123: High Cost of Living
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We're supposed to smell the roses, notice the sunsets, live life to the fullest. But this is not always possible. In fact, it's not always advisable.
Robert says that he began the part of his life when he felt the most alive a few years ago, when he was on a trip to Ireland. He attended a horse jumping competition in a big stadium.
It was a great international competition. And they had Ireland, of course, was there. And Britain and France and Italy and Germany, and Australia, I think, was there.
Well, I was watching that. And I was thinking, "Well, God, what do you want me to do with my life?" And so I was at the International Jumping Derby, and I noticed that the United States wasn't there. And so I took this as a message from above that I should do something to improve the riding program in the United States.
I felt that I was struck by a bolt of lightning of sorts, a kind of a psychic bolt of lightning. I said, "This is what God wants me to do." And so that was my mission, was to improve the riding program of the United States.
At that time, Robert had already suffered from a few bouts of psychosis and delusion. One time, he thought a light bulb in his closet was giving him special messages from God. Another time, he believed he was an angel with special powers, sent to help mankind. But saving the US equestrian team, there was something so earthly about that, so modest.
Robert loved horses, loved to ride. And one thing led to another. And before long, he was the nation's number one salesman of US equestrian team t-shirts and caps and paraphernalia.
He would get the stuff from a wholesaler, go to horse shows, sell it to horsey enthusiasts, trying to drum up support for the cause, all without any official sanction or authorization of the US equestrian team. It was exciting. He traveled all over the country, met people, talked about his mission. At one point, he became convinced that the way to save the US equestrian team would be to involve the US military.
Because this is who rode-- when I went to the jumping festival in Ireland, the military, or a military program, represented Ireland, and they won. And so I thought the United States should do the same thing, that we should have military riders and military equestrians represent the United States.
So I decided that I would write a letter to Senator Sam Nunn, who was very familiar with defense activity. And I wrote him a letter saying as politely as I could, do you think that the US Army could come up with an equestrian team. And actually, he went off, and his staff researched it for me. And they came back. And I got a letter from somebody in the Pentagon. And they said, "No, I'm sorry. We can't include equestrian in our sports program. We don't have the resources."
After a few years, Robert's mission started to fall apart. He was losing money. The people running the US equestrian team let him know they didn't actually want him to save them. So he stopped.
And when he looks back on those times these days, he said it was like he was too alive back then, too alive. He says back then, he had a sickness that made him believe every idea with complete conviction, that made him act on every inspired notion that entered his head. Now, he works a normal job, sleeps normal hours, commutes a normal commute, takes medications which protect him from fits of mania.
I think I was a lot more creative when I was slightly manic. In a way, I was certainly a little bit wilder and maybe a little bit more fun.
In fact, when he and acquaintances who suffered through similar kinds of mental illness get together, sometimes they'll all reminisce about the old days, before they were medicated.
Oh, yeah. We all talk about how many times we've been arrested or something like that. That's conversation. We talk about the goofy things we did. "I got arrested. I remember that. The police was very nice. But I broke a vase, and he took me to the hospital." And we talk about our hospitalizations.
And I do reminisce a little bit about it. It was fun. We had a lot of fun and went all over the country and had friends. And it was kind of exciting, sure.
But now I'm socked in a schedule of being responsible and going to work every day. And these things are not fun compared to running around the country and going to horse shows. Those were more fun. But this is what I've chosen to do.
It doesn't just happen among people who are medicated, the desire to avoid the highs and lows of a frantic life. Many people choose a steadier life, a duller life, because it's also a saner life, or because it's all they can manage. Today on our program, Avoiding the High Cost of Living, people stepping back from one big life experience or another, and why that may be the only possible choice sometimes. From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.
Act One of our program today. How to Avoid the Everyday Irritations of Everyday Life. Jack Hitt talks to a woman who stumbled onto one way, accidentally and against her will. Act Two, How to Avoid the Difficulty of Living With Someone, in which we hear a philosophical defense of baby talk among adults, that's right, baby talk among adults. We hear the grisly details. And do not pretend that you have not been there, my friend. Act Three, How to Avoid Everything. Writer Dani Shapiro explains how a 22-year-old can avoid facing all the important facts about his or her own life. Stay with us.
Act One: How To Avoid The Everyday Irritations Of Everyday Life
Act One, How to Avoid the Everyday Irritations of Everyday Life. No one is in a better position to talk about deadening yourself to life than someone who was forced to do it by nearly dying. Jack Hitt tells the story.
