His babysitter Penny told him he had the most beautiful eyes. She would come over and watch Love Boat and Fantasy Island and she’d make him brownies and let him curl up with his head in her lap. She always wore blue jeans, and he’d rest a hand on her knee and feel the jeans against his cheek, that smell, Tide, or maybe Cheer, and that particular coarseness, faded sky blue—
When he was in middle school his mother told him Penny had been sent away, to rehab. “What a tragedy,” his mother said. “To have ruined her life, so young.”
Nicky felt a rush of lust and sadness, a wash of longing for brownies and blue jeans and Penny’s favorite song, the one by the Steve Miller Band.
“Jesus, Lillian,” his father called from the basement, “you’re being so melodramatic. She’ll be fine.”
How Nicky remembered his father: playing Atari in the basement and smoking. Or rather, playing Atari and then smoking, Atari-then-smoking, because the game took two hands. He remembered his father saying, a couple weeks before he left: “I wish they’d invent some sort of device so you could smoke without your hands. It would have an arm that pivots, maybe. Might look like one of those braces they put on people with broken necks.”
In high school Nicky kept a bottle of vodka under the bed. He’d mix it with chocolate milk, get drunk every night, read the Nation and Foreign Policy and cheap science fiction paperbacks until four in the morning. Then he’d doze during his classes, and spend his lunch money by noon on candy bars, then come home and sleep all afternoon. In study hall, an hour before deadline, he’d type up articles for the student paper.
“You’re going to be a great reporter,” his teacher told him.
“My God, that a man should have such eyes,” his teacher told him.
He liked to interview immigrants, newcomers to the school: Did the bombings reach your home town? What was the plane ride to America like? He landed his first weekend feature in the Post at the age of sixteen.
One day his mother died in her cubicle, some time after lunch but before the janitor found her in the evening. The serious man in the suit said, some old women collect cats, your mother collected insurance policies, and Nicky felt at least two distinct and unweddable feelings surge up inside—
Other people said to him: Like Bruce Wayne!
Other people said: Welcome to the party. Try this.
Some drugs, like inhalants, are just raw experience. A wave of feeling tears through you. It takes place in your brain but is wordless, overpowering, not really mental; it may even be the actual physical sensation of brain cells dying en masse, screaming like lemmings as they pour over the cliff together.
One night at a party he met a Palestinian named Bilal who ran import/export for gangs in India. Bilal said: If you’re such a good writer, you come back with me and write this crazy shit we see, you make me a star. This required that Nicky drop out of high school, but there was nobody left in his life to remark on this. He bought his first plane ticket.
The woman next to him on the plane found out he was a journalist.
“It must be great for you, to know your calling in life so young,” she said.
“I really envy people like you, who don’t have to worry about life,” she said.
“My God, your eyes,” she said.
Hookahs. Guns. Fifteen-year-old Bangladeshis driving Mercedes.
Nicky, stoned, cross-legged on a worn orange settee, watching Bilal upbraid a supplicant police captain, wrote: I’m stoned, cross-legged on a worn orange settee, watching my friend the gangleader upbraid—
Once a week Nicky went down to the little international phone closet and faxed his stories to the Voice. Bilal did not become a star, but he did become increasingly paranoid.
Bilal started asking the boy with the notepad: Tell me why you are here again?
Nicky snuck away home on another airplane. West of Dubai, the vast unmarked open spaces, punctuated here and there by a single solitary little building. Nicky thought: How does the man in the building find his home?—and why?
In three months Nicky had spent his whole first year’s stipend, and the man in the suit made him get a regular job, and a GED, and start college.
At the French restaurant the owner’s wife crowded up to him in the alcove where the busboys keep their silverware and said: You’re the most brilliant, most beautiful man, your eyes—
He clutched the shrimp forks to his bosom and said: What about my eyes?
Then he quit the job and dropped out of college because of his nerves and moved to a trailer in the woods. He spent the summer living off his student loan money and playing solitaire. The door was open. The woods were right there. Every day he’d think, I really should get out more, go for a walk, I really should—
He spent the fall and the winter doing the same thing, except with the door shut.
