Excerpt from The Havana Room by Colin Harrison. Copyright © 2004 by Colin Harrison. To be published in January, 2004 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
Begin on the night that my old life ended. Begin on a warm April evening with a rumpled thirty-nine-year-old man stepping out of his cab at Park Avenue and Seventy-seventh. Manhattan steams and rumbles around him. He needs food, he wants sex, he must have sleep, and he'd prefer them in that order. The cab speeds off. The time is 1 a.m., and he looks up at his apartment building with a heavy, encyclopedic exhalation, which in its lung depth and audible huh can be found his whole life-wish and dream, sadness and joy, victory and loss. Yes, his whole life swirls in that one wet breath-as it does in everyone's.
The idea was for him to get home in time for his son's birthday party, as a surprise. Even his wife isn't expecting him. But his plane was delayed leaving San Francisco, circled LaGuardia endlessly, and then the traffic into the city was slow, even at that hour, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway full of bumping badboys in smoked-glass SUVs, off-peak tractor-trailers, limos from hell. Now, planted on the pavement with his suitcase, our man loosens his red silk tie and top shirt button. He's tired of such constriction, though addicted to its rewards. And has he not been rewarded? Why, yes, of course-bonuses and dividends and compound interest and three-for-one splits. And does he not expect many more such rewards-semiannual wifely blow jobs, prompt service at the dry cleaner's, his secretary's unhesitating agreement to do whatever he asks? Yes, how could he not? He's worked for all these things.
He's a successful lawyer, our lawyer. My lawyer. My own lost self. He's been with his firm for fourteen years, made partner long ago. His client list includes a major major bank (run by dragons in suits, minority-owned by the House of Saud, accountable to no one), several real estate developers (testicle-munching madmen), a television network (puppets dangled by puppets), and various high-net-worth individuals (inheritors, connivers, marriage-flippers). He can handle these people. He's a man of brisk phone calls and efficient business lunches and clean paperwork. Dependable, but not a killer. Or rather, apparently not a killer. Not a screamer or a power-drinker or a deal-popper-no doors get blown off when he goes by, the secretaries don't look up. In fact, he should be a little flashier, but probably couldn't quite pull it off. His hair is too thin, his waist one Sunday Times too thick. On the third hand, the world runs on dependable, unflashy people like him and he knows it. People feel comfortable with him. The law firm feels comfortable. So he feels only somewhat uncomfortable, only a bit replaceable. He understands that it's going to be a slow climb. Five years long for every big one up. He sees the middle passage looming, the gray hair, the stiffness in the knees, the cholesterol pills. But not yet, quite. Where the climb ends, he isn't sure, but it probably involves golf and a boat and the urologist, and this is acceptable, almost. If there's a streak of fatalism in him, he keeps it under control. He wishes for many things and knows he'll get only a few. He wishes he were taller, richer, slimmer, and had screwed many more girls before getting married. His wife, Judith, who is five years younger, is quite lovely. He wishes, however, that she was just a little nicer to him. She knows that she's still quite lovely, for a while at least, until-as she has announced many times-she gets her mother's neck. (Will it be a softly bloated horror, or an udder of empty skin? He doesn't know; there's a family history of cosmetic surgery.) Meanwhile, he's been faithful and a good provider and even changed a few diapers when their son was young. Steady-the same guy year in and year out. Judith, however, believes in the reinventability of all things, especially herself, and has cycled through shiatsu, aromatherapy, yoga, Lord knows what. Wanting something, something else. Seems frustrated, even by her own orgasms. Wants, wants more. More what? Don't he and Judith have quite enough? Of course not. But such desire is dangerous. Thus the constant reinvention. He doesn't understand how that can be done; you are who you are, he believes, and that's it.
