IN HIS SECOND WEEK with the flu, he begins to wonder if it's not the flu at all. He wakes at five a.m., scalp itching, heart banging. Grey dawn light, reflected off the building across the street, illuminates the bamboo blind without penetrating the darkness of the bedroom. It is Sunday. Tomorrow he must get to work no matter how he feels. Two weeks out. Insanity.
At six, he can no longer lie there worrying about his life, his health, his job, his father, his spiritual condition. He clears away last night's dishes, begins typing. The sound taunts his older cat, Bat Head, who has sat statue-still for hours in the darkness of the living room, waiting for breakfast. The cat must take a pill before being fed, or the very act of eating will kill him. Sickness everywhere. His girlfriend suffers from M.S., his mother has Alzheimer's, Bat Head has "mega-colon," and he himself is a recovering drunk who's been homebound for two weeks with a flu that's hit everyone he knows, but seems to have hit him harder.
Yesterday, alone and out of cigarettes, he made a brief trip outdoors. He allowed himself a moment to feel the insanity of his quest, then blocked the knowledge as he used to block the awareness that the booze was killing him, and hustled downstairs to feed his last remaining addiction. "A lovely spring day," and him in his sleep-dirty tee shirt, sweat pants, absurd winter coat, shuffling with averted eyes and Zulu hair into the corner store two doors down from his apartment. The cigarette lady knew his brand and order, he knew his change, the entire transaction took four minutes and wiped him out.
Email, the phone, his girlfriend Joan, his friend Fred who comes over to play chess and watch TV: his only contacts with reality these two long weeks. Yesterday a volunteer group he works with discussed their latest P.R. problem by email. He conceived a response, ran it by them, got approval, and published it on the web. For a moment he felt productive and happy; then the illness embraced him again. After a week of sleeping 'til afternoon and working on the web 'til 5 a.m., his cycle has changed again. Last night he was comatose by 11 p.m. This morning he woke at 5. It's God's way of getting him back into the work flow, he thinks. He lights a cigarette.
Something is wrong in his building. From midnight 'til about seven, all the water turns boiling hot. Even the water in the toilet. At first he thought something else was wrong with him. It was a relief to learn that the boiling feeling was caused by the water in the toilet bowl, and not by something inside himself.
The doorman tells his girlfriend "it's all the 'D' apartments. We don't know what's wrong." Middle class housing in New York City is like Soviet luxury. Incompetence and payoffs. Residents who don't have the flu have been screaming when they try to shower before work. You can hard boil eggs under the cold water tap. He hopes it will be fixed by tomorrow, when he takes his first shower in two weeks. (He takes baths now standing up under water has somehow been too much for him with this flu.) Aside from yesterday's four minute jaunt and a trip to the drugstore on Friday, he has not left the place. He has not washed his long knotty hair, not hailed a cab, not been to a meeting in two weeks. Father forgive me, it is two weeks since my last confession.
Sickness, and absence from meetings, turns the soul inward. A sick body breeds sick thoughts. At this age he should be stock-piling money for the inevitable hospital bills that will come at the next age. Instead he gets by, lends money to friends, is grateful when his office calls with a task, is grateful when there is a crisis with the volunteer group that can spring him from self-absorbtion into the action of work. Six years ago, AA saved his life. Five years ago, work and the web saved the rest of him.
He recalls his father, lost in thought at the dinner table. At the time he assumed the inventions and projects going on in the lab absorbed his father's attention; now he wonders if Dad was thinking about a girlfriend. Maybe he was just enjoying his food.
His brother would swallow the meal whole, run upstairs a dozen times to take phone calls (drugs, girls, drugs). His father would sit chewing abstractly, pouring pepper and red pepper and garlic powder and onion salt onto the potatoes. His mother would serve ("each two meatballs") and talk about the guest on Phil Donahue's show that day.
His mother was homebound too, by choice, or by some undiagnosed mental illness. A brilliant woman, a musician who, in good sixties housewife style "gave up her career" to raise two sons. The truth was she hated performing: her own mother had forced her into it. She was comfortable in full retreat from the world, watching "meaningful" daytime television. Nobody else would listen to her tales of Phil's guests, and attention must be paid, so he, the good son, paid attention, listened appreciatively, smiling and asking questions while his father looked inward and chewed and his brother fled the table to line up the night's qualuudes.
He listened, smiling, hiding his discomfort. Today he was a professional interviewer, talking to celebrities, broadcasting the results on the web. It was one of the half-dozen jobs his new life had brought him, the way to it strangely prepared by those painful long-ago family dinners.
He remembers other meals, from the brief year of marriage, his wife (now ex-) and her teenage son, and him trying not to drink. His wife trying to get the boy to talk about his day, to eat cultured foods and think cultured thoughts. The boy, long-haired, nervous, lovingly tolerating his mother's unhipness. Himself, sweating vodka, smiling, trying to support his wife's plan while identifying secretly with the teenager.
Well, the meltdown was built into that little nuclear family. He loved them both, but he was a drunk, his stepson could not wait to grow up and be free, and his wife was unhinged. The diminutive actress now lived under aliases, defrauding credit card companies. If she had not put him in dutch with Visa and MasterCard while they were still married, not cheated him and laughed about it when caught, he would never have found the strength to divorce her. For two years afterwards he tortured himself with guilt and memories. Fortunately, during the second year he was newly sober. At the end of that year he met Joan.
Thank God for Joan, now talking in her sleep as light finally penetrated their deep red bedroom. Thank God for AA, for his friend Fred, for the two cats, Bat Head and Peeps. Thank God for his sponsor, now living in Florida. Thank God for the web. Thank God for his multiple careers, that kept him out in the world, doing things, bringing in money, keeping out memories. Normally he worked sixteen hours a day, bringing content to the web at night, bringing ads to his clients by day, consulting or designing or writing for his freelance web clients in-between, making sure to hit a meeting every day for the first five years of his new life.
All the work: it was as if he were making up for the lost opportunities, the sixteen lost years of drunkenness. He knew it was God's will and God's timetable but his soul fought on, trying to do everything now. It was as if he had to help establish the web, leave something to be remembered by, as if he would not live long and knew it now.
It was the flu talking.
He should be stock-piling money, he thought again, but he had never cared about money and he doubted he would change on that score. His mother, the armchair socialist, had seen to that. His father had never talked about money, he'd just gone out and earned it by inventing things and working twelve hour days. That he had become his father isolated, always working was another of God's jokes.
Thank God for Ted, the brilliant writer who had come to his agency last year, taken hold of a few accounts, turned them into something good, something you could work on with pride instead of shame, and out of friendship or loyalty had kept him around, making him a collaborator instead of a competitor.
Thank God for his web partners, thank God for his mind, restored to something resembling sanity: the mind that could work even when his body was too sick to leave the apartment, the mind that could solve creative problems for clients, the mind that could play editor for his weekly web magazine, the mind that could open a Photoshop file even when his eyes burned and his neck hurt. Thank God for the flu, which would soon leave him, perhaps making him take stock of his health, perhaps persuading him to live like a human being, let go of the lost time, take time out to play, maybe let go of one of his half-dozen jobs. Thank God for The Peeps, his little grey cat, licking her forepaws in the morning light.
Seven a.m. Time to check the email.