January 20th, 2008


I keep writing this over and over again. Maybe someday I'll get it right.

If you didn’t already know that we lived in a non-smoking house, the twenty flyers Billy had plastered everywhere would have given you a clue. It had been a week since he'd first complained that he was short of breath, and drawing on what I considered to be my encyclopedic reserve of medical knowledge, I had insisted we both stop smoking immediately. I hammered this edict home by buying a box of nicotine patches the same day.

It was the Sunday before a holiday, if you consider Martin Luther King Day to be much more than an interruption in mail delivery, and after I surprised him with breakfast in bed, two slices of egg-in-the-hole, he finally got up and ambled into the kitchen while I washed the dishes. He stood by the back door, lifted his shirt, and said, “Put my patch on.

I obliged, of course, still in shock that he’d taken to a non-smoking lifestyle with the enthusiasm of a recent religious convert. We’d been trying to quit for years, and sometimes we’d even go for a few months without a cigarette, but then we would get into a fight or a few beers would come along, and we’d be back to Kool Milds and Camel shorts–Billy liked his menthols while I chose my grandfather’s brand loyalty.

I put it on his bicep, telling him to press the patch once it was on, a trick someone had once told me that was supposed to make it work better, and he leaned against the dryer doing just that, rubbing it like a genie’s lamp before he pulled his shirt back down, the long-sleeved one I’d given to him as one of his Christmas presents.

I asked him if he wanted to go see a movie, but when I told him that it was Gosford Park, he made his stink face and said, “Too much talking.”

“Well, then what do you want to do?"

“I think I’ll go over to Hal’s.” When he said that, I knew I’d soon be eating popcorn. I hated Hal, a man given to too much cologne and too many drugs, who called other men “girlfriend,” as if he were still roaming with the boys in the band. In fact, there weren’t any of Billy’s friends that I liked to hang out with. Billy claimed I was a snob, but I just found his friends dull and cloying, people who couldn’t even name the current Vice President, not that that opinion wasn’t a source of trouble in our house. For nine years, when he spent time with his friends, he usually did it stag.

We sat at the kitchen table with a large bag of croissants between us. I’d bought the bag a few days earlier, thinking Hell, what effective smoking cessation plan doesn’t include French pastry? I told him I was going to the movies anyway, without him, but he was more than welcome to join me if he changed his mind. He shrugged, chewed his croissant, and said he was going upstairs to mix music.

I might have asked him how he felt, or maybe I didn’t. Over the past week, he'd stated that he had chest pains, and a few times actually said, “I think I’m having a heart attack.” I even caught him saying so on videotape with the camcorder he gave me for Christmas.

After I made the bed and tidied up the front house, I made plans with our friend Tommy to see the movie, then bounded upstairs to see Billy and, as I expected, found him in headphones at his DJ stack, lost in his house music, dancing with the twelve-foot coiled cord swinging in time. All eighty pounds of Bob were sprawled on the couch, struggling to watch Billy as he slowly lost the battle to stay awake.

I mouthed, “Okay, I’m going,” which prompted Billy to un-cup one ear and ask what I’d said. “I’m leaving, Guyster,” I repeated, and asked him what time he’d be home. We arranged to have dinner together around five, and I left without stopping to kiss him goodbye.

I dropped Tommy off on the way back from the movie and headed to our favorite neighborhood Italian restaurant, a tiny place next to a 7-Eleven in a strip mall. Neither of us had a regular paycheck coming in, money was tight, but it was the night of the Golden Globes, so it was a forgivable splurge for us. I waited outside for the two orders of spaghetti with meatballs and mozzarella marinara, glancing at the convenience store where I’d bought my daily pack of smokes with just the tiniest bit of desperation.

The lights were off and it was chilly in the house when I got home. Bob was waiting in the green leather chair that he’d claimed as his own, his tail wagging as I opened the front door, and he slipped off the chair to follow me and sniff the bag I was carrying. I walked through the living room, left our dinner on the kitchen table, and climbed the stairs of the back house with Bob trotting behind me.

“Where’s Billy?” I asked Bob; he just looked back at me with his head tilted slightly to the left. I turned on the TV to watch Joan Rivers forcing women to show off their once-in-a-lifetime shoes, and took a couple of hits of pot from the wooden pipe that had been in our family for years. The bong that Billy bought me for Christmas was still downstairs.

I could hear footsteps on the stairs an hour later and the door swung open, Billy huffing as if he’d just run around the block. “Scoot over!” he said, and I sat up to give him room. He snatched the pipe from me, fired it up, and I asked him how his day was.

“I dunno. A day. How was your movie?”

“You wouldn’t have liked it. Too much talking.”

He took another toke, hopped off the couch, and went to the computer. “I have to post some more stuff.” Billy had started his own eBay business, selling random items he found in the neighborhood trash during his long walks with Bob. “But first I have to take some pictures.” He always gave a running commentary of what he was doing, just in case I didn’t notice or as if he needed to remind himself that he was doing it. More than once, he sat upright in bed while sleeping and proclaimed, “I’m tired,” to which my practiced response was, “Good thing you’re sleeping, then.”

It was cold upstairs, too, and I stretched out on the couch with a blanket over my legs, half covering Bob, who had curled himself into a black fur basketball at my feet. Billy worked on taking photos of his future sales, framing each one with Madison Avenue precision.

I looked over my shoulder, watching Billy set up his next shot, the tip of his tongue peeking out from his lips in concentration, and that’s all it took to bring it all back, that perfect, earnest magic he had, and with that, I fell in love with him again, finding him standing there as if I’d lost him in the fog of the overly familiar, as if anything could really hide that light. He was working hard to get his business off the ground and I was proud of him. The past several months had been very hard on him, on us, both unemployed and depressed, bad habits resurfacing, and still, there he was, on the other side of it. In that second, I could see how much he was enjoying himself, that he believed in himself, that he had his own future in control.

Nicole Kidman won, Moulin Rouge won, and the awards were over. For me, it was time for bed. “C’mon, Guyster, let’s go downstairs.”

“Okay.” He was back at the computer uploading pictures on eBay. “I want to finish up.” He flapped his hands shooing me away. “I’ll be down in a minute.”

“Come on, Bob.” Our dog trailed behind me as I shut the upstairs door.