33 (An excerpt from a novel-in-progress)
by Rachel B. Glaser
All the other times Lucas complained about his thinning hair, Corinne had insisted it wasn’t as bad as he thought, that it looked distinguished, that it would weed out the shallow women, it was part of living on planet Earth, it was how he acted not how he looked, it was how he made women feel, he was too tall for anyone to notice, too much hair was arrogant, people like him and her didn’t woo people with their looks, it was their jokes, it was his voice, he had such a good voice—but this time she could see it was worse than it had ever been before, that he’d been more dreamy and wayward with the hair he’d had in college, that he hadn’t just had more hair, he’d had good hair, and his hair and his confidence were hopelessly linked. Life was dull. They were no longer evolving. They were 33 and in decline. “Just get a hair transplant,” Corinne told him in a booth at Kellogg’s Diner.
“Surgery?” Lucas poked his eggs with his fork.
“LeBron was losing his hair, slowly, over years, and now it’s all back,” Corinne said. She hesitated. “Mostly.”
“They take your pubes and stick them in your head?”
“No! They take from your real hair. Your head hair, duh.” She couldn’t believe he’d once gotten a perfect score on the S.A.T.s.
“I’ll just get a hat,” he said. “A cool hat.”
“You can’t wear a hat when you have sex.”
Corinne ate the rest of her home fries and all three pieces of buttered rye toast. Lucas compared his hair loss to a fat woman who couldn’t lose weight. Corinne showed him her stomach, acknowledging shit was changing, but questioning if it really mattered. The handsome, bald black man behind them rose from his seat and Corinne pointed him out saying, “See? It’s all how you act.” Lucas said white men looked stupid with shaved heads. Lucas and Corinne were white. They were unemployed, or one could say, self-employed.
“This should be the opening scene of the show,” Corinne said. “Just relentless talking for the first ten minutes about you and your hair. Later on in the season there could be an episode where you’re getting a hair transplant, and I’m there with you, in a chair next to your chair, chattering on about my love life.” She knew her love life or whichever one she invented for herself would be the B plot to his A plot.
For years she’d been saying his life should be a TV show, and then, the other night, laughing at his failed lucid sex-dream, Corinne declared she’d write it. “I feel like I’m already writing it,” she said. It seemed easy. She only wanted to write painless things, like her recent book of essays. Novels were such a drag. In the margins of her last one, she’d scrawled short messages of warning to her future self. Never write another novel, her handwriting insisted. But a TV pilot—that would be easy to write and the struggle would be in getting it made.
The show hadn’t gotten very far. She’d spoken about it more than written it. The file was only a few pages long. Starting the show with one of their long discussions about his thinning hair was a good idea. Later he would write out the scene and send it to her, and she’d be surprised by how much he’d remembered, and also slightly offended that he’d added a line where he’d called her “chubby,” or she’d called herself that, but it was true—she wasn’t thin, had a big butt, and her stomach stuck out more than it used to. And hadn’t she added a line that she hadn’t said out loud, that he had looked dreamier in college?
Lucas glanced at the bill and rummaged around in his jacket pockets. Corinne took out a twenty and some ones from her wallet and laid them in a neat pile in the tray.
“I’ll say it was a work thing on my taxes. We talked about the show.” She looked at Lucas earnestly. “Plus you’re my editor.” He’d read one of her stories in college and had given her feedback on her work ever since. She’d starred in the vampire movie he shot for his film class and helped him edit emails he sent to people he’d slept with.
They climbed out of the booth. “Thank you so much! Have a wonderful day,” Corinne said, smiling at the Hispanic diner manager on their way out. Lucas rolled his eyes. “What?”
“You know.” Lucas waited as she zipped up her coat, put on her hat, her hood, and her gloves.
“I don’t want them to think I’m part of the intolerant white masses,” she said, pushing open the door.
Outside, the sidewalk was a labyrinth of snow banks. It was October in Brooklyn. The afternoon sun burned behind clouds. Most people were still at work. “I just need a good hat shop,” Lucas said, searching on his phone.
“I think you’re a century too late.”
“This way,” Lucas said, walking toward the BQE. Corinne followed him under the highway and they walked side-by-side, stopping to gaze at a bewildered poodle in the window of a doggie daycare. A well-dressed woman hurried past talking loudly on her cellphone.
“You think people can tell we’re Jewish?” Corinne asked.
“Yup,” Lucas said.
“I get offended when people talk about ‘Jewish noses,’ but we kind of have them, right?”
Corinne studied his lanky frame. He was 6’4” and always looked a little disheveled. He had a short beard and a long nose and lively eyes. His head was narrow and his face looked kind of biblical. Corinne imagined Lucas shrouded in a robe, huddled over a fire, in an old painting about daily suffering. She and her husband Paul thought old paintings were very funny. Words like “shrouded” cracked them up. Lucas’s face was also capable of great levity. He looked like a combination of Wile E. Coyote and Luke Perry. It might seem inexact to compare a human to a cartoon, but rest assured, not in this instance, and Corinne could think of a few others. Paul did look like Yoshi, and Corinne had a Smurf-like face.
There was a decent hat section in the vintage shop, but every hat seemed like a costume. The cowboy hat made Lucas look like he did lots of drugs and had bad sex and wandered the streets with delusional confidence. The baseball caps made him look like he’d never done yoga. Corinne noticed that each time Lucas tried on a hat, he made a face in the mirror—sucking in his cheeks and doing something with his lips. “What’s that?” she asked.
“You have a total mirror-face!”
“I know. I can’t help it,” he said sheepishly. He looked around to see if anyone was watching. A pretty Asian cashier smiled at them. Corinne beamed back.
Lucas posed again in the mirror, in a hunting hat with earflaps, sort of pouting and sizing up some imaginary scene. He took it off and tried on another. “How bout this? Can I pull it off?” He wore a brown, old-fashioned hat with a faint tweed pattern. If pressed, Corinne would have called it a “newsboy cap.”
“Yeah,” she said after a moment. Lucas took off the hat and frowned. “I said ‘yeah’,” Corinne said.
“You paused though.”
“A lot of people couldn’t pull that off. But since you’re a musician, I think you can.”
“I’m not a musician. I just play music,” Lucas said, walking the hat over to the register. “Should I wear this to the wedding?”
“Nora’s wedding?” Corinne asked, surprised. “I thought you said you weren’t going.” She had a vision of having to babysit a moping Lucas at the wedding, and wished Nora had never invited him. They were still in love—Lucas and Nora—even though they’d broken up years ago, in a hellish loop of confessions and broken promises, of hooking up with mutual friends, flirting with their couples therapist, and calling Corinne in the middle of the night in despair.
“I changed my mind,” Lucas said, handing his credit card over to the cashier.
Back on the sidewalk, Lucas put on the hat. Corinne watched him covertly check out his reflection in shop windows. He looked okay, but he didn’t blend in. He looked like he was in a play, a high school production of “Guys & Dolls” maybe. Yes, like one of the scroungy gamblers.
They walked past a big movie poster hanging behind the glass enclosure of a bus stop. “I’ve been noticing things when I watch movies now,” said Corinne. “Women are used as these romance mannequins.”
“What do you mean?” Lucas asked skeptically.
“Well, there are exceptions, and the exceptions are awesome, but most movies are so sexist,” she said, knowing he would disagree.
“Next you’re going to say the world is sexist,” he said wearily.
“But the world is sexist,” Corinne said. She felt a kind of freedom declaring this outside, in the beautiful, snowy, sexist world. Lucas stopped walking. Corinne turned back. “What?”
“You were the last one,” he said sadly.
“The last what?”
“My last female friend who didn’t believe in a global sexist conspiracy.”
Corinne laughed. “I didn’t used to see it the way I do now! It took me years to see it.”
“You were the last one! I have no one left! First it was Julia, then Catherine, then Nora, and now, finally, you.”
She couldn’t tell if she should be proud or ashamed. She’d been in a kind of boy-land for much of her life—watching the NBA, listening to classic rock, reading Kurt Vonnegut. In high school, she’d liked Margret Atwood and Sleater-Kinney, but besides that, primarily read and listened to men. Amazing men, but still, mostly men, and had often identified as ‘one of the guys’—making dick jokes and ‘your mom’ jokes, playing Street Fighter.
Lucas walked a step in front of her and she walked quickly to catch up. “I’ll still gossip with you about who you wanna fuck and how to ask them out and how it went and what to say after when they like you more than you like them. I’ll still let you make jokes. I can do casual sexism.”
He looked doubtful.
“When other girls, other women, brought up the inequality and all the bullshit, I would sorta argue against it. When people said it was fucked up to portray women as objects in ads and things, I thought, only stupid, mainstream people buy into that, but now I understand how subliminally damaging it all is. I mean, women gave birth to every human on the planet, you know? Women are so insanely powerful.” She opened her eyes wide and felt power. She turned to Lucas. He looked unmoved. “You don’t want to talk about this,” she said.
“It’s just stuff I’ve been hearing a lot, from all my other female friends,” he said.
She felt indignant. He was often unmoved by the things that moved her. He hated/dismissed Wes Anderson movies and Noah Baumbach movies, and didn’t fall at the feet of Spike Jonze. He thought she was culturally stunted from growing up in the suburbs. When people spoke out about art they felt was insensitive in regard to race, gender, sexuality, disability, and body image, he called it a “witch-hunt” and she agreed, but she had been, and was still being, educated by that witch-hunt on a daily basis and was thankful for it, even when she hadn’t thought Lena Dunham had done anything wrong.
“Once I was mansplaining what ‘mansplaining’ meant to my ex-boyfriend and the conversation ended with him telling me I wasn’t a feminist,” Corinne said.
Corinne hesitated. “I’m through saying his name. It gives him too much power.”
“Oh, him.” Lucas smirked.
Without meaning to, Lucas and Corinne had walked into the Orthodox part of town. It began to snow. Corinne watched a mother struggle to control her two daughters. There were Hebrew words on some of the storefronts and school buses. “I like the way Hebrew sounds, but not usually what it means,” Corinne said. “Like whenever Paul is at one of my family’s Bar Mitzvahs and I see him reading the English translation, I’m like, ‘ignore that,’ just listen to this somber, mysterious language.”
They stared at a bunch of pigeons pecking at something in the snow.
“I feel guilty I don’t have a job,” Lucas said.
“Really? I think it’s a great feeling. It feels like cutting school.”
“Eventually I’ll have to get a job,” Lucas said soberly. “I can’t live off this money forever.”
“But don’t you have money from your uncle too?”
Corinne knew they both had some amount of family money that was allowing them to wander the city on a weekday, instead of working in advertising or teaching literature to a roomful of people who didn’t give a shit about literature. “How much?” Corinne asked. “I totally won’t tell anyone.” Lucas looked into the sky and got snowflakes in his eyelashes. An Orthodox man gave them a furtive glance as he crossed the street.
“These Jews might not think we look Jewish,” Lucas said.
“We look like heathens to these Jews,” she said.
“How much do you have?” Lucas asked.
“My parents always told me not to talk about money. I think that’s partly why it gives me a thrill when I do. Also, there’s always the fear your friends will suddenly hate you and maybe even hate you forever, in some small or big way.”
“Especially these days,” he said.
Corinne nodded. These days had been feeling especially “these days-y”, but maybe it had always felt this way. Without discussing it, they’d started to walk in the direction of the café where Delly was, where they worked on their projects.
“We don’t have to say the amounts,” Corinne said, “but it makes me feel less alone that you and I have similar financial situations. We aren’t heiresses or anything, but we don’t have student debt and we shouldn’t feel guilty about it,” she said. “But I do sometimes.”
“If we were in 19th century Europe, it wouldn’t be taboo,” Lucas said. “We’d just be considered noble-people.”
Corinne skipped, sliding on the sidewalk. “I love that! Noble-people. It’s so un-Occupy Wall Street.”
“Noble-people didn’t work much, if at all. It was assumed, and totally accepted, that they would take up painting or writing. They would summer in France or wherever. They were supposed to. No one was ashamed of wealth.”
“We’re noble-people!” she exclaimed. “But we have to keep it secret.”
He smiled conspiratorially.
“It feels like the 19th century right now,” Corinne said, ignoring the cars. She imagined that Paul was at home, starting a fire. That if she wanted to communicate with him, she’d have to send a messenger. “I love in Anna Karenina how instead of texting they send a horseman with a sealed envelope. Imagine every text you send being carried by a messenger.” Corinne opened her phone and fondly read aloud her favorite Lucas text. “Balls fine dick mystery.” She laughed. “That’s like your version of the Hemmingway baby shoes line.”
“People say that isn’t really him,” Lucas said. “That baby shoes line. I Snopes-ed it.”
They walked on. “I’m pretending I’m a noble-person right now,” she whispered as they side-stepped strangers on the sidewalk. They were out of the Orthodox part. They passed hardware stores with key-shaped signs, dentist offices, subway stations. The sky was showing streaks of sunset.
“Like 300,000,” he said finally.
“Oh, cool,” she said casually. The number sounded both huge and small. They watched a black and white cat run under a car.
“Yours is more,” he said, guessing.
Numbers whirled in her head. “Well, does yours count like when your Mom has died?” Corinne asked guiltily.
“No. It would be more then,” he admitted.
“Yeah, the apartment is worth a million I bet,” he said and looked at her.
Maybe he won’t ask me again, she thought. She could pick any number to say.
“How much for you? In your name, right now,” he asked.
“Like 400,000,” she said, “or maybe 500,000.” She waited to be struck down by lightning. “But it’s all in the stock market, and the market is soo unpredictable,” she said trailing off. Before he could tease her, or compare, or put any distance between them, she exclaimed, “Delly has more! Much more, once his parents die. Yet he was a prominent figure in Occupy! But, isn’t he, isn’t he the 1%?”
“He doesn’t think of that money as his.”
“Remember when we went out to breakfast and he took out an empty salt shaker and filled it with the restaurant’s salt shaker?” she asked, laughing.
“Not his finest moment,” Lucas said.
“And years ago, on the road trip, you guys said I was weird about money! But I’ve accepted it.”
The money and Lucas gave Corinne an intense feeling of wellbeing. She felt very free, even if she chose to do nothing with the freedom. She imagined her poor ancestors watching her from their shitty back-row seats in Heaven. “Don’t tell anyone my amount,” she said, knowing that one day the actual amount would dwarf the numbers she’d told him.
“I would never,” Lucas said, with a put-on accent. “A nobleman would never disclose such a tasteless fact!”
They passed an old woman in a tattered fur jacket walking a beagle with a cone around its head. Two college girls wandered by underdressed for the snow in t-shirts and running shorts. “Once upon a time, those girls might have smiled at me, but now they just see me as a gross, random, middle-aged man,” Lucas said.
“You sound like Eeyore.”
“I forget which one that is,” Lucas said glumly.
“You don’t know what it feels like,” he said. “I always thought I was going to marry Nora. Even when I was breaking up with her that last time.”
“But you wanted to sleep with someone from every country,” Corinne said, grinning.
“That was a different time,” Lucas said.
“Well, don’t act like I don’t understand. I’ve had my heart broken,” Corinne paused to count, “like three or four times.”
“Years ago. You’ve been with Paul for like ten years! You found your person.”
A cold wind blew a black plastic bag down the street. “You’re just between people,” Corinne said, as they approached the café and walked in.
They went over to the small square tables in the back. Delly took off his headphones to greet them. He was also white and Jewish and had gone to high school with Lucas and Nora. Corinne had met him at art camp twenty years ago, when he’d had long hair and had sometimes worn a grey, floor-length cloak over his clothes. He was the first real writer she knew and still one of the best. “What’s with the hat?” he asked Lucas.
“You like it?” Lucas took it off and looked at it.
“Yeah. I guess. You look like a taxi driver from the ‘60s.”
“How’s your book going?” Corinne asked him, throwing her jacket on an empty chair.
“Good. What’s up with you?
“Nothing,” Corinne said, then looked at him and Lucas. “Paul doesn’t want kids. Last year I had this idea that you and Lucas could jerk off into cups, and I could mix your sperm together, and then inseminate myself and have the baby,” Corinne said, trying to gauge their reactions.
“I’m in,” Lucas said, opening his laptop on a crumb-covered table.
“I had the idea before you were with Briana,” Corinne explained to Delly.
“Even if I weren’t dating her, I’m not sure I’d—” He paused. “I’d have to think more about it.”
The baby thing was something she and Lucas had spoken about a lot recently. He was the only person she knew who said he’d rather raise a baby with a friend than with a romantic partner. Corinne took out her notebook and a TD Bank pen and started writing baby names. When she was in high school she’d liked names like “Tiger” and “Alaska”, but now she liked names like “Eliza” and “Wesley.”
People walked in and out of the café. Delly typed noisily. Corinne made a list of names for Lucas’s character in the show—Liam, Levi, Lewis, Linus, August, Dustin, Thurson. Then she wrote “names for me,” and thought me me me. After a moment she wrote “Mimi,” and felt done. She wrote out various potential conflicts between Mimi and August and Delly and Nora. Things that had happened years ago, things they had only joked about. Then she turned her gaze on Delly and forced herself to write long descriptive sentences about his face, his posture, and the moth-bitten v-neck sweater he was wearing.
After an hour or so, Lucas closed his laptop and Corinne looked up. “So,” Lucas said. “The other day I was watching this Czech group sex video and—”
“Say no more,” Corinne said.
Lucas smirked at her in silence.
She waited impatiently. “Okay, say a little more.”
“There were all these people in their 20’s and 30’s fucking on the couch and on the floor.”
Delly took off his headphones. “How many?”
“At least fifteen.”
“I have so many questions,” Corinne said, looking past him, imagining it.
“There was this lady with dyed-blond hair and no one was touching her. She was a little older than the others, naked like everyone else, but no one was interacting with her. She was slowly rubbing her hands up and down the legs of the girls next to her, but it was motherly—”
“What the fuck,” Delly said.
“Yeah, it was really sad. And she was sort of smiling, but not really from joy.”
“Like the Mona Lisa,” Corinne said.
“And weirdly, it was day time out. The camera would roam around taping all the fucking people, and then there would be a shot with the blond lady in it, and she’d totally ruin it. All the other shots were of anonymous bodies fucking and moaning, but whenever the camera passed over her, she would look at it or smile blankly.”
“Oh my god. I need to watch it,” Corinne said.
“At one point she put her hands up, like this, making the photographer- composing-a-shot-gesture, flirting with the video guy.” Lucas sighed. “I told myself if I was there, then I’d have been the one to have sex with her, or at least like, give her a massage or something.”
“You wanna be the mensch at the orgy?” Delly asked, closing his laptop and putting it in his backpack. Lucas put his laptop away too and put on his new hat. Corinne zipped up her coat.
“She must have felt invisible,” Lucas said, following them out of the café. “It makes me depressed.”
The three of them walked down the street in the dark. The snow had turned to slush. “That’s what we have to look forward to,” Corinne said. “Our youth is over and now we watch death crawl closer every year.”
“That’s so grim! We’re not that old yet,” Delly said, ducking into the corner store. Corinne and Lucas followed after him, walking down the cereal aisle, past the cookies, crackers, and bread, and into the cleaning supplies.
“She’s right,” Lucas said. “Everything hurts now. I can’t breathe right out of my nose.”
“I can’t travel light anymore,” Corinne said. “I need my medicine, my mouth guard, earplugs, my plantar fasciitis night splint—”
Lucas interrupted, “My Rogaine, this allergy pill I take now—”
Delly bought toilet paper at the counter. “You guys are falling apart,” he said good-naturedly. “I’m a little worried about you two.” He pushed open the door and they all went outside. He had recently fallen in love and was writing a great book. He emitted a sense of joy and purpose wherever he went, though in years past he had been the broodiest.