In September everyone in my life caught election fever. Scott created a spreadsheet with his own electoral college statistics. Jacob went to visit his cousin in Pennsylvania, to knock on doors in Philadelphia. Katherine gave out beets with “Bush” stickers on them. (“Beet Bush,” she said. “Get it? Plus, I’m a drummer.”) And Para went out of control, making web banners for her blog with vague slogans like “Defeat the Hegemony of Evil” and “No Monsters in 2004,” emailing them to her blogger friends.
She showed them to me, then showed me other blogs where they were posted. I nodded with approval, and kept nodding as she complained about electronic voting machine interface designs. At work, she emailed me five times a day, pointing to sites with names like Counterpunch and Talking Points Memo, and read to me from articles in the Nation and Harper’s. “I’m feeling human again,” she said one night; apparently the meds were kicking in.
“George W. Bush has brought us closer together,” I said.
“You’re a patient boyfriend,” she said, rubbing her slipper against my calf. In the last weeks, she’d told me about all of her past boyfriends, and her jobs, and we kept up our hugging regimen, moving into oil massages while listening to gentle music.
Scott: You only have sex once a month?
Scott: You’re 22.
Gary: 23. But we’re both pretty busy. I mean, the rehearsals are sort of eating into my sex time, you know?
We moved on to band chatter, but what he’d said began to bug me.
Gary: Do you really think once a month’s not enough?
Scott: It depends. At 23, I’d be going out of my mind.
Gary: She’s on meds, so it kind of kills the—
Scott: Oh—yeah, that definitely happens.
Gary: You’ve heard of that?
Scott: I’ve been that guy on meds.
Personally, I think the situation is pretty normal. There’s a scene in Annie Hall, where Diane Keaton is talking to her therapist, and, complaining about Woody’s character, she says, “He wants to have sex all the time. It’s like total madness. I’m so crazy I wear neckties.” Or something like that. Then it cuts to Woody Allen, with his therapist, and he says, “I’m going to explode from sexual frustration, and if something doesn’t give, I’m going to start having sex with my adopted daughter.”
So, you know, it’s a common problem. When things first started out with Para, the intimacy came fast and furious, and so did I. But the tapering off is a natural part of dating a woman in her 30s, I think. Besides, sex in a relationship is something that must be cultivated and carefully tended, like a field of wheat, so that you might harvest it in springtime. No one expects to reap their wheat every day.
So Para is my field of wheat. I didn’t tell her that, of course. I just went over to her apartment once or twice a week, and watched TV, and played with Butter, her cat. We talked more, about her meds, and about my musical plans, and she vowed to come to our next show. We discussed Teresa Heinz Kerry’s fashion choices. And then, suddenly, we had a chat about babies—not just any babies, but the kind that would come out of Para’s vagina.
The conversation started in bed. I’d expected a night of amiable snuggling, but without warning, Para was interested in some action. A few minutes later, when things were going good, she whispered, “Gary, what do you fantasize about?”
This question has come up before, and it’s a risky one. Example: During college, I dated a woman named Kath. And one night, she asked me about my fantasies, and after I gave her an evasive answer, she said, “For me, I think a lot about having a really big dick.” After that there was a lot of weird discussion, and an electric leg razor, and certain parts of me that were normally rough and dark became smooth and white, and I had red marks on my forehead the next morning from being smacked into the headboard of her bed. When I got home, I had to really think hard about what kind of man I was. I had to rent Raiders of the Lost Ark and watch it a couple of times before I felt better.
So when Para asked me about my fantasies, with her hand on my thigh, I thought immediately of that night with Kath. And I realized, shamefully, that I never, ever fantasize about Para. I try to, sometimes. In my mind, she’s naked and willing, but then the camera pans left, and it’s someone totally inappropriate with a ready smile.
Even worse, the night before, I’d had a dream about Katherine. It had been vivid, taking place on her large messy bed, next to her drums. Every detail was perfect, including the sound of the condom wrapper tearing open, and in the dream I’d rationalized that it was for the good of the band—anything that made us a tighter unit was a good thing.
So I shrugged. “Just stuff,” I said to Para. “You know, I fantasize about regular stuff.” She smiled at this, and curled up next to me. The cat sat between us, all breathing together. “What about you?”
Gary: Of course.
Para: I think a lot about being pregnant.
Para: Yeah. It just seems so awesome. Like, you’ve got this thing inside of you. You’re making this completely new life.
Gary: I guess I can see that.
Para: Like, I think a lot about unsafe sex. Like, just not worrying about it.
Gary: I am definitely in agreement here.
Para: Does that totally freak you out?
Gary: [freaked out] I am the opposite of freaked out.
Para: [excited] And also, sex when you’re pregnant.
