To Love and To Fall

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TWO

I arrive at Albany five minutes before my preordained dinner meeting; despite the best of plans to arrive early and settle in. I didn’t get to sleep until nearly seven o’ clock because of Serena getting up and down all night, so when my alarm clock whined at nine o’clock, I inadvertently shut it off and never woke up until noon. Considering that I had to pack before I got here, luck was on my side as far as timing. I am nervous about this meeting, even though I am only meeting with my advisor today. He is supposed to be on my side, but somehow I don’t believe he really is.

We meet for dinner at Garbalo’s restaurant in downtown Albany. I feel completely overdressed in my three pieced suit (the only thing I own that is more formal than jeans and a T-shirt) as I greet Dr. Scott C. Arbuckle, who is dressed neatly but casually in a tweed suit. Arbuckle gives me a once over that confirms my uneasiness as he shakes my hand. I make a mental note that when I return home I make trip to the mall, something long overdue.

Arbuckle is a young guy, probably only eight or nine years older than I am, pretty young for a full professor. He’s got small eyes that are squinted constantly in thought, giving whoever who is at the receiving end of his gaze the feeling that they’re under a microscope. He is not intimidated by anything or anyone, not even someone like me, who works out just about every day and seemingly could take him out in one punch. In fact the first time I wrote a paper for him when I was in undergraduate school, he gave me a D. It had been the first D in my life. I went to his office to protest the grade, and he proceeded to laugh in my face, which really pissed me off. He told me that he didn’t like my attitude, that I thought I was so smart but I didn’t know anything. He was going to teach me humility. I told him I didn’t give a shit about humility, I just wanted a decent grade from him. He rebutted by saying that with my attitude, I was going to be a failure and I was a waste of his time. So I proceeded to spend the rest of the semester trying to prove him wrong. I guess I succeeded, because we wound up being friends after I graduated, and he offered to be my adviser for the duration of my postgraduate work. He said that I reminded him of himself. I have never quite figured out if that was an insult or a compliment.

Our table isn’t ready when we arrive at the restaurant, so the host leads us to the bar. I feel a sense of relief at the smell of alcohol. I am keyed up and a drink sounds nice after the tension of today. Then I have a sudden vision of all those AA people who hounded me after that meeting, and I feel a sudden wave of disgust. I order a Coke. Arbuckle orders a pina colada.

“So how is Serena?” he asks as soon as we dispense of formalities such as how was my trip up there.

“She’s all right.” I am hesitant to bring up the AA meeting, though I tend to share everything else with my mentor. Arbuckle will probe me to find out why I went, when I don’t even know myself. I would rather forget the whole experience ever happened. “She’s still looking for a job.”

“The ad agency never took her?”

“They didn’t like her job history.” Serena’s job history is splotchy at best. In the eleven years I have known her she has worked maybe a total of four. The longest job she ever held lasted for six months, and she is always fired. This is not because she is stupid or lazy. Serena is a summa cum laude from Binghamton University. Her excuse is usually that the boss is an asshole and can’t appreciate her. One time she even alleged that a former boss sexually harassed her. The day she was fired, she was too drunk to make it to work. She even got a lawyer who was all gung-ho to take down the patriarchal corporate structure until it was discovered that the day Serena had allegedly been harassed she had most definitely not been at work. The lawyer told Serena in no uncertain terms to get out of her office and never come back. Serena, the summa cum laude, told this good officer of the court to kiss off, and not those words. Since that episode, when she is fired, the boss is just an asshole, not a sexist pig asshole.

My hazy reverie is shattered by an insistent snapping in front of my eyes. I blink to find Arbuckle waving his hand by my face to snap me to attention. I return to him, albeit reluctantly. We are ready to be seated. Time to return to my life. I do not want to leave the world of my mind.

Over a dinner of sausage and peppers we discuss the strategy for tomorrow’s interview. Although I don’t usually drink with dinner, I order a beer with my food to take the edge off my discomfort, AA meetings notwithstanding. After a couple of beers, the alcohol has dulled my appetite to the point where I cannot enjoy my food. I watch Arbuckle consume his linguini with clam sauce with gusto. Tinged with jealousy, I wish I could just enjoy life and forget about myself. My anxiety won’t even let me eat.

“Reincroft is pig-headed,” he explained between mouthfuls of food. “He is also a big lush. That means he has a tremendous ego. A lot of us academicians do, but he more so than others. The world begins and ends with him. So as long as you remember to feed his ego, you’ll be all right.”

