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Fiction: Lunch Encounters
By Mervyn Kaufman
It was always lunch, except at the beginning—we were introduced at breakfast, a media event arranged by a publicist. I can't remember whom her client was. None of my colleagues from my old job had attended, which disappointed me, of course, as I'd hoped to renew some longtime associations. I had been out of the loop for just a few months but had already begun feeling disenfranchised—a former editor who was now a freelance clinging precariously to previous connections.
The breakfast was a buffet, very generous and very splashily arranged in the hotel's opulent dining room. I guess I was hungry. Not a morsel of food had been served on the plane during our late-arriving flight the night before. I was seated alone at one of the tables and soon was joined by a young man whose plate was about as heavily laden as mine. This was Dan. He was an associate editor at one of the big consumer shelter magazines. We seemed to connect right away—largely because of his outgoing nature and our common interests.
He was about my daughter's age and, unlike her, extremely conscious of his status, of the role he played, of the sliver of power he felt he had amassed as a staff editor at a big-circulation publication. He drew me out right away—about my career, about the loss of a staff job that had thrust me into the freelancers' realm, about my certain need to reestablish myself.
The day ahead was a long one. We were taken by bus to a factory, then after a tour were treated to a modest lunch. And once again Dan and I found ourselves seated together, munching cheerlessly on some kind of grassy salad. Later, riding the lumpy bus back to the airport, he offered me an assignment. "I can't pay you much, but I'd like to have your work in my book." Who could resist such an invitation?
The assignment was no world beater. It involved a couple of phone interviews and barely taxed my ability to compress thoughts, ideas and facts into five hundred choice words. But we went back and forth with it, as I recall. He was a bit of a perfectionist, as was I, of course. I enjoyed refining and shaping what I had written; I always liked to fuss.
The piece wasn't to be published for several months—Dan and his colleagues worked far ahead of their editorial deadlines—but that gave us time to talk repeatedly by phone, from his base in Iowa to my home in New York. I learned that he had met Linda, the love of his life, in college, in his hometown of Urbana, Illinois, and that they had been living together for nearly three years. Soon they would marry; that was part of the plan.
My daughter, meanwhile, had been in and out of a series of precarious relationships, none of them particularly suitable—how I wished at the time that she could be as certain and settled as Dan seemed to be. Soon there was a wedding in Iowa, a rather intimate family gathering, which Dan seemed to have taken in stride. He said his bride was radiant—but what bride isn't? He promised to send me pictures, maybe some snapshots; we didn't have smartphones then. I hadn't met Linda but decided, early on, that she must be a very special woman—that living with a man blessed with unwavering bravado must be challenging. I wondered if, like me, she had fallen helplessly under his spell—or if she disbelieved him at times, or all the time, and disputed most of his stories, something I felt powerless to do.
We continued to communicate—always by phone, and usually in the late afternoon when the pace of work had slackened at each of our desks and much of the pressure of the day had abated. Dan seemed to know intuitively when to place a call, never catching me in an ugly mood or in the midst of any crisis.
"I have another assignment, if you have the time to take it on," he announced one day. I wouldn't say no; it was all I could do to contain my delight. I remember plunging into the project right away—but at the moment cannot recall exactly what it was. It probably involved some kind of home remodel and the need to talk at length to a contractor, an architect and, of course, the homeowner.
I submitted the story early, which turned out to be at least partly fortuitous, because within a couple of weeks it was returned to me with comments—sheepish ones from Dan. It seems that a new editor had taken over this particular magazine department and that he, or she, wanted a slightly different approach, not that what I had submitted was less than terrific, of course, but that, well, the slant wasn't quite what this new broom was hoping to achieve.
I obligingly revisited the story and submitted a spruced-up revision on the precise date listed in the contract I'd signed. Then I heard nothing. Weeks later, when I made a casual inquiry, Dan assured me the story was fine, that it certainly would be published, that I absolutely would be paid and that only a little tweaking—here and there—had been needed. He never indicated what the nature of that tweaking was. I figured it was editorial prerogative—I mean, what editor doesn't insist on putting his or her stamp on a piece?
When the story finally saw print, I realized that the lead paragraph had been altered—swayed, I should say, as it pointed the story in another direction. Why? I wondered. I thought it was fine the way I had written it. But as Dan never mentioned the piece, I remained silent on the subject. There was no hint of future assignments, however. Yes, I was disappointed, but by then I'd come to value Dan's friendship and seeming admiration far beyond any need I might have for affirmation or, to be crass, for more money-earning projects.
Instead, our phone chats became fixed on his upcoming trip to New York. Dan said he had contrived to "do some company business" here but had some personal business he was also planning to explore. I didn't press him. Sooner or later I figured I'd know what he was up to.
The day he arrived, we met for lunch at a noisy burger joint off Madison, and it was there he informed me he was thinking seriously of switching to the business side of magazine publishing—namely, sales: "I know it means, like, starting over again, but I think I'm more motivated by the idea of selling than I am of trying to excel in editorial. I mean, there's no growth potential where I am; the two guys above me on the masthead are definitely lifers. I guess I'm not; maybe I'm just more adventurous than either of them."
Later, on the phone, we discussed how difficult it can be to switch fields but that, like anything else of real significance, the goal he envisioned was definitely worth pursuing. I said we'd talk about it more when I saw him again. Which I did, a day or so later. It was a long lunch, which is not easily achieved in a busy burger joint, but by the time it was over I was pretty much convinced that Dan knew exactly what he was doing, that Linda applauded his decision to attempt a major career shift, and that both of them were eager to leave their corner of Iowa—if a job offer manifested—and had long debated the possibility of moving to New York.
Dan was having a so-called information interview at a leading men's magazine later that day, something he'd apparently spent many weeks arranging. After that appointment, he was to grab an airport bus back to LaGuardia for his evening flight home. On the street outside the diner, for the first time, he hugged me, and I smelled an expensive aftershave as I pondered what was happening between us—that he felt a closeness in our relationship and that I seemed, in a way, to be turning into an ersatz family member, not a father (he already had one of those, whom he apparently idolized) but perhaps a more enlightened brother than the one he had, the slightly older sibling whose search to find himself had so far been fruitless.
We were buddies, confidants. Or maybe I was the confidant, because our conversations were now mostly trained on Dan: his life, his marriage ("excellent, couldn't be better," he insisted), his career, his ambitions. So even if I felt fatherly and brotherly all at the same time, I was content. Dan was like a loving son or sibling; hello and goodbye hugs were frequent and not inhibited; we seriously liked each other.
About the time that Dan had set up the first of several interviews with what would become his first New York employer, I learned that Linda was pregnant. No problem; that wouldn't compromise his plan or curtail his growing determination. He was nervous on his next trip, which involved being interviewed by the magazine's top gun, its publisher. At lunch I found myself grasping his hand reassuringly and, at one key moment, he clutched at mine. I offered to walk him to his appointment; it was only a few blocks east of "our place," the busy burger joint, but he said no: "I know where to go. I just need time to get my head together."
On the heels of dinnertime he called me at home to assure me the meeting had gone well, then explained that he had been able to land a late flight back to Des Moines so he'd be home in time to "sleep with my wife, for a change." He felt confident he would soon receive an offer—his inexperience would not be a factor because, as the newest member of the magazine's sales force, he was prepared to be challenged.
"I know they'll give me the crappiest accounts on the books," he said. Which is exactly what happened, of course, and he would do well by many of them, reviving business that had been pretty much dead for some time and even bringing in new accounts that neither he nor his immediate boss, the associate publisher, had requested or expected. Things like that happened to Dan; I was not the only one to succumb to his unwavering charm.
Less than a month before daughter Melanie was born, Dan and Linda had packed up their Saab and headed east. Someone in his new employer's HR department helped them find temporary digs and put them in touch with a broker attuned to seeking reasonably priced Manhattan apartments for newly minted space salesmen. Dan was overjoyed, and Linda, he said, would come to "love this city as much as I already do."
Actually, she loved it best later, when they moved across the East River to Queens—to a walkup with closets and a kitchen where she knew she could actually cook something. Eventually, they would purchase the top half of a two-family condo and become devoted suburbanites, despite having an address that was well within the New York City limits. Linda got a job as a substitute teacher at a local high school and, when she was called in, found suitable daycare for Melanie. Dan sweated out his first six months with the magazine, straining to make sales quotas that seemed unreasonable but were, in their way, a remarkable impetus to his fired-up determination.