Luckily, it was dark, or she would have seen my eyes open as wide as half-dollars. We’d already had the what-if-I-get-pregnant discussion (where “I” equals “Para”), months ago. “I don’t know what I’d do,” I’d said, and she said, “I don’t know either.” I’d thought we were in agreement, but now I wondered if our “I don’t knows” meant radically different things. She seemed to be thinking “Poppa Don’t Preach,” whereas I was coming more from a Ben Folds “Brick” sort of place. I’m out there planting a field of wheat, and she was thinking about the hard, expensive buns that come out of the oven nine months later.
But while I was hiding my agitation, and wondering what it would be like to be a dad, Para jumped on me as if I was a pony. I put aside my fears and guilt (with the exception of the moment when Para ripped the condom wrapper, which put me back in mind of Katherine), and in the morning our discussion was forgotten in the regular activities of finding my socks and going out for coffee.
I left when Para started to read me the Krugman editorial from the Times. Democracy is well and good, but I needed to keep my eye on the rock, especially after the nightmare of our first performance. Luckily, everyone in Schizopolis acknowledged that our first show had blown utterly, and our rehearsals became serious, motivated. That we began to sound genuinely OK helped, too.
When you’re in a band, and you’re ambitious, you have to be two people. You have to be the true believer, and also a serious, objective critic. Believer Benchley had been beat down pretty hard by our performance, but Objective Benchley was still intact, and when he listened to Schizopolis rehearse, he acknowledged something was growing, getting better. And the band was growing closer, not just in my dreams. We were talking more, focusing on the music, talking about our performance ideas.
Not that there weren’t difficulties. Jacob was usually late, by 10 minutes or half an hour. And sometimes our focus drifted. Katherine had a smoke machine. Scott liked to talk about his video-projection ideas and custom computer graphics. But, in the end, we always decided to focus on the music and worry about special effects later, and Katherine even promised to hold off on the fireworks. I began to feel confident in my own voice. I noticed things about the songs we’d written that I’d never noticed before. Mostly, I’d forgotten about dynamics, and I felt very guilty when I realized that. I’d been singing at two volumes—forteforte and forteforteforte, like I was singing along with Slayer. Here I was, 23, aspiring musician, and I’d forgotten about dynamics.
Jacob didn’t care about the theatrics, but he often came with CDs in hand, and insisted we listen to them. One day it was a Suede rip-off named Flinch, the next, an old Eugenius disc. One Saturday, he popped in an especially annoying CD by a band called Slake. “They’re going to be the next Radiohead,” he said, nodding knowingly. So we listened, Jacob skipping through the tracks and narrating—or, rather, lecturing—about what we needed to hear—this drum part, that bass line, this synth line.
We had good reason to humor Jacob’s listening habits: He had set us up with a second gig—due to his influence, we were opening for The Crothers Scatmen in early October. They were a Brooklyn punk band (“they play with Japanther,” Jacob explained), and the concert was part of the Matchstick Magazine Showcase, which was focused this year on Brooklyn bands. “We’re just opening,” he said. “But it’ll be a real audience.” It felt like redemption, a chance to put things right so soon after failure. I felt truly lucky.
Because I am lucky. I live in Williamsburg, which is still the finest neighborhood in the world. I’m in a promising local band, and I just turned 23 at the beginning of September, marking a full year living in New York. I’d hunted apartments and jobs, and captured both; I’d been with the same woman for nearly half a year, and Albany was out of my system. I’d been back for Christmas and Thanksgiving, and once just to visit, but Albany was only where my mom and dad lived. New York City was my home.
I went out with some friends for my birthday, on a Tuesday night. Para and I had discussed the night, and decided to celebrate on the weekend. Carl, my friend who’d let me crash at his place in the East Village, came out, and two other guys. We ended up at a bar on 16th Street. I let my friends buy the rounds, and the bartender slid me a flaming drink, on the house. I threw it back as everyone sang happy birthday, out of tune. It was 2 a.m., and time for birthday hugs from my bros, who went on their way as I headed out towards the L train.
After walking half a block, I saw a restaurant and realized that I was both extremely drunk and very hungry. Eating seemed like a good thing; besides, I reasoned, it’s my birthday. And besides that, it’s a restaurant, and it’s open.
The name of the restaurant was Magical Donut. There was an illuminated menu that shone above the heads of the men working there, men who had crossed the oceans to snack me up. There were pink laminated wooden tables—the kind where the chairs are attached to the table by steel bars, like at fast-food restaurants. The only other patrons were a couple, two tired, stringy-haired heroin addicts, eating doughnuts. The woman kept nodding off. Behind one counter was some mottled brown rotating lamb gristle, impaled on its weird roasting device. I watched it for a long moment, hypnotized by its rotations, and put both hands on the counter, for balance. “I want the gyro platter,” I said.
“Gyro platter!” said the man behind the counter.
“And an iced tea.”
