(By Matthew Walden)
“No. Uh-uh,” my wife Denise says, blocking my access with her arm. “My laundry room’s off limits to anyone with a bad attitude.”
I swat her arm down and walk in anyway. “Fuck you. And fuck your laundry room.” It hurts to say it like that, but it’s what I feel. I’ve been trying to speak more plainly lately. We both need to pack for our trip. I don’t have time for any more carefully volleyed bouts of pettiness. Spiking the ball’s become more expedient.
We’ve been pissy at each other for the last three weeks, and I can trace back its inception to the beginning of the month when I tried to have an affair behind her back, and failed. Spectacularly. Or unspectacularly. It was a failure either way.
After a decade of pent up frustration, I finally bit the bullet and hit on Jenna in our office. She was all, “What would your wife think about this?” as I massaged her neck behind her desk.
And I was all, “What wife?”
So that part was easier than I expected. The consummation: not so much. When the clock hit 6 we booked it up to a luxury hotel downtown off of 4th and Main. It was called The Lonaventure. Weird postmodern architecture. Spectacular views. Frederic Jameson even wrote a Marxist essay about it once in Alt Culture. We were gonna do this classy, like a pair of real grown-ups.
I asked Jenna if she’d ever been with a married man before. I had her on speaker while we raced down the freeway in separate cars. She said she hadn’t, but she paused before she answered in a way that made me think she probably had.
I’m not very attractive at this point in my life, nor have I ever been. But I do possess a dogged confidence. The thing I try to project is: yeah, I may be a bummer to look at, but that’s on you. That’s a hurdle you have to jump through, attractive lady, not me.
I told Jenna over the speaker there was something she should know about me. That I was reckless and I would break her heart.
She told me as long as I broke the bed first it was okay with her. So you can imagine, by the time we arrived at the hotel, we were kinda hot and bothered.
That changed real quick when we tried to check in. Some data center’s cloud storage conference was in town and there was a long-ass wait before we could even speak to someone at the desk. Just a buncha large programming dudes in their late-fifties shuffling through with golf shirts, joking about all the ribs they were gonna eat that night.
I stared at my watch. Jenna flipped through the Financial Times, put it to the side, then flipped through old photos on her phone next. We were stymied. Out of synch. I played with the zipper on my jacket and it got stuck on the third rung, so I took it off even though the air-conditioned lobby was freezing.
“See if there’s something you can do to hurry them up?” she finally suggested, and I realized from her tone I should have tried way earlier. I cut in line, nodded back at her like I had it under control, and proceeded to make a fool of myself sliding the desk jockey a fifty. He turned me down but I scored two drink tickets to the hotel bar on the 2nd floor.
I bring them back like a proud hunter and Jenna rolled her eyes. I could tell I was losing her. After a pair of watered-down mojitos we finally got checked in. The room was nice. Some plastic succulents lining the window. A miniature rock garden. Surround sound speakers above the bed with an iPod dock. The fabled view, the sad city looming beneath us, lights flickering on as the sun gave up on the day.
When I leaned in to make my move, Jenna hesitated, putting her hands on my chest before allowing me to proceed. Her mouth was dry, her tongue flat and disinterested. She asked me if I brought condoms and the realization dawned on both of us that, of course, we hadn’t planned that out. How do these things happen so sweepingly in films? How could I botch it so obviously in the execution?
I head out into the night, struggling with my jacket zipper through the parking garage, and naturally the first gas station I hit was closed. I got lost on my way to the second one, so I picked up some cheap warm champagne as a consolation prize when I finally got there.
There was a note waiting on the bedside table when I got back. Jenna had left. You can fill in the blanks.
So genius me, in an attempt at real honesty, I told my wife about the whole mess when I got home. Poured us both a glass of warm champagne. I thought she’d appreciate the affair didn’t actually happen, and I could earn some good husband points for trusting our relationship enough to keep things real with her.
