Well, excuse me if I break my own heart tonight It's mine from the finish I guess It's mine from the start Situation just don't seem so goddamned smart Situation is tearing me apart
Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight, Whiskeytown, from Stranger's Almanac.
Saturday, as previously discussed, was supposed to be the night of the big outing between myself and Helen. It began well, as I spent the early part of the evening celebrating my father's birthday. We had a homemade meal of veal marsala (thanks to my mother, who is both the greatest supporter of my carnivorism and the greatest enemy of my attempts to eat healthily). We gave my father his gifts: tickets to an upcoming Mets game, DVDs, a Mets hat, a photo box, and... from my preposterously cheap godmother, a fishing rod from the dollar store. To be exact, a fishing rod from the dollar store with the price tag still on it. $7.99. My godmother rents three homes in an affluent shore town, drives a Cadillac, and lives in a monstrosity of a McMansion. Still, she gave my father a $7.99 (plus tax!) fishing rod. For Christmas, she gave me a car air freshener, Maxwell House coffee, and Altoids. I suppose the last is designed to cancel out the deleterious effects of the middle gift.
As my parents settled in to watch their new movies (The Lord of the Rings), I went upstairs to shower and prep for the date. I dashed out the door, ready for battle. I had my clean shoes, my non-wrinkled casual pants, and a fresh mouth (thanks, godmother!). I started up my freshly cleaned, waxed, and vacuumed (shitty) Sable, and drove down to Sea Bright.
Sea Bright, along with Atlantic Highlands, is the East Coast's answer to Cannery Row. Ramshackle bungalows, family owned bait 'n tackle shops, and beach-lined bars and restaurants dot the isthmus that runs from Sandy Hook National Recreation Area to the chaos of Asbury Park. Saturday, I was going to meet Helen at Donovan's Reef. Donovan's Reef, named after one of the lesser John Wayne films, is a cinder block bar. Normally, you would not entertain the thought of taking a woman to a cinder block bar, but Donovan's also occupies about three acres of beach, and has outdoor bars that dot the high tide mark. People can spend their evenings barefoot, sand slipping between their toes, as they nurse their drinks. This may have been the sort of therapy initially proposed by Carl Rogers when he founded the humanistic school of psychotherapy. Assuming, of course, that he was a lush.
I was halfway to Donovan's Reef when Helen called me on my cell phone. Tearfully, she began apologizing, explaining that she could not go out that night.
"I'm sorry, I just can't do it." She said, sniffling.
"Hey that's all right. What's wrong?" I tried being consoling.
She explained that her mother was ill, that she had cancer, in fact. If this is an overly dramatic version of "I'm washing my hair tonight," I thought, this may constitute the coldest excuse I've ever heard. This may even top my "I'm sorry, but I'm a workaholic" excuse. Still, there was no way I could know whether she was honest or making up an excuse not to go out. My profession told me to assume the worst. My belief in human nature suggested that, while the worst was possible - perhaps even likely - it would be a repulsive response on my part to assume that she was lying. If Helen lied, so be it. However, if she was telling the truth, and I was, in any way, unsympathetic, then I became an evil bastard. Tough call. I decided that the only honorable thing to do was to assume that Helen was telling the truth.
"It's all right," I said. By now I had pulled my car over to the side of the road. I rolled down the window and lit a cigarette. "Look, you don't have to feel bad. These things happen. If you need anything, just let me know."
She thanked me, we said our goodbyes, and we hung up.
I don't know why, but I drove to Donovan's Reef anyway. It was nearly 10:30 PM as I sat down at the bar. I ordered a beer, and sat there. I was disappointed, but at the same time, I was still full of doubt. Do I assume the worst in people in my personal life, and do damage control accordingly, just as I do in my professional life? At work, I know that there are only three truths: (1) the adverse party is almost always lying; (2) your client is almost always lying; and (3) even though your own client is almost always lying, you still have to follow their direction, unless they give you hard evidence that directly contradicts their statements. In my personal life? I know nothing. Certainty disappears once I leave the comfortable order of legal practice.
