December 2010

Everything You Say Is the Most Interesting Thing I’ve Ever Heard

It had just begun to snow when I discovered my wife’s packed suitcase hidden in the back of the closet. She’d wedged it on the top shelf behind all my high school trophies. I didn’t poke around up there normally—I displayed my important trophies under track lighting in the living room—and only had that afternoon because I couldn’t find my shoe brush and thought, hey, you never know. I opened up the suitcase over the bed and saw her socks, shirts, even her underwear. I knew we’d hit a rough patch, but this? This I could not have foreseen. I put it back exactly as I’d found it.

I found Erica downstairs thumbing through a boating magazine at the kitchen island, an empty plate in arm’s reach littered with Panini crumbs like fallen snow. Her German shepherd Alfie sat folded up alongside her legs. He gave me only a cursory wag of his tail. Erica wore her bushy brown hair in a pony tail and I wanted nothing more than to scoop her up and kiss the freckled skin of her shoulder blades, to taste the salty tang of her skin. She sold real estate part time. I’d met her eight years earlier during the height of my glories and could not picture my life without her, the parade of empty years that would march on in her absence. I walked past her to the refrigerator and buttoned up my shirt. She always said I couldn’t express my feelings.

“Afternoon,” Erica said, her green eyes never straying from the magazine.

I searched the fridge for my lunch—she always kept leftovers since work kept me away from dinner. A simple pasta. Rotini with broccoli in a garlic butter sauce. I set it carefully in my briefcase atop the counter. She had a mug of lukewarm coffee going in the microwave for me.

“How was the book club?” I asked.

“Fine. Although I don’t think Sheila really understood the ending.” She paused here to turn a page. How could she talk to me in so nonchalant a manner considering what lurked in the bedroom closet? Was she trying to get caught? “Rasheed. Listen, do you have a minute? We need to talk.”

I looked at my watch. Not because I had any desire to know what time it was but because I wanted her to believe that I was vital, that I had terribly important places to be. “I have to get to work early. Can we do this when I get back?”

She sighed. “Fine. But right after, ok? This is important.”

I didn’t reply because it was unnecessary. I always came home directly after work, usually made it back by a quarter after nine. So we stood there alone in the kitchen until the microwave beeped at us, startling both Erica and I into the natural routines of what I thought was a pretty handsome life, goddamn it.

#

I worked at ASSSA: Academic Support Services for Student Athletes. The University of Pittsburgh carved out a narrow office inside their basketball stadium where student athletes received one-on-one tutoring. The administration had a lot riding on these kids and couldn’t have them going on academic probation and costing them millions. I was an Academic Counselor which meant I worked Monday through Friday one to nine. It’s a fancy title for someone who sits in a windowless office and reads student syllabi all night. It’s my job to text the students whenever they have homework due, and it’s difficult overseeing my teams, the baseball, softball and soccer kids, because the school has elected to treat them like children, to assume they aren’t even capable of knowing when their assignments are due. But I can relate. I used to be one of them, had been plucked from Cairo at eighteen after being recruited for swimming by Pitt. I knew how totally a sport could render all other activities useless, the type of singular focus athletics required.

Very few of my kids knew anything about my athletic career other than the barest of details. They didn’t know about the records. The second place finish in the Big East Championship. I’d heard envious stories about former Pitt athletes being recognized around town, how old fans would buy them drinks, a reminder of all those college perks. But that never happened to swimmers. Football players, basketball players, they all held out hope regardless of talent that they could make it to professional ball. They always possessed a certain kind of glory, a hypothetical future that swimmers could never attain. Our highest achievement was the Olympics, and if you weren’t already training for that by eighteen you were doomed to the NCAA, the minor leagues, a four-year window before your athletic career was suddenly and irrevocably forgotten. I had never planned for a life beyond the pool.