The next year his driver’s license got suspended and he had to give up the trailer and move in with a friend in town. It was spring, young women were walking around in the sun, he felt the blood flow, he got a job waiting tables at a local restaurant, and waiting on these women with their arms exposed he remembered about dating. He was still young. He went out with a woman from work, and he went out with the woman’s friend, and then he went out with a customer, and then he went out with a woman he met dancing. They would go out for drinks at clubs, shout above the din, smoke, watch for people they knew. Chrissy had black hair and played the violin and had been invited to join academic honor societies with Greek names. Nicky and Chrissy dated for two months until he ended it because of this irritating habit she had—
Then he remembered about writing, and made some calls, and the Post said he could go to Ethiopia, although he had to buy his own plane ticket. He lived there for three months, drinking with the locals and filing reports that didn’t look anything like the press releases AP was sending from Addis Ababa. He shot quail with General Izzimamu and went home and got nominated for a Pulitzer at the age of twenty.
He looked mature for his age. He tried the life of a talking head. On MSNBC, he said, “I don’t think that’s an accurate—” and then somebody cut him off.
Married men live on average X years longer, either because a healthier sort of man chooses marriage, or because marriage keeps a man from sinking into utter depravity. So he married one of Chrissy’s friends and got a job writing on international affairs for the Post. They made him stay inside the Beltway. Some years went by.
To pass the time, he played Nintendo in the basement and smoked. Rather, since the game took two hands, he played then smoked then played then smoked. Sometimes he imagined a device that would hold the cigarette for him while both of his hands were on the game controller; something like a neck brace, with some sort of pivoting arm. Possibly mind-controlled.
If he could control things with his mind!
Upstairs, his wife watching TV.
At times when Nicky would notice some ugly and anonymous block of apartments on the other side of the Beltway, after the first moment of reflexive disdain and pity he would think: but a person could escape there, live under the radar there. A person could hole up in there, pull down the shades, have no phone, smoke and drink and play video games the rest of his life and nobody would know. Nobody would be able to stop him.
“I’m so happy with you,” Nicky would always say to his wife. Especially when she irritated him, it seemed important to say it: “I am so happy with you.”
She’s reading in the next room, Nicky’s doing the dishes, thinking: She seems mad. Is she mad at me because I never do the dishes? She better not be, because I do more dishes than she does. “You seem unhappy with me,” Nicky says. “What is it? What is it what is it what is it what is it—”
“Nothing nothing nothing—”
She’s on the couch, he’s standing over her in the doorway with the dishtowel on his shoulder, staring down at her, waiting until she finally says: “Well, I have been worried about your drinking.”
Then Nicky would exult. “See? I knew you were mad at me.” He took this to mean that he was not mad at her, which would always come as a huge relief. If he was mad at his wife, the light of his life, that would put him in an awkward position.
“I’m so happy with you,” he would say.
But they were fighting every day. Nicky finally decided to get a therapist.
Nicky’s therapist told him he should spend more time figuring out who he was and what he wanted, perhaps by keeping a diary.
This stunned Nicky. “He says I’m not introspective,” he complained to his wife. “Then how come I know how anxious I am all the time?”
“You don’t seem like an anxious person to me,” his wife said.
He thought: Seven years and she doesn’t . . .
Three months later he moved into a hotel in Baltimore.
“God, I’m doing great,” he shouted into his phone, standing on the wharf.
“God, I don’t know why everybody doesn’t live in hotel rooms,” he shouted into his phone, in the laundromat parking lot.
Other people seemed to know what they were doing, whereas it seemed like he was fighting through cobwebs all the time. Like whenever he read a novel, the character would be He poured the tea into the delicate china cup, placed it on the saucer, and padded in his slippers to the deck chair on the verandah. He smiled ruefully as he remembered the time he and Magdalena—
Or: He stepped out of the carriage into the slate-gray morning and calmly considered the choices before him—
In sixth grade he had discovered beer and porn. His parents had put in a second refrigerator, in the basement, and they kept it full of cans of Narragansett, loose, filling the shelves and the doors, so many that nobody could hope to keep count. A few could disappear, every day. When you pour beer down your throat it’s like putting out a fire.
The porn was in a dumpster: a 1977 Penthouse, denim pantsuits falling open with allure. He looked at the pictures and then looked to the horizon, things becoming clearer, his destiny opening before him. He kept the magazine under his pillow. For years he thought the smell of mildewed paper was the smell of sex.
