Kyle Dillon Hertz | Fiction

BACKPACKERS

My daughter and I stood outside my old apartment on the Upper East Side. I couldn’t believe it. The chandelier was still the same one from when I lived there in 1981 with my then girlfriend, now wife. That chandelier had shorted every other week. Our upstairs neighbor, Rama, a “spiritual yoga” instructor who “taught the body to bend so the soul could stretch” had spilled so much sweat on her wooden floor that our ceiling leaked. The chandelier sizzled and burnt out, and, later, appeared to me in a dream, saying, “It was that yoga music, man, I just couldn’t take it. I heard the flutes and bongos and was like, ’That’s it,’ and decided to die.” Now thirty-six years later in 2017 the same lights reached down from the ceiling like an arthritic hand, and I can remember Rama’s advertisements word-for-word.

“Why did you ever leave it?” Claire asked.

“I don’t know,” I told her, but we should have bought the apartment. My wife had a therapy practice and we both wanted kids, so we moved upstate for more space. We’ve got a house. Two kids. No parents and a dead dog. Every now and then we take a vacation to an island off the Carolina coast or visit Claire in San Diego, where she lives now. We get sunburnt and leave early. We drive by the old places we used to live and think about what would happen if we never left. And then we call Rama a loon.

My old friend Theo, whom I hadn’t spoken to in about as many years, found me online and said that he had a layover in New York City for a day. Did I remember him? Did I want to grab breakfast? He sent eight folders of pictures from when we met in Europe. We had crossed paths while backpacking, hit it off, and traveled parallel to each other for some time. He invited me to his family’s cabin in Switzerland; I invited him and his girlfriend at the time, Beatrice, to crash on my couch in New York. Of course, I said, yes, let’s have breakfast, but I said some time had passed and he might not recognize me. I sent him side-by-side pictures of then and now. You and I both know what happens. In my defense, I work out six days a week now. I’ve got a six-pack at sixty. Theo, it turned out, looked different too. I half-expected him to still be trim, stoned, backpacking. I don’t know. I can’t explain it. In reality, he looked like a retired Santa Claus on holiday in a fishing boat. I invited my daughter, Claire, to the breakfast and she insisted we take the subway down from 79th, the pitstop where I once lived, to Penn Station. She was staying with us for a couple weeks since her accident.

When Claire talks to me I know she’s trying to take it all in. I’m ten years past the age when my own father died of a heart attack in his law office. The secretary found him clutching his chest like he’d heard a song that had moved him to tears. She’d seen him like that often, clutching his chest and in tears, since they were having a somewhat secret affair. In fact, that’s the reason I’ve never had an affair at the office. You never want the other woman to be the one to tell your wife that you’ve died. My mother held that grudge until she died. Even after her own second marriage, she talked about the floozy in my dad’s office and his bad manners. Manners, as if, cheating with the wrong person included a set of guidelines.

I thought that after I turned the age he was when he died that I would feel some monumental weight of time, like each second would be a reminder. That didn’t happen. The initial depression came and went and then days passed slowly while years passed quickly and now we are here.

Claire apologized for texting and reclined into the orange subway seat. A man in a black tie pissed himself and Claire nudged me to look. I whispered to her, “When I lived here people sold crack right on the train. People got shot. We smoked cigarettes in the car and headed between them for a breather.” She looked disgusted. “I bought blow from Benny on 59th.” A great pleasure now is finding ways to shock my unshockable kids.

“Wow,” she said, “I used to get blow from Benny on 23rd.”

“I wonder if it’s the same Benny.”

“Probably not. The little bag had labels that said, Not Your Father’s Blow.”

The stop came and we needled through a group of people waiting to get on board. All of the underground smelled like a bathroom, and when we surfaced to the streets they smelled like a sewer, as if we were going deeper underground instead of coming to the street. Claire pulled her teal Members Only jacket closed as the wind blew at us. She pointed at the restaurant beneath some scaffolding and took my arm.

We arrived at The Hot Plate. The interior was an ugly dark wood that brought to mind clinical depression or seasonal affective disorder, something drab and dispirited, not brunch. Light skimmed the windows like it does on the scummy lakes in Central Park. It was homey in the sense of rotting, abandoned cabins having once been a home. I tried to find Theo based off his current-day picture, but nobody here looked like him. I told Claire I had no idea really what he looked like these days and she pointed to a man in a cobalt-blue suit, drinking a martini alone  at the bar. It was Sunday at 9:30am.

“How do you know?”

“That’s him,” she said, smiling, as Theo turned around, ruddy and beaming, both the same and not. And then Claire said, “He’s definitely drunk.”

“What’s the time in Switzerland right now?”