That night was particularly difficult to endure. Whenever a student barged in and complained about a two-hundred word response post they had to do, my mind drifted to Erica and her suitcase and what awaited me back home. I sat and sweated and chewed my pencils—I couldn’t even bring myself to eat her pasta, that potentially final gift—and at nine o’ clock while putting on my jacket, one of the English tutors entered my office. As an academic counselor, I didn’t actually teach the kids. The University funded plucky graduate students in the Math and English varieties to do that. This one was Jesco Black, a lanky West Virginian poet with blonde hair that fell to his backside. He smacked his gum and looked like he was up to no good.

“’Sheed,” he said through clenched teeth. “Going to catch the Pitt-WVU game at the bar. You want to come with?”

Jesco had never invited me out before, but we had developed a friendly enough relationship those first three months of his employment. He liked to drop by my office to boast about the Pitt-West Virginia sporting rivalry, and believe it or not, I can deliver quite a ribbing. But now I realized I wrongly mistook him for someone permanently aglow among a large circle of friends. He must have been pretty lonely to propose drinks with me. So why did I go? Because I wanted to prolong my discussion with Erica for as long as I could, for the rest of flawed time if possible. I zipped up my jacket to my neck, turned off my cell phone and told him yes, that I was completely down for a drink.

#

We walked to the nearby undergraduate ghetto. It was snowing badly now and all the sidewalks were covered, leaving me and Jesco to follow in the path of braver souls, their three-inch boot prints a blueprint for us to follow. Jesco led me to a craggy bar with no name out front. And once we were inside, he removed his down coat revealing the clothes he wore like a uniform: flannel and paint-stained corduroy pants. He ordered two whiskeys neat.

“Anything for you?” he asked with a grin.

I selected a Miller Lite and set my briefcase at my feet, wondering what personal failing had brought me here with this man during a storm that had all the inklings of a blizzard. I’d parked my SUV in a garage beneath a nearby museum and getting out of the city would be a nightmare. Jesco downed his first whiskey before I even paid for my drink.

He ordered two shots and only occasionally lifted his head to watch the basketball game he’d used as an excuse to drink. He ordered us both a glass of whiskey, then he put his hands over his eyes as if shielding them from the sun, looked from left to right. “Well, say. Check out Hocus Pocus over there?” He pointed out the female in question at the other end of the bar. Young, red hair, extremely pale. Her nose was bumpy and crooked, but she wore a tight fitting top that showed off her figure. I could see her with Jesco. Longhaired poets can’t afford to be picky.

“Let’s go say hi. We got a saying back home.” He paused and sang, “Them West Virginian hills, they calling, me home.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Come on, Rasheed.”

We collected our drinks and belongings and chose two stools alongside the young woman. I sat furthest away and quietly sipped my whiskey, then the Miller Lite.

“My name is Jesco Black, and I’m a poet from West Virginia.” He set his hand on the back of her stool. “This tall mug of mocha is Rasheed Mubarak, a professional swimmer from the far-off land of mystical Egypt.”

Her face perked up at the mention of Egypt. I’d seen it before. Americans always wanted to hear about it. To most of them it was the same as emigrating from Mars.

“Egypt.” Her voice was deeper than I expected, and now, up close, I could see she wasn’t an undergrad. She had to be a few years older. Thirty tops? Jesco didn’t seem to mind. “You come from Egypt and you’re a swimmer?” she asked. “How does that even happen?”

I smiled and signaled the bartender for another beer, but Jesco stopped me and ordered two highballs instead. I wanted to tell them both I’d heard that question ten-thousand times since moving to Pittsburgh. I wanted to tell them I’d lived in America for over a third of my life. But I didn’t. I stood there and smiled politely, my go-to reaction in such situations. I was not a man for confrontation as Erica so often pointed out.

“Don’t mind him,” Jesco said with a big, jagged grin. “Man of mystery our Rasheed is. What about you, my little honey? What’s your story? What are you drinking? And would you like one of my American Spirits? They aren’t fancy, but they get the job done. They fill your lungs good.”

