The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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For once Travis was honest with his doctor: the headaches started after a long day of sex with his ex-wife’s hairdresser, then returned when he tried lifting a barbell at the gym, and finally staggered him with a burst of crushing pain as he uncorked a bottle of Bordeaux on New Year’s Eve.
It might be nothing, the doctor said: tension, dehydration. On the other hand, it could be an aneurysm about to burst.
“I see,” Travis said. He sat on the examining table in a paper gown, feeling like a child.
“We’ll need a CT scan to know for sure.” His doctor had this habit, or maybe it was a gift, of sounding sympathetic and unconcerned at the same time, as though whatever they were discussing couldn’t be more worrisome than a sprained ankle. “I’d say there’s a 98 . . .” He scratched his beard, glanced at his watch. “Well, let’s say a 95 percent chance you’re fine.”
The earliest appointment for a CT scan was three weeks away. The delay struck Travis as obscene: Three weeks of wondering whether his brain might explode?
“I’m going to Fort Lauderdale next Thursday,” he said. “What about planes, altitude, air pressure?”
He didn’t understand enough about aneurysms to craft a clear, meaningful question. Really, not understanding what he was talking about had been the great problem of his entire life.
“Fort Lauderdale!” the doctor said. “Family visit?”
Travis shook his head. “The ex-wife’s hairdresser.”
The doctor nodded to indicate that he’d reached his personal limit for patient small talk and shook Travis’s hand.
“Flying should be no problem,” he said confidently, “unless I’m completely misreading your symptoms. But no sex until the scan. Doctor’s orders.”
Travis had met the hairdresser at his ex-wife’s annual holiday party. He still went back to New York every December for this event, which they used to host together as a married couple and which now took place in the townhouse she’d bought in Cobble Hill. He marveled at the way their paths had diverged: hers into happiness and success, his into some kind of 1990s indie movie about a hapless loser who’d lost control over his life. It wasn’t that he wanted to get back together with her. He just wanted to know how they’d ended up in such radically different worlds.
But sometimes their worlds still overlapped. A strange, unlikely trend had developed where he kept getting into brief affairs with people on the periphery of her social life, people he hadn’t known while they’d been married — her coworker, her tennis partner, and now her hairdresser.
At first Travis’s ex-wife was mildly annoyed by this, but then it became like one of those stand-up punch lines the comedian revisits a dozen times. She and Travis were actually very fond of each other, and the divorce had greatly improved their relationship. They’d gotten married too young but realized it before any permanent resentment had set in. The day they signed their divorce papers, they went out for a criminally expensive seafood dinner in Midtown and then had their best sex in years.
Now she was in a relationship again, and he was adrift in a second bachelorhood, fucking her acquaintances. He wasn’t sure what drew these women to him. Secretly he hoped his ex-wife had told them all wonderful things about him, but he knew it was probably just that these women were deep into their thirties, like him, and willing to take a chance on anyone with no criminal record or crackpot political obsessions. He served mostly as an undemanding placeholder between more serious romantic candidates. The hairdresser had just split with her boyfriend (who was “boring as gluten-free toast,” she said) when she’d spirited Travis away from the holiday party to her bedroom in Fort Greene and attacked him with the abandon of someone recovering from two years of mediocre sex. They spent twenty straight hours in bed, getting to know each other, barely sleeping — that kind of thing. It was apparently all he had to offer women these days. There was never any danger of things becoming serious, because he had no money.
Fort Lauderdale had been the hairdresser’s idea. She needed a vacation and would pay for the whole trip: four days at an Airbnb bungalow near the beach, seventy degrees and sunny while the Northeast froze. Travis had said yes, of course, because he had nothing better to do, but now he felt guilty about the doctor’s strict no-sex orders. Clearly the hairdresser had expectations.
On the plane she read Entrepreneur, something he hadn’t known real people did. She said a small-business owner needed to keep up with current trends, though at the moment he told her the bad news, she was taking a personality quiz.
“What about oral?” she asked.
“I don’t see why not,” he replied.
“Or we could try, like, really slow sex, like they do at those yoga retreats.”
He was only half listening, trying to sense whether hurtling through the atmosphere at thirty thousand feet was doing anything terrible to the blood vessels in his head.
“It wouldn’t be a bad way to die, really,” he said.
“Oh, you’ll be fine. You don’t have that kind of luck.”
“I have the worst luck of anyone I know.”
“Right,” she said. “That’s what I meant. What did you think I meant?”