Claire put her hand on my back and pushed me forward. Theo swiveled and did not seem extraordinarily wasted, just a little happier than he should have been. What’s the effect of a drink? A layover? We hugged and sat down together at a little round table. Theo said that Claire and I looked so much alike, though Claire was adopted, so this was untrue. And her demeanor was closer to my wife’s than mine. Claire always had the plotted posture of a magician halfway into escape—a darted, suspicious sensibility. When she was little, we had to call the police on her a few times for going missing—she’s the one with mercury eyes in a t-shirt and shorts, all year long—though she always turned back up. We had questions: Claire, why are you covered in dirt? How did that start bleeding? Where are your shoes?

“Have you been watching?” Theo asked. The tvs were loud, subtitled. The president had shut down the borders for anybody attempting to come in. The airports filled with protests, signs, sleepy-eyed children on their parents’ shoulders. Chants and movements. Listless police. It looked like an amateur interpretive dance, at any moment a curtain might descend. News 7 interviewed an Iraqi war translator, stuck between countries, between war and a ruined promise. “It’s unnatural.”

“Can you imagine any other species doing this?” Claire said, “The monarchs decide, like, alright America, we’re staying in Mexico this year. These politics are too gone, even for us. That hedgehog just won’t come out this year. He’s like, peace guys. You fucked up.”

The news showed a montage of wreckage while Theo spoke about his job at a remarketing agency, how if you are attempting to purchase a bathing suit but don’t follow through with it, the ads from that website will follow you to the next site. It’s proven to work. Behind him: Palmyra’s ruined amphitheatre. A mudslide in Colorado. Bleached coral reefs. Meanwhile, the ticker spoke of basketball games and dirty affairs. How much this new superhero movie made. There’s a lot of money in it. That some tortoise rebounded its entire species: LAST MALE TORTOISE IN GALAPAGOS REPRODUCES 800 OFFSPRING.

“That’s bad genetics,” Claire said. “Nobody sneeze in the Galapagos. The less genetic variation the more the species is likely to die. Environmental vulnerability. That’s why it’s bad to marry your cousin.”

“Good to know,” Theo said, flagging the waiter with his palm. We ordered pancakes, waffles, mimosas. Sunlight cast the lettered restaurant name in shadow on our table. Theo had a dark stain on his suit jacket, which he still had not taken off. A navy ink stain. Blue on blue.

“You know, I’ve never seen you in a suit.”

“My baggage shipped around the world, accidentally, and now I have the smell of three countries’ worth of airports.” He grabbed my fist on the table, shook it a little. This was his stop between St. Lucia and Switzerland. He had done something with a boat down there. He did this burger-flipping motion and when he told stories he reached out across the entire table, which made it shake with his laughter. Yellow teeth. Brown gaps. Years stacked on years. I couldn’t exactly keep track of what he was saying. He treated me like we’d never stopped talking, and he treated Claire exactly the same way. The waiter, too. All of his communication was so easy and intimate. He took people on long sailing expeditions. He cooked all their meals. Fished for them. Dredged life from the black depths of the world right into their palms. Dozens of people a year. And me? What did I do? I guess you could say I was rotting like any other piece of meat, but I didn’t say that to him.

“How did you even meet?” Claire asked.

“Greece,” I said.

“Santorini, if I am remembering correct. Your father was alone and like that,” he said, snapping, “we start talking. Three weeks, was it? You, me, and Beatrice.”

“So what happened in Santorini that you won’t take Mom there?” She turned to Theo. “Whenever they talk about going away, she begs him to go to Greece. He won’t.”

Theo slapped the table. Forks clattered. Plates clanged.

“Oh, I know,” Theo said. “Jake was so excited for Greece—”

“They teach you all about it in school! The country that invented the whole Western world. Bullshit.”

“—and he gets there, and all that stuff is in ruins. The economy is destroyed. The country is unnerving. So we drink there until your father has enough and one night he starts screaming that we got to go, we got to go, and we take our Eurail passes and head off for Madrigas.”

“And you make us stop every other exit.”

“That’s how you do it. There’s a lot to miss.”

If I’m being honest I choked up. I don’t feel my age. I’m young, in a sense, I feel so young. Claire keeps me updated with what music is cool. Oh you like quad-hop, trop-pop, British minimalism? I’m more into fake rock and psych-hop. My wife and I go to house parties nearly every chance we get. When my daughter moved into her dorm, my wife passed out on the couch. She was that hungover. We make love with the lights on and call it fucking. I took Claire’s ex-boyfriend snowboarding and he broke his ankle. He couldn’t keep up. Then there’s the edibles on Metro North with my high school friends, laughing until we’re absolutely paranoid. I protest and scream, Fuck fascism. I know I’m in the end zone.

“So you didn’t marry Beatrice.”