And here earlier I thought failing pre-calculus was the dumbest thing I’d ever done. We’ve been nipping at each other’s heels ever since, and now I’m trying to corral this stupid family of mine, all soaked up and lathered in resentments, out the door for our 8 o’clock red eye to Washington Dulles.
We’re headed to DC for my inauguration as 2013’s Jargonaut Laureate. It’s sorta like The Razzies except for political speech writing. It’s both an honor and a joke. You take your rib poking in good graces and move on. If you’re making a name as a speechwriter, you’re already a step ahead.
I’m good at what I do, and I’m essentially apolitical, which keeps the contracts rolling in. I’ve run across too many people limiting themselves with their personal ideologies who got stuck slumming it for local assemblymen with noble intentions. Pardon me if I don’t have time for any of that. I’ve got a hungry brood with sharp beaks.
We barely make our flight at LAX, and I have to offer these humiliating droopy eyes of apology to the rest of the passengers glowering at us while we stumble to our seats at the back of the plane. Plus, our daughter Hanna is wailing about some Strawberry Shortcake bookmark (?) while I drag her by the wrist, so I’m sure a coupla people already have me pegged as father of the year.
Denise and Hanna both crash pretty quickly after the plane takes off, thank God, because with all the domestic turmoil lately, I’ve barely even worked up an outline for my talk. This year they’re holding the “award” ceremony at the George Mason Memorial, right along the Tidal Basin. The cherry blossoms are supposedly in full bloom, so I’m gonna try to riff on that in my speech.
The flight is turbulent. We’re chased the entire way by a strong wind that doesn’t relent. Occasionally Denise opens her eyes and glares at the small light above me glowing down on my notepad, alone in a dark sea of sleeping travelers. She closes her eyes again, surrendering to our shared weariness, and her dark eyelashes spread against her face like a paintbrush. My dear friend.
I feel bad for what I’ve done to her, I really do. But I feel bad for me too. This aching compromise between fealty and adventure—it’s not the life I envisioned for us. No one’s coming out on top.
Regardless, by the time we land, I at least feel good about what I’ve scribbled in my yellow stack of sheets. I’m hoping it’s the perfect blend of humility and mock pride.
As soon as we check into our hotel at 4:30 AM I realize how awkward this is gonna be: “staying in a hotel,” and how the only thing on both of our minds will be the last hotel I went to. We wait in the lobby for the guy to load our bags on his golden pushcart. (I’d rather win one of those.) There’s a sad fella in a tux banging away on the piano in the alcove. It’s the theme from Terms of Endearment, as if the night needed a heavier tinge of morbidity.
We get a three-hour nap in before we have to wake up again and meet our driver in front of the hotel. I set my watch a few minutes early and sneak out to grab coffees and juice and muffins for the family, but no one is impressed by my gesture. This has been the tenor of my month. Rolling this heavy rock of remorse up a hill but never reaching the summit.
We pull up to the George Mason Memorial in our black town car, whose cold leather interior is somehow scented with both spearmint and tobacco, and we all stumble out looking exactly how we are: an exhausted family with little patience for the day’s challenges.
A young aide with a dusty mop of hair in an oversized suit greets us and leads us to our seats at the pavilion along the lakeside covered in gloomy moss.
This George Mason fella’s quite the dandy. His bronze statue has him indelicately crossing his legs, a book folded casually across his lap. He looks more like Russell Brand than the hardheaded statesman I imagined. There are a couple of dozen people in attendance, milling about and chatting. Not the Washington Press Corp, but fellow travelers for sure. The C-list who didn’t make the cut.
I can see the more prominent tributes to Washington and Jefferson from where I sit and I feel a slight edge of shame that their monuments exceed the grasp of my ceremony. The only awards I’ll be given are in front of forgotten fathers.
My palms are sweaty, my stomach is boiling over with acidity from the orange juice & coffee, and I’ve got the kind of crick in the neck that only a plane ride with a wounded wife can provide. I realize I’ve half nodded off when I hear the gravelly voice of Michael Rich, the president of the RAND Corporation, beckoning me to the podium. I squeeze my wife’s hand before I stand, and it remains limp on the bench beside us, like a dead carp that’s washed up on the shore.