“And an éclair,” I cut him off before he could repeat me, “and extra fries, and hot sauce. And a Budweiser. Make that two éclairs.” He tallied up $17.50 for the feast, and I gave him a fresh $20 from my wallet, and then took a seat, weaving slightly. From my bag, I produced a copy of This Business of Music (ninth edition), and turned to a random page and began to read, trying to soak in its detailed advice about royalties. But the book was too hard to follow in my state, so instead I thought about what it meant to be 23.
Twenty-three, I decided, is an age when the childish things of 22 should be left behind. At 23, one is totally free. Free of college, school schedules, parents, youth group at church, gym shorts, and Western Civ; free to drink, vote, and drive, all in one day if you choose. As long as I didn’t want health insurance, and as long as I did not break the law, there were no rules.
What really drove this home was a stupid web link. A college friend had sent it to me earlier in the week. It pointed to a website where people dress as cartoon or movie characters—this is called “cosplay,” for “costume play.” He intended me to laugh at these people, to mock them. And yes—an overweight man in homemade chain mail and a leather headband, holding hands with a small woman dressed as Sailor Moon, as Imperial Stormtroopers mill in the background—there is something comic about that picture. But as I laughed, I also admired those cosplayers. They had decided it was worth pursuing their own happiness and creativity even if they were mocked by others in button-down shirts. They were putting their energy into their joy. They were pursuing their happiness, dressed as hobbits. They didn’t care that we laughed at them from our desks at our boring jobs, clicking, filing, sorting, and CCing.
For my entire life, whenever I made collages, or spent hours getting ready for a college radio show, or started bands, people have said: “You have too much time on your hands.” And it’s always hurt. But the opposite is true. There will never be enough time, not if it’s up to me. I felt a huge, urgent, pressing need to do, to be.
And, more in the moment, to eat. The man behind the counter at Magical Donut announced that my order was ready. I carried the red plastic tray back to my table, careful not to trip—it was a significant pile of food—and sat down to devour.
My father was getting his law degree at 23, just about to marry my mother. Luke Skywalker had blown up the Death Star well before 23. At 23, Alexander the Great was conquering both Persia and many rectums. Benchley, it’s time to try harder. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of a record deal.
I picked up the plastic fork, and pushed hard into the pita, the lamb meat covered in white sauce. The fork flew out of my hand and onto the ground, and I reached over to pick it up.
And right then, the entire world changed. Basically, it turned sideways, because, grasping for the fork, I fell over. And because the chair was attached to the table, when I fell over, I took everything with me. The tray with my food launched into the air. The iced tea bottle and the beer bottle both shattered. The gryo platter, with its many ingredients and oily fluids, traveled a huge distance, fanning out in a V across the dirty linoleum. It took me a long moment to understand what had happened, because my body was telling me that I was still sitting.
Caught up in the table-chair, I couldn’t right myself. So I began to kick my feet, moving in a circle, like a turtle on its back. “It’s OK!” I yelled to the man behind the counter. “I got it!” The junkies stared at me as I slowly pulled myself from the table, kicking and spinning. Two sad-looking men came out from behind the counter. “You go,” one said, with a heavy accent. He shook his head. “Just leave.”
I nodded, in no position to argue. I picked up my book from the mess and grabbed one of the éclairs. With dignity befitting someone who had entered a real American adulthood, I walked out of the place.
When the doors closed, I stood still for a moment, getting my bearings. I remembered the éclair in my hand and lifted it up, but my motor control was poor, and instead of getting it into my mouth, I squeezed it, and a huge dollop of cream shot over my face and down my jacket. I threw the éclair to the ground and went down into the train station. There, I waited, holding onto a pillar, covered with lettuce, white sauce, and éclair filling. Finally, the train came, mostly empty.
After a moment of adapting to my new, seated, reality, I pulled out This Business of Music, and opened to where I’d been reading. Out fell half of the gyro platter, fries and meat, onto my lap. I yelled, then I looked over at other straphangers—they were all definitely looking in the opposite direction. I was faced with a choice: I could feel humiliated, embarrassed by what had just happened, embarrassed by the lamb on my lap. Or I could embrace it, accept that no one was seriously hurt, laugh at myself, and keep moving. That was the Benchley way, and that was who I chose to be, as I picked up a bit of the lamb off my slacks and chewed on it, as I pulled a fry from my crotch and shoved it into my mouth. I turned back to This Business of Music, trying to make the shapes on the page form words in my mind, then put it away and enjoyed the ride home.
Climbing on my hands and knees, the stairs to my apartment took a long time. I had to take a few breaks, and it was hard to find the keys. But finally I found my bed, and fell quickly asleep—to wake three hours later, for the first day of my new adulthood, into the dawn of a new age of Benchley, with a hangover the size of Texas and the alarm reminding me that I had scheduled a full day at BrandSolve, since the other part-time office manager was on vacation.