Back in the 1980s, when Charlene Riling was just out of college, her life was consumed with being a jock. She played basketball until midnight and could always be counted on for a pickup game of baseball or softball. She especially loved her beautiful yellow and purple Bottechia racing bike.
It would be nothing to be riding on the Blue Ridge Parkway down in North Carolina and Tennessee, going down on your racing bike, 50, 55 miles an hour. I don't know that I would do that today. So, yes, I felt very invincible and, in that sense, very confident, really that fearless mentality. Which right now, I have to say, subsequent to everything that happened, I've really lost that.
In 1981, Charlene's father died. She'd always thought of him as her best friend, and it almost seemed destined to be that way. He was Charles. She was Charlene. They had the same birthday. She was devastated.
Then her girlfriend left her. She started to drink a good bit more and lose herself in the bar scene. A couple of times, she and some friends shot up cocaine for a nice, potent, '80s-style high. Then she cleaned up, went to AA.
Years later, in the summer of 1988, the invincible Charlene came down with a weird flu she just couldn't shake. It went on for weeks, then months. She had her suspicions, which flared into a private panic when she found out that a guy she'd shared needles with was positive for HIV. She screwed up the courage to go to the county health department to get an anonymous test, and returned on a cold, gloomy day to receive the results.
I remember sitting out in this big, open waiting room. And there wasn't really anybody in there. And I don't remember how many minutes, but it wasn't that long after sitting down that I was told that I was positive at that time.
The counselor then proceeded to go on to her own little religious agenda, going on to say that Jesus Christ heals all those who repent their sins, referring to my lesbianism as being a sin, and that people are cured of AIDS. And AIDS is a sinful disease, and that's how people get it. But you can be cured of it if you repent your sins.
And it felt like the longest period of my life, being in there, just feeling like you're in one of those little snowy glasses filled with water, and somebody just shook it up. And your head's spinning. And everything's going on. And you want to get out of there, but you can't. And I just felt very trapped.
And then she started talking about this church called Hope Ministries. And Hope Ministries is a place that will convert people from being gay to being straight. And she tried pretty hard to get me to Hope Ministries. And I just took the piece of paper and just left. Never saw the counselor again, never went to Hope Ministries. And that was it.
I remember the doctor starting the AZT, started on 500 milligrams. And all this bloodwork was being done. And so my whole life, socially, changed. My social, economical class changed.
And did you stop working during this time?
Yeah, I actually stopped working just shortly afterwards.
So you're 30 years old, and you're forced to retire?
Right. And work was the most-- to me, my job was the biggest part of-- it was really my identity, the computer person or computer geek. I loved computers before I ever saw what a computer looked like. I just loved it. It was exciting. And it was about to come out from underneath me very quickly, what my whole life was built on.
So you end up with migraines. AZT is known to cause migraines, debilitating migraines. Just bury your head under a pillow, no light. You can't move for days. And they were just awful.
My muscles had reached a point where they had atrophied. My hands had closed into a fist. My hand was closed, like clenched, like a fist.
I could use my finger and my thumb to barely write with. And it looked probably like cat scratch. It wasn't even legible. And I was also having real chronic and debilitating diarrhea, couldn't even make it to the bathroom.
And at some point, Prednisone was introduced, which causes muscle wasting and a host of other side effects. And then the combination of all the other medications, in July of 1991, I was admitted to the hospital for changes in mental status. I was diagnosed as having AIDS dementia, AIDS-related dementia.
Everything, on one hand, seemed hurried. Death seemed much more inevitable than it just does in daily living. We don't really think about it. We don't plan for our death.
But I had gotten a dog during that time. He's a beagle. His name is Sam. He's nine years old now. And it's like Sam knew. Because Sam was around me the most, because he was home, and I was home.
And it's like I can remember being in bed and crying, just being so afraid of dying. And I couldn't talk about it with my mother. And I really wanted to. But I knew how my mother felt about death. And I didn't want her to know that I was afraid.
And my biggest fear was what was going to happen with Sam. I used to think about-- Sam used to get so excited when I'd walk in the house. You'd think I was gone for months. I would be gone for a half a day. And it would be like he'd go nuts. And when I came home from the hospital one time, the July '91 hospitalization, and a couple of friends dropped me off. And Sam went nuts all over me.
And I kept thinking to myself, when I'm gone, I'm not going to walk back in that door again. And Sam's going to just be waiting for me to come in. And I'm not going to come back in. And I know people might say, "Oh, it's just a dog," but--
Charlene prepared to die. The doctors doubled her AZT and told her she had six months to a year to live. She wrote a will at age 31, appointed an executor to her estate, made arrangements with a hospice to care for her. She said goodbye to all her friends, gave away all her most valued possessions.
