neon-colored strings wound around her cellulite like it was the suet you wanted to stay on the exterior of a pork roast.

Daria didn’t know where to grab that would not cause PTSD in the future. She just grabbed, and of course the woman immediately tried to drown her too. Fuck if I’ll let you kill me, she thought as she yanked and yanked and yanked the carcass shoreward. On the beach Daria dragged Mrs. Cantor’s wet flab from its heinous armpits only to discover the woman unconscious. “Can I get some CPR over here?”

She shook her head at Jude. “It was my boyfriend’s mother.”

“Now there’s a new one.”

“I kept a journal for a few weeks after because I had nightmares that I was going down with her.” Then she added for his benefit, “Probably because I was in debt.”

He didn’t answer that.

“I just started keeping one again,” she told him. “A paper one.” She pulled it out of her bag to show him. “It looks like a book. And you know what else? I call it a diary.”

He glanced, and that was about it. “At least it doesn’t have deer and birds on it.”

“Aren’t you going to make fun of me calling it a diary?”

He shook his head in a bored way.

“And it’s not for happiness reasons,” she confessed. “It’s more to stop being afraid that I’m losing time. Although I admit I’m obsessive about using two-and-five-eighths pencils. And that’s a bitch, because you need to find a sharpener.”

He winced. “That’s too light.”

“No, it’s not. A No. 2 smudges.”

“Too light,” he insisted, shaking his head. Then he was compelled again to sing: “I write with a No. 2 pencil I work up to my potential.”

“Well,” she said, “at least you can have a conversation about it. Ted would be having seizures by now.”

This made him laugh. “You know how you can kill a kid with severe nut allergies by pulling out a Snickers? You could kill Ted Brand by pulling out some Post-It Notes.”

She laughed in exchange. “Didn’t you ever keep a journal?”

He shook his head but then stopped himself. “When my mother died I did for a few months.”

“Did it help?”

He seemed dazed. “It was mostly because I felt that my family had disappeared. I needed to make sure there was something left.”

She didn’t get it. “But you were left.”

Suddenly he stood. “That’s it.”

He was already gone before she realized what had happened. Now she was alone again in Times Square. Somehow Wylie E. Coyote knew to come back and tilt the head affixed at the end of the long snout. Aw. Is somebody sad?

She wasn’t sad, just pissed. Pissed that she didn’t have a Harvard degree that would open doors all around the world. Pissed that instead she had to kowtow to rude, spoiled people like Jude Elsevier. His rudeness made her feel like Hap was something to win, something to master. His disdain made her want to be La Femme qui marche sur l’eau, the one who was stronger, the one to find As Is. It was because she was angry—and also because there was only so much air left in the submerged Beetle.

Next chapter →

%d bloggers like this: