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Gary Benchley, Rock Star

Among the Horses

In the city of ambition, dreams are rarely packaged with paychecks, and everyone must do something to pay the bills—even if it doesn’t involve rock.

We played the gig in New Paltz. It was just a noisy party in a warehouse, which meant we sounded like we were underwater, but people were generally appreciative, in an offhand way. After the show, someone said, “Sounded good.” That was about it.


This is one of the hardest lessons to learn about being a musician: People don’t really care about you and your needs, unless you’re actually famous. You’re just there to make interesting noises and amuse them, and they don’t care if your mother just died or your girlfriend just dumped you. You go up on stage to wrestle with the demon muse, but they simply look on nodding, holding plastic cups filled with beer. Roman gladiators probably felt this way, looking into the crowd.

I guess I’d expected more glory from playing out, but I vowed not to become bitter, at least not until we had a record deal. And there was some glory; it was just fractional. Like when Katherine’s brother, who’d organized the party in New Paltz, came around to pay the band. It felt good to be remunerated for our hard work, our discipline, our careful attention to stage presence.

Jacob: How do you divide $50 four ways?

Scott: You put aside $20 for gas and buy beer with what’s left over.

After New Paltz, we got down to work on the demo, slaving away. For the first week. But Scott was busy at work, and Jacob had to keep canceling rehearsals, and Katherine was working hard to build a huge persimmon for a film set.

So we made a group decision to slow down on the demo, while we each pursued our individual goals. We’d still rehearse once a week, to keep our skills fresh, and to discuss the demo, and when we had a little more time, we’d buckle down and record.

I felt a little awkward, because I don’t really have any individual goals besides making Schizopolis work, but I couldn’t expect everyone to give up their careers, either. So I found myself with a lot of time to read, and think, and work on my unique vocal stylings. I didn’t do any of these things, because of cable television.

So I was sitting around at home one night when my roommate David burst through the door. “How are you doing?” he said.

I tried to answer but he cut me off. “That’s very interesting, because I’m getting married.”

Gary: Holy shit! You’re getting married. When?

David: Late 2006. Not before. I gave Sue the ring yesterday.

Gary: You did? What kind of ring?

David: An…engagement ring.

Gary: But like with a diamond?

David: No, it’s made from tires.

Gary: She said yes?

David: [shaking head] Do you know what marriage is? When two people exchange vows and decide to share their fortunes?

Gary: Am I invited?

David: Probably.

Gary: Great.

David: We’re registering at Michael Fina. Do you want a beer?

Gary: Shit! We have to drink a beer!

We got beers. David sat on his bed, and I took his desk chair. He told me about how Sue is 32. “Tick, tick, tick,” he said. The ring had cost him $12,500, several months’ salary for me. I had to stop and remember that David is making $100,000 a year and living cheaply so he can help out his parents with their medical bills.

“So my mom cried for like an hour,” he said. “I told her, and she just started crying, and then she kissed me about 20 times. It was tears everywhere. It was like the time I saw Philadelphia in the Village. And my father comes in, right, and my mother screams it to him, shrieks. ‘David’s getting married,’ and then she says, ‘You boys take some time,’ and goes upstairs. So Dad takes me out to the back yard, and we light up a cigar, and he’s like, ‘Tell me about your plans.’”

“Some good Dad time,” I said.

“So we sit for a while. He doesn’t say much, you know? And he says to me, ‘Son, I know you’ve been helping us out a lot here. But you’re going to need to stop that.’ And he puts his hand on my arm, and says, ‘Don’t you worry about us. The best gift you can give us is to have a family of your own.’”

“Wow,” I said. “Your dad calls you ‘son.’”

“And you know, I was about to start crying again, but you can’t cry in front of your Dad.”

“No,” I said. “You can’t. If he’d wanted tears, he’d have had a daughter.”

“So I said, ‘Do you want to talk about the Mets?’”

“That’s what you said?”

“And he said, ‘I want to talk about that Art Howe.’ Because he can see I’m about to cry.”

“Who’s Art Howe?”

David shook his head at my ignorance. It turned out to be the Mets’ manager.

David went on to tell me that he is planning to move out soon, once a few details are worked out. Sue has a beautiful apartment on Mott Street, in the city. And David is still going to help his parents out with expenses. “Unless we have kids,” he said. “But that’s a year or two off.”

We talked about the ring. He’d bought it from men in skullcaps, in a busy jewelry store in the diamond district. He impersonated the man who sold him the diamond, doing a Yiddish accent: “You want a beautiful diamond? How beautiful is this woman? Because too beautiful a diamond isn’t good for a woman if she’s not that beautiful.” Which of course had led David to go $5,000 above his budget.

He told the story in slow motion, moving his hands to show how he slid the jewelry box across the table, a gray metal box with an inlaid silver top, and then she opened it to see black velvet with the gold inside. Sue immediately started to cry, then put it on; the fit was perfect, David said, and the ring caught the light, glowing.

“The ring, man,” he said. “It’s like the most powerful symbol in the universe.”

When I wasn’t working, rehearsing, or sitting around aimlessly, I went out with Para. Her conversations increasingly left me baffled. She was angry about George W. Bush, a woman’s right to choose, copyright law, and the recent design trends. “I mean, the Dutch are well and good,” she said. “But there are other places to look for ideas.”

“I agree,” I said. On the plus side, she seemed to be coming around to Schizopolis. She told me that it was fun to date a young lead singer, and her friends were jealous.

Para: I saw you on stage, and I was worried that girls would snatch you away.

Gary: I am unsnatchable.

Para: Everyone is snatchable.

Gary: Gary Benchley is the portrait of fidelity.

Para: Have you been tested?

Gary: For…HIV?

Para: No, although that wouldn’t be a bad idea. For fidelity.

I thought about it for a moment, considering Katherine. I admitted that I had been tested.

This led to a quick round of questions. Para wanted to know who had done the testing, so I immediately lied and told her it was just someone I’d met out one night. Then Para wanted to know if the girl was cute or not. No, I told Para, she was not cute.

So I went from truthfulness to total falsehood, in two sentences—a Benchley record. Then, I realized, if this imaginary girl-who-is-not-Katherine (let’s call her X) wasn’t attractive, then it wasn’t a big deal to turn her down, and I hadn’t scored any fidelity points.

So I amended my statement and said, actually, yes, the girl was pretty cute.

Then Para wanted X’s name, so I pulled out “Liz,” which is what some people call my sister. This was a mistake, because now I was talking about being attracted to my sister, and it felt kind of nasty. “Was there any kissing?” Para asked, and of course there hadn’t been, because who makes out with their sister? So I said, no, my lips belonged only to Para, and I had engaged in absolutely no extracurricular smooching.

Para: Good. That was the right choice.

Gary: It was the only choice.

Para: I was a little worried about that girl in your band.

Gary: Katherine? Or Scott?

Para: Katherine. You never talk about her.

Gary: She’s pretty funny. She says raunchy stuff.

Para: Like what?

Gary: Like, with Scott. They’re like two girls. They talk about cock. I can’t really convey it.

Para: Uh-huh.

Shit.

Gary: She’s a crazy drummer.

Para: Do you think she’s pretty?

Gary: Oh, no. Of course not. She’s my bandmate.

Para: Because her nose is definitely not the smallest.

“No,” I said, not sure who I was betraying. “It’s not the smallest nose.”

Para’s birthday was Oct. 30, and we set out to do some camping. Para is from Vermont, so she thinks, incorrectly, that winter is a good time to do things outside. Growing up in Albany, I never went camping in the winter. Winter is the time when your hair gel freezes to your head while you wait for the school bus. But winter, for Para, is long hikes and Christmas trees, and pancake breakfasts with maple syrup.

We were leaving on Saturday morning so we could enjoy the drive, and both of us were taking off from work on Monday. We were going to meet Para’s mother, and stay at her house, on Saturday night, then camp on Sunday night.

I decided not to bring any cigarettes. I haven’t really been smoking that much, and Para doesn’t know I’m smoking. Which is fine, as I’ve only been smoking 10 or 15 cigarettes a day, and quitting is no big deal.

“Will your mom hate me?” I asked.

“No, she’ll like you,” said Para. “You’re much nicer than most of the boys I’ve brought home.”

I tried not to think about that. “Am I on the couch?”

Para laughed. “No, of course not. It’s all very modern. You’re in a bed.”

“Your bed, right? It would be weird if it was your mom’s bed.”

Para made a disgusted noise and refused to respond.

“Unless we had a three-way.” In response, Para kept her eyes on the road and her face somber, refusing to acknowledge I existed. A moment later, thought, she’d forgotten about my observations, and began to hop up and down in her seat.

“Gary, look at this beautiful nature,” she said. “I don’t know why I live in the city,” she said. “I want to live in a tent.” Going North had released Para’s inner hippie. “What I always wanted to do,” said Para, “and what I am going to do some day, is run a horse farm.”

“And raise organic horses?”

“I rode so many horses,” she said. Para loves the horses. On the mantel of the defunct fireplace in her apartment is a set of small plastic horse figurines, and in an album under her bed there are photos of her riding, 12 years old and light as a leaf. I asked for the name of her horse.

Para: There was Sunshine, and Maplewood, and Bill.

Gary: What was Bill like?

Para: He was beautiful.

Gary: What is it with horses and women?

Para: You don’t like horses?

Gary: They look hungry.

Para: Riding horses is the best thing in the world. It’s better than pie.

Gary: I’m sure it’s the best thing in the world to straddle a giant throbbing beast and ride it around. Clearly it’s gotten a lot of girls through middle school.

Para: Oh, God. I worked at a stable in high school, and there was this one nag that we used to put all the little girls on. We called him ‘the hymen buster.’

Gary: You did?

Para: His name was Chief.

Para told me she could have me on a horse within three hours. I said she was sensing urgency where none existed. But it turned out her childhood friend Kenyon and his wife, Piper, had a stable on their property, a few minutes from Para’s mother’s place. She had an open invitation to come by and ride any time she wanted. It would only take a phone call.

She pulled her cell from her purse. I demurred. She insisted. I demurred again. She couldn’t believe I wouldn’t ride a horse. “I’m not in the mood,” I said. She took her hands off the wheel of the car, put them to her mouth as if she was praying, and flapped them. “I’m Gary Benchley, and I’m not in the mood,” she said.

“What is that?” I asked, as she put her hands back on the wheel.

“That’s your cunt lips flapping when you tell me you won’t ride a horse,” she said.

For Para to use the word “cunt” was pretty remarkable. She didn’t like deprecatory genital words. I cracked the window, breathed deeply, and found that, unlike the city, the air here did not taste like socks. The world outside was green, and (I searched for a more poetic word) verdant.

“Horses love you,” said Para. “Come on, Benchley.”

“OK,” I said. “I’ll ride.”

Para made some calls. Yes, Kenyon and Piper were home. In fact, they were working on their Christmas decorations at the moment, because their home was going to be on the county-wide local Christmas tour, and you can’t get too early a start. I heard a shrill, laughing voice come through the cell phone—Piper, I guessed—saying “He’s never ridden a horse?!” And, yes, definitely, they were glad to open their stable to us for a casual ride through a wooded glen.

So it was decided; I was going to have my equine cherry popped, within two hours. Para, already hopping with Vermont excitement, began to grin like a madwoman. “Gary Benchley is going to ride a horse,” she said.

“And meet your Mom,” I said. This trip was turning into a huge anxious horror.

 

* * *


Kenyon and Piper lived in a many-gabled, large-garaged, eaves-ridden home, with two gazebos, one for emergencies. A bit away from the house, across a field, was the stable. Three horses stood there, munching.

“Gary!” said Kenyon. “Our first-time rider! Nice to meet you!” Kenyon was blond; even his pants were blond. Heartily, he shook my hand, and shepherded Para and me through the foyer to the first dining room. It was the biggest house I’d ever seen. Its cream walls were liberally decorated with signed, hand-numbered, framed etchings of local barns.

The limousine-sized dining room table was piled high with ivy cuttings and dried wildflowers, and beyond the table sat Piper. A German shepherd lay curled at her feet. The shepherd came over and inquisitively shoved its nose directly into my crotch.

“Deepak!” said Kenyon. “He does that. Deepak!” Deepak the German shepherd gave a sniff, and sauntered back to Piper. I felt rejected.

“As you can see, I’m just trimming,” said Piper, snipping a vine with some garden shears.

“It smells so wonderful,” said Para.

“Well, it’s so competitive, the Christmas house tour. You have no idea. We’re getting a head start. Isn’t that ridiculous? In October?”

“That is like, so crazy,” I said.

“Gary,” said Para, “if you’d seen this place when they moved in, you’d be shocked.”

“I’m shocked already,” I said.

“You have to see the upstairs,” said Piper.

Para had known Kenyon in high school. They met up again in New York, where Kenyon had worked in an extreme money situation. Kenyon made millions, married Piper, and two years ago, came back his Vermont roots, to retire and restore this house, at 28 years of age.

There was more refurbishing chat, about masonry trim. A South American woman in a Ben & Jerry’s T-shirt walked into the room with an unplugged vacuum cleaner, then apologized and walked out. No one seemed to notice.

Kenyon asked what I did for a living.

“I work with Para,” I said.

“Ooh, office romance,” said Piper. “Well, I’m glad you’ve come to visit.”

I thanked her, and thought of my little room in Williamsburg, one-fifth the size of their dining room.

“Gary’s also a musician,” said Para.

“It’s just a hobby,” I said.

“What sort of music?” asked Kenyon.

“Oh, you know,” I said.

“Indie rock,” said Para.

“Do you know Galaxie 500?” asked Kenyon.

“I love them,” I said.

“I have a real connection to them because of school,” said Kenyon. This, I realized after a moment, was code for, “I went to Harvard, like the members of Galaxie 500.”

“You know, I don’t want to cut this off,” said Para. “But before you two share indie rock stories, I want to put Gary on a horse.”

“Of course,” said Kenyon.

“You’ve really never ridden, Gary?” Piper asked.

I had the sense Piper would be shocked by some of the things I’ve never done. I’ve never yachted, for instance, or eaten off of real silver, or owned a chain of hotels.

“Not a lot of riding in Albany,” I said.

“Oh, that is so not true!” said Piper. “I went to at least a dozen equestrian events in the Finger Lakes.”

“Para was top equestrian at Wellesley,” said Para.

“Oh,” I said. “Well.”

Kenyon and Piper left us to find our own way to the stable, because they were too involved with snipping ivy, and with exploiting South American housekeepers, to join us in the stables.

“What do I do?” I asked. “Do I have to wear those hats? Or jodhpurs? What are jodhpurs?”

“I would love to see you in a riding hat,” said Para. “But it’s not required.” We unlatched a fence and she pointed me to a gelded dappled white Arabian roan stallion horse, or whatever. His name was Santa.

“Make friends,” Para said. On cue, Santa snorted and looked over at me. A small blast of steam came out of his nostrils, like an angry dragon.

I went up to him. I put a hand on his side, tentatively. It was warm, and his muscled sides flinched at my touch. “Hey there, Santa,” I said. “You like the Pixies?”

Hearing a quiet thump, I looked back to find Para already mounted.

Gary: How’d you get up there?

Para: Lead him over to the mounting block.

Gary: Lead him…using my natural leadership skills?

Para: Take the bridle.

Gary: Is this the bridle? Stop laughing.

Para: Yes, that’s the bridle. Now lead him over to the big piece of wood.

Santa licked my hand. “He’s moist,” I said. “Is that good?”

I led him over to the block, and was relieved that he stopped walking when I did. I got up on the block. “Now what?” I said.

“One leg, then the other.”

I stopped counting after my 789th mounting attempt. Finally, Para dismounted, came over, and pushed me onto the horse, which took seven more tries. God, I wanted a cigarette.

Finally, I got on, and leaned forward, trying to find my balance.

“I think I have this,” I said.

“Great,” said Para.

“What’s your horse’s name?”

“Oscar,” she said. “He’s a Dutch warmblood.” She patted his neck. “And so very handsome.”

“I feel jealous,” I said. “Particularly given the hymen-buster conversation.”

“Take the reins,” Para said, suddenly very no-nonsense. I picked up the reins, feeling a little more in control but still wobbly.

“OK,” I said. “So where’s the ignition?”

“Just kick him,” she said.

I brushed my feet against Santa’s side. Nothing. I tried a few more times, finally delivering a solid thump, and Santa began to move forward, towards the fence.

“There you go,” said Para. “You’re riding a horse.”

Para led the way on Oscar, and Santa followed. I began to get the hang of it. After we got out of the yard, or field, or corral, she had her horse double around, and she kicked a red button that automatically closed the fence gate. The horse we left behind looked up at the sound of the fence closing, then put its head back down.

Santa turned to follow Para, which surprised me. I said, “Whoa.” Santa stopped.

“Check that out,” I said. “I say ‘whoa,’ and he understands me. That’s where ‘whoa’ comes from.”

“You ready?” Para asked. “We’re going to take a trail through the woods.”

“Sure,” I said. “Let’s kill us some injuns.”

Santa followed Oscar through the woods. The forest rose up around us, a carpet of leaves below, with a few still left on the trees. It was a fairy tale. Of course, this was a Vermont fairy tale, so instead of an evil witch in a gingerbread house, you’d have a Wiccan priestess in a small home made from spelt bread. But the vibe was the same: a children’s book, with dappled light coming through the branches, and the gentle clop of horses on soft ground. We came to a clearing.

“This isn’t so bad,” I yelled to Para.

Para brought Oscar up next to Santa. I tried to lean over to kiss her, like in a movie, but nearly fell off.

“Careful, man,” she said. “Don’t lose your balance.”

“I am so balanced,” I said. “Balance is all I’ve got. I’m in Vermont on a horse with my beautiful girlfriend for her birthday. This is exactly what I need. Just Para and Gary.”

I was looking forward to the moment, later, when I’d give Para her birthday present, which was a book by someone named Jan Tsichold, called Essays on the Morality of Good Design. Thrilling. But Jan was apparently the shit when it came to graphic arts.

Para had coveted this book one day in a used bookstore, but apparently it was rare, and cost $150, so she’d decided against getting it. I’d gone back and bought it, and now it was wrapped in my duffel bag in the trunk of the car.

I leaned back and put out my arms, taking a deep breath, pulling in as much of Vermont as I could. I hadn’t realized how nervous I’d been, how much being a perpetual amateur in the city of experts had gotten to me. High above the ground, on this beast, the cold cutting through my jacket—I felt as if I could stay here for eternity, free of Pro Tools and demos, under wispy clouds at the edge of dusk.

Then I fell from the horse, like this: whump.

I was winded, but I got up feeling jubilant. Who cares if you fall? I was here trying something totally new, experiencing something fresh. I dusted myself off, promising Para I was fine, I was really OK, I was more than fine. Then I stepped back over to Santa, trying to figure how I’d mount him without a big piece of wood, and in that single step, I caught my foot on a fallen branch, fell over, and sprained my right ankle.

The mother of agony shot from my ankle. It was like this for Christopher Reeve, I thought.

Para hopped off of Oscar, urging me to stay still. The horses stood without moving, unconcerned.

“Let me see,” she said, taking my hand. I hopped up on one leg.

“I just totally ruined our horse time,” I said.

“Is it doctor bad?”

“Ice-pack bad,” I said. I don’t have any insurance, which means that nothing short of a missing foot is doctor bad.

“Can you walk at all?”

“A little.” I hopped in a circle, putting a few ounces of pressure on my right side. The results were disappointing. After a bit of stumbling, with Para supporting me, we decided to go back. Except, as I had noted, there was no mounting block this time.

“This is going to be hard,” I said. Para helped, pushing hard to get my body up on the horse. My bad ankle sent bursts of fresh pain every time I flailed.

Finally, Para said, “Just grab on. He won’t mind.” This was true. I climbed Santa like he was a mountain, pulling myself up stomach over saddle, and slowly, slowly righted myself.

Don’t cry, I thought. Do not cry.

“It could have happened to anyone,” said Para, hopping onto her own horse, as if the horse was just a fairly high-up sofa.

“But it definitely happened to me,” I said. We rode back to the stable, and Para got off of Oscar and led Santa to the mounting block, then came around to help me dismount. I moved very carefully and very slowly. The ankle throbbed—definitely good and sprained, probably crutchworthy.

We stumbled back to the house, finding the door open. Hearing us enter, Piper yelled, “I hope you both like brie!” Then she saw us, as Para helped me through the long, parquet-tiled hallway.

“Oh God, what happened?”

“I fell off Santa,” I said, “and then I fell down. I’m kind of special.”

“Do we need a doctor?” asked Kenyon, appearing from a side room. “I know some people at the UVM sports-medicine center.” It sounded like a brag.

“No,” I said. “Just a sprain.”

Piper prepared a place for me on an enormous couch, and put a needlepoint pillow, decorated with a stallion, on the coffee table, on which I rested my foot. No one mentioned my scruffy socks, which I appreciated. Kenyon, an athletic man, had a wide variety of ice packs and bandages, which he handed to Para, and which she helped me apply.

Some Vicodin (left over, Piper said, from the treatment for a recent tennis injury) soothed me before I could start to feel like too much of an idiot. And everyone spoke soothing words, asking me what I wanted to do, what would make me comfortable. What I wanted to do, I decided, was turn on the massive plasma television and watch some HBO, and drink a bottle of wine. But instead I asked for a drink of water.

“God, we’re supposed to go to my mother’s,” said Para.

“Sure,” I said. “Let’s go.”

“You relax for a while,” said Para. “There’s no hurry.”

“I was really having fun,” I said.

“I know,” she said.

“Maybe we can still go camping,” I said.

Para shook her head. “It’s OK,” she said.

So we all sat around the living room, on seats of great plushness, and talked of many things. We spoke of horses and injuries, and Kenyon listed the worst accidents in his life of sport, which included a torn shoulder from rugby, a lacrosse ball concussion, swimmer’s ear, and rope burns from sailing. Piper countered with tennis elbow, a cracked rib when a horse “went spooky” on her (I had the image of a horse reeling up and saying “MWA HA HA HA HA!”) during a freestyle dressage competition turned tragic, and—she said this as if it was dirty—a bruised breast playing polo.

“Smacked her tit!” said Kenyon.

Kenyon!” said Piper. “Gary, are you sure you don’t want a doctor?”

I smiled, feeling a little detached, and insisted I was fine. A little later, after complimenting Kenyon and Piper on their glorious home, their hospitality, their generosity regarding horses, I hobbled out to the car on Para’s arm, and we drove the half-hour to Para’s mother’s. At every bump and pothole, Para apologized, and I in turn told her not to worry, although the pain was returning despite the Vicodin.

Para’s mother had gray hair tied in a ponytail. She’d been warned by phone of my condition.

“Hi,” I said, shaking her hand. “I’m your daughter’s broken boyfriend.”

“Call me Eileen,” she said.

She led me in and propped me on the couch. Eileen’s house was much more to my speed, two stories, no stable, no gazebos, and books everywhere—which made sense, as she was a librarian. Nice and middle-classed. There was a smell of roasting chicken. “You eat meat, right Gary?” she asked. “If you’re up for eating.”

“I could eat,” I said.

“Para?”

“I don’t know if I’m hungry,” said Para.

We had dinner. Between bites, I said that I worked with Para, I was in a band; yes, it was exciting; yes, I enjoyed going to art galleries with Para; no, I had never been to Vermont before.

Para’s mother told me about her job as a senior librarian at UVM, and told a story about how the young activist girls at the college had lately been leaving angry notes in the library suggestion box, because the library received Playboy, on microfilm, but not Playgirl.

“And for God’s sake, Gary,” said Eileen. “You don’t know this about me, but I’m 90 times the feminist of any of these little girls. I wrote fan mail to Bella Abzug.”

“You too?” I said.

Later, Para and I went upstairs; it wasn’t a question that we’d sleep in the same bed, which was a relief, although it made me think of all the other men that Para had brought home and been allowed to have sex with under her mother’s eye.

“Your mom is pretty serious about library stuff,” I said.

“‘Libraries are the boundary between civilization and chaos,’” said Para. “That’s a quote.”

“Well, there are some other boundaries,” I said. “Like pants. Without pants, it’s chaos.”

“Mom would put pants after libraries,” said Para.

“Maybe she has a point,” I said. We reclined, and I sighed. It felt good to be under covers and still after this day of horses and mothers.

After a while, Para said, “You know, I’m bummed. I kind of wanted to do it in my childhood bed.”

“This is your childhood bed? It’s queen-sized. How big was your crib?”

“Actually, no, this is a guest bed. But you know.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I mean, I could get something going.”

This was true. Even if I’d had my arms chopped off, and a case of rickets, if sex was called for, I could muster the energy. There was no reason a sprained ankle should drop the curtain on some play.

“Just relax, big fella,” said Para. “It’ll wait.”

She was right; I needed to rest. But I had to tell my brain, which had become excited about the slim potential of sex, that there wasn’t going to be any after all.

My brain was upset for a moment, and then it said, “Well, that’s probably for the best.” Then I fell asleep like I’d been hit on the head by a Pink Floyd hammer.

I woke alone to serious, but diminished, ankle pain and the smell of blueberry pancakes. I went downstairs to a mother-daughter argument.

Para: I’ll tell you about Christmas when I make my mind up. I don’t know what I’m doing this year.

Para’s mom: Hello, Gary. Para, honey, I just think it would be nice to have you here one time. We could decorate the tree.

Para: I just don’t know. We’ll see.

Para’s mom: ‘We’ll see.’ Gary, my daughter is incapable of making plans.

Para: I make plans all the time.

Gary: Those pancakes smell tasty.

For breakfast there were pancakes, and maple syrup, and bickering. I ate several helpings of the pancakes and stayed out of the bickering. I noticed that Eileen, like her daughter, did not really eat food, but rather looked at it, and nibbled at the edges. Instead of eating, she made cutting statements about Para never visiting, and Para’s lack of ambition.

These weren’t direct hits. Rather, Eileen might just be talking away about her friend Doug, another librarian who was preparing a book-length bibliography on the Vietnam War, and she’d say, “He works hard. But of course, Para, you like to relax.”

Para would take the bait, and say, “I work very hard.” Then her mother would say, “Gary, you work with Para. Is she a hard worker?” And I would say, “Para is like an incredible motor that never stops.” Then Eileen would say, “Well that’s good, because in high school, she would never wake up in the morning.” And Para would huff.

After a long half-hour of that, I offered to help with the dishes, but was refused and directed to the living room. There, I stretched barefoot on the couch and Eileen instructed Para on the right way to fill the dishwasher, to which Para snapped, “I know how to fill up a goddamned dishwasher.” I turned on the TV and watched a show where people play competitive video games. It was strangely interesting.

At noon, we had some cake, and sang happy birthday to Para. It was all a little tense and hurried. In the rush to blow out the candles, I forgot about her gift. We put the plates in the sink. “I’ll deal with the dishwasher, honey,” said Eileen. Para told me we were leaving.

In the car on the way home, Para spent a good hour surfing a huge wave of mother-frustration, whining like a saw cutting through steel. I looked at trees and tried not to move my foot.

“Breathe that air,” I said. The mother-whining and the swelling were hard to take all at once.

“You’re right,” said Para. “I need to breathe.” She rolled her own window down.

I napped on and off as we drove. Finally, many hours later, we came to the skyline, and I thought again of Para’s book, wrapped up in the trunk. I’d hoped to give it to her as we cuddled in sleeping bags, under the winter sky. Still, I could give it to her tonight before bed, and cheer her up. That was almost as good. Even so, when I saw the tall buildings of New York, a sight that usually fills me with a sense of triumph, for the first time, I felt a definite gnaw of regret.