The hairdresser had bad hair. This had to be a deliberate choice on her part, some kind of statement. Maybe an indifference to one’s own hair was the mark of a truly elite hairdresser. Anyway, he knew she was good at what she did, because his ex-wife’s hair always looked amazing, and also because the hairdresser owned two upscale salons in gentrified neighborhoods with gobsmacking rents, places where he might wander for hours and never find an affordable sandwich. She was a cheerful woman, a Midwest transplant, pretty but rugged, her body designed for working on a farm between rugby tournaments. His ex-wife had been surprised when he’d gone home with her. The tennis partner and the coworker had seemed more his type. But what Travis was learning about himself was that he didn’t have a type. He could fall in love with anybody for a month or two.
When the plane landed, it was suddenly summer. As the cab took them down a highway above a valley of mega-malls, and then a more vacation-appropriate avenue of palm trees, she read Travis the personality-test questions aloud, and he answered as best he could. The magazine told him he needed more motivation and initiative if he expected to be successful at his chosen endeavors. He couldn’t exactly argue.
Upon arriving at the bungalow, he learned something else about himself: if there was a 5 percent chance that fucking his ex-wife’s hairdresser might kill him, he was perfectly willing to take that risk.
In the morning they had sleepy sex, which gave him a headache, but it didn’t feel fatal. Afterward she dozed off, and he took his writing notebook out to the patio. The backyard looked like the suburban yards of his childhood, only he could smell the ocean somewhere nearby.
Technically Travis was still a poet, though he hadn’t written any poems in a couple of years and hadn’t published any in even longer. He feared he’d plateaued after a series of small successes, and this feeling that he would never achieve anything greater was wearing him down. By day he was an adjunct professor at a college in western Massachusetts, and by night he drank cheap Scotch alone in his apartment above a bowling alley and read the poetry of his more successful friends and acquaintances in magazines and journals. His students were all mesmerized by their phones while he warned them about the dangers of comma splices and ran a hand over his bald spot. Sometimes when he told people about his life, he felt like he was dictating a suicide note.
So here he was at a brand-new latitude: change of scenery, fresh cup of coffee, geckos scurrying up the white stucco walls while inside lay his new quasi girlfriend, whom he’d successfully fucked without killing himself. Now, why couldn’t he write? He could make words appear on the page, sure, but it was like making a shopping list, one adjective or noun after another. The effort seemed to poison his intentions the longer he kept at it.
He went for a walk down the wide, pale streets, the bungalows neatly arranged in rows, manageable units of human experience. In a place like this the concept of retirement suddenly made sense to him: give up striving, settle down in your final dwelling, maybe take some piano lessons, and wait for the end as comfortably as possible. Though, of course, to do that he would need to pay off his student loans and start saving money, which meant retirement remained safely in the realm of things that happened only to other people.
After the hairdresser got up, they biked over an arcing bridge, the canal sparkling lazily below, and then all at once the ocean was there: on their right, the abandoned beach; on their left, a long stretch of restaurants and bars with hundreds of empty chairs out on the sidewalk. Where were all the people, the cruise ships unloading the bourgeois masses into the gift shops and tacky bars? He felt like they’d come all this way only to arrive at a resort for castaways and ghosts.
The restaurants were basically the same boozy cafeteria repeated dozens of times with increasingly hideous color schemes. They settled on one that offered twenty-four-ounce margaritas in pink plastic chalices — “Mega-ritas!!!” the menu shrieked. While they drank, the hairdresser tapped out missives on her phone. This compulsion to multitask was characteristic of his ex-wife and her circle, which was fine with Travis because he had the beach to look at, beautiful and sad, the lonesome stacks of lounge chairs waiting to be rented, the abandoned lifeguard huts like alien outposts.
“Nice, huh?” the hairdresser said, following his gaze. “Of course all this is going to be underwater in fifty years.”
He looked at his enormous drink with its loopy blue straw. The last days of the Mega-rita.
“Would you rather die in a world where everything’s getting better or everything’s going to hell?” he asked.
“Going to hell, I guess. I’d hate to think I was missing out on all the good stuff.”
He sipped his drink. “My great fear is that they will discover the secret of eternal life the day after I die. Or maybe they’ll announce it the day before, but it won’t be available for twenty-four hours. I’ll be the last person in the history of the world to die of old age.”
“My great fear is that Sheila can’t handle the booking while I’m away.” She whooshed a text into the ether with a tap of her thumb.
How much simpler the life of the entrepreneur seemed! Too busy to worry about death, whereas worrying about death was all that kept him busy.
