It started just below the diaphragm—“butterflies” is the going term but that somehow seems too bucolic. This was more a clenched fist, knuckles pressing, twisting, like the hammy hands of a baker kneading bread. I’d take deep breaths and feel a throbbing, audible and insistent, from my throat up into the ears. At worst, lines of sweat slid down my chest to the waist and from my scalp down the neck and back. I’d carried anxiety and depression through much of my youth, but save for that egregious spike at 17, it was a mainly muted presence. Perhaps it was genetic. But I trace it to an elementary school open house when I first realized my parents, then far into their 40s, seemed older than everyone else’s. All things being equal, that meant they would die before everyone else’s. Long nights I lay awake, door open a crack to let in a reassuring shaft of hallway light and in summer the soothing roar of a Vornado exhaust fan in our bathroom window. I’d lie there under posters of Willie Mays and the Presidents and a golden-framed print of Leonardo’s Last Supper and I’d do the math: When I’m 18, they’ll be 59; when I’m 30, they’ll be 71…”
When I was 30, as it happened, they were both gone. Now I was in my early 40s, just 15 years away from my father’s age, when his sudden death struck like an asteroid. And after decades of relative quiet my high anxiety had returned, along with a dense fog of dread rolling through me, clearing now and then, but only for a time. More than my own mortality, I lived in constant terror that something would happen to Rachel and then I’d have to kill myself. Not rashly—I don’t have the guts and just my luck the Catholics are right and I’d be punished by spending Eternity without her, floating around some netherworld with a lot of Muslims and Sylvia Plath. My plan was more passive-aggressive: Going to the worst area of some notoriously unsafe country or city, lying in the street and just waiting….”
I thought I’d managed to keep my psychodrama from the general public; in fact, I was as deluded as the drunk who makes his every move deliberate and precise—or so he thinks till he grabs for a doorknob and falls six inches short. On paper, my job performance hadn’t suffered and I’d recently won a prestigious award for feature writing. But there were cracks in the façade as I learned the afternoon senior editor Kira DeMaestri showed up at my office and slid shut the frosted-glass door. She’s in her early 30s, dark, doe-eyed and endearingly motormouthed, and as usual she’d garbed her slight frame in low-rise jeans, lofty heels and a Danskin top, this one blood-red, as I recall—gone are the days when Time Inc. editors were tweedy, red-nosed Harvard ‘55ers. Kira (Columbia, ’93) was hierarchically my boss, though our relationship had a sibling dynamic. More than a few times, she’d come to me in tears, stressing over job, mother or tattooed boyfriend. But not today.
“This is a little awkward,” she said with an anxious exhale.
“That can’t be good.”
“Oh, no, nothing terrible. No.”
“But, well, you know—can I move this stuff?” She gestured toward my grey, frayed loveseat, a sign of my eminence—lesser lights merited a mere chair. I’d turned it into an archaeological site, layered with old reporters’ files, coffee lids, Balance Bar wrappers and sundry unidentifiable crap. Shoving it all aside, Kira sank into the cushion.
“Anyway,” she resumed. “You know what’s been going on—people taking buyout packages and all.”
My parent company had entered into the most catastrophic merger in the annals of capitalism. And the emailed memos were flying: “After 16 years at the Copy Desk, Shirley “Scourge of the Dangler” Strincevich is leaving the magazine to pursue other interests….”
“Well, of course YOU’RE in no danger,” Kira said. “I know that’s usually the kiss of death, but after all, you’re Stanley Hubbard. God, there are people, highly-placed people, who call you maybe the best writer ever to work here.
Like being the top Wittgenstein man at DeVry, I thought, outwardly giving an aw-shucks wave.
“No-it’s true,” she continued. “But it’s not your writing I’m talking about. That’s never the problem.” At this, Kira folded her arms—it’s how she morphs from baby sis to boss. “But, well, I don’t know, I mean, you’ve always had a kind of bleak persona—“
“I like to think of it as dark, brooding sensuality.”
“Well, it’s always been, you know, part of your charm because everyone knows how sweet you really are—I mean, shit, you’ve held my hand enough times. Women can talk to you, and there’s never any, you know, sexual tension.”
“Funny, my wife says the same thing.”
“I’m serious, Stanley. I mean the thing is—oh, screw it—the thing is you’re getting a little TOO dark. You never come out of your office, you don’t talk to anyone. You’re not in the loop or the mix or whatever the fuck. Look, you know Lenny”—Leonard Hacker, our editor-in-chief—“wants writers to go out and report, instead of writing from correspondents’ files, and speak up—participate more. A way with words alone isn’t enough. Especially with the budget cuts. Everybody has to pitch in and do a little of everything. Oh, fuck, I know I’m sounding soooo middle manager. I hate it. But this is not the time for you to be, you know—“
“Exactly. You know what I mean? People are noticing.”