Reincroft is my potential boss. He is the department head of history in Albany. He has a great reputation for speaking and is a brilliant essayist, but is a clinical manic-depressive. He drank to deal with his moods instead of taking his lithium, is what I heard. I wouldn’t have trouble believing it. I met him three years ago after he had given a lecture on the ills of capitalism. I had gone to thank him. His first words to me were, get the fuck away from me. Then he stormed off, leaving a stunned audience in his wake. I wondered if I’d eaten too much garlic or something.

Arbuckle and I dispense with the business right after dinner. I am glad because I was nervous about dealing with Reincroft again. I’ve never been good with loud personalities. They make me very irritable. The more I think about Reincroft the more irritable I become. Arbuckle treats me to beers and pool with beer being the prize. I win six games and won as many beers. By the end of the night, I am not even thinking of Serena. At least temporarily.

Arbuckle and I finish our evening at four in the morning. We close the bar down, do two rounds of last call before we leave. I stay at his house, which was closer than my hotel. I didn’t feel like driving for five miles after drinking all night.

I have trouble adjusting to the settings of my room, given the state of mind I was in. I am not good about falling asleep in strange places, especially when I am half-drunk. I feel like running.

After an hour of tossing and turning, I impulsively decide to call Serena. I want to see if she is okay, see if she is there, to hear that she loves me. I feel a hunger for her as I reach for the phone. I need her to feed me as she always has. I feel her slipping away.

The phone rings its customary four rings. My voice comes on instructing me to leave a message and I would get back to me as soon as I could. A lie– lately we have got back to no one. In fact, Serena hardly ever looks at the machine. Both our voices used to be on it. But no more. Hearing my solitary voice make me feel all the more empty.

I doze off for an hour or so before Arbuckle wakes me up to drive me to my car. After finally nodding off to sleep, I do not wish to go anywhere, but I have to go to my hotel to change into something more decent. How ironic it was to call a jeans jacket and Dockers more decent than a three-pieced suit, but this suit looked like it had been through the wringer with James Bond, only I am not as suave as he. Besides I would be more comfortable, and I needed all the advantage I could, as nervous as I was, as much as about Serena as anything else. I wonder where she could be.

I call my house once I got to my hotel, and still get no answer. I have no breakfast but coffee. On the way to the university all I can think of is Serena. I do not even think of the script I have rehearsed for this interview. In my reverie I drive down two one way roads on the wrong side of the road, becoming unable to extricate myself from the mess. I begin to lose my temper, the lack of sleep making me unable to deal with the situation. I almost turned around and gave up on the interview. The hell with getting a real job. Serena and I could be blissfully unemployed together. I made enough of a stipend as a TA. We’d always made it. I would just be a professional student. Hell, that was what I was anyway. Who cared if the neighbors thought we were a couple of hippies. I was sick of being ambitious just so I could prove that I could be, just so I could prove that I was better than what I had come from. I wish I could just throw in the towel. I remember the movie “Leaving Las Vegas,” and wish I could be like the Nicholas Cage character and have the guts to walk away from it all.

But I didn’t, and by the force of sheer willpower make it to the famed interview. I am afraid that I have made a major faux pas by showing up ten minutes late until I find out from the secretary that Reincroft isn’t even at work yet. He shows up a half an hour later like a hurricane with his tie flying around him and papers strewn about as he wakes me up from a nice catnap. He yells at me to come in his office, and I suppose I have begun my interview with him. For the duration of an hour I heard how the evils of capitalism had destroyed the fabric of the everyday man, thus leading into a shortage of good people who loved history because everyone was taking business courses because everyone wanted to get rich quick. Being a staunch libertarian, I keep my mouth shut. He switches from ranting about the savings and loan scandal of the nineties to how he remembered me from his lecture, sorry he had to leave so soon. By the time he got to this subject I was used to his vast swings in trains of thought. I tell him that his lecture was wonderful. Then he tells me to show up for the job on the first of October. It is only then that I realize I have the job. Flabbergasted, I say that I have to get back to him. Apparently all I had to do to get this job was not kill the guy or walk out on him. The whole interview had been a test. It was the first time I walked out of an interview more confused than when I came in. I want to speak to Arbuckle about it but he is busy meeting with friends on campus today; I won’t see him until tomorrow after dinner. I want to talk to Serena, but it seems that she had deserted me for pastures greener than I.

I returned to my hotel and drown myself in the indoor pool, trying to swim away my anxieties. Physical exercise has been one of the great boons of my sanity. Without it, I probably would have been certifiable by now. It was good to not have to deal with anyone. For the end of August, the pool is blissfully empty. There are no families with thirty kids ready to decorate the pool with yellow liquid. Serena wanted kids from the early on in the relationship. Sometimes I wonder if she just went to college to find a guy to marry her and have babies, because she never uses her wonderful degree for anything other than something to lord over her “illiterate high school educated family”, as she calls them. So far, the guy, me, has not acted to her standards, except once, and that was long ago. And so far, I have not given her the ring that she alternatively longs for and hates. I have not been the only ambivalent one about marriage in this relationship.