“I’d like to introduce a man who requires no introduction…. Or as we like to call him in the industry, The Hammer. C’mon up here Hammer. It’s your turn to do the yappin’ for once.”
I smile politely at the exceedingly light smattering of applause. There’s half a cup of water resting on the podium’s inside shelf, and I swig it down without stopping to think whom it belongs to.
I run my fingers through my hair and start in.
“There’s the old adage. When you visit a small town, you don’t hire the stylist with the nicest hair, because it means they didn’t cut it themselves. You find the one with the best hair, and you ask them who’s the most obnoxious stylist in town. They’ll name their stiffest competition and that’s who you go to.”
And there’s a laugh that doesn’t land. It’s probably my hoarse delivery, but this speech is already feeling long in the sails. My wrist suddenly feels naked even though I’m wearing a nice watch.
“And you could say the same about speechwriters. We’re all hacks. That’s the truth of it. And today you’ve chosen to honor me. The hackiest of them all. I’m okay with that. My stock portfolio sags with the weight of the dignity.”
I pause and take another slug of that water. All I can hear is the wind blowing and the legs shuffling across the creaking metal benches.
“You know, it was George Orwell who said: Political language is designed to make lies truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. Most of my friends would call me a windbag, and thanks to my wife’s excellent cooking I’ve put on some weight over the years, so I’m definitely solid too.”
I pause for laughter and receive none. Maybe the joke was too layered. Too calculated. So I chuckle into the microphone to let them know a joke has been spoken in their presence. Still nothing.
“Anyone notice how George Mason and Tidal Basin sort of rhyme? So this is like a match made in heaven. You got a memorial dedicated to a founding father over here, and then you got a reservoir that flushes the Washington Channel over there. And we all know some channels in Washington that could use a courtesy flush, right?” I pause again. “So that’s a coincidence, huh? That’s a … a thing.”
I flip through my pages and notice I’ve still got three left to go. Any more of my jokes fall flat and I’m gonna start skipping paragraphs wholesale.
“You didn’t come to hear my jokes though. You came here probably hoping to catch a little whiff of the inspiration that led to my success. Especially you young folks lucky enough to have me bore you this early in the morning. Bleary-tailed and bushy-eyed interns, new to the hill. Making coffee runs for assholes like me who you hope one day you’ll find the luck to become.
“Here’s my advice to you. Today, cherry blossoms, delicate flowers that spring up for such a short time, surround us. They grace us with their presence, making their quiet declaration to the world: I am here. Admire my beauty. If you don’t catch them quickly enough, before you know it, they’re gone. Appreciate them while they’re here.
“Yes, I’m aware I’m essentially telling you to stop and smell the flowers. Like, I said. I’m a hack. You’ve heard it before. But nobody ever explains the flowers. Nobody ever tells you what they actually stand for. These cherry blossoms we see here today …”
I wave my hand at the trees and bushes surrounding me and notice for the first time how few flowers there actually are. Maybe a dozen, tops. The trees are mostly bare. The flowers must have all blown away with the strong wind we flew in on. My platitude’s even flatter than it feels rolling off my tongue.
“… See there’s only a handful. So that kind of proves my point. Um, they stand for …” I ruffle through my pages and cease to understand the point of continuing. The members of the crowd that haven’t tuned me out stare forward with stretched patience. I’ll close with the family. Always a crowd favorite.
“Hell, you fine folks don’t want to hear all this. I’ll wrap it up. So actually, what I’d like to do this morning is thank my family, Denise and Hanna, for sticking with Daddy through all those long nights at work. C’mon up guys.” I beckon them with a come hither.
But they don’t rise to the stage and wrap me in a giant hug like I imagined. They’re still planted firmly in their seats, their hearts closed off to me for who knows how long.
So I stand there, no one by my side, hoping this is the most I’ll ever blow it.