I remember when you walked into my little beach cottage, on the right hand wall, I had all my bicycle racing numbers. And this whole wall was just all bicycle memorabilia kind of thing, and pictures of me from when I used to ride and race. And I had kept that up.
But I remember one day when I knew that I was never going to be riding again and never be racing again, and just let that anger set in. And I remember just taking all that stuff down, and probably not very gently either, and just feeling like, "That's all gone. It's all gone, and it's never going to happen again." And I just couldn't look at it anymore. It was too painful.
In her final days, in a lot of pain, Charlene sought out a renegade physician named Gary Blick in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was known for helping AIDS patients get access to often unorthodox therapies. Her regular doctor suggested she avoid him, called him a quack.
But she was desperate. So she got her friend, Jamie, to drive her down there. And Dr. Blick, as with each new patient, gave her a full workup, including basic blood tests.
And I remember sitting there, next to Jamie. And we're both sitting in Gary's office. And you sit out, and you look out. And you see the trees out in the back. And I remember it was a sunny day. It was in spring and everything. There was life outside.
And sitting there with Jamie, and Dr. Blick sitting there and telling me, "I have good news for you." And he sat there and told me this good news, that I didn't have HIV, and I didn't have AIDS. And I just sat there like, "This can't be."
I've been told this. My whole life's been planned about this. You know what I'm saying.
Did you just assume that he was wrong? Or did you immediately believe him?
No, I don't know. I don't think that I immediately-- I just couldn't. How do you take one day and compare it to three years?
One of the classic stages of dying is denial, refusing to accept that you actually have AIDS, fervently believing that the doctor will step out of the lab and say, "Oh, sorry. It's all been a big mistake. You don't have AIDS." And that is precisely what happened to Charlene, after living as an HIV-positive woman for three years.
It turned out that back when she first got tested for HIV, the woman at the county health department had deliberately lied to her, told Charlene she was HIV-positive when in fact, the test was negative. She was hoping that Charlene would come to the little ministry church in town and be healed of both her lesbianism and her AIDS. Then, of course, she'd be a documented, verifiable miracle for Jesus.
I just broke down and just cried and cried and cried, and just couldn't believe it that I had been betrayed. And I really had been lied to, and that this whole illusion was created for religion, to prove a point, to get me to go to Hope Ministries, to convert from being a lesbian to being straight, and then probably to be set up to be retested again and be told I was negative.
It was more than just losing three years of my life. There was a whole identity and a whole life built around a person with AIDS. I have lived as a person with AIDS. It's the medications that were prescribed, the diagnosis, all the events that took place, AIDS Buddy, AIDS Interfaith, living positively. My whole life was lived as a person with AIDS.
The AIDS drugs were so powerful, they'd given her the symptoms of a person with AIDS. In addition to AZT, Charlene was fed very powerful steroids, which can bring on dementia-like states. But now she had to be weaned off her complicated drug regimen. Cold turkey would definitely kill her. So she spent a year tapering off her prescription drugs until she could once again enter normal life.
But how does one do that? When Charlene found out she was destined to die, she discovered huge institutions ready to help her, the church, the hospices, the AIDS buddy groups. But now she was told to make a U-turn, to go back to the living, to abandon all her moribund friends, to forget the big philosophical questions and return to a life where she could buy a car and sweat out a mortgage, where she could take a lover safely and get annoyed with her, argue with her about the bills and feeding the dog and cleaning up after dinner and mowing in the back yard. Looking back on it all from a nice, cozy room in a new house in Connecticut, she said in many ways, it was easier dying.
You know, you start letting go of life's little things that might have set you off or whatever. Those things in life seemed just so insignificant. There was something much bigger than that that was happening.
The work that it took to get to the edge, and to have gotten really to the end, essentially, to get that far and then to be pulled back. There was one part of me, that wait-- there's some simplicity here. There's some peacefulness here. There's no more insanity of the world and people's politics and people's pushiness, and their beliefs.
I work hard to keep my life simple today. But I wanted to keep it as simple as it was in that preparation for dying. And you can't do that and live in the real world at the same time.
Jack Hitt, who put that story together, is a contributing editor to This American Life.
[MUSIC PLAYING - "CALIFORNIA" BY QUASI]
Coming up, the social uses of baby talk. That's baby talk among adults. Brace yourself, because it's just one minute away, from Public Radio International, when our program continues.
