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The Havana Room
By Colin Harrison
Picador Copyright © 2004 Colin Harrison
All rights reserved.
BEGIN ON THE NIGHT that my old life ended. Begin on a warm April evening with a rumpled thirty-nine-year-old man stepping out of his cab at Park Avenue and Seventy-seventh. Manhattan steams and rumbles around him. He needs food, he wants sex, he must have sleep, and he'd prefer them in that order. The cab speeds off. The time is 1 a.m., and he looks up at his apartment building with a heavy, encyclopedic exhalation, which in its lung depth and audible huh can be found his whole life—wish and dream, sadness and joy, victory and loss. Yes, his whole life swirls in that one wet breath—as it does in everyone's.
The idea was for him to get home in time for his son's birthday party, as a surprise. Even his wife isn't expecting him. But his plane was delayed leaving San Francisco, circled LaGuardia endlessly, and then the traffic into the city was slow, even at that hour, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway full of bumping badboys in smoked-glass SUVs, off-peak tractor-trailers, limos from hell. Now, planted on the pavement with his suitcase, our man loosens his red silk tie and top shirt button. He's tired of such constriction, though addicted to its rewards. And has he not been rewarded? Why, yes, of course—bonuses and dividends and compound interest and three-for-one splits. And does he not expect many more such rewards—semiannual wifely blow jobs, prompt service at the dry cleaner's, his secretary's unhesitating agreement to do whatever he asks? Yes, how could he not? He's worked for all these things.
He's a successful lawyer, our lawyer. My lawyer. My own lost self. He's been with his firm for fourteen years, made partner long ago. His client list includes a major major bank (run by dragons in suits, minority-owned by the House of Saud, accountable to no one), several real estate developers (testiclemunching madmen), a television network (puppets dangled by puppets), and various high-net-worth individuals (inheritors, connivers, marriage-flippers). He can handle these people. He's a man of brisk phone calls and efficient business lunches and clean paperwork. Dependable, but not a killer. Or rather, apparently not a killer. Not a screamer or a power-drinker or a deal-popper—no doors get blown off when he goes by, the secretaries don't look up. In fact, he should be a little flashier, but probably couldn't quite pull it off. His hair is too thin, his waist one Sunday Times too thick. On the third hand, the world runs on dependable, unflashy people like him and he knows it. People feel comfortable with him. The law firm feels comfortable. So he feels only somewhat uncomfortable, only a bit replaceable. He understands that it's going to be a slow climb. Five years long for every big one up. He sees the middle passage looming, the gray hair, the stiffness in the knees, the cholesterol pills. But not yet, quite. Where the climb ends, he isn't sure, but it probably involves golf and a boat and the urologist, and this is acceptable, almost. If there's a streak of fatalism in him, he keeps it under control. He wishes for many things and knows he'll get only a few. He wishes he were taller, richer, slimmer, and had screwed many more girls before getting married. His wife, Judith, who is five years younger, is quite lovely. He wishes, however, that she was just a little nicer to him. She knows that she's still quite lovely, for a while at least, until—as she has announced many times—she gets her mother's neck. (Will it be a softly bloated horror, or an udder of empty skin? He doesn't know; there's a family history of cosmetic surgery.) Meanwhile, he's been faithful and a good provider and even changed a few diapers when their son was young. Steady—the same guy year in and year out. Judith, however, believes in the reinventability of all things, especially herself, and has cycled through shiatsu, aromatherapy, yoga, Lord knows what. Wanting something, something else. Seems frustrated, even by her own orgasms. Wants, wants more. More what? Don't he and Judith have quite enough? Of course not. But such desire is dangerous. Thus the constant reinvention. He doesn't understand how that can be done; you are who you are, he believes, and that's it.
He'd like to reinvent his paycheck, however. He's paid a lot. But he's worth more. The old senior partners, amused and goatish, padding along the hallways, suck out more money than they bring in. Though he and Judith live in one of those apartment buildings where a silver-haired doorman greets every resident by name, he wishes that he were paid better—eighty percent would do—for Judith wants another child soon. And kids in New York City are expensive, totems of major money. The ability to project a couple of children through infancy, doctors' visits, baby-sitters, private school, music lessons, and summer camps while living in Manhattan requires a constant stream of after-tax cash. It's not just the cost of education and supervision; it's the protection, the cushioning. The city's children were traumatized enough by the World Trade Center attack. They don't need to see all the panhandlers with seeping sores, the crazies and subway-shitters. You hope to keep them segregated and supervised. Not loitering or dawdling or drifting, because to linger along the path home is to invite bad possibilities. The child snatcher, the pervert, the mob of taunting adolescents wielding box cutters. In Manhattan all monsters are proximate, if not by geography, then by imagination.