By noon the sun had staked out its place in the sky, an enormous heat lamp turned up to max. They had foolishly ordered another round of Mega-ritas in the futile hope of getting buzzed, but the drinks were mostly sugar water that sloshed around in his stomach and made his throat itch. They had so little to talk about when they weren’t in bed, where conversation was basically just something to do while their libidos recharged.
Time for the beach. She called across the empty patio to the waiter, who understandably seemed to have forgotten he was at work, and gave him her credit card. Travis felt a little ashamed that everything was on her dime, but he was too broke for noble gestures.
“OK!” she said cheerfully. As she got up, her phone spilled out of her purse and hit the concrete. The glowing screen shattered into abstract art.
“Shit, shit, shit.” She poked and swiped at the ruined phone, but nothing worked.
“Oh, no,” he said. But it felt like justice.
“Well, I guess we’re officially on vacation.” She smiled bravely. They crossed the avenue and spread their towels on the sand. He felt pale and pudgy, his winter body ambushed by this false July, but he was happy enough lying there listening to the waves. He gave her his phone so she could do whatever phone things needed doing, but she soon got frustrated — his screen was too small, his service was too slow, she didn’t have her contacts, and there was some problem with the contractor who was working on what would be salon number three.
“I know this makes me the worst,” she said, “but I think I need a functional phone before I can relax.”
He didn’t object. Her stress was stressing him out. She summoned a ride with his phone to go find a phone-repair shop.
“Hopefully this’ll only take an hour or so,” she said. She seemed undecided as to what kind of kiss good-bye this departure warranted and settled for a peck on his shoulder.
Once she was gone, Travis walked along the shore, his feet sinking into the shiny hem of sand as the waves swept over them. There actually were a few people around, swimming, sunbathing, jogging. Sunscreen and sweat kept running into his eyes. A monstrous cruise ship chugged along the horizon, hell-bent on ruining everything.
He decided to try swimming. Back in his married days he was notorious among his ex-wife’s family for being a terrible swimmer, lacking the strength for long distances, unable to make it even to the first buoy on the bay-side beach at Cape Cod where her parents spent summers. (When his mother-in-law thought someone was crapping out too early at a party, she’d say: “Don’t go all Travis on me.”) He knew what his problem was. In fact he was having the problem right now as he labored into the waves: He didn’t know how to use his muscles efficiently. Each limb kind of did its own thing, leaving him out of breath within minutes.
From past the breakers, the waterfront looked like an extraordinarily ambitious mall food court. The high-rise hotels shimmered with borrowed light. The tide bobbed him farther out to sea at its own leisurely pace. If he knew how to float on his back, he might drift forever, but he was already tired, so he started back.
Was it his erratic swimming that triggered the headache? It hit all at once, harder than any he could remember, like being kicked by the sun. “Ow,” he said with a little laugh, though the moment he made these sounds he realized he meant them as a spell to ward off his greatest fear. An aneurysm, the Internet had told him, could render you incapacitated or dead within minutes. He might wind up underwater off the Florida coast, the ocean flooding his lungs. He fought his way toward the beach, struggling for every yard. Finally a wave carried him over whatever invisible impasse he was striving against, and he was in the breakers, where it was shallow enough to stand, if only his legs had any strength. Things were getting blurry. At the tide line he lay down and gently pressed his fingers to his head, as though this would tell him anything about what was happening to him. He kept assuring himself he was fine — so far in his life, this mantra had a 100 percent success rate against death.
The hairdresser, Travis thought at first, but slowly the silhouette cohered into a stranger. A woman wearing a pair of giant white sunglasses was leaning over him, mercifully blocking out the sun. He didn’t know how long he’d been there, or if he’d passed out, or for that matter if he was still in the same body. He readily ceded all authority to this person. She handed him a fancy water bottle from her oversized purse, and he found he was able to sit up. His head still throbbed, but he could see again. The water tasted like lemons and hot plastic.
“How long have I been here?”
“Long enough I was worried you were dead,” she said. “Every now and then you hear stories of bodies washing up.” She asked him his name, the day of the week, whether he had chest pains. Her mother was a nurse, she said, so she knew a few things. “Maybe I should take you to the hospital. It’s no trouble. I’m on my way home anyway.”