“Oh no,” Theo said. “Beatrice moved to Hawaii with a man who sold something out of his car. Tiny instruments for domesticated animals. Trumpets and pianos and that sort of thing. He had a cat that played the harmonica. They actually, uh, forged while we were traveling in California to see Salvation Mountain.”

“I’ve been there,” Claire said. “What’s that sign say again?”

“God Never Fails.”

“That’s the one.”

“The man didn’t even have a name. It was something like a sound you made. Something between a deep breath and a huff. Anyway, we sold our van in Key West to a Navy guy with a bad feeling about him. We bought it for $3,500 with your father back in New York. Remember that, Jake? That was a lot of money back then! For every dollar, it was three francs. He gives us three thousand in cash and we got back to our motel room and I tell Beatrice, I got a bad feeling. So we took all that cash with us and went to the beach. When we came back that night, the whole place was turned over. I knew he was bad. And I can’t speak on her, but she said something like, I’m turning around. So we split the money in half and she went and got married. He’s got one arm. No lies.”

“But like that? No fight?” I was stunned. They had been traveling together for nearly a decade when I met them, Theo and Beatrice. “Were you—”

“Oh, I was happy for her. We were coming to that place where every time I talked about the future she spoke about wanting to die. You know how these things go. What was I to do? I look at it like this—”

Then he gave a somewhat bullshit speech on how you have choices to make in life and why plow a giraffe when you can fly thermometers. It sounded insane, but Claire nodded her head and leaned into him. Another round appeared at our fingertips. Claire sucked hers down and took a giant breath.

“I’m the same way,” he said. “I want, well, I wanted, to die—

“Claire,” I said, but Theo waved me down.

“—and I couldn’t think of one more thing to live for. And those things that they say, like, Don’t you feel lucky just to see a sunset?” Claire rolled her eyes and Theo clapped. “That’s garbage…”

And then Claire told him how she jumped off Sunset Cliffs in San Diego, which, very specifically, have warnings not jump off of due to the giant rocks below. You might as well jump off a building into the concrete. You might as well just take a bullet to the brain. Lucky for her—for all of us—she missed the rocks and broke an arm and a leg. She swam to this little patch of sand and boulders, screaming for help and help came.

“The doctors didn’t even know how I swam,” Claire told him, eating waffles while she spoke. The subtitles on the tv were telling me about how certain animals mate, gestation periods and so on. “But I wanted to swim.”

“Did you see that documentary?”

“No,” I said.

“Yes!” she said.

“She knows what I’m talking about,” Theo said. “It’s like, after you jump, you realize everything in your life can be fixed except for what you are about to accomplish.”

“Yes,” Claire said, again.

“May I ask what you jumped for?”

“I don’t have a great answer for that,” Claire said, “but I had just come to the place where the Earth started breathing me, drinking my blood, asking me for my water and I felt like I was doing nothing but giving over my life.”

Theo didn’t seem terrified. The orange juice curdled in my stomach. Theo, my old friend, the adventurer, single and traveling with a nasty sense of enlightenment, learning about what a shitty life my daughter had. How glamorous these thirty-six years have been for me. How wonderful, how beautiful. Why don’t we all just break up our lives and go sail around a boat and flip burgers and die completely alone. Why don’t we all just fucking jump? They even wanted the same type of burial: a green death where they put your rotting flesh in a biodegradable canvas sack; the only difference was that my daughter wanted to rot in a forest and Theo wanted to be eaten by fish.

“What about you, Jake?” Theo asked.

“Oh why don’t you guys just donate my body to a sex cult where they can bang me into eternity.”

“That’s illegal in Switzerland,” Theo said.

“I’m joking.”

Claire, wide-eyed, excused herself for the bathroom. I watched the television for a moment and Theo said, “She is exactly like you.”

“In what way?”

“She’s funny and a bastard.”

My shoulders fell. “She had a rough year.”

“Beatrice wished she could be here,” Theo said. “She couldn’t find you online, but told me to give you all her information.”

“I still can’t believe it,” I said. The tortoise returned to the television screen. They showed a little video of him mounting a female. She shook him off. Sad music played. Then a commercial came on where a naked, nipple-less robot predicted the future: there would be flying cars, teleportation, robostitutes, which was exactly what it sounded like, and lots of glass buildings.

“Okay,” Theo said, “one last story and then I must head back to the airport. International flights are a total disaster. They make you take off your shoes and walk where thousands of other people have walked. It’s too much.”