Act Two: How To Avoid The Difficulty Of Living With Someone
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, invite a variety of writers and reporters to tackle that theme. Today's program, Avoiding the High Cost of Living. These are stories-- I realize, actually, I've avoided saying this because when you say it out loud, it sounds so depressing. These are stories about people who choose not to live every moment to the fullest, who choose to withdraw from life in some way, to make themselves numb, and stories about why that's sometimes the only choice possible.
We've arrived at Act Two of our program, Act Two, How to Avoid the Difficulty of Living With Someone. "Cuteness," a friend with small children once said to me, "is what nature gives to our offspring so we don't kill them." Without cuteness, our species dies off. But then what is the function of cuteness among adults?
Consider, please, the role of baby talk among adults. This is speech designed specifically and entirely for cuteness, shared in private. And as I've said, our program today is about all the things that we do to actually avoid experiencing our own lives.
I would argue that baby talk, cute speech, is one way that we do that. People seldom discuss this in public. Our own producer, Nancy Updike, and her boyfriend, Chicago journalist Adam Davidson, agreed to step forward and speak the truth about the issue.
You want a shortcut to the intimacy that used to come from just spending hours and hours talking to one another about our lives. Because when you're first falling in love, that's the only thing that you do, and the only thing that you want to do. And you make as much time as possible for just talking to each other. And then as the relationship progresses and other things reassert themselves, work or friends or whatever it is, then you have less time together.
And you want to get that intimacy. And you don't have as much time. So you're trying to sort of make a shortcut to it.
It happened so fast. In Adam and Nancy's case, they'd be going out only three months when, like twins, or people in captivity, or deserted tribes on remote desert islands, they began developing their own private language. At some point, they found that they were whispering to each other a lot.
Well, I feel like that came about a lot on the phone, because Adam works at home. So he calls me a lot during the day, and I call him, too. And then we say, "Hi, how are you doing." And I'll say, "I got to go." And Adam will say, "No, don't go." And I'll say, "I have to go." "No, don't go." "But I have to go." "No."
And the key is the whispering.
The whispering, yeah.
There's whispering. But it's also like baby talk, like, "No, don't want you to go." "Don't go." "Must go." "Don't go."
And so you're doing that. So that starts on the phone, but then you find that it starts to creep to other areas of your life as well?
Right. If you wanted to record baby talk, you'd want to put a mic over our bed when we're going to sleep, because that's when we do it the most. And then it's not baby talk, but it's hitting. There's a lot of--
Oh, this is a classic.
I should just say that you just sort of hit her. I don't know how to describe--
But in a very sort of kid way to hit. Not like you'd punch someone. I'd come home at the end of the day and maybe turn on the TV. We're eating dinner and watching TV. And we're kind of quiet.
And then all the sudden, Adam would just reach out and hit me a little bit. He'd be like "I like you." It was like you would do in first grade. And of course, now I hit back. And I yell, "I like you."
And that's another whole voice, which is different, like, "I like you." Like I'd be operating the thermostat. And Nancy would be like, "Could you turn it down?" And I'd say, "No, it's too cold." And she'd be like, "No, it's the other cold. It's too hot." And that's a whole genre.
Did you mean "turn it up"? "No, I meant the other up, down!" This is definitely the most embarrassing thing that I've ever talked about in public, without any question in my mind.
What's amazing is that you talk about sex in public. You talk about money in public. But this, why this?
Because it's completely uncool. There's nothing cool about it. There's no way to make it cool.
You can be outrageous about sex. Or you can make fun of either having a lot of money or having no money. There are ways that you can talk about those things that you can preserve some corner of dignity. But baby talk is completely without any cool or dignity or any sort of redeeming social value. It is truly a dirty little secret, much more than sex.
And it happens in this protected space, namely privacy.
Right, right, exactly. And it's a bit strange, because it's this very performative speech. It is a performance. It's like kabuki. You do it the same way every time. And everyone knows the next move. But it's this performance for one person.
And then there was this thing where one of us was nicknamed "Schnookie."
Oh my god, we cannot, we can't--
Nancy would always know which one was, and I would always forget who--
Well, there was-- OK, if we're going to do this--
One of you had a nickname. And there were only two of you in the relationship, and you couldn't remember which was which?
No, no, no. One was Schnookie. And then the other one, of course, it's Schlumpy. Because one of you is Schnookie, so logically, the other one must be Schlumpy. Tears of embarrassment are springing to my eyes.
But then that becomes a whole thing. Like, "No, wait, are you Schnookie? Hey, Schnook. G'night, Schnook."
I remember that we were lying in bed together. And we were going back and forth. We were just talking before going to sleep. And we were going back and forth in one of the ways that we had at that time.