He lasted just over a year, time enough to receive a so-so evaluation, despite all his valiant achievements, and build up a reserve of confidence. He was certain he'd made the right choice—to switch from editorial to sales—and was grateful that his employers had given him a job and the opportunity to prove himself, at least to himself. His next job would go better, he believed; it would be more rewarding, spiritually and financially; he knew he would handle himself differently.
The next job was equally challenging, as it happened—a so-called skin book that was privately owned by two entrepreneurial partners who squabbled loudly and crudely through much of the day and, as a result, were more than a little distant from their smallish staff. Dan was, once again, low man on the totem pole, but he quickly proved his worth, attracting new business that his predecessor had never attempted to tap into. His monthly reports were consistently upbeat and ahead of the curve, and he was routinely praised for his energy and stick-to-it-iveness.
Thus he began to feel very good about himself and, consequently, his determination along with his energy began to flag. How do I know? He confessed this at one of our lunches, the one where he announced that, though Christmas was just around the corner and bonuses would be distributed before the new year, he had been put on notice. The holidays being a poor time for a sales rep to do better business, Dan felt certain that, once again, he was doomed. But next time, for sure, he would do better.
Meanwhile, Linda was pregnant again. She felt better this time; I hadn't known she'd been in any kind of distress before Melanie was born. In every conversation we'd had about the coming event, Dan had suggested that each of them glowed at the prospect of becoming parents and Linda, in particular, had been in radiant health in all the months leading up to their first child's birth.
After Isabel was born, it was clear—from everything Dan related to me in cryptic phone calls from his office—that Linda was experiencing a crippling bout of post-partum depression. He had to bring her mother east because he couldn't devote any weekday daytime hours to either child care or wife care. And then suddenly there was time; by February 1st he was on his own again, buoyed somewhat by a relatively modest bonus (adequate but far less than he felt he'd deserved) but stung by the suddenness of his being asked to leave the magazine.
Par for the course—unfair, but in the nature of the business—his colleagues assured him, when they took him for drinks on his last day in the office. Never complacent, Dan used that unexpected Happy Hour to prod each colleague for names—people he should call for interviews, for suggestions, for perhaps a connection that could lead to another job. He spent much of the winter at home, in his Queens condo, writing letters, submitting résumés and lining up cold calls. No job offers were quickly forthcoming, but many of his new contacts had other contacts to suggest he pitch to, so he was kept busy. Our phone chats were brief; I was assured repeatedly that he was working hard to land a solid new position.
"It'll be better this time," he said once again, after he'd accepted an offer from a small, privately owned travel magazine. Even though he insisted that, by then, he knew all the answers, he concurred when I suggested that he keep that notion under wraps and perhaps spend his first couple of weeks on the new job in a learning mode, even if he felt he had it knocked. His transition period went well, he said; he seemed relieved and, at least for the moment, satisfied.
Linda, too, appeared to have her life and career in order and in balance. With two small children well under school age to care for, she wasn't about to saddle herself with a demanding full-time job that would take her out of the house. Instead, she posted notices at the local high school that she was available for tutoring and counseling, and she got responses—from the parents of students clearly in need of assistance. Linda was good with such people—parents as well as children. Day after day, her living room was like an intimate classroom, and sometimes her classes extended well into what Dan considered "the family dinner hour." But he did concede that what Linda was doing was paying her well and stirring up far less aggravation than any job he'd had so far.
Envious? Perhaps, but only just a little. Mostly, I think, he was proud of her, gratified that, without seeming to compete with or humiliate him, she was responding not only to her own career needs but also to a desire to keep the family finances afloat.
"I've never had much use for adultery," Dan announced one day, when we were having a rather leisurely lunch at a coffee shop near his new office. A business meeting with a client had been postponed, so he'd phoned me early in the day, and I took the subway to midtown to meet him. Maybe he had something important on his mind; I never knew what to expect. I don't know that we'd ever discussed adultery, sex or pre-marital relations, which I knew was something he was familiar with. Nor did we engage the subject directly this time. As I recall, he was being critical of his troublesome older brother, who by then had gotten himself entangled with a youngish widow who, though not particularly eager to marry him or break up his own shaky marriage, seemed to enjoy having a rather conspicuous fling with him. This occurred when he had moved back to Iowa from a failed job in Anchorage. It seemed that all of his friends were aware of that relationship and, finally, so was his wife, who ordered him out.