So Nicky stocked his Baltimore hotel room with beer and porn. Then he started to read Will and Ariel Durant’s eleven-volume Story of Civilization. Then he bought a pottery wheel that he could not use because he lived in a hotel room. Then he took a class on web page design. Then he started writing a science fiction novel. Then he started looking up girls he’d dated in high school, and girls he wished he’d dated, and calling them up, and he ran up a $900 phone bill. Then he came across a book on Art Deco architecture and moved to South Miami Beach.
Balmy nights, lines outside the clubs, stylish people, Nicky wearing blue jeans and a “Free Mumia” T-shirt. He got a room above the falafel shop next to the liquor store, and he spent his days reading and smoking and drinking on the roof, watching the people go by.
Nicky thought: This is almost the life. I always wanted to read more, even when I was at all those parties I’d think, why don’t I do something with my life, why don’t I go home and read? . . . But even here on the roof reading, something was not right. Those people he read about in his novels: when they read a book on the roof, you know, they sit down cross their legs open the book begin reading thoughtfully four hours later the phone rings. . . . But with Nicky there always seemed to be a lot more fidgeting involved. And his eyes watered when he read, he had to rub them a lot, and sometimes his eyes would just glaze over, and he’d have to go back and reread sections, cursing himself for his poor attention span. A lot of foot-tapping and neck-aches. And always the appetite maintenance: some bodily discomfort always distracting him once he’d finally gotten in a groove reading for any length of time: Do I need to eat? Do I need to pee? Do I need another cigarette? Am I tired, horny?
Always, frankly, some anxiety in his stomach, and never anything to justify it. White stucco, blue sky, good book, comfortable chair; why can’t a man appreciate the life he’s set up for himself? Why can’t a man live in peace?
“God, but this is the life,” he would shout into the phone, from the roof.
He made a strong pot of coffee and decided to read Ulysses finally and went three days without sleeping much or speaking to anyone, and then when the phone rang, war had broken out, they needed him on TV. He stared at his face in the mirror, gargled, and tried a few different smiles. That night, Ted Koppel told him he was brilliant.
At the reception afterwards, cocktail in hand, he regaled the pretty United Nations undersecretary with his tales of shooting quail with General Izzimamu and she laughed and laughed, he’d never made a person laugh so hard, he thought his own heart was going to burst—
One day Nicky got arrested for singing in the street. One day Nicky got arrested for falling asleep face down at the edge of the ocean. One day Nicky got arrested for solicitation and marijuana possession.
In rehab Nicky met a girl named Terry. Terry was a painter and an exotic dancer. She had big wet eyes and a pockmarked, bruised face. They held hands in the meetings.
Terry moved in with him. Mostly they played cards and had sex. When they drank they’d sit at the apartment’s formica kitchen table staring at the wall behind each other’s heads.
“There’s too many goddamned lights on here,” Terry would growl.
“You’re not as smart as you think you are,” Terry would growl.
It was all true. All three lights were always on, and at night it made the sickly yellow walls seem unbearably close, a personal affront.
Terry got mad at Nicky a lot, and Nicky found this enormously relaxing. He knew he could trust her not to let resentments build up, because she tended to clear the decks, emotionally speaking, every few hours. But she kept this doomed look in her eye all the time, just counting the days until she went back to smack. Nicky didn’t understand how anybody could let themselves get that messed up.
After Terry left, Nicky moved to New York because the South Miami Beach police wouldn’t leave him alone. He had steady freelance work coming in, so he got a place on Eighty-Second with a fax. In the Strand a woman looked at him funny. He decided to stop drinking and played video games for a year instead. Then he went and stood outside. He’d cured his drinking problem, but he still had that cobwebby feeling. So he joined a gym and spent five hours a day bulking up. Every day he’d discover a new muscle and raise its definition. His body became a work of art. The endorphins! The mirrors!
Now when he stood, he stood tall and proud, his chest inflated, arms akimbo, his place in the world suddenly carved out, a space for him to stand. He held his head high and never walked staring at the ground.
Unfortunately, with all the testosterone, he was still unable to read for long periods of time before his foot would start tap-tap-tapping and then suddenly he’d be in his Nikes running twenty miles.
Running, shouting into the phone: “My God, I’ve never felt so great!”
His old editor at the Voice stopped him on the street and said: Listen, you’re supposed to be writing about the world.
He went to Hong Kong. He went to Nepal. When he woke up in Dubrovnik with the woman from the Peace Corps, they drove listening to Bach out along where the bombing had been and she said, The soul’s striving for God, and he said, Ya think?