So, there I sat. I finished off the first beer, and moved on to another one of the cabanas to order my second beer. Halfway through that one, I got fed up with sitting at the beach, listening to people having a good time. I stamped out one of the many cigarettes I had chain-smoked, and drove inland to Red Bank. Sweet Red Bank, home of one of the best bars to go to while miserable: the Dublin House. The Dub, as just about everyone calls it, is a utilitarian, dingy Irish pub. It's a fun place to go to when you don't particularly care where you go or what happens to you. The walls, once clean, golden wood, had taken on a tarry appearance due to the decades of cigarette smoke that covered them. The bar, a pink copper-plated beam, was tarnished and (frequently) sticky. Still, the bartender was a good fellow, quick with an absurd joke. Still further, it was the first place where I had ever ordered a beer - legitimately or otherwise - and had once been home to a coffee house where I spent six years of my late adolescent life, arguing damn near every point possible with a dear friend, Julius.
I walked into the Dub, and climbed the stairs up to the men's room. Halfway there, a voice called my name from behind me. Hugh, a classmate of mine from high school, waived up at me.
"Come down after you're done playing with yourself and I'll buy you a beer, you bastard!" he shouted over the folk music that blared throughout the bar. I nodded and waived my hand in mindless agreement.
"Sure, sure," I mumbled, mostly to myself, "have a beer, a few jokes, a regular guys' night out."
After a few drinks, the evening had improved somewhat. Hugh and I engaged in our usual banter - movies and philosophy - that made discussions with him so pleasing. He was one of those rare breeds of men, never having finished college, who knew more about the liberal arts than most college professors. He spent his days working as a painter and as a sommelier at a local restaurant. Montaigne, writing on education, spoke of the fact that he sometimes wondered whether his education - the lycee, the university, and then tutelage as a lawyer - made him any more full a person than the woman who tended his cabbage fields. Every time I talk with Hugh, I get that same feeling.
I returned to work on Monday, basically feeling blase' about the whole weekend. Rick asked about the "Big Night" as soon as he saw me.
"Well?" he asked, exuberant. I imagine the thought of someone discussing sex pleased him immensely. Unfortunately, I had to let him down. I explained the turn of events of Saturday. I then posed my dilemma to him: do I assume that she was lying, and making up an excuse to not go out, or do I assume that she was telling the truth?
"You can't assume the worst. That's horrible! You can't assume that she was lying." He thought for a second. "And don't take the advice of Henry or anyone else. Those cynics have been married for years. Christ, Henry met his wife when he was fucking 17! What the hell does he know about women?"
The thought occurred to me that Rick, quietly, was perhaps the best person we had on the team. Others may come off as more intelligent, but the guy was thoughtful and kind. Those are two key traits for family lawyers.
"So," I asked, "What now?"
"Call her tonight, and ask how she is doing. Ask how her mother is doing. Let her know that, if there is a better time, you'd like another shot at getting together. If she refuses, then move on."
It seemed like good advice.
"Thanks," I said, getting up. "All right, enough of this shit. I'm going to get more coffee. Want anything?"
He demurred, and I went on my way. The day went by quickly. I addressed one client's potential domestic violence problem. I continued research on an article I was drafting. Eventually, it was the late evening. It was time to call HP, and to find out whether I fish or cut bait.
I took the elevator down from my office to the atrium outside the building. Resting against the wheel well of my car, I called Helen. Her answering machine picked up.
"Hi, um... this is TPB. I was calling for Helen, and I uh... well, I just wanted to see how she was doing. If you want to give me a call, you can reach me at my cell phone."
So, I'm still in limbo. If she does not call me, I will assume I know what the answer was to this little delimma. If she does....
updated 7/31/03 Initials replaced with pseudonym, addition of quotation.