"My big brother seems to want my advice; I just don't know what to say to him—other than when you act like an asshole, what do you expect?" Till that moment, Dan had never, in my presence, used such imagery, so when that word popped out, in our conversation, it took me by surprise. The vehemence he expressed was indicative of something deep inside him—a kind of visceral prejudice against bad behavior, bad language and maybe something else I wasn't yet privy to. Still, he had lived with Linda for more than three years before marrying her. Had anyone in either of their families objected or even commented? I'd never asked; it was hardly my business to do so. But I was satisfied that Dan and Linda had married because they wanted to, and planned to, not because they had to. As far as I knew, her first pregnancy had occurred at a respectable time following their nuptial ceremony.
I finally stopped wondering, having convinced myself that whatever was really pressing in on Dan, if there was anything, would finally surface—either on the phone or at lunch. Sometimes months passed before an issue was laid on the table, but by then Dan usually had a solution or was well into resolving whatever difficulty was brewing. He never actually sought advice as much as affirmation. He seemed to need a sounding board.
We had lunch pretty regularly during the next several months, by the end of which time I became aware that Dan had begun looking a bit middle aged. His face was suddenly fuller, and he seemed to be wearing suits a size or two bigger than what he'd worn a few years earlier, at the time we first met. Rich foods? Fat-laden desserts? He never indulged when we met for lunch, but maybe those lengthy meals with clients or prospects had been gaining in lavishness. Or maybe it was age. He was just over thirty; I wondered of his father's heft. DNA played a major role in the aging process, but Dan had always appeared to take very good care of himself. So, hadn't he noticed that he no longer had a trim thirty-two-inch waist? I was puzzled.
"Did I tell you—I stopped drinking, about a month ago?" That kicked off a lengthy phone chat one summer midday. I didn't probe, didn't have to. Linda must have said something, I thought, because suddenly Dan had become aware that those glasses of beer or wine he was imbibing at lunchtime and then insisting on repeating at home every night were having an impact. "It's all sugar—or it eventually turns to sugar," Linda had probably said. "Take a look at yourself." I guess he finally did, but why hadn't he done so, earlier? He had always seemed so careful. Now he was almost fanatical—not so much about his drinking, which he'd ceased, cold turkey, but about the cumbersome weight he'd been carrying.
At one point, I couldn't contain myself. "You're looking really skinny now—do you need to do that?" I asked. I was expecting an argument. Instead, he said mildly, "I tend to go overboard sometimes—I know that. But I have stopped weighing myself twice a day—don't need to, anymore. Just cutting out the wine and the beer did the trick—I was never into the hard stuff. Now I know I don't dare go near booze of any kind. It's funny what lessons life teaches you."
We ruminated about that a bit, though I still wondered if he had gradually slid into a drinking habit or had adopted drinking as some kind of escape—from what? I couldn't imagine. What I was sure of was the fact that, with Dan, the picture would never be complete. I would only know what he wanted me to know. Anything else would be privileged, out of bounds. That was okay. After all, despite the role I sometimes played, I wasn't his father—or his brother, for that matter. He had a wife; she was obviously an astute young woman. As I frequently reminded myself, I was peripheral.
"Take a look at these pictures," he said to me a couple of years ago. "This is how I've been spending my weekends." I was shown snapshots of newly painted rooms—kitchen, living room, bedroom, children's room. There were colorful ceilings, contrasting paint used on moldings and baseboards, studied efforts to "decorate" a family apartment that was cluttered with workplace paraphernalia as well as children's toys and, of course, a great many books. I had long ago learned never to even hint at criticizing anyone's decorating efforts, having schooled myself to issue such positive-seeming responses as "interesting" or "novel." "Gorgeous" was not in my vocabulary, and I left "fabulous" to the professionals who consistently strived to achieve that effect. Dan's paint jobs were clearly show-off efforts; I wondered how Linda had reacted to them. Perhaps she'd wanted them; I still hadn't met her, so I had no idea.