When I first met Jesco, I laughed at his insane way of speaking, even found myself charmed by this slight redneck poet. But now his routine had grown stale and a little sad. I can’t explain why he spoke the way he did. Why does anyone do anything? To prove they’re fun? To be loved? But I couldn’t deny the sour interest I took in watching him operate, at observing his conversational successes and failures.

The woman accepted one of Jesco’s American Spirits and dipped her head close to his Zippo. “Name’s Sandy.” They spoke and flirted. Sandy snorted at Jesco’s jokes and told him about her childhood in Central Pennsylvania. She laid bare her dreams and aspirations: to became the district manager of a restaurant franchise, that she’d gone to school for restaurant hospitality, that she once owned a little beagle puppy named Peppy who could accomplish a vast variety of fantastic tricks and amusements.

“Everything you say is the most interesting thing I’ve ever heard,” Jesco told her. “But let me halt your brilliance if only momentarily to tell you a little something about myself. Like I said, I am a poet of West Virginian descent and I do not compose my work on paper like all those goons from the previous century.”

He waited for her to urge him on. When she didn’t, he continued regardless.

“I compose my poems spontaneously and upload them onto YouTube. The chapbook is dead, sweetheart. It’s all about the electronic transmission these fine days.”

She nodded, a look on her face like she didn’t understand. I didn’t either and checked my watch. I looked out the window. Still snowing. Blowing around hard enough now that I couldn’t see the other end of the street. I reached beneath my stool and felt the handle of my briefcase, imagined that uneaten Tupperware of pasta inside.

And then, seemingly out of nowhere, a man entered the bar and approached us. Tubby, fat-faced, backwards cap. Something eternally boyish about him, something in the too-wide eyes, the slightly rose-tinted cheeks. He had a great big smile and looked drunk. He walked right on over to Sandy and gave her a sloppy kiss on the lips. She didn’t look surprised. Jesco stubbed out his cig and finished his drink.

“Flounder,” Sandy said brightly, “I’d like you to meet Jesco Black and… I’m sorry. What was your name again, Mr. Swimmer?”

“Rasheed.”

Sandy rolled her eyes conspiratorially at Jesco who ignored her and lit another cig. “Rasheed’s from Egypt.”

“Shit.” Flounder slapped my back. “A swimmer from Egypt! You speak Egyptian?”

“Arabic.”

“Can you say something for me?”

I turned back to my drink.

“Well,” Jesco said. “I think it’s time for me and Rasheed here to hit the old dusty trail. Isn’t that right, Rasheed?”

Before I could say anything, Sandy pouted, grabbed Jesco’s forearm and insisted we stay. There was something pleading in her eyes, and I’m still not sure if Jesco intended to leave or if that was all part of the con.

“You gone ahead and twisted my arm, darling,” Jesco said. “Now. How about a round of shots for this handsome foursome, this devilish little group hell-bent on some wholesome destruction?”

We drank. Jesco, Sandy and I sat at the bar while Flounder stood behind us awkwardly shifting his weight from foot to foot, occasionally tilting his face to Sandy’s to give her another kiss. Jesco angled her away so the two of them could have some private time. That left Flounder to me. I tried to ignore him and focus on that nearly forgotten Pitt game—I watched our basketball students stomp up and down the floor and knew at least three of them would make it to the NBA, would eclipse my lifetime earnings in a single year. But Flounder kept inching closer. He told me whoppers about his Pontiac Firebird and the time he got stoned at a hip hop show. Then he stopped, really studied me, and shook a finger at my chest.

“Wait a sec. I know where I know you from now. You’re that Egyptian swimmer from Pitt, aren’t you? Maybe eight years back?”

I had never been recognized by a fan before and fought my urge to hug this man, or at the very least clap him triumphantly on the shoulder. “Yes,” I said. “Yes.” He made me think of Erica, how she attended all my meets, even the ones miles and miles away from Pittsburgh. How she cheered me on. How she told me throughout college that I had such potential, that I was the type of man destined to accomplish great things. The two of us against the known world out for wealth, fame, power, glory. Endless happiness.