And the contours of the imagination are changed by money. The units of luxury get larger. And this lawyer, this man, my own man, this hairless ape in a size 44 suit, knows it. You eat what you kill, he tells himself. Kill more and you'll eat more. Another child means a new apartment, a bigger car. And keeping Selma, their baby-sitter, on for a few more years. He's paying Selma $48,000 a year, when you figure in the extras and freebies and vacations. That's $100,000 pretax. More than he made as a first-year lawyer! How amazing he can pay this, how terrible that he must! And Judith is expecting a big, shingled summer place on Nantucket someday, just like her friends have. Fifteen rooms, tennis court, heated gunite pool, koi pond. "You'll do it, I know you will!" she says brightly. He nods in dull acceptance at the years of work necessary; he'll be humpbacked with fatigue. Yes, money, he needs more money. He's making a ton, needs more! The law firm's compensation committee is run by a tightfisted bean counter named Larry Kirmer; our lawyer, a sophisticated man who made the review at Yale, has enjoyed fantasies of savagely beating Kirmer; these scenarios are quite pleasurable for him to indulge, and such indulgence results in his ability to appear cheerful and positive when in Kirmer's company. Kirmer has no idea of the imaginary wounds he's received, the eye-gougings, dropkicks to the groin, secret heart-punctures. But if Kirmer doubled his salary, the fantasies of violence and retribution would disappear. Life would be kinda great.
Now our man steps toward the apartment house admiring the cherry trees under the windows, just past their peak, as is our man himself. Passersby at this late hour notice nothing unusual about him; if he was once sleekly handsome, he is no longer; if he had once been a vigorous twenty-year-old, now he is paunched in the gut, a man who tosses a rubber football to his son, Timothy, on weekends. A man whose wife apparently does not mind that when he suggests that they have sex he uses mock-witty metaphors involving speedboats ("get up on my water skis") or professional basketball ("drive the lane"). Yes, apparently Judith likes his conventional masculinity. It does not cause any rearrangements of her femininity. It is part of Judith's life, her lifestyle, to be honest, which is not quite the same as a sofa or a minivan, but not utterly divisible from them, either. This is the way she prefers it, too, and any danger to their marriage will come not from a challenge to its conventionality—some rogue element, some dark and potent knight—but from her husband's sudden inability to sustain the marriage's predictable comfort. He, for his part, doesn't yet understand such things, which is to say he doesn't really understand his wife. He understands his law firm and his son and the sports page. He is, in fact, very similar to a sofa or a minivan. He has never lost or gained very much. Just dents and unidentified stains. His griefs are thus far minor, his risks utterly safe, his passions unremarkable, his accomplishments incremental and, when measured against his enormous advantages of class and race and sex, more or less obligatory. If he has the capacity for deep astonishment or genuine brutality, it is as yet undiscovered.
Am I too hard on him, is my description cruel and dismissive? Probably. He was, after all, handsome enough, quite well thought of, dependable in word and deed. A real workhorse in the office. A heck of a guy. Right as rain, a straight shooter, a good dude. His waist really wasn't one Sunday Times too thick. He was even reasonably fit. But I am allowed to distort this man, to seek indications of weakness and decay, because it makes his fate easier to explain. And because that man—you know this already—that man was me, Bill Wyeth.
I'd last talked to Judith early that afternoon, telling her I'd see her the next day. It was one of those marital conversations full of irritation and subtext. "Timothy really misses you," she'd told me. "He wishes you were here."