"You're taking the covers." "No, you." "I want that blanket. No, that blanket, the other blanket, the one blanket." "Come here, Schlumpy." "Oh, Schnookie." Whatever it was.
And I just felt like I was going to cry. I just felt so full of despair. And I said, "Can we stop talking this way?" And then, what did you say?
Well, I remember feeling like been a tough few weeks. Each of us had had a lot of tough times in work, and didn't have a lot of time together, because we were so busy. And I remember it had been days of just me feeling like, "I don't even know her, and she doesn't know--" And when you're that close, you just feel like, "I don't know me."
And I just had wanted to say something about this baby talk for so long. But first of all, I couldn't think to say anything outside of baby talk. And second of all, I thought it would really hurt her. And so when she said it, it was just, what a relief.
And I remember beginning to talk like, "You're right. We should talk in a serious way." And it was like finding a new mouth and finding a new tongue and finding a new way of moving all of it and expressing myself that felt, in a way, more false than the baby talk, just because it felt unpracticed and artificial and deliberate.
You know, when you're in a couple, you're both actually in a couple. And then you're pretending to be in a couple at the same time.
Yeah, totally. Yeah, we've talked about this.
You have? What do you say?
I think it's really nice to pretend sometimes. Like sometimes, being in a mature relationship is just not what I want to do, because pretending does have its advantages sometimes. Pretending does let you avoid things for a couple days, which sometimes is what you need and is OK.
I think fake intimacy that seems real is much easier, and it's much more seamless. Because there's nothing to disrupt the flow of it. You never get angry, and you never hate each other.
And you're never just annoyed. And you're never bored. And you're never anything that would interrupt that readout of intimacy. Nothing like that ever happens. And then, yeah, it's easier to pretend to be a happy couple than to be a happy couple.
It's easier to baby talk.
Did you feel and do you feel that you're actually in danger, that there's something that you could lose?
And what is the thing that you could lose?
The actual the substance of the relationship. That sounds too cold, but I felt like I'm losing this person that I fell in love with and that I am in love with.
When I'm in that kind of baby talk, pretend intimacy, it's impossible to imagine real intimacy and real connection, or just a real conversation. Even in my mind, I think of it through that baby talk. Just remembering, real conversations are suddenly baby talk conversations.
"I want a good relationship." "No, I want a good relationship."
Well, I remember when this happened, the first time it happened, because of course, now it happens twice a week.
It happens twice a week that you actually have to say, "Oh, wait, now I will be an adult again"?
I think it depends. We're pretty--
Oh, that's so interesting. You mean that the pull of this sort of fakey--
No, it 's a chronic condition, definitely. It's like TB. Once you test positive, you have to always watch for it.
Because it's just like a warm bath. It's the easiest thing in the world to do. It's just like falling down and just hitting the ground.
It's like a vaudeville routine that the two have you been doing together for 30 years. He says his line. You say your line. The audience laughs. Everything happens the way it's supposed to.
Nancy Updike and Adam Davidson.
[MUSIC PLAYING - "BABY TALK" BY BILLY IDOL]
Act Three: How To Avoid Everything
Act Three, How to Avoid Everything. It's possible to turn off your emotions and go into autopilot for brief periods with the person you love. And it's also possible to shut your feelings down completely, as in this memoir from writer Dani Shapiro.
Here, in no particular order, are some things Lenny told me. That he and his wife didn't sleep in the same bed, that they hadn't had a real marriage in years. That she was undergoing electroshock treatment in a clinic outside Philadelphia. That he had cancer and had to fly to Houston three days a week for chemotherapy.
That his youngest daughter, age three, had a rare form of childhood leukemia. That he could not get a divorce for all of the above reasons. That he was heartbroken that he could not leave his wife and marry me.
For a long time, I believed him. With every bone in my body, I trusted that Lenny Klein was telling me the truth. When we talked about it, his jaw would tighten, and his big brown eyes would fill with tears. His voice would quaver with pent-up, complex feelings that I couldn't possibly begin to understand.
Poor Lenny. I marveled that so many bad things could happen to one person. And I vowed to take care of him. Writing late at night in my extensive journals, I exhorted myself to be a real woman, one who could step up to the plate and be good to her man in his moment of crisis.
Years later, I hold Lenny's lies up to the light and examine my own reasons for believing what, in retrospect, seems preposterous. I reread my old journals and notice the way my girlish handwriting deteriorated into a scrawl as I wrote, "I have to be there for Lenny. He needs me, and he's going through so much. I don't know if I can handle it, but I have to be strong." I try to remember that Lenny was a trial lawyer, that he built an international reputation based on his own pathology, that he lied with an almost evangelical conviction. He prided himself on being able to convince anyone of anything.