“I saw you… play once,” Flounder said. “My freshman year. I dated a girl on your team. Michelle Katz. I went to one of your meets. I think you were playing Maryland. You broke some kind of record.”

“The one-hundred meter back stroke.”

“Yeah.” He paused. “Shit yeah. Hey, you still got that record?”

“No. One of my students beat it in ’05.”

He didn’t ask what “one of my students” meant and I didn’t ask about his age. If he were a freshman eight years ago, then what was he still doing in the undergraduate ghetto where forties sat cracked in the gutter and trash blew in the streets like tumbleweeds? But I softened. He knew me!

“Hey,” Sandy said loudly, finally breaking away from her one-on-one with Jesco Black. “I got an idea. Me and Flounder got a handle of Jack back at our place. It’s not far from here. What do you say?”

Flounder clumsily put his arm around me. “Me and Rasheed are in, right Rasheed? This guy’s a Pitt record holder!”

I nodded at Jesco. He tapped the bar and called for the check.

#

Everything was completely still when we left the bar. The storm had ended and fresh snow blanketed the roads, the parked cars, the buildings, even some of the students who slipped by. Jesco and Flounder walked up front and chatted about Pitt’s chances this Bowl Season. I walked alongside Sandy, but we didn’t talk much. I was too preoccupied with the snow balanced on the crisscrossing telephone wires above. I liked the look of it: the precariousness of life. I loved the stillness after a snowfall, the way every living thing seemed to recede into a cocoon of warmth.

They led us to their duplex and inside their living room. Their apartment was small and bore little resemblance to my own suburban dwellings. Sandy and Flounder’s living room was the central space of their apartment: the type of housing only a twenty-year-old could bear. Posters thumb-tacked to the walls of action movies nobody would remember in five years. I sat beside Jesco on the couch, nervously clutching my briefcase in my lap. Flounder took the lumpy armchair at our side. Sandy searched a milk crate in the corner and pulled out a record with a beautiful blonde in flannel on the cover. She shimmied with her back to us as the music started. It sounded twangy and full of mourning, the voice of another generation, not at all what I’d expected people like Sandy and Flounder to enjoy. She darted off to the kitchen and returned with a handle of Jack, no glasses.

“How about we play an old West Virginia game?” Jesco said. “It’s about telling stories.”

Sandy hopped into Flounder’s lap and threw her arms around his neck. We took turns taking swigs straight from the bottle. When no one took Jesco up on his suggestion, he started talking again. “What we do is, we go around the room and tell the story of the most beautiful woman we’ve ever seen. How’s that sound?”

“That’s not fair,” Sandy said. “I don’t want to tell about some beautiful woman. That’s no fun.”

Jesco considered this and offered Sandy and Flounder a cigarette. When they declined, he lit up. “All right, house rules after all. Sandy, why don’t you tell us about the best looking John you ever did see?”

She rubbed her hands together. Then she tapped Flounder’s thigh to let him know she wanted to get off. She went to the bedroom for a baggie of marijuana and a package of King Sized Smoking. “This is going to be good,” she said as she handed the materials to Flounder, then sat cross-legged on the floor.

“This was in Lancaster when I was thirteen-years-old. My mother and I had just arrived. Her last relationship didn’t work out, so we left Wilkes-Barre for Lancaster. I was heartbroken because I was on a basketball team in Wilkes-Barre and I had just gotten good enough to start. Mom didn’t like me playing sports much anyhow,” she said. “There was a real live general store in Lancaster. Can you believe that? It was probably set up for tourists come down to see the Amish, but the local people used it too. And my mother sent me down to pick up some milk and bread and I went, and afterwards, I just kind of hung out on the porch watching cars go by.”

“Get to the good stuff, honey.” Flounder had already taken two hits. He gave it to Sandy who inhaled for longer than I thought possible. Afterwards, her voice sounded high and taut.