“Oh, no, this isn’t coming from above. I told you, you’re in no immediate danger.
“Oh, now it’s no ‘immediate’ danger I’m in. Or not in. Or whatever.”
“Nobody’s said anything, okay? But do the math. I’m your so-called superior and you make a lot more money than I do. And you’re, you know—Christ, Legal would die if they heard me say this, well…you’re not 25.”
Indeed, at my age Jack Kennedy was a boyish upstart. But here and now, I was ready for a special discount.
Kira resumed her tortured spiel. “I’m just saying—look, we have a new evaluation system, scale of one to five, and it’s like, class participation, all that shit, it counts a lot now and I’m the one who’s gotta evaluate you, and you know how I feel, I mean, how much I, you know, our friendship.”
Her eyes were moistening by the minute. Christ, I was giving the poor kid a hard time. Of course, she was right, I knew damn well. Revered or not, I wasn’t immune.—they traded Babe Ruth, didn’t they? And I had changed, I knew it, withdrawn into myself. In my early years there I’d been a highly visible, individual presence. Writers still wore ties when I broke in, but I’d changed the landscape somewhat in my jeans, sneakers and omnipresent black tees. While composing one of my “masterpieces,” I’d roam the halls till the wee hours, gathering my thoughts. “Look out, Hubbard’s creating,” came the needling rasp of Theodosia “Teddy” Buck, head of fact-checking since Gutenberg, florid-faced, gruff and unfailingly kind—Tip O’Neill in a tent dress. Of course, Teddy was long gone now, retired to Montauk with her bourbon, cigars and ancient girlfriend. And I’d receded, gradually and almost imperceptibly, like nightfall on a grey winter Sunday. I kept my door closed. During downtime, instead of bantering in the corridors, I’d lie on that love seat of mine, legs draped over one end, listening to Thelonious Monk, whose percussive piano attack and angular, idiosyncratic chords and harmonies seemed the musical expression of my psyche.
No question, the job was getting to me. My specialty was human interest. At one time this encompassed the quirkier side of Americana—recall Jeff Goldblum’s “blind baton twirler” story in The Big Chill. By the late ‘90s, however, that genre—having achieved self-parody— began disappearing from our pages. More important, according to focus groups, readers had tired of them. Increasingly “human interest” translated to human tragedy—a bride gunned down on her wedding day, a school massacre, a tot with some horrific illness. In fact, I had just finished a piece on little Justin Voss, a victim of the rare genetic disease progeria, in which children age at a ghastly rate. By his seventh birthday, consequently, Justin had the wizened body of an eighty-year-old man. Though his condition was irreversible, he soldiered on—played ball, gossiped about Britney, dreamed of college. Tapping out his story I literally sobbed at the keyboard. To be fair, many of these “sick kid” pieces have raised thousands for medical research. Lacking the essential journalistic quality of detachment, however, I’d reached the end of my tether. It came to a head at the Wednesday morning meeting, our weekly long-range planning session. These gatherings always began on a light note, with a slide show of unflattering paparazzi shots and running commentary from a peanut gallery of editors. Most of them were entirely decent, the sort with a spouse and two kids in Park Slope, who’d send flowers to your hospital bed, lend you a flat dollar bill for the vending machine and vote the straight Democratic ticket. On Wednesday mornings, however, they were like judges at an all-male Streisand contest.
“Is that a baby bump?”
“She’s just fat.”
“Those can’t be real.”
“SHE got old.”
“She’s starting to look like Abe Vigoda.”
On the Wednesday in question, the editors moved into discussion of future stories, here altered, but faithful in spirit:
“We’re thinking the Justin Voss thing scored so well, we gotta find another kid with a terminal illness.”
“Terminal, like what—
“It’s hopeless, but the kid—
“Wants to go to DisneyWorld, meet Derek Jeter, kiss Christina Aguilera”
“A wish list.”
“And we’d make his wishes come true.”
“So we find a kid.”
“Like, a ten-year-old.”
“Nine, ten, whatever. But definitely dying.”
“So, we’d do what?”
“Call hospices, I guess. Pediatric cancer centers.”
“It’s perfect for Stanley.”
“A Hubbard Special.”
“You…are…all…fucking..NUTS!!” is what I thought. What I did was smack the conference table. Hard enough to sting my palm—and turn every head in the room….
To Be Continued…