Paris, 1985. We are walking along the Boulevard Saint-Germain on a cloudless spring day. The rooftops of the Left Bank are creamy against a rare blue sky. And the air outside Cafe Flore smells of croissants and the acrid smoke of Gitane. But I don't notice.
In Paris, in 1985, I only see what is within one square foot of me, too busy feeling the complicated stew of sensations being with Lenny provokes. I am hung over, floating on a wave of last night's Puligny-Montrachet and a four star dinner that wound up in the toilet of the Hotel Ritz. Lenny's arm is around me, thick and proprietary. I have not read a newspaper or spoken to a soul other than Lenny for weeks now.
I've been living the kind of unbelievable life people glide through in airport novels. We have been to London, Monte Carlo, the Cote d'Azur. I have played blackjack in private clubs with oil sheiks, who asked me to blow on their dice for good luck. I wear dark glasses and haute couture suits, a gold watch, and a long, thick strand of pearls. I have no idea who I am.
Lenny steers us onto a narrow side street off the Boulevard Saint-Germain and into a children's clothing store, filled with embroidered dresses my mother used to buy me as a child. He tells me he wants to buy a dress for his youngest daughter, the one with the rare form of leukemia. I help him look through racks of tiny dresses suitable for a three-year-old until we find one he deems perfect, a pale, yellow silk smock with a Peter Pan collar.
He holds it up to the sunlight, and his eyes fill with tears. "She'll never live to outgrow this dress," he whispers, "my baby girl." He has layered his lies one on top of the other until they have become opaque, an elaborate construction resembling reality.
He is fond of quoting probably the only line he knows from Franz Kafka. "White is black, and black is white," he often says with a sigh. I never knew exactly what he meant by this. But it seemed to have a lot to do with my life at the time.
The lies had small beginnings. Lenny called me from a business trip and told me he was at Montreal Airport, waiting to catch a flight to Calgary. I checked with the airline and found out that the flight would take approximately five hours. So when Lenny called an hour later to say he had landed in Calgary, I very calmly asked him where he really was. "Calgary," he said. "No, Lenny, really." He stuck to his story. In the time that I knew him, he never, ever changed his story midstream.
I hung up on him and called his family's house in Westchester. When the maid answered the phone, I asked to speak with Mr. Klein. And when he picked up the extension, and I heard his rough, craggy "Hello," I screamed so hard into his ear that he dropped the receiver.
He raced into the city. He let himself into my apartment and found me curled up in bed. He scooped me up and held me to his chest.
His wife wasn't home, he told me. She was having shock treatment. And someone had to take care of his daughter. He hadn't wanted to tell me because he'd wanted to spare me, to protect me from the horror of his life. Surely I understood.
"Shh, sweetheart," he murmured into the top of my head as I wept, my face beet red like a little girl's. "So many people need me," he said, "But I love you best of all."
Two years have passed, and something has gone wrong, terribly wrong, with my life. I don't, in fact, think of my life as "my life," but rather as a series of random events that have no logical connection. I am no longer a student. I dropped out of Sarah Lawrence after my junior year, supposedly to pursue acting. And I'm actually doing a pretty good imitation of an actress. But I'm doing an even better imitation of a mistress.
Lenny's been busy buying me things. I don't particularly want these things, but they seem to be what Lenny is offering in lieu of himself. So quite suddenly, overnight really, I find myself driving a black Mercedes convertible. And just in case I might be mistaken for anything other than a kept woman, I wear a mink coat, a Cartier watch, a Bulgari necklace with an ancient coin at its center.
The Mercedes is a step down from the first car Lenny gave me when we had been going out for a month, a leased Ferrari. I don't know how to drive a stick shift, so the Ferrari was a bit of a problem. What I must have looked like, a 20-year-old blonde dressed like Ivana Trump, stalled in traffic, grinding gears, trying to find the point on the clutch to hold that ridiculous car in place.
Lenny rented an apartment on a pretty little street in Greenwich Village, a furnished triplex with a garden, a fireplace, and a bedroom with a four-poster bed. He called it "our house," as if he didn't have another home with a whole family in it an hour north of the city. He kept half a dozen suits in the bedroom closet, and a brand new silk robe hung behind the bathroom door. There was an entire floor we didn't use, a large, airy children's nursery.
My parents knew that something was up. They knew I was going out with somebody, but they had no idea who. I was drifting away from them. And they were letting me go.