When she left he stayed in the room in the old tower above the ocean and decided he had some sort of undiagnosed illness, something that would make a man nervous and foggy. MS? Cancer? Brain fever?
On the flight back to New York he gripped the armrests and thought: I can’t believe they arrest people for going crazy on airplanes. People should be given some slack in circumstances where—
At the Blank Gallery opening, he told his black marketeer story, of how he traced the stolen Fogg Museum pieces from Boston through Moscow to The Hague, where the trail went cold. Forty people crowded around to listen, the ones in the back craning their necks.
He met Madonna in the Union Street Café and she said: My God, your eyes, and he said, yes, I use them to see, and she barked with laughter.
At the premiere at the Angelika he told the story of shooting quail with—
But the cobwebs! He decided he must have some sort of chronic head cold.
When his back went out there was nothing left to do but lie on the couch and gamble at Internet casinos. WebVan brought his groceries, pizza boxes piled up, he’d roll painfully onto his side and pee into a jar. Evangeline’s outcall sent women over. At the casino he figured out the rules and played poker with strangers; everybody’s got a perfect poker face on the Internet. Then he figured out how betting on football worked. The only loser’s game he allowed himself was roulette: who can resist the bright wheel, spinning?
From the couch, he shouted into the cell phone: “I made $300 yesterday! laid out on my ass!”
He decided that it must be the caffeine. He quit drinking coffee and almost immediately his nerves stopped jangling. For the first time in his life he found he could sit still for long periods, staring at the fire, staring out the window, staring at the wall behind his monitor. He no longer felt like he was being cattle-prodded from one situation to the next.
“I feel completely flat,” he sighed into the phone.
“This blows,” he said.
Although he wasn’t actually craving coffee, he forced himself to start drinking it again, just so he wouldn’t feel so horribly dull. That was a month wasted, he decided; then he wiped the whole incident from his mind. Then he wrote a book, Shooting Quail with Izzie—
The book spent 175 weeks on the Times bestseller list. It became one of those publishing sensations that had always puzzled Nicky—like when a million people gang up and decide to buy the new nine-hundred-page biography of Herbert Hoover, or some biologist’s treatise on how the fruitfly changed Western civilization, and then you see it in every single bookstore on display right by the register: How the Fruitfly Changed Western Civilization, and you think: huh? Who decides these things?
But Nicky’s book apparently filled some kind of social need. Everybody seemed to think it was written for them: skatepunks and professors and California lefties and Christian bikers would come up and shake his hand.
The little old lady with the pearl necklaces whose reading group had chosen his book stopped him on the street and said: “You’ve accomplished so much with your life, you make me feel bad.”
The stress that came with fame and wealth was of course disorienting, overwhelming, and he felt like an idiot when he complained about it.
“It’s not even that good of a book,” Nicky groaned into his phone.
“Please shut up,” said the voice on the other end.
Brad Pitt played him in the movie version. “You’ve had the most interesting life,” he told Nicky, the day they met on the set.
Nicky, demurring, said, “But do you ever feel like—”
An assistant with a clipboard came and touched the star lightly on the shoulder.
Three months later Nicky set down his toast at breakfast one morning and said: Enough of this crap. I’m tired of worrying about nothing.
He sat on the verandah, holding his china coffee cup lightly above its saucer, wearing his favorite silk smoking gown, his long legs crossed neatly at the ankles, and he gazed at the horizon, waiting for the next spasm of worry to rise up within him so he could strangle the shit out of it once and for all.
He felt a falling in his belly, the old fear that he would fail at this most basic task.
Go to hell, Nicky said.
More worries came.
You too, Nicky said. Go to hell, all of you.
Nicky waited in silence, doubtfully, until the cell phone rang and he moved on to the next thing.
When spring came his agent invited him to play softball. Nicky really enjoyed it and started going regularly. He loved standing in the sun in right field and shagging foul balls, then stepping up to the plate and slapping the ball over the third baseman’s head. He was about average or a little worse. His new girlfriend said he looked lumpy in the uniform, but lumpy in a cute way.
She was a lawyer. She liked to go to movies. Her name was Dorothy.
“You’re the smartest, funniest man I’ve ever met,” Dorothy said.
“Really?” he said brightly. “I’ve never enjoyed my company all that much.”