I wonder if she has left me again. I am not sure why she would; it is not as though we have been fighting. Ever since the job prospect with Reincroft appeared, we have been getting along better than ever. Maybe we are both relieved that my college days are finally coming to an end; it has been a lot to keep up graduate school and a woman at the same time. The job offer means more financial security for us- my odd jobs never provided much. I know that Serena thinks that now things are settled, soon we will get married. Maybe she has left me after all, gone back to the family that raised and hated her, especially when she was with me.

Serena’s family was never crazy about me. At the risk of sounding racist or ethnicist, they are Italian and I am a WASP, and my being Protestant does not go over terribly well in their world of plastic Madonnas and Sacred Heart of Jesuses. Realistically, I am an agnostic, and after talking with Serena’s father I am sure he is atheist, but in their circles, appearance is what counts, and I don’t fit into their appearance. That and the fact that I’m shacking up with their virgin (who isn’t) daughter. I really don’t care what they think about me, but sometimes I wonder if they even like Serena, or each other, for that matter. Every time I have been there, no one has a nice word for anyone else. In reality I might even be the best treated, because no one has any word for me. I am outsider shunned from their private world of insults. I suppose I should be hurt by their avoidance, but I am not.

At eight o’ clock, I am kicked out of the pool. I go to my room I call home again, unable to resist the urge. Still no answer. I feel a surge of jealousy, wondering if Serena is with someone else. It wouldn’t be the first time. Trying to dispel it any way possible, I relent and call her family’s home. I would rather her there than other possibilities.

“Hullo?” the drugged baritone of her perpetually unemployed thritysomething brother Joe drawls.

I dispense of formalities. “It’s Tom. Is Serena there?”

“Oh, you. What’s up.” There is chewing in my ear. I pray for patience from a God I don’t believe in.

“Nothing’s up. Is Serena there?”

He laughs like I have told him a great joke. I can see the food expelling from his mouth. I am not aware I have said anything funny. “Nah, she ain’t here. Hell, I haven’t spoken to the drunken slut in a couple of years. Why? Is she running around on you again?”

“She’s not at home.” I avoid directly answering his question.

I hear what sounds like a cross between a belch and a groan. “You gotta start tightening the reigns on that bitch and show her who’s boss. She runs circles around you. Like she does my dad. She kisses up to him when she needs something or when she’s in trouble then dumps him when she gets what she wants from him. Papa gets furious and swears he won’t talk to her again, but then she comes around batting the baby blues and he’s all mush again. She gonna do the same to you. And you gotta be careful this day and age. AIDS and all.”

I do not care to discuss Serena’s infidelities with her brother. I make a conciliatory “Hmmm,” and say nothing more.

“Well, I’ll see you. I always do.”

“Yeah soon.” I hang up wondering if he was threatening me. With Serena’s family, who knew.

I call a couple of other people with little luck. The best information I get is from our neighbor across the street who informs me Serena’s car is still in the driveway but that yesterday she saw someone pick her up in a tan Maxima. She couldn’t say that she knew if Serena was home now or if the driver of the Maxima was a man or a woman. She also sounded as though she had found a new tidbit of gossip about the young people, and I regretted having called her. I respectfully decline her offer to see if Serena is in the house now. I had enough problems already. I wonder why Serena hadn’t answered the telephone. That is, if she were home.

I place together the facts I have: Tan Maxima, no answer all night, Serena gone since the day before. I try to place the car, if any of the three men that Serena has cheated on me with could even afford a car like that. Two were unemployed and one was a gas attendant at Shell (I have since then never graced the presence of a Shell station). Of course, over time things change. The last time was over two years ago. Maybe one of them won Lotto. Maybe someone got a real job. Or, there was the dark possibility that there might be someone new.

My jealousy almost compels me to drive all the way back home again, despite the fact that tomorrow I had to be here to talk to Arbuckle about my interview. I find I do not care about work now that there seems to be no Serena. I almost go but exhaustion and extreme hunger halts me. I am so tired I almost fell asleep at the wheel, and my stomach angrily reminds me that it had not been fueled since last night’s Italian. A bar’s neon sign in the near distance signals the word “FOOD” to me, though it is haphazardly spelled “FO D”. I beckon to its calling unaware of the adventures that await me.

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