Then he was in her convertible, his wet trunks on the leather seat, his body shedding sand all over the tidy passenger side. Fort Lauderdale streaked past, lurid and spacious and green. Where did people like her come from, random Samaritans who find strangers helpless on the beach and happily ruin their upholstery getting them to safety? She was younger than he’d thought at first, practically a teenager. She told him about all the people her mother had seen come into the hospital with minor symptoms only to be dead within the hour. The topic may have been morbid, but it was exactly what he needed to hear.
Somewhere along the way, he remembered that all his things were still on the beach: wallet, phone, clothes, shoes. The hairdresser would probably think he had vanished into the sea, which he almost had.
The hospital looked like an airport, enormous and pale, with wide swaths of tinted glass that reflected back some greenish nightmare version of the sky. In the waiting room nobody seemed to find him strange, a barefoot man in a bathing suit, shivering in the air conditioning. The Samaritan stayed a few minutes to help him get signed in, and then she wished him good luck and left with a casual briskness, as if taking washed-up strangers to the hospital were an everyday occurrence for her. He’d never even learned her name.
Travis finally found himself sitting before a doctor, explaining his plight, and a CT scan was arranged within minutes. Why something that was impossible in western Massachusetts was so easy in Fort Lauderdale, he never found out. On hearing that he’d been instructed not to have sex for three weeks, the doctor gave Travis the sly eye: “How long did you make it?”
“Oh, about a week.”
The doctor seemed impressed. He took a nurse aside and pointed back at Travis. “A week! Not bad, right?”
The results were all negative, which filled him with such relief he didn’t listen to a word of the doctor’s detailed explanation of all the charts and images.
“It could still be an aneurysm,” the doctor said, “but the chances are, like, 2 percent.”
“How do we get it to zero percent?”
“I could give you a spinal tap, but those are extremely painful, and there’s a small risk of permanent nerve damage.”
“Two percent it is,” Travis said.
The nurse told him he could keep the hospital gown and the flimsy white slippers until someone brought his clothes — he’d made up a lie about a friend being on the way to pick him up, anything to get out of there as soon as possible — and in this attire he slipped back out into the world.
His favorite novels and movies almost all had one thing in common: at some point the hero takes a moment to look around and assess his life, then just walks away from it all. Hops on a plane to Europe. Gets in the car and drives until he doesn’t recognize his own country. Travis thought he used to be a person like that, but what he wanted now was just a moment when he could see himself clearly amid the static of his life, like one of those Magic Eye posters where a sailboat appears if you stare at it long enough.
People politely gave him a wide berth as he passed. At least the breeze felt nice through the back of the gown, and the customers crowding the open windows of Smitty’s Bar ’n’ Grill seemed to be getting along, and the squad of overeager high-schoolers offering car washes for charity across the street were gleefully oblivious to what life would someday do to them.
Travis had no idea which way the beach was from here, let alone the Airbnb. If he could find a phone, he could call the hairdresser to come rescue him — only he couldn’t recall her number. He still knew the numbers of his childhood friends by heart, information as dead and useless as Latin, but not hers. Then he remembered. His ex-wife. He’d met her at a time when you needed to remember a woman’s number if you ever wanted to see her again.
He came across no pay phones in his wanderings, but he did hear someone having a one-sided conversation on a playground. Wandering through the gate, he found a man in Bermuda shorts and sandals sitting on the end of the slide.
“It all starts with pineapples,” the man said into a phone even larger than the hairdresser’s, “but where does it end? You don’t know. The president doesn’t know.”
Taking a seat on the lopsided merry-go-round, Travis watched the man talk. He was almost certainly homeless, his toes and fingers dirty with a kind of soot that looked like it would never come off, his Miami Heat jersey stained and torn. He kept squinting and nodding in a way that came off as philosophical and judicious.
“Well, anyway, I’m sorry about your daughter,” he said, and he hung up. When he saw Travis, he apparently took him for someone he knew but couldn’t quite remember. “My maaaan,” he said, hesitant but friendly.
“We meet again,” Travis said, trying to follow the spirit of things. “Hey, think I could borrow your phone for a minute?”
“Wait. I don’t know you,” the man said. Then he grinned. “So you must be all right.”
He tossed his phone to Travis, who barely managed to catch it. It was nicer than any phone he’d ever owned.
“Unlimited data,” the man said, lying back on the slide. “But I’m waiting on a call, so . . .”
Travis nodded, and with his feet he wheeled the merry-go-round away from the man so he could have the illusion of privacy. Now he was looking at a faded mural depicting children of all ethnicities and nationalities playing joyously together. They looked happier than he’d ever been.
As soon as his ex-wife answered, he remembered the time he’d sung “Moon River” to her at karaoke.