“I was getting to it,” she said matter-of-factly. “So I was sitting on this porch and all of a sudden this pickup pulls up and it’s covered, and I mean covered in mud. And this man emerges. This man in cowboy boots and flannel and a ten gallon hat like the movies on Saturday TV.” She shot a winky, blinky look in Jesco’s direction while Flounder closed his eyes and tapped his knee to the music. “And I came to learn that wasn’t custom up in Lancaster. Not everybody dressed like that. But this absolute man walked past me, tipped his hat, and said, ‘Ma’am’. I swear. That’s the day I first became aware of myself as an honest-to-goodness woman.”

I thought Sandy’s story was kind of sweet in a really cheesy way, and it put me in a good enough mood to take two quick puffs when the joint came my way. I was supposed to have been home two hours ago, but I still didn’t have the courage to face Erica. I wanted to slip through time and awake to the comfort of my younger self.

“That’s just beautiful, Sandy,” Jesco said in response to her story.

“Yeah,” Flounder grunted. “Yeah.”

She blushed. She stood up and smoked. “Thanks. Now how about you, Jesco?”

He reached for the handle beneath his legs and sipped before clearing his throat. “My story’s not nearly as eloquent as our elegant hostess’…”

But it was. He droned on for a good ten minutes about hiking through the hills “‘round Cheat Lake” and coming across a beautiful farmer’s daughter who offered him lemonade and a slice of raspberry pie. The story was filled with language so flowery and gooey-gooey that I just can’t bring myself to repeat it. But it worked on Sandy, that dreamy look in her eyes, the drunken slurring of approval. But then I thought maybe I was wrong, because as soon as Jesco finished, she rose and bid us all a good night, disappearing to the bedroom, the door clicking shut behind her.

And then it was midnight, the only people left in the room three strangers with too much liquor in their bellies, too much marijuana in their lungs.

“I gotta hit the head,” Jesco announced. “May I?”

Flounder nodded that he could, and when Jesco stood, I did the same. I paced the living room and examined its contents. I felt safe in Flounder’s presence. He smiled absentmindedly at nothing particular, as if his natural state in the world was sitting atop a throne and attending to whatever shiny trinket caught his eye.

“You got a job?” I asked.

“Me and Sandy are on the wait staff part time at Olive Garden. We only moved back ‘cuz we got laid off in Harrisburg.” He paused to think. “Harrisburg is shit.”

I inspected the framed pictures on the wall. Nothing too out of the ordinary—the usual couple stuff that reminded me of my own home—the lone exception a wallet-sized picture at the very bottom. I pried it loose. It showed a pudgy blonde boy with a bowl cut clutching a baseball bat. He wore a player’s uniform and the whole picture resembled a trading card. I held it for Flounder to see.

“This you?”

He squinted, then laughed. “That’s me all right. A me from another life time ago.”

I went back to the couch with the framed baseball card in hand. Sandy’s country record had started to skip, but neither of us moved to stop it. What a curious thing for a grown man to hold onto, to display in his house as an adult. A constant reminder of earlier glories. I couldn’t keep my eyes off it. There were so many people in the world with their own secret histories, their own buried desires and hurts. Maybe I was reading too much into it, but regardless, the picture moved me.

“You know the most beautiful woman I ever saw?” I asked. “My wife. She used to be so soft, so supportive. Used to wear these oversized sweaters that would sort of droop down and reveal her shoulders. I loved those shoulders. She showed me off to her friends and family, was always so proud of my swimming. She was studying to be a veterinarian before she gave it up. The two of us were going to ride my successes to the top of the world.” I paused. “Might be my ex-wife now. I found her suitcase all packed and ready to go this afternoon and then she told me we had to talk about something serious when I got home. I can’t do it. I can’t bring myself to go home. I knew things were bad, but not this bad. She thinks I’m detached. That I never tell anybody my feelings. Imagine what living with me must be like?” I set the framed baseball card facedown on an end table. “You’re the only one who knows any of this. I even have her leftovers in my briefcase because I’m afraid I’ll go home and it’ll be the only proof of her I have left.”