One night, I invited them over for dinner. I pushed all traces of Lenny out of sight. But of course, there were clues, a glossy brochure for Italian yachts, a humidor in the center of the coffee table, a man's Burberry overcoat on a hook near the front door. I cooked up a storm, and the place was filled with homey smells-- garlic, basil, coriander. It was winter, and the snow was piled up on the sills. Spotlights in the back yard shone on the landscaped garden, the redwood table, the Adirondack chairs, and the huge, terra cotta pots of last spring's dead geraniums. I had my father's favorite music, Dvorak's Symphony for the New World, playing on the stereo system.
[MUSIC PLAYING - "SYMPHONY NO. 9" BY ANTONIN DVORAK]
My parents rang the doorbell. They looked so solid standing on my front stoop, their cold, red noses poking out from above their mufflers. If nothing else, they looked like they belonged together. They were elegant and rangy, similarly proportioned, unlike Lenny and me. Lenny is thick as a linebacker, and I had become so delicate, the wind could have picked me up and blown me away. My mother strode into the brownstone as if it wasn't the weirdest thing in the world to be visiting her daughter in a lavish apartment with no name on the outside buzzer. My father trailed behind her wearily, as if setting foot on another planet.
My mother entered the living room, flung her arms wide, and did an impromptu dance to Dvorak. "Tra-la-la-la," she trilled. My father and I hung back and watched, our faces crumpled into awkward smiles.
We were used to it. In every family, there is room for only one Sarah Bernhardt, and my mother had assumed that role. It didn't occur to me that she was frightened, that this was a lot for her to take in, her college dropout daughter living in the lap of luxury. All I could see was her outsized self twirling around my living room in her fur coat and boots. I wanted a drink.
I walked over to my mother and put a hand on her shoulder, and she spun to a halt. I took her coat and my father's and hung them above Lenny's raincoat by the front door. For the first time, I noticed there was a wreath made of twigs, a bit of Americana, on the wall near the kitchen. And I wondered if I could remove it quickly before my father saw it.
Wreaths under any circumstances are as goyishe as it gets. Which would be worse for my father, imagining that I was with some powerful guy old enough to be my father, or the possibility that the guy wasn't Jewish? I wished I could reassure him, yes Daddy, he's Jewish. 23 years older than me, a pathological liar, married to a woman who knows nothing of me, and a Jew.
I poured myself two glasses of chardonnay for my parents and a large vodka for myself. I figured that if the vodka was in a water glass, they wouldn't know the difference, especially if I drank it like it was water. My drinking had taken on a new urgency in the past few months. It was no longer a question of desire, but of need. I could not get through an evening like this without the armor of booze.
I handed them their wine and directed them to the couch. On the coffee table, I had put out a plate of crudites and a bowl of olives. "Quite a place," my mother said brightly, her gaze darting around the room at the white brick fireplace with its wrought iron tools, the glass wall overlooking the garden, the soaring ceiling. My father stared at the fringe of the rug, glassy-eyed. He needed to be as numbed as I did to get through this night. "Thanks," I murmured, as if she was paying me a compliment.
I checked on dinner, using the opportunity to gulp some wine from the open bottle in the fridge. Vodka and white wine was a combination I knew worked for me. If I stuck with the formula, things shouldn't be too bad in the morning, especially if I wasn't eating. And I couldn't see myself eating.
The music had stopped by the time we all sat at the dining room table, but I didn't notice then. If I had, I would certainly have changed the tape, filled the air with something other than the tinny, lonely sound of our three forks scraping against plates. I pushed my chicken from one side of my plate to the other. My stomach clenched and growled in protest.
It seems that my parents and I, after 22 years in each other's company, had run out of things to say. I already knew their views on the political situation in Israel. And we couldn't discuss my school work. I was no longer in school.
My father pressed a corner of his napkin to his lips and murmured something about the food being delicious. My mother agreed. "My wonderful daughter," she said, shaking her head, "You've turned into such a little homemaker." I looked at my parents across the table. Is that what they really thought? How could they just sit there?
Some small piece of me wanted my father to fling me over his shoulder and carry me, kicking and screaming, to the car he had parked outside. I secretly wished that they would drive me home, deposit me in my childhood bedroom, and feed me chicken soup and saltines. I wanted to start my life over again, but I didn't know how.
In the face of the most tangible proof that Lenny had been lying to me all these years, I remained with him. "My little girl is dying," he would say whenever I noticed the discrepancies in his stories, or, "My children's mother is having electroshock therapy." When I couldn't take my own confusion anymore-- was Lenny lying to me? Was I going crazy? I decided to hire a detective to get to the bottom of it. By this time, my parents knew all about me and Lenny in theory, but it wasn't something we could talk about.