He'd like to reinvent his paycheck, however. He's paid a lot. But he's worth more. The old senior partners, amused and goatish, padding along the hallways, suck out more money than they bring in. Though he and Judith live in one of those apartment buildings where a silver-haired doorman greets every resident by name, he wishes that he were paid better-eighty percent would do-for Judith wants another child soon. And kids in New York City are expensive, totems of major money. The ability to project a couple of children through infancy, doctors' visits, baby-sitters, private school, music lessons, and summer camps while living in Manhattan requires a constant stream of after-tax cash. It's not just the cost of education and supervision; it's the protection, the cushioning. The city's children were traumatized enough by the World Trade Center attack. They don't need to see all the panhandlers with seeping sores, the crazies and subway-shitters. You hope to keep them segregated and supervised. Not loitering or dawdling or drifting, because to linger along the path home is to invite bad
cf0possibilities. The child snatcher, the pervert, the mob of taunting adolescents wielding box cutters. In Manhattan all monsters are proximate, if not by geography, then by imagination.
And the contours of the imagination are changed by money. The units of luxury get larger. And this lawyer, this man, my own man, this hairless ape in a size 44 suit, knows it. You eat what you kill, he tells himself. Kill more and you'll eat more. Another child means a new apartment, a bigger car. And keeping Selma, their baby-sitter, on for a few more years. He's paying Selma $48,000 a year, when you figure in the extras and freebies and vacations. That's $100,000 pretax. More than he made as a first-year lawyer! How amazing he can pay this, how terrible that he must! And Judith is expecting a big, shingled summer place on Nantucket someday, just like her friends have. Fifteen rooms, tennis court, heated gunite pool, koi pond. "You'll do it, I know you will!" she says brightly. He nods in dull acceptance at the years of work necessary; he'll be humpbacked with fatigue. Yes, money, he needs more money. He's making a ton, needs more! The law firm's compensation committee is run by a tightfisted bean counter named Larry Kirmer; our lawyer, a sophisticated man who made the review at Yale, has enjoyed fantasies of savagely beating Kirmer; these scenarios are quite pleasurable for him to indulge, and such indulgence results in his ability to appear cheerful and positive when in Kirmer's company. Kirmer has no idea of the imaginary wounds he's received, the eye-gougings, dropkicks to the groin, secret heart-punctures. But if Kirmer doubled his salary, the fantasies of violence and retribution would disappear. Life would be kinda great.
Now our man steps toward the apartment house admiring the cherry trees under the windows, just past their peak, as is our man himself. Passersby at this late hour notice nothing unusual about him; if he was once sleekly handsome, he is no longer; if he had once been a vigorous twenty-year-old, now he is paunched in the gut, a man who tosses a rubber football to his son, Timothy, on weekends. A man whose wife apparently does not mind that when he suggests that they have sex he uses mock-witty metaphors involving speedboats ("get up on my water skis") or professional basketball ("drive the lane"). Yes, apparently Judith likes his conventional masculinity. It does not cause any rearrangements of her femininity. It is part of Judith's life, her lifestyle, to be honest, which is not quite the same as a sofa or a minivan, but not utterly divisible from them, either. This is the way she prefers it, too, and any danger to their marriage will come not from a challenge to its conventionality-some rogue element, some dark and potent knight-but from her husband's sudden inability to sustain the marriage's predicatable comfort. He, for his part, doesn't yet understand such things, which is to say he doesn't really understand his wife. He understands his law firm and his son and the sports page. He is, in fact, very similar to a sofa or a minivan. He has never lost or gained very much. Just dents and unidentified stains. His griefs are thus far minor, his risks utterly safe, his passions unremarkable, his accomplishments incremental and, when measured against his enormous advantages of class and race and sex, more or less obligatory. If he has the capacity for deep astonishment or genuine brutality, it is as yet undiscovered.
Am I too hard on him, is my description cruel and dismissive? Probably. He was, after all, handsome enough, quite well thought of, dependable in word and deed. A real workhorse in the office. A heck of a guy. Right as rain, a straight shooter, a good dude. His waist really wasn't one Sunday Times too thick. He was even reasonably fit. But I am allowed to distort this man, to seek indications of weakness and decay, because it makes his fate easier to explain. And because that man-you know this already-that man was me, Bill Wyeth.