"Would you ever consider coming out to Queens and having dinner with us?" he asked one day. "Why of course," I said, eager to assure him that my wife and I weren't location snobs and were both eager to meet Linda and the girls. "Great," he said, but he never followed through. No actual invitation was ever extended, and I never pressed him on it. Often, of course, I wondered if Linda was aware of our relationship, Dan's and mine. And if she was, what did she make of it? Did she feel threatened in any way? And how would either Dan or I actually define our friendship if pressed to do so? We hugged when we met like the oldest and dearest of friends (or relatives or, dare I say, lovers?), but what did any of that mean or matter? Dan and I never discussed it. It was never a hot-button topic—more like a hot potato, never to be touched.
Besides, after knowing someone for more than ten years, one doesn't usually start trying to categorize the relationship. I certainly wouldn't. And what would be the purpose? Over time, I'd come to know a great deal about Dan's life, his brother's, of course, and also his wife's. But he knew almost nothing about mine; nor did he ever seem particularly interested. Although not a narcissist—I'm pretty sure of that—Dan had always been rather narrowly focused. If he seemed generous in sharing significant concerns with me, did that suggest a real or assumed intimacy? I wondered, more than once, if I were suddenly to have issues, or a crisis in my life, would I necessarily turn to Dan for solutions? And, if I did, would he be there for me?
There was an age difference, of course. I had a daughter nearly as old as he, and he knew that, although he never seemed to recognize it. I often wondered, now that I think of it, if I had brought my middle-aged wife and my fairly mature daughter into his home and his life, how he would have reacted. I mean, well, whom did he imagine he'd been talking to, all this time?
"What do you think—should I write a piece about my vasectomy and try to get it published?" That was the pretty provocative beginning to another of our midday get-togethers not long ago. Of course I hadn't known that he'd had the procedure—or why. "Well, Linda and I have had two kids—both girls, as you know. And if we had another child, chances are it, too, would be a girl. So what's the point?" We debated that notion for several minutes until I concurred that, statistically at least, if you've had two children of the same gender, chances are the next one will also be the same.
"Linda's been on the pill for years—too many, I think," he pointed out rationally, "and I hate dealing with condoms. I, well. . . " His voice trailed off and I saw his face redden. No need to go there. "I could tell you stories," he continued, suddenly. "Funny. I mean comical, but only up to a point. I've had plenty of practice, but I'm far from perfect, and, well, when I began to realize how strong the avoidance factor was beginning to affect me—I mean the relationship with my wife—I decided something had to be done. Linda agreed."
I had to ask if his vasectomy had been particularly troublesome? Painful? Risky? None of the above. Actually, it had been so routine as to seem ordinary, which is why he wanted to write about it. We spent the remainder of our meal discussing whether such an article should be humorous, disingenuous or overtly serious. Dan's approach to the topic would, of course, depend on where he decided to submit it. I urged him to consider pitching the story in idea form to a variety of editors—to see if any of them would find the topic compelling. If so, of course, he would study the magazine thoroughly to know exactly how the topic should be treated.
Dan seemed to like my suggestions, but months later I realized that after our discussion, thorough as it had been, he had taken no action. Once the procedure had lost its immediacy, and perhaps some of its lingering pain, his interest in dealing with it had evaporated.
I did wonder, of course, why he had once been so bent on describing that experience—prepared to use his own name and go public with something so intimate and personal. Maybe that's what finally convinced him to withdraw, as it were, and do nothing. Or maybe it was Linda who told him pointedly, "I don't want the whole world out there knowing what goes on in our bedroom," or maybe, "It's nobody's business whether or how we have sex." Either statement would have stopped him cold. Or did he reach similar conclusions on his own? Dan's vasectomy, despite our lengthy dissection of it, never saw print and, as far as I know, never even reached manuscript form.
"Linda and the girls are leaving in a week or so," he announced on the brink of one recent summer. "They were going to take the car—I really don't need it—but I convinced Linda that driving west, alone with two kids, would not be pleasant, and perhaps unsafe, so they're going by train. The girls are really excited." Where were they going? "Home—to Urbana—to, you know, the place where Linda and I both grew up and both have family." Linda had two sisters with children not much older than Melanie and Isabel. "They'll have fun being with their cousins all summer. Otherwise we'd have to put them in day camp here, which neither of them had been too happy about before."
