Up in Smoke

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I met Billy the week that Wall Street collapsed. It was midnight, and I was standing on the curb of a well-lit street in Midtown Manhattan, hoping to hail a cab and, in the meantime, steal a smoke. I rarely carry cigarettes, because I "don’t smoke," but pour three drinks in me and I certainly "do smoke." (Chain smoke is more like it.) With Parliament Lights an astronomical $9 a pack in New York these days, I must often rely on the kindness of smokers.

"Can I bum one of those?" I asked. He was sitting on the ledge of a planter. He tapped out an American Spirit and handed it to me. Not my brand, but whatever.
I don’t really remember how we started talking. Probably some default: The cabs weren’t coming down the block, and I was bored, nothing to do but wait and talk to the guy sitting nearby. Maybe he asked what I did. Maybe I asked what he did. ("Transactional law?" Is that a thing?) I know we talked for a while, and by the time the cabs were coming down the block, I didn’t want one anymore. We talked for about twenty minutes — or three cigarettes.

"Lemme buy you a drink," he said, gesturing to the Irish bar behind him.

I was so broke that week. I shrugged. "Okay."

It was one of those sprawling pubs you find in Midtown Manhattan: Random clovers, Guinness posters, the Pogues on the jukebox. Inside, a buddy of Billy’s leaned against the bar, taking shots with three blonde women wearing spaghetti-strap dresses and fake tans.

I did not like this bar. I told Billy so.

What I did next is something I have never done before.

"Yeah," he agreed. "This bar kind of blows." He had ordered us both beers and taken a sip of one. A little bit of foam sat on his upper lip.

What I did next is something I have never done before. I do not think I will ever do it again. It was unsafe, reckless, and if my parents are reading this, it is entirely a metaphor. I can only tell you that I hated that bar, and I liked Billy — quite a lot, actually. He had interesting ideas about the magazine where I work and about politics and about art. (He also had cigarettes.) I didn’t understand why the stupid, douchey bar had to come in between me and someone I liked. So I turned to him and said, "Would you like to come back to my apartment and have sex?"

He licked the foam off his lips. "Yes. Yes, I would."

We collapsed in a cab that edged down Broadway: his hand reaching up my skirt, my hand digging in his hair.

"Hey, hey, hey, not in this cab!" the driver barked at us. He made us put on our seatbelts. We were genuinely sorry, two good kids scolded by a teacher, forced to opposite ends of the backseat for the thirty-minute crawl back to Brooklyn. We were obliged to actually talk to each other, which, in the end, was probably a good thing. As Billy told me about his mother in Florida, his deadbeat younger brother, his father who had died not long ago, leaving his family in terrible debt, he reached his hand across the black vinyl, and held my hand.

"So transactional law," I said, looking out the cab window. "What kind, exactly?"

"Basically?" He sighed. "I’m responsible for the market crash."

"Huh, " I said, drawing a little smiley face on the glass pane. "That sounds grandiose."

I don’t know about money. I don’t care about money. I’m not trying to be cool; this is not some posture. The acquisition of wealth is genuinely disinteresting to me, perhaps because I have never been (or been related to) someone who managed to pull it off. The acquisition of wealth is so genuinely disinteresting to me that I owe the U.S. government a cool $30,000 in back taxes. (Yes, I’m on a payment plan, and no, I will not pay it off before 2017.) I have four credit cards, nearly every one of them maxed out at a colossal twenty-seven percent interest rate. All of this — the debt, the disinterest, the smug entitlement to a life I could not afford — came crashing down on me last April (Tax Day!), coincidentally the same month the man I planned to marry left me, the same month I was forced to move to a new apartment, the same month my job became unexpectedly tough, even panic-inducing. It was a shitty month. Actually, it was a shitty five months. And perhaps that helps explain my impulsive behavior that night. Having lived inside a suffocating fog of anxiety and sadness for so long, I felt like I suddenly had nothing but oxygen to breathe.

Anyway, months before my friends and fellow Americans started "tightening their belts" — or, at least, months before The Today Show started running regular segments about Americans tightening their belts — I started living more frugally. I brought frozen dinners to work while the rest of the staff ordered delivery; I took subways while friends piled into cabs; I brewed coffee at home, washed my own laundry instead of dropping it off like I always had. Wah-wah-wah, I know, what a bunch of privileged first-world bullshit. Starving children are picking grains of rice off the ground in Haiti; so sorry you’ve had to skimp on sushi. And, by the way, this attitude is a good one — even though the shift felt like deprivation at the time, I have come to believe that this life of minor sacrifice and conservative spending is the one I should have always been lucky enough to live. Which is why, when Wall Street imploded, I could not find even a dusty corner in my capacious heart for the playboys who lost millions. Sorry you’ll have to sell your yacht, dude. Sucks to fly business class. In other words: Boo-fucking-hoo.

A friend joked to me the other day that she was going to start hiding her money underneath her mattress. And come to think of it, I’m not even sure it was a joke.

So when Billy told me he was responsible for the market crash, it just sounded so typically Wall Street. It’s the kind of narcissistic hyperbole that I have come to expect from the (mostly white, mostly male) self-appointed masters of the universe. It takes a staggering chutzpah, a seriously inflated sense of self-worth to believe that you — little you, insignificant you — could have even a tiny hand in bringing down the global economy. But I figured there was something to it, something I didn’t particularly care about, and I left it at that.

Besides, I didn’t want to talk about the stock market. Not just because it was confusing to me, and boring to me, but because the subject had become bleak and desperate and frightening, even. Do I even need to explain that? A friend joked to me the other day that she was going to start hiding her money underneath her mattress. And come to think of it, I’m not even sure it was a joke.

We got back to my place, and I smoked a few more of his cigarettes while we drained the beers left in my fridge. I propped my heels up in his lap and he stroked my bare legs. And at some point, we had sex. We had a sex a few times, actually. Took a bath together. Drank some Gatorade. Had sex again. And I remember thinking, around dawn, I’m either going to marry this guy, or I’m never going to see him again. It really could only go one of two ways.

And as far as marrying him goes — well, he was a sweet guy. I could do much worse. He was adorable in a buttoned-down, slightly nerdy way, and he seemed to have a good heart. He talked warmly about his mother. He kissed my nose tenderly when I said something that struck him as cute. When we ran out of condoms, he insisted on walking to the store in the middle of the night to buy more. (Perhaps this will not win any "Boyfriend of the Year" awards from Oprah Winfrey, but all I can say is that I was certainly not schlepping down to the bodega for some rubbers at four A.M.) The sex wasn’t fantastic, exactly — in my experience, sex with a man I am not in love with is never "fantastic, exactly" — but it was nice, and it felt good and natural, none of that annoying jackhammer business that men too often think I enjoy.

And as far as never seeing him again — well, the thought of it made me a bit sad. Even though we’d