The twitch is under my left eye.
The twitch is less pronounced right now, but it's there. Subtle. Sublime. Alive. Less noticeable. But there. A tic. A twitch. A muscle spasm. It floated around different parts of my body for awhile, vacationing atop my right hand between thumb and forefinger then surfing along various parts of my face before affixing itself – about a week and a half ago – to the fleshy curve beneath my left eye.
I recognize that it's hard to look at me with this twitch. It's not a blemish you can put make - up over. And because it's so there, front and center, tilting your head or giving a profile does nothing. You could wear sunglasses all day. But that's not a real solution. So, you try to relax and breathe and hope that when you have to face people, one - on - one, that your God is a loving compassionate God and that your eentsy facial tremors recede. Rarely though, do things work out so conveniently.
The twitch is a symptom of stress and exhaustion – specifically sleep deprivation. I've had insomnia regularly for a couple months now. Sleep comes in spurts. I average about 14 hours a week now, and have only gotten an hour and a half over the last two days. I make some of it up on weekends. Sometimes. Sometimes I don't.
I've been out of work 18 months now.
I'm in a meeting room at McKinley Kantor Insurance, waiting to be interviewed. The room is small, empty, not well lit. Interviewing is both my full - time job now and, approximately, an actual medical condition. The stresses and physical and financial deterioration – all the while trying to remain upbeat – Upbeat! – are like a terminal disease. But you get back out there, in clean suits, sleep deprived, buying cheaper, smaller cups of coffee, grabbing discarded Times after people leave them on train seats. You keep going.
A month ago I waited over half an hour for an interview to start. The HR associate sat me in a glass cubicle dead center among the company's tightly packed workforce. He informed me that this cubicle had a phone and computer and if I wanted, I could get some work done. I didn't ask if he meant my own work or work for their company.
My phone vibrates. It's Matt. I shouldn't answer.
“Can't talk right now, Matt. It's a bad time.”
On the other end, Matt whines.
“It is what it is,” I say. “It doesn't concern you. Has absolutely nothing to do with you. Matt – I have to go.”
I have what I call a “Balance List.” It was my therapist's idea. It's a list of all the elements that make up my life: work, family, friends, sex, finances, spirituality, community, leisure, etc. I track this list every few days to see what's going well and improving, or stagnant and declining. I make tick marks and try to adjust my life as necessary. And all of this works towards keeping me, my life, everything, in balance.
After a week's worth of tick marks I review the list with my therapist to see if my adjustments are on target. But unfortunately my Cobra ran out two months ago, and I haven't been to therapy since. So, now I just make adjustments randomly and hope for the best.
Oh, and for the record, Claire doesn't get benefits from the Hallmark store. So, currently, we have no insurance.
Anyway, about a year ago, to add some spiritual balance to my life I joined my friend Larry's local writer's workshop. We meet in people's living rooms and there's coffee and wine and hors d'oeuvres. Recently, I wrote a piece about a young man – Nick – who abandons everything – friends, family, material possessions – to wander the back roads of modern - day America. He sleeps in parks and bus stations and does odd jobs in bakeries and Chinese restaurants. He meets lots of girls, has unprotected sex, and searches across the nation for the perfect, slightly charred soft pretzel. Writing the story and reading it to the group was great, low - key, vulgar fun. And then about a week ago, I got tired of Nick and abruptly killed him off.
That's when the controversy started.
“You can't kill him off,” said Matt. “It's inappropriate!”
Matt, a recent Rutger's grad, was a new member to the group. Before Matt, no one said anything substantial about anyone's stories. Mostly, it was “that's great!” or “that's sad!”
“What's inappropriate about it?” I asked.
“It's inconsistent with everything in the story,” said Matt. “The tone. The pacing.”
“It was pretty random in the first place,” I said.
“People cared about Nick, Del! You didn't resolve anything. It was a sloppy, selfish way to end the story.”
“So what?” I said.
That got him.
But Matt was determined. He called me at home – during the week – recruited other workshop members to stand with him. Then came the final insult – I started a new story.
This morning, on my train ride, Larry called.
“Matt's very upset, Del.”
“So I hear. "
“He's serious, Del. He's been sending emails. He's building support to have you kicked out of the group."
“You're kidding me?”