I asked if Dan planned to take time off or was arranging long weekends to be with his family. "No," he said quickly, "It'll be best if I save my vacation days. Besides, we're short-handed at the office. It'd be a good idea for me to stick around." We talked a bit about the life of summer bachelors and decided that neither of us fit the pattern, although I did wonder if, having undergone a vasectomy—which, presumably, added impetus to Dan and Linda's marital relations—he would be content not being with his wife for several weeks. As I say, I wondered but did not ask. My interest in Dan stopped at his bedroom door. We had never deeply probed the subject of marital intimacy, although there were many opportunities during which we could have.
I urged him to phone me, particularly on weekends, if he was finding the walls of his place closing in on him. He said he'd be happy to but actually never did. As a matter of fact, I saw him less often that summer than I had when he was still living out west. Why? I wondered. Was he, in actuality, living a shadow life, one that I'd been blissfully unaware of? Or was she? I would probably never know.
In the fall, when we met again for lunch, he talked excitedly about what a good summer his kids had had. "What about Linda?" I heard myself ask. "She was so glad to be back home, I couldn't tell," he said. I must have looked puzzled, I guess, for he added, "I think we needed to be away from each other for a while." No more was said on that subject and, needless to say, I didn't press him. Of course I was curious—who wouldn't be?—but I'd been an arm's-length confidant to Dan for so many years that I really did know my place and was okay with it.
Around Christmastime twe began speaking again about careers, and he wondered—somewhat halfheartedly, I thought—why I'd been content to be a freelance after so many years of filling staff positions, each one being a bit more significant than its predecessor. I explained, as tactfully as I could, that in today's business world, age can be a negative factor, though one that might never be expressed overtly. I said that I'd long ago given up the idea of working for anyone other than myself.
He shook his head; I thought he understood. Then suddenly, I heard him ask, "Are you over seventy?" in a tone suggesting that I'd been holding out on him all the time we'd known each other. "Yes," I said, for by then I certainly was, adding, "And I may be even older than your dad." I smiled; he didn't. He seemed not to have any kind of measurable response. I changed the subject, but he was suddenly distant. Thoughtful? Not really. Just no longer truly present.
That was the last time I saw him. When months passed and there was no further word from him—no attempts to communicate—it was clear that our relationship, such as it was, had faded. We had become a kind of habit, now broken. Over the years we had enjoyed each other's company, of course, as long as we had kept Dan in the spotlight. We had survived two decades of routine get-togethers that never threatened or substantially deepened our friendship. We had been familiar but never really close.
Maybe arms' length had become too burdensome or too painful, too hard to sustain. I knew, as time passed and no contact reoccurred, that there could be no easy route back, that what we had lost we probably could never regain. But what was it that had bound us, however loosely, all that time? Some kind of kinship, I guess. Was there a subtext, an undercurrent, that I had missed and had apparently upended by revealing my maturity? I would never know, of course, and as time passed would cease being curious.
I remembered our lunches fondly, aware that they were past, part of our individual histories, occasions to be cordoned off in our minds and probably forgotten. Today, when having lunch with a friend or former colleague, I do think of Dan and wonder. . . what? I mean, what was it that had kept us coming together so often, so lont? And was our friendship so truly fragile that it could collapse in a seeming instant? Had it been that loosely pasted together?
On an errand in midtown, not long ago, I passed a man on the street who looked straight ahead and never made eye contact but looked oddly familiar. Was that Dan—wearing glasses, finally, and a baseball cap? I wanted to turn and check but didn't, and I sensed that he, too, had continued walking. The image of that man did stay with me, however, but I could never reconcile it with the person I had known. I'd seemed to have forgotten what he looked like. All I could recall was the scent of his after-shave, a pungent blend of lime and alcohol. Nothing else ever came to mind. I'm sure the image of his face and the glow of his personality remained somewhere in the recess of my consciousness, but, as I walked away from that man on the street, I felt nothing. His absence had been a void in my life, but I had grown accustomed to it.
The other day, my wife asked casually, "Whatever happened to that guy you used to have lunch with so often?" I was a blank. For a moment I couldn't fathom whom she was talking about, and since then have been hard pressed at times to even remember his name. Funny how the mind works, because—for some odd reason, it was as though he'd never actually happened.
Perhaps it's my age.
#Unreal #Fiction #Aging #Relationships #LunchChats #FamilyIssues
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