I'd thought about telling her I was taking an earlier flight. But I wanted Timothy's surprise to be hers, too. I'd been away for four days. My boy was turning eight, and he and his friends were set to go bowling, attend a Knicks practice, and eat at a midtown restaurant featuring waiters dressed like aliens. Then, stuffed with stimulation, they'd all sleep over at our apartment that night. And as I opened the door the signs of their wolfpack activity met me in the hall: a dozen-odd sport shoes scattered over the floor, a spray of coats and hats, a pile of gift bags, then a finer grade of debris—jelly beans, baseball cards, sneaker-flattened candy, removable vampire teeth, balloons, plastic spoons, streamer paper, chocolate cake, even fake rubber fingers oozing fake rubber blood. With children, one learns to read domestic disorder and its patterns like a forensic investigator sifting the wreckage of a plane. Judith, I concluded, had corralled the boys into bed, then skipped cleaning up after them. A shadowed glimpse into our bedroom confirmed my guess; there Judith lay, exhausted in her sleep, her breasts rising and falling. (She hadn't nursed our son much, and they were still "the franchise," I always told her, which both disgusted and pleased her, and which, we both knew—and were to learn again—was exactly correct; at age thirty-four, her breasts still had market value—more, in fact, than either of us had dreamed.)
I gently closed the door—on this, the night my old life was to end—and peered into our son's bedroom, where all nine boys lay huddled and overlapping in their sleeping bags like puppies. Perhaps one sighed or tossed or addressed a professional athlete in intimate dream-whisper. I kept the hall light on in case of bathroom seekers (who can forget the hot shame of pee, the furtive, groin-clutching pajama-shuffle?) and drifted into our new kitchen, which had cost almost $100,000, and picked up stray plates and pieces of shredded paper tablecloth. The multicolored chaos of the apartment suggested nothing so much as a hurricane passing over a small coastal town, leaving denuded trees and tossed pickups. No wonder Judith was exhausted.
On the new kitchen counter, a kind of grayish Brazilian marble streaked with purple quartz ("It looks—oh, it looks a foot deep!" our designer had moaned at the prospect of further insertions of our money), lay a list, typed by my secretary, of each boy's full name, his parents and/or stepparents and/or nannies, and the numbers of each (offices, home, cell); in addition, the names of certain boys had been annotated by my wife with pickup times, ear infection medication doses, etc. Innocent enough in its intention, the sheet was sociologically revealing. Here were the sons of some of the most prominent fortyish fathers in the city or, in the case of several second marriages, fiftyish fathers, and likely as not their equally prominent mothers. Every day their corporations and banks appeared in the global financial press. Citibank, Pfizer, IBM. This fact hadn't been lost on me from the beginning. Certain boys in our son's class were favorites of his, others not. But the favorites didn't correspond perfectly with the boys in the class whose parents might be cultivated. Perhaps I had suggested a few certain other boys be invited "for fairness." Perhaps? Of course I had.
Judith had just sighed, tallying the added effort and hypocrisy, the cost of arguing with me, the cost of not. "Okay," she'd breathed heavily, knowing my motivations. That was partly why she married me, no? To eat what I killed? Our son, meanwhile, had clapped his hands in excitement. He was a generous kid and so the party went from five to eight other boys. And here was the list of them, blurred by spilled juice, appended with a smear of chocolate icing.
I set it aside and prowled the refrigerator. Some cold pasta, eight-packs of butterscotch pudding for Timothy's school lunches. But nothing ready-to-eat for a hungry man. I called the Thai takeout place two blocks away and ordered up a hot, greasy mess that came in fifteen minutes, the delivery boy smiling as he took the cash tip, and then Bill Wyeth, yours and mine, spent the last minutes of his former life eating dinner, watching the sports scores, opening bills, and checking his e-mail. There was some consolation in all this multitasking and functionality, the servicing of diverse needs at the same time. Some, but not enough.
Bill Wyeth has one other need, so he steals into the bedroom just to check again. But Judith is miles under, her breath faintly foul, her arm flopped out on the sheet like she's just lobbed a hand grenade against his advance. She is not the kind of woman you can wake up in the middle of the night and jump on. Judith needs preparation—on-ramps and gradual acceleration. They'd had sex before he left for San Francisco, but that was five nights ago, and he never partakes of the hotel porn, out of fear that it will somehow appear on the law firm's bill. Every click, every selection stored forever, a string of data trailing behind each of us like a spider's filament. He'd been hoping that getting home early might put her in the mood. But no dice. He needs release, a little shot in the dark. He needs some comfort. Just a little. Besides, he'll sleep better, have more energy tomorrow to deal with the work that's piled up in his absence, to deal with Kirmer.
Excerpted from The Havana Room by Colin Harrison. Copyright © 2004 Colin Harrison. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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