“Why don't you talk to him, Del?”
“Son of a bitch.”
“Anyway – ”
“You agree with him? ”
“No! Of course not. It's your story.”
“Is anyone taking him seriously?”
“I have no idea. But –”
“Nothing. It's your business.”
“That's right. And I hope what I do – what anybody does – with their pieces doesn't impact their standing in the group. It shouldn't. ”
“Of course not. He's just – he's very passionate."
“He's an idiot.”
“It's nice that he cares so much about your work, Del. At least that's something.”
The twitch has settled into a slow rhythmic pace, about one twitch every ten seconds or so, which is manageable. This kind of twitch could happen to anyone. Could be allergies. Not at all symptomatic of a manic sleep disorder.
I'm interviewing for a senior account officer position. I won't get the position. Or maybe I will. Maybe this will be my magic moment? I remain upbeat. Upbeat!
On the street this morning, I passed a young couple, kissing. Both were beautiful, New York bohemian types in their early 20s.
When I was in my early 20s I wanted super powers – to fly or run fast or be strong or have super - vision. Now, I just want to be 20. That, in and of itself, would be a super power.
Another block down, I passed a man, stumbling, unkempt, with lesions all over his face. And I thought – that's me, smack dab between the beautiful couple and the lesions.
"Clark Honeywell," says Clark Honeywell, triumphantly. His handshake grip is a vise.
"Del Sims," I return.
My interview starts.
Clark is an extremely well - dressed executive. Well - coiffed, his thick hair bristles. He has a hungry, focused look in his crystal blue eyes. A man of power. About my age – maybe a little younger – but with the dynamism of a much younger man. He wears a crisp, well - tailored, gray pinstripe suit, starched white Oxford shirt, gold cufflinks and tie clasp. And his tie is a smooth, muted burgundy with, at the bottom, tiny embossed golf clubs.
I wish I knew more about golf.
"Have a seat," says Clark.
My first thought is that Clark is a perfected version of me. Not just me in my Senior Title Officer heyday. No, Clark is an über - me; a me at hyper - velocities I can't even imagine. Clark looks like he, too, doesn't sleep much – but does much more productive things with his non - sleep time, like tripling his investments and sleeping with much much younger women. Probably several at a time. Clark eats life. That's what he looks like.
What do I do with my non - sleep time? Lay awake, anxious, mostly; watch a little TV; try to get back to sleep.
I'm about two minutes into my modest career history – upbeatly describing how my being imprisoned at the same insurance company for 20 years has given me the experiences and insight to conquer even the most technologically advanced, modern - day job – when I realize Clark isn't paying a bit of attention. He nods rapidly, corporately courteous, but his head continuously darts back to the meeting room door. And after two minutes – let's face it – it's too freaky not to mention.
“Are you expecting someone?” I ask.
“Sort of,” says Clark. “So, how is it out there?”
“A little windy,” I say.
He smirks, glances at the door again. Then he turns abruptly, leans close, and says, matter - of - factly:
“This is a really shitty place.”
“Del? Del, right?”
“This place – McKinley Kantor – is a truly shitty, shitty, awful place.”
“You don't want to work here. Trust me.”
“You'd be surprised,” I say, good - humored. “I've worked in some pretty shitty places!”
Clark stares at me, dead on.
“You worked at the same place for 20 years, Del.”
“Well. It had its shitty moments.”
“Not like here. Trust me.”
My twitch speeds up by about two seconds.
“Could we talk about the position?” I ask.
“Sure. What would you like to know?”
“Well, does it – is it – is the position –”
“The position, Del, is the exact same fucking thing you've done for your entire career. You're completely, perfectly qualified for it.”
“Sure. Of course. Abso - fucking - lutely. Del, come on. You saw the description. What's to talk about? It's not a complicated position. Right?”
He glances at my résumé. Not a look, a glance.
“You're dedicated, loyal, hard - working, committed, smart – smart – you are fucking smart, Del, right? A survivor! A self - starter. A game - player. Maybe not a leader of men –”
“Who cares?! It's not a leader of men position.”
“You're a consummate do - er, Del. Reliable. Trustworthy. You get the fucking job done.”
“Anyone could trust you to finish. To deliver. That's what you do.”
“Yes. That's right. I do.”