When I think back to my younger self rifling through the New York City Yellow Pages in search of a private investigator, I feel like I'm watching a movie about someone else, a girl so clueless, she really didn't know that her desire to hire a detective was all the answer she needed. I chose a detective agency based on nothing more than its good address in the east 60s, a neighborhood filled with private schools and shrinks. "This isn't what you think," I told the detective. "I'm in a relationship with a married man, and I want you to find out if my boyfriend is cheating on me with his wife." At this, his eyebrows shot up. "Come again?"
"He claims his wife is in a mental hospital. He told me he hasn't been with her in years." "And you think he might be lying," said the investigator. Did I see the laughter behind his eyes, or is my memory supplying it now? Because I simply cannot imagine a middle-aged man listening to an earnest, overdressed 22-year-old girl tell him that she thinks her boyfriend might still be sleeping with his wife. "Yes," I said.
Days later, I got the proof about Lenny's lies. In tears, I called my mother. "Oh, darling, I'm so sorry. Is there anything I can do?" "I don't think so." A pause. "Do you want me to call his wife?" My mother and Mrs. Klein had met each other at a few school functions back when none of this could have struck anyone as a remote possibility. "Yes," I said, "Call her." "I'll do it right now," my mother said.
I sat by the phone and watched the minutes tick by. I pictured Lenny's wife answering the phone with a chirpy hello, and my mother's slow, steady explanation of why she was calling. I had set in motion a chain of events which was now unstoppable.
More than 20 minutes passed before my mother called me back. "Well, I did it," she said. "You talked to her?" The world felt unreal, hallucinatory. "Yes. She called me a liar. She told me she has a happy marriage to a man who travels a lot, that he's on his way to California. And I said, 'No, he's on his way to see my daughter.'" My mother sounded proud of herself, immersed in the drama of the moment.
"How did she seem?" I asked. "What do you mean?" "Lenny's wife, was she angry?" "No," my mother said slowly. "She just didn't believe me, Dani."
I spent the rest of that day in a state of awful excitement. Something was going to happen. And when Lenny showed up that evening at the apartment we were still sharing in the West Village, I was ready. He put his bags down and gave me a hug.
The phone rang. My mother had given Mrs. Klein the number at the apartment and suggested she find out for herself what her husband was up to. Lenny picked up the phone on the kitchen wall. "Hello?" I watched him. And for the first and only time in the years I knew him, he looked genuinely surprised.
He didn't say a word. He just listened for a few minutes, then hung up the phone. "That was my wife," he said. I was silent. "How did she get this number?" I shrugged. "I have to go." "I'd imagine," I said faintly. My anger was giving me the fuel that I needed to stay strong, at least for the moment.
When Lenny slammed out of the apartment, I was certain I would never seen him again. I knew the truth now. It was staring me in the face, in the concrete form of flight lists and photos. And he knew that I knew. And besides, the whistle was blown. What could he possibly tell his wife? This was it, I told myself, absolutely, positively, the end.
It wasn't the end. Lenny still called 10, 12 times a day. He left messages on my answering machine. "Hello?" His voice filled my bedroom. "Fox, are you there?" Sometimes he didn't say a word. He would stay on the line for as long as five minutes, just breathing.
Eventually, he did get to me again. And for the next year that we were together, three days here, four days there, my life became unrecognizable to me. I idly wondered what it would take to get me to leave him. I wondered about this over bottles of chilled white wine or heavy glasses half-filled with scotch.
I was still wondering about it when I went to stay for a while at a health spa in California. The phone rang in my room one day. There had been a car crash on a snowy highway. My mother had 80 broken bones. My father was in a coma. They were lying in a hospital 3,000 miles away.
And suddenly, in ways I could not have imagined seconds earlier, nothing else mattered. As I packed my bags, I remembered my mother twirling, dancing to Dvorak, through the doors of Lenny's brownstone, and the glassy look in my father's eyes. I prayed that my father wouldn't die disappointed in me. And I knew then what I had to do.
Dani Shapiro, reading an excerpt from he memoir, Slow Motion: A True Story, published by Random House.
Well, our program was produced today by Nancy Updike and myself with Alix Spiegel and Julie Snyder, contributing editors Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, and consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from Jorge Just, Todd Bachmann, and Sylvia Lemus. One of the two engineers who built this studio, I speak to you from today. [? Bill Mayers ?] is retiring this week. My voice comes to you through wires and faders and switches that he soldered into place, one by one, by hand, with his partner in crime, [? Al Mix. ?] He could not have been more generous and helpful and decent to work with. And we're sorry to see him go.
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