“I’ve had quite the day,” he said.
She burst into a concerned and somewhat chastising interrogation, as if he were a child out way past curfew. The hairdresser had been looking all over for him and was on the verge of calling the police. Travis wasn’t listening to his ex-wife’s words, just the sound of her voice. It had been a couple of years after they’d split up when he’d found himself singing karaoke with her and a bunch of her friends in a sticky Korean bar in the East Village. “Moon River” was a song that used to come on the CD player when they would make dinner together during their marriage — or, rather, when she would make dinner while he stood around mixing drinks and complaining about work or the news. Whenever it came on, he would take her hand and do a slow dance with her, crooning the sappy lyrics that nonetheless broke his heart. At the karaoke bar, standing up there alone in front of all those people, he listened to the song’s plinking opening bars and then, like diving into freezing water, threw himself into the absurdity of it, singing the opening verse totally off-key, warbling his way through with grand gestures and exaggerated emotions, and somewhere in the laughing crowd he saw her grinning at his idiocy, and then she was going for the other microphone to join him for the second verse, as though it were their shared, stupid destiny to sing it together.
How had they ever been so beautiful? This was what he wanted to ask her now. But he had learned a long time ago never to remind people about moments like this, moments where you felt you understood each other completely, because the other person never remembered it the same. For them, it wasn’t anything at all. To keep the moment alive, you had to keep it to yourself.
Now Travis lay back on the merry-go-round and sang, “Mooooon . . . riiii-ver.”
“Oh, boy,” she said.
“Wider than a mile . . .”
“Do you need me to, like, come get you?”
He closed his eyes, afraid he would weep unforgivable tears of self-pity. The merry-go-round shuddered slightly, and he realized the homeless man had taken a seat on the other side.
“The good news,” Travis said, “is there’s only a 2 percent chance I have an aneurysm.”
He started to tell her all of it. He missed telling her about his life. But someone on the other end was laughing and calling her name. Where was she? What time was it? He felt like he should wrap it up.
“Anyway, we’ll all be underwater soon,” he said.
“You never were a good swimmer.”
“Not for lack of trying.”
The merry-go-round creaked into motion, and Travis thought it only polite to help the homeless man in his endeavor, pushing with his own feet, turning in a slow circle, the sky above perfectly blue, the sun hidden away somewhere behind the buildings.
“I think I love your hairdresser a little.”
“No, you don’t.”
“You’re right, I don’t! I keep waiting for her personality to show up.”
“Well, I’m not the one who ran off to Florida with her. I’m just in it for the haircuts.”
“God, your hair,” he said. “Have I told you lately I’m still in love with your hair?”
“You’re never going to tell me where she can find you, are you?”
He told her the name of the hospital. He would wait there. He would tell the hairdresser the whole story that night over a lavish dinner. She would find it hilarious. Her pettiness about the phone! His indifference to her leaving! Later they would drink cocktails by a fire pit on the roof and talk about deeply personal memories they hadn’t told anyone in years, reinventing themselves, trying out new perspectives on their tired old stories, which he thought was maybe the whole point of other people. And then he would head back home, where everything would be covered with snow, bitter winds rattling the windows of his apartment, the January streets empty. But none of this mattered now.
His ex-wife sighed. “OK, my huckleberry friend. You’re going to be fine.”
It was practically the mantra of their divorce. He knew exactly what she looked like as she said it. He knew how she was shaking her head. They might have this same conversation again in ten years. Already he looked forward to it.
In the October 2019 Correspondence, Name Withheld canceled a subscription to The Sun because she or he was offended by the word fuck in Boomer Pinches’s short story “Drowning for Beginners” [August 2019]. It is a word. It carries the weight one lets it.
I was once outraged by such profanity. Now, as I approach my sixth decade, little offends me. I’ve lived through much worse, wrapped in the word love.
I was captivated by Boomer Pinches’s story “Drowning for Beginners,” but I was taken aback when the protagonist, Travis, was examined and given a CT scan at a hospital — with no wallet in hand. When we make an appearance at a medical facility in this country, the first thing we are asked is, “Do you have insurance?” If only we were all fortunate enough to have Travis’s experience.
I am sorry to say this, but please cancel my subscription. I loved Mark Leviton’s interview with Paul Chaat Smith and thought I had made a good choice — until I started reading Boomer Pinches’s story “Drowning for Beginners” [August 2019]. I will not put up with a fine magazine like The Sun using the F-word.
I’m sorry you allow such disgusting words into your otherwise interesting publication.