The pain ripped through my chest like a dozen steak-knives, snapping me over at the waist, leaving me staring and grimacing at the floor. I was on a PATH train headed back into the city after a night of house sitting in Hoboken.
Well, this is it, I thought, I’m going to die right here. Fuckin’ typical–dropping dead on a train from Jersey, my pockets empty except for one token, carrying a bag full of dirty clothes and a copy of Jack Black’s “You Can’t Win.” Ain’t it the truth?
I was coming off of four of the ugliest days I’ve suffered through in a long time, staring hard and hopeless into the fifth. It all started sometime in the middle of the night the Thursday before. I was lying in bed, my eyes wide in the darkness, sleep as obscene and foolish a notion as God, when the phone rang. Now, on principle, I never answer the phone after ten, because it’s either bad news or someone I don’t want to talk to. Unfortunately, I’ve given a few people the okay to call me whenever, so I crawled out of bed and went to listen to who it was.
It was Laura, my estranged wife, calling from her new apartment in Harlem. She sounded bad–you learn to recognize these things over time–so I picked up. She was in a state alright–some guy she had been seeing suddenly wasn’t dealing with her anymore, wasn’t taking her calls, was leaving his home phone off the hook. Both of us figured we knew what was going on.
“Look,” I told her, pinching the bridge of my nose, “why don’t you come down here, we can talk about it.”
“Can we order a pizza?”
“Sure, we can order a pizza.” With that, she was on her way. Laura and I were still very friendly, and I’d seen her through the worst of times before, so this was no big deal. So I figured. Of course I also figured that the world was going to end in August of 1985.
Two hours later, pizza ordered, beer opened, smokes lit, we got down to business. Laura’s beau, Chris, you see, worked at the same research lab she did. So did Chris’s wife. It was a pretty sticky situation from the get-go.
It started a few months back, when Laura moved out of the apartment and into the lab, while she looked for a place of her own. Chris would stop and ask her how she was doing. She’d tell him. The conversations grew longer. They’d go out for coffee or drinks. In Laura’s eyes, it all seemed very innocent. Then one night she called and told me that he was pretty hooked.
“He just sits there and stares at me,” she said.
“What about his wife and kids? I mean, this could get ugly.”
“He says that he’s bored at home–that when he walks in the door, he just shuts himself off. He says his wife doesn’t understand him.”
“He actually said that?”
“Uh-huh. He says that he can really talk to me, and that he’s never met anyone like me before.”
“He actually said that, too?”
“Oh, my dear–those are the oldest goddamn lines in the book.”
“Thanks a lot.”
Over the weeks, Chris got a little more ardent, while Laura kept holding him off. It was just a good friendship, she figured. I kept following the action from a distance, not having any love life of my own to worry about. Then this Chris character came out and told Laura that he loved her, and wanted to leave his wife for her.
“Yikes!” I said.
Thing is, after all these weeks living alone in a lab after having stepped away from an unhappy marriage, Laura was pretty vulnerable to anyone who’d be nice to her–and as a result, had started to reciprocate his affections.
“So, do you love him?” I asked.
“I could, I suppose.”
A week later, I had no doubt that she did. Still, when he asked her to go to Canada with him for a week, she turned him down. That’s when he stopped talking. The one time she did get him on the phone, he promised he’d call once he got to Canada and explain everything.
“I don’t know what happened,” she told me. “And what’s more, I don’t know what’s going to happen–does it mean I can’t go to the lab anymore? Does it mean I can’t finish my research? He says he’s going to call me, but that’s two days away–two days of not knowing what to think.”
Which meant two unbearable days of panic and paranoia.
“Look, how’s this,” I suggested, “I’ll call him at the lab tomorrow and find out what the hell the story is.”
“He’ll never talk to you.”
“Hey, are you forgetting that I’m a professional journalist? It’s my job to get people who don’t want to talk to talk.”
“He’s not going to talk to you.”
“He’ll talk to me.”
At ten the next morning, I had him on the phone.
“Hey, Chris, Jim Knipfel here–you know, Laura’s husband?”
“Tell me, Chris, uhhhh, what the hell’s going on?”
I rolled my eyes and lit a smoke. “Jesus, no time for that now–you know damn well what I mean. Laura’s here and she’s a mess, and I’m not going to wait until you get out of the country to find out what the story is.”
There was a bit of silence on the other end.
“Okay, let’s play it this way,” I stopped myself before calling him “Sugarlips,” “I’ll ask you two yes-or-no questions, then let you go, okay?”
“When you call Laura from Toronto, which I’m quite certain you’re going to do, are you going to tell her that you can’t see her anymore?”
“More or less. There was a big blow-up at home a few nights ago–”
“Not my problem, Chris, and not one of my questions. Question number two: Will this in any way affect her work at the lab?”