He told me a story that I lived through, meandering a little to talk about populism and renovating a house and something about skiing, but eventually he told me how I had traveled through Europe the exact wrong way. In America you can take a car and travel hundreds and hundreds of miles through cornfields and miss nothing. It’s built that way. He added that if he road tripped around America again, which he might and I should consider joining him, he would skip the middle and go right for the West Coast. In Europe I skipped hundreds of miles on trains when I should have walked more. History goes back more than a few centuries. The stones are old as God. In some places, you can feel it, the history, the weight of the whole thing.

“I know,” I told him, “I was the worst traveler, but I didn’t know any better.”

“It’s still there. Any time you come my way we will do it the way it should be done. Your wife can come and you can go hate Greece all over again. Santorini is much the same.”

Claire finally returned. “Sorry. I got distracted with that tortoise. It’s nuts.”

*

Later that night, after Claire went up to see a friend in Washington Heights whom she’d met in the hospital, I took the train home. Bright open windows collapsed into tiny yellow lights. Celia was on the phone with her sister, spelling out the word b-i-t-c-h and giggling, drinking some old red wine. She whispered something to her sister and hung up the phone, reaching across the white table to hold my hands. I told her the whole story from beginning to end. Celia said, “That’s why you hate Greece? Because you misunderstood the trajectory of history?” She laughed like you wouldn’t believe. She was a hitchhiker in her youth and had been married once before me in college. Every now and then I get the feeling like she knows so much more than me.

“That’s all you have to say?” I asked.

“What? I read a great book today.”

“About my day, I mean.”

“It’s nice to see old friends.”

“About Claire. She told everything.”

“People do what they do.”

“And our daughter?”

“She’ll do what she needs to do.”

“Aren’t you afraid?”

She scooted back her chair and stood up, went to pour herself some more wine but the bottle was empty. She dropped it into the plastic bag containing our recyclables that hung off the back screen door. Celia slid open the door and stood against the wooden railing overlooking our neighbor’s yard.

“Claire was throwing food into their backyard. Trying to attract raccoons by rolling carrots in sugar.”

“Great.”

“I went back there this morning to see if the carrots were there, or if they were gone. And they were gone.”

“It could have been squirrels.”

“Rabbits. Deer. Dogs. Cats. It’s impossible to know.”

I walked outside with her. Little red plane lights blinked in the sky above us.

“I’m very afraid,” Celia said, fiddling with an acorn that had landed on the wooden railing. “But, I think, if she wanted to, she would have.”

“She jumped.”

“There are surer ways. She’s home now. Eventually, she’ll leave. It’s nice that she’s here for now.”

Celia stumbled back inside to eat some crackers and rolled up deli meat. She rummaged in the fridge for a few more minutes and hummed a song to herself while I stared at her from the outside stairs. She took a deep breath and went into bed, where I met her after staring into the trees, trying to see if the raccoons were waiting, if they awaited anything at all. I snuck a carrot from the drawer and tossed it over.

In bed, we turned on the television and it seemed like the tortoise would not give up the spotlight. Even she said, “That fucker has been trying to get with the other girls all day long.” Celia couldn’t get pregnant. That’s true. Neither could her sister, but her sister had four miscarriages. Four. Celia had one, only one. We had one. I don’t know much about how that whole thing works, but I will tell you that she cried and I cried and then we sort of moved on. I don’t know why we ended up talking about that period. We also whispered about a slice of honeydew we had on our honeymoon and then about how Claire’s eyes look exactly like the Pacific ocean on a cloudy day. Maybe her eyes look like mine. They are a dull light blue that seem like a metallic gray. Even though she was adopted, we have that in common. A stranger could mistake our similarities as the consequence of blood. I wouldn’t correct them—at least, not out loud.

You know, I went to art school and ended up in direct mail which turned, after mail died out, into email marketing. My wife once married the love of her life and he turned out to be a joke, but then she found me and we’ve been together ever since. I even quit smoking cigarettes for her somewhere near the first Iraq war. I don’t expect to outlive Claire, that much is true, and I don’t love admitting it. And why then did all this come out that night? Why did we then start talking about her mother’s breast cancer and how back when we were first together you were supposed to drink strawberry milkshakes to make come taste better and how I had a dog that had a heart attack while chasing after a frisbee and she modeled as a baby for a department store whose owner took a shotgun to his entire family—you could look it up, it was in the news—and how Celia had food poisoning in Mexico City so bad in the first year of our marriage that her mother said I would never love her in the same way, which, actually, now that I think about it, is true because she screamed knock-knock jokes from the toilet to drown out the sounds of her disaster in there. The tortoise never gave up the spotlight. Eight hundred babies after the threat of extinction. Eight hundred, that’s right. Then we made love, like I told you we do, and, yes, we called it fucking, and, finally, we went to sleep.

Kyle Dillon Hertz attends NYU’s MFA program in fiction. He lives in Brooklyn.

2018-12-30T12:44:13+00:00