“Y'know what? I'd be a reference for you, Del! I just met you two - fucking - minutes ago, and I'd be a reference!”
“And yet – with all these excellent credentials – you would still never ever ever get this job. And you know why?”
“Because you're too fucking old, Del. That's why.”
I say nothing. I breathe. Balance. Be calm.
“You are. That's the program. Sorry. How old are you? Sixty? Sixty - something?”
“Fifty - six.”
“You look sixty – something.”
“It's been a long year.”
“I bet it fucking has. ”
And now Clark is up and looking out the door and coming back and leaning over the table.
“Makes no difference. You could be forty - five and you'd still be too fucking old. What you should do, Del – is go get a few stiff drinks , relax, and reflect on that great twenty year gravy train you had. And I hope you invested well. Because today, you are fucked.”
And that's it. For all I know this is illegal, unethical, something. But I make the professional gesture of checking my watch, and pulling back my papers. And then Clark slaps his hand down on my résumé.
“What are you doing?” he asks.
“I – I have another interview at –”
“I – ”
“Bullshit, Del. You don 't have another interview.”
“You seem like you're busy.”
“Not at all. As a matter of fact – ” and he gets up and looks out the door again. “I'm about to have an insane amount of free time. Honestly , Del – i s this not the worst job interview you've ever had ?”
“It's … pretty up there,” I say.
“You should mention it to your recruiter. She – She?”
“She really fucked you up this time.”
“Clark,” I ask. “Do you actually work here?”
“Up to about an hour ago, yes,” he says.
“So – are you hiding?”
“In a manner of speaking. I'm not a go - quietly - guy, Del. Not my nature.”
“I would've guessed that.”
The twitch recedes.
“Is it your nature?” Clark asks.
“I – yes, actually. It is. I would say I am – I was – very much a go - quietly - guy.”
“I – I had optimism then. Hope. I imagined that sweeping, tectonic changes in my life might actually be for the best.”
“And what did that get you?”
“Twelve months of Cobra.”
“And how long all together now?”
“Eighteen months and counting.”
“Mother of fucking God.”
“Still have hope?”
“I – ”
And Clark actually looks at me. He shuts up and doesn't prepare to interrupt. For a few seconds, he simply listens , which was the highlight of my day, up to that point.
“Yes,” I say. “Yes. I actually do have hope."
“Yes. Not much. A modicum.”
“And that's about it.”
“Well, you are a warrior.”
“Hate young people?”
“I do. Fucking hate ‘em. All of ‘em! You hate young people?”
“I – sometimes. But I'm trying not to.”
“I'm not. I hate ‘em. I might not hate ‘em tomorrow. But probably. That's who's taking my job, y'know? ”
“They actually admitted to me, this morning, that they had made this douchebag an offer. I'm not even out the door yet, and they tell me this.”
“That seems very unprofessional. You might have a – ”
“I don't have shit, Del. You know that, right? I don't have shit. Fifteen years. Four regimes. And y'know – I'd've done it, too. I have done it. Fired old guys. Not because they were old. No, no! Unproductive. Difference of opinion. Bullshit. They were old.”
“I mean, okay – but I don't look that old. Seriously. How old do I look?”
I make another polite watch glance.
“C'mon,” he says. “Tell me. How old do I look?”
“Fifty - nine?”
“How old are you?”
“Fifty - nine.”
“It's been a real pleasure meeting you,” I say and get up.
But Clark backs up hard against the door, blocking the only exit.
“Contrary to how this looks or feels, Del,” he says, “this is not a hostage situation.”
“Do you know,” he says, a far - off liquidy gaze in his eyes, “do you know what eight percent of all foreclosed homeowners do before they relinquish their homes? And, by the way, the eight percent is a New York state statistic, and frankly its a few years old. I have no idea what the current national statistic is. But regarding eight percent of all recent New York foreclosed homeowners. You know what they do before they vacate?”
“And these, I add, are normal, natural, healthy, average, good, honest, middle - class, upper - middle - class people, Del. Not criminals or squatters. These are just good, decent, honest regular folks who have been, well… fucked. Fucked just beyond belief – all over the place. Eight percent. Thousands and thousands of people. You know what they do?”
“What?” I say.
