It was rather a surprise that he elected me to receive his confidences, though he had many friends better suited to the task: for I myself am an insignificant man, of no importance whatsoever. I say this as a statement of fact, not to seek pity, for the truth is that I find the modesty of my position in life comforting. You could even say that I revel in it. Of course, this was not always so: as a child I wished to be respected if I could, admired if I couldn’t command respect. I wanted to be chosen first, not last, as I was for all the team sports, but failing that I strove to be the class genius, a distinction I did not achieve. It was my misfortune to attend a school with several brilliant classmates who monopolized the teachers’ love. While I was not and am not a dolt — I am very well read, thank you, and can solve problems of the ordinary sort with the ordinary effectiveness you hope for from any dentist, plumber, or accountant — I am strictly a middle-of-the-pack sort, the one who always finishes the race but never wins.
My only distinction is my name: my parents burdened me with the moniker of Burton Olney, which, besides being unusual, sounds pretentious. As one can imagine, it inspired mockery from fellow students in my long-ago school years: some said it sounded like I should have a butler following me about, while others said it should be the butler’s name. I could not object to those comments, as I agreed with them entirely. The only youthful colleague who came — unbidden — to my defense, was Frankie Butler, who did not care to have his own last name taken in vain. Thus it was (if I may permit myself a locution more appropriate to my name than to my station) that we became what is called “friends,” a concept whose validity I am not sure I can support. However, Frankie and I — now Frank, as befits his current stature and dignity — Frank and I continue to associate in middle age, though he is a much more significant person than I am. We meet once a week, like clockwork — the clock in this case ticking in an empty room, for I am not sure either of us feels any greater compulsion than that of habit. And when we meet, we complain — or rather, he complains, and I listen and occasionally respond.
Thus it was (there I go again, don’t I?) that one fine day I, Burton Olney, was sitting in a café on one of the busy streets bisecting the stretch of Los Angeles where we both live, with Frank Butler sitting across from me — Frank frowning into a cup of coffee which waited, virginal, on the formica tabletop before him. I could see the top of his head, wreathed in steam from the redolent brew; there was a mole in the whorl of his thinning hair which I had never noticed before, being considerably shorter than Frank, and I could not mistake signs that he had combed said hair with brusque indifference that morning, if indeed he had combed it at all. The plate glass window to my right showed all sorts of fellow humans walking by on their way to work, to shop, or to sit vacantly on the corner, for it was a broad mix of humanity on parade: sharp-edged young women in business clothes, soft-edged older men in suits by their sides; the “youth of today” in the current uniform of their conventional rebellion, consisting almost universally of hooded sweatshirts despite the warmth of the day; and a blank-faced homeless fellow, who no doubt wished he were as invisible as I myself would be when I stepped out of the café after listening to Frank unburden himself.
For Frank had stated openly that he needed to unburden himself of some great emotional weight, and since I was free of obligation that day, I readily agreed to meet him, though it was not “our” day to meet. I was his friend; lending him the proverbial ear was my duty as well as my pleasure, for in the equilibrium we had unconsciously established, he was in turn my friend, one of the few I could count. I was not burdened by his company, and so I devoted one part of my attention to a cup of hot chocolate while I waited for Frank to speak up. The chocolate was very good: thick but not overly sweet, and I did not disdain to savor it while it was still hot. I was not feeling morose; I was not feeling much of anything in particular, which is a condition of life I have accepted as my due, and have decided to enjoy.
Frank’s wife was leaving him, and I was either to proffer him practical advice, or — more likely — provide a sort of emotion sump into which he could drain his sorrows. I have a certain facility for being an emotion sump, as I do not involve my own emotions in the act of accommodating those of others; this makes me a sort of natural therapist, as long as my interlocutors don’t expect me to devise actual techniques for dealing with their ills. I am not qualified to provide that, nor much of anything else, but I can listen to their tales of woe without becoming upset, and without offering any sorrows of my own as counterpoise to their pain. No one likes to feel that they are being out-competed in their sentiments of distress, and as I know full well the feeling of falling behind in the race, I keep what few distresses I possess to myself, without trying to outshine the woes of others. In any case, my own are not profoundly painful. The sort of genteel nihilism that I have adopted, or adapted, ensures a modesty of suffering concomitant with my other modesties, which are legion.
Frank at last looked up from his coffee cup. “I suppose I can’t expect you to understand. You’ve never married.”
“Perhaps I’ve never married because I do understand.”
“If you understood,” he muttered, “you wouldn’t have said that.”
“I have had relationships. I am not quite the piece of cardboard that I appear to be to many. Not to you, I know; I am not accusing you of misperception. But I have, as they say, ‘been there, done that,’ though I have not yet committed myself fully. As you know. And I have been jilted.”
“Well, I did commit myself fully. And I thought she did too. But now she wants out.”
“Now she wants out? But last week she didn’t. Everything seemed fine last week.”
Frank took a long breath and let it out in a somewhat theatrical sigh. “Yeah. Everything seemed fine last week. I guess she was putting up a front. She broke down on me Tuesday, started crying, wouldn’t let me comfort her. I kept asking her what was wrong, and finally she pushed me away and said it was me. I was what was wrong.”
Frank stared out the plate glass window at a homeless woman lumbering by, wrapped in two greasy robes and pushing a shopping cart piled high with bulging plastic trash bags. I actually spoke to her now and then, and had bought her a sandwich once. Her name was Grace. Although I was not homeless, I understood to some modest extent what it felt like to be a reject. Frank was now a reject, in his own fortunate way — not fortunate to be rejected, but to have a comfortable life in which to suffer his rejection.
“Said she couldn’t live with me anymore. I was floored. Just the week before we had been making plans for a trip to Spain. She’d always wanted to go to Spain. I don’t know why, but it seemed like a good idea to me.” He finally decided to sip his coffee. “Shit. It’s not even hot anymore.” He waved at the waitress and asked for a fresher cup. She apologized and bustled off.
“I’ll ask the obvious question,” I said. “Did you ask her the obvious question?”
He painted a sneer on his face and tilted his head, the way dogs do sometimes. “Well, what do you think? Of course I did. She said there was no one else.”
“Aha!” I said.
“There probably is someone else, then….”
“You telling me she’s a liar? She’s not that….”
“The someone else may only be prospective. He may not even know he’s the object of her attention. A fantasy, an imaginary standard to which she compares you now. Don’t we all compare others to our own fantasy of what we want from them? Our ‘curated’ visions of love, you might say.”
The waitress brought Frank his fresh cup and bustled away. He inspected it carefully, then took a sip. A grimace crossed his face, though whether it was from what I had expounded to him, or simply bad coffee, was not clear. When he turned his attention back to me, I noted the bleary eyes, the unshaven chin. “You think she’s leaving me for an imaginary lover?”
“Or a highly-idealized one. Maybe someone new she’s met who is unattainable in some way, married or gay or, who knows, a priest or something. They might not actually be as polished and perfect as she thinks, but as long as she doesn’t actually engage in a relationship with them, she may never realize that.”
“She idealized me for a long time. I was her shining star. She used to say that.”
“You can’t feel that way forever about someone with whom you share a bathroom. In short, if I am right — and I’m as often right as wrong — she’s behaving in a rather adolescent manner.”
He stared out the window again. As it happened, a strikingly pretty blonde woman in a tailored skirt-and-blazer outfit strode by at that moment, and I noted how his eyes followed her. Of course, so did mine.
“And if you are wrong, what else could it be.”
“She could have decided that you are just an asshole. However, that is most unlikely, since you are not an asshole. I have known you for a long time, and I think I can safely assert your decency. Neither are you a bore. A bore would not have participated with any enthusiasm in planning a voyage to Spain, a destination, furthermore, generally considered to be romantic.”
“Yeah. ‘Generally considered to be romantic.’ Kind of a generic choice, now that I think about it.”
“A common choice, or so I have read, of couples trying to re-ignite the spark of love in a stale marriage. Don’t blame me for the concept, please; I got it from a magazine in the dentist’s office last month.”
“It was her idea. Too bad she gave up on me before we tried it.”
“You probably would still have broken up, you know.”
“But at least I would have been to Spain. And maybe it would have worked.”
“Spaniards divorce each other too. And they live there.”
He shrugged his shoulders and took a long sip of his coffee. The grimace returned, but again, I could not determine whether it was bad coffee or my unpleasant observation.
“Yeah, they live there,” he said. “No place is exotic if you live there, I guess.”
“Nor can relationships stay what is called ‘romantic’ when faced with the minutiae of the quotidian. Or so I believe.”
He stared at me. His eyes were really quite bleary, and I wondered whether he had been seeking solace in distilled spirits. That would fit neatly into the cliché of the spurned yet still-loving spouse, male variety. However, I detected no trace of alcohol on his breath when he exhaled. “So, Burton, is that why you have never married?”
“Actually,” I said, “I have no idea why I have never married. I suppose I have not yet felt the compulsion to breed and burden some poor child with my parenting, not to mention some poor woman with my rather mechanical attentions. I am amusing enough in a verbal way to sustain a superficial relationship spiced with occasional nookie, but I doubt I am significant enough to figure as the centerpiece of someone’s life.”
“And that doesn’t bother you?”
“Not in the least. Though I have friends, associates, and sometimes lovers, I am nobody’s favorite. While that is perhaps not complimentary to my self image, it does leave me less burdened with obligations than I might be if I let myself be driven by a need for social and sexual status.”
“Primarily the obligation of living up to someone else’s image of you. In this way, I permit myself to live my own life. Such as it is.”
“Such as it is?”
“For example: I have never been to Spain. Of course I have never particularly wanted to. I’m sure it would be a fine vacation. But we live in a city many consider exotic. Just the other day I overheard a couple of people speaking a different sort of Spanish from what we usually hear on our streets; they might even have been Spaniards. Maybe a husband and wife trying to save their marriage right here on Wilshire Boulevard. She did sound a bit terse.”
He frowned in a particularly manly way. “Are you making fun of me?”
“Hardly. I’m making fun of that straw you’re grasping at. The Romantic Excursion.”
“I don’t give a shit about that any more. I’d just like my wife back.”
“You probably won’t get her back.”
“Is that supposed to be comforting?”
“In the long run, yes. If you accept that, you won’t torture yourself so much. You won’t torture her either, since it is certain you have been nagging her with your queries and sad faces. You’ve been calling her on her cell phone repeatedly, I suppose.”
He slumped. “Guilty as charged. She hung up on me last time. Okay, the last couple of times.”
I leaned in to him, making myself as imposing as I could, given that I am of modest stature. “Whether she returns is no longer up to you. Your choice now is whether to continue torturing yourself, or not.” I sat back down. “There’s a certain liberty in being nobody’s favorite. She has no doubt at some point expressed the desire for more personal space — at least that’s what the magazines in waiting rooms all emphasize. Has she not?”
He nodded. “She has. So we’re a cliché, then.”
“Absolutely!” I could see he was approaching an epiphany. “We are all clichés. Those who aren’t are the ones we call ‘nuts.’ But you are in an automatically reciprocal condition. You have more space now too. If I may speak in the sententious manner of a glossy column psychologist, fill it with yourself for a while. You might like it. I do.”
“I guess.” He straightened up somewhat. “Life goes on, right?”
“In general, yes.”
“…But will she come back?”
“I suspect no one knows the answer to that query. Including herself. It has been known to happen.”
“So there’s hope….”
“Unfortunately, yes — “
“Unfortunately?” The poor man looked slightly outraged.
“Yes. The problem with hope is that it engenders expectation. And that in its turn all too often engenders disappointment.”
He widened his eyes to communicate either amazement or dismay, and quite likely both: “You are advising me to be hopeless?”
At last, he had arrived. “Absolutely. That way lies contentment, or at least serenity.”
He stared out the window. Grace, the homeless woman, walked past again, this time in the other direction. He said, “I don’t know if I can just choose to do that. Give up hope.”
“It’s the best thing going,” I told him.
“I can’t believe that. You’ve got to be wrong.”
“What do you think makes me so inevitably wrong?”
“The rules of the universe, I guess.”
“The universe is a ball of cold gas with a few, very few, hot spots in it. And there’s us. That’s all.”
“I gotta go,” he said. He put some money down for his coffee and lumbered out the door, then walked past the window and into the gentle molecular frenzy of the crowd. I called the waitress over and ordered another hot chocolate. She placed it on the table, smiling as she did. I smiled back, then turned my attention to the steaming cup. The chocolate was hot enough I had to wait for it to cool a little bit: a tiny hot spot in the universe. Gently descending towards entropy, and the hidden end of time. I knew it would taste sweet.
Richard Risemberg was born into a Jewish-Italian household in Argentina, and brought to Los Angeles to escape the fascist regime of his homeland. He has lived there since, except for a digression to Paris in the turbulent Eighties. He attended Pepperdine University on a scholarship won in a writing competition, but left in his last year to work in jobs from gritty to glitzy, starting at a motorcycle shop and progressing through offices, retail, an independent design and manufacturing business, and most recently a stint managing an adult literacy program at a library branch in one of the poorest neighborhoods of the city. All has become source material for his writing.