Flounder didn’t say a word. He joined me on the couch and put his arm around my shoulder. “It’s going to be all right, Rasheed. Whatever’s going to happen, happens. You’re a good person. You should go talk to your wife.”

We sat like that for a long time, not saying anything, not thinking anything, not hearing anything other than the final dying skips of Sandy’s country record. I knew he was right, that I couldn’t really stop anything from happening. But maybe if Erica hadn’t left yet, maybe I could still try and fix things. I had so quickly resigned myself to failure, but maybe that didn’t have to be the case. What if I could still fix things? I stood up to leave, but there was still one person left who hadn’t played Jesco’s game.

“Most beautiful woman I ever saw,” Flounder said, “is Sandy. Just Sandy at any particular moment. Always Sandy.”

I didn’t reply because I had almost forgotten Sandy and Jesco existed. And Flounder must have too because he practically bolted for the hallway with the bathroom and bedroom. I followed him even though if I had any sense I would’ve sprinted out the front door. Of course the bathroom was empty. Flounder had already gone in the bedroom by the time I arrived. They weren’t naked. At the very least I can say that about Jesco Black and Sandy. They were on top of the covers, facing each other on their sides. Jesco had his hand between Sandy’s legs and kept it there frozen. Flounder grabbed him by the ankle and dragged him off the bed, the only sound his body slipping across the comforter. Surprisingly, Sandy did not scream or make a scene. She sat up against the headboard and watched events unfold with a strange detachment, leaving me to wonder if this had happened before, and if so, how frequently. Flounder got Jesco on the floor then reeled back, struck him straight across the jaw once, twice, three times as hard as I’ve ever seen anybody get hit. The poet did not struggle. There was blood, Jesco fell backwards, and still that skipping record. I wanted to ask Sandy who that country singer was before she was lost to me forever.

Flounder picked Jesco up by the shoulders and marched him out of the bedroom. I followed. Sandy did not. We went outside where the cold Pittsburgh night stung my ears. Flounder got a good grip on Jesco and tossed him off the porch as hard as he could. He flew face first into the passenger door of a snow-covered flatbed and fell backwards onto the pavement. He looked hurt but only mildly so, little puffs of steam escaping his mouth every few seconds.

Flounder and I stayed on the porch. He shook his right hand a couple of times in and winced. We stood like that for a second and I’d like to think it was a moment of understanding, a pointed silence that stood in for our inability to articulate feelings into words. Before he went back to Sandy, he touched my shoulder so lightly, it might as well have been the gentle caress of my wife. I thought about collecting Jesco Black off the sidewalk and putting him into a taxi, sending him back to wherever it was he hailed from. But I didn’t. I stepped past him, carefully avoiding his body, and began the long walk toward my car. I hoped Erica hadn’t left yet. All I could do now was hope.

#

I sped the whole way home, the four-wheel drive on my SUV getting its first workout of the season. I pulled into our development of identical houses and closed my eyes, told myself that if her car was there I’d be more emotionally available, that I’d drop to my knees and cling to her waist and beg for forgiveness.

But her car was gone. I parked outside our garage and walked up to the front door. No lights on in the window. I unlocked the door but didn’t step over that threshold, refused to enter into absolute darkness. I called her name once, twice, three times. No response. Not even the dog. She must have taken him with her. She’d left nothing behind but that big empty house, a two-thousand square foot monument to my loneliness, the siphoning away of my potential.

I left the door open and sat on the stoop. I opened my briefcase and removed the Tupperware, opened it, took a great big whiff, the ghost of the scent just barely there. I reached inside for a handful of rotini and ate it, really savored the embedded flavor despite how cold it tasted. I sat on that stoop and tried to convince myself that Erica had gone out for a drink, that she was out searching for me in the aftermath of the snowstorm, that she would return and explain how we would realize the bright potential of our youths and ascend to the level of American Kings. Then the wind started blowing harder and I could hear it howling, could see the telephone lines swaying back and forth overhead. Snow topped the wires and I watched two great heaps fall off and explode in the middle of the street, one after the other. Falling, falling, falling.