And Clark takes a run at me. And I flinch, but quickly realize it's not me he's running at; it's the wall near me. And he bashes the right heel of his brilliant, shiny $300 wing - tip shoes squarely into the wall with the full force of a stocky 220 lb man. He kicks again and again. Malevolently. Mindlessly. Without rhythm or a beat. Again. Again. The plaster and paint crack. This mild, poorly lit meeting room that was just sitting here not bothering anyone. Again he kicks, creating black scruff marks and holes in his futile futile rage. And the leather on his beautiful right shoe rips, his heel shredding to the point where he's kicking with his own heel – his flesh and blood heel – and he swivels and begins with the other foot, the other shoe, other heel. His fists clench, his face beet red. Clark is alive and goddammit he's not going quietly.
I watch for a second, surprised that no one, in all this time, has ever interrupted us. HR has not come to check on us or escort Clark quietly out of the office. Even now, with all the noise and ruckus, no one looks in. The holes will be replastered, repainted. Go ahead. Let him get whatever it is out of his system. Life goes on.
And in a few minutes, an hour, a week, Clark will start becoming me. Perhaps he already has.
And I take advantage of the frenzy and slip out. And as I head to the elevator bank, past cheerful receptionists, I hear the faint thud - thud - thudding of Clark's heel against the wall.
Down on the street, I feel cheated, stressed, sick. I have nowhere to go. So, I head downtown to Washington Square Park and do something I haven't done in thirty years, and what I do comes surprisingly natural to me. And then I head home.
On the train, I call Matt.
“I've decided to rewrite the ending,” I say. “I'm not going to kill Nick. Not yet, anyway.”
“That's great!” says Matt. “That's really terrific.”
“Thank you. Also, I've decided I'm going to leave the writing group. It's got nothing to do with you. Really. I just need to get my head together. Do less for awhile. A ll for the best.”
“I'm sorry to hear that,” says Matt. “I think you've really got something.”
“Thank you. ”
“I hope that when you finish, Del, you'll let me see how it turns out.”
“Mm. No,” I say. “I don't think so.”
“Del?” says Claire, coming into the attic. “What's that smell?”
She looks at me in disbelief.
“Is that a joint?”
“It is,” I say. “Want some?”
“No! What are you doing? At least open a window! Jesus!”
She waves at the air and opens a window.
“Claire – “
“Please join me.”
“No! Del – “
“Do you have any reason not to join me? Do you have anything better to do?”
“Of course – ”
“Claire. Sit down and join me.”
What I love most about Claire is her lack of resistance when there's no good reason to resist. At the moment, we had nowhere to be, no adult children to fret over, no urgent plans for the evening or morning or even the next day. There was simply no good reason not to smoke pot. So, we did.
And then - as we sat there - I suddenly found myself crying uncontrollably, like an eight-year-old.
“I lost money. ”
“I lost a lot of money – ”
“No. No, months ago. About a year ago – when this first started. When I got that first payout check – ”
“Del – ”
“We had so much money, Claire. We had such a payday, suddenly, it didn't seem real. And I never play the markets. Never. And I thought, shit, what the hell, right? There was so much. And I did it. I put it in. And the market fell so quickly. And I thought – hey – it's just a fluke – it fell – so, now's the time to buy! Right? And I put more in, Claire. More! Like an idiot – I had no idea what I was doing. I wasn't – I couldn't think this far ahead – ”
“From – from – ”
“Total. Beginning to end.”
“Twelve thousand. Twelve thousand – and then I moved it all back into bonds and money markets. And I lied and told you that we made less than I originally thought. And I – I fucked it all up, Claire! Twelve thousand dollars – ”
“It doesn't matter, Del. You thought it was best at the time. You wanted better for us.”
“I'm not a gambler.”
“Del. Shh. Everything's fine. ”
“I – ”
“I'm so sorry, Claire. I'm so sorry about everything.”
“I know. I know. I forgive you, Del. It doesn't matter. It really doesn't matter. You meant well. ”
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
And I sleep. Eight hours. Ten hours. Fourteen. I sleep, solid. The sleep of a child.
And when I wake the next day –
The twitch is gone.
words: Alex Bernstein , New Jersey (Prom on Mars)
image: 'Webber Street' -
Jean Morris, UK (tasting rhubarb)
a younger balance:
From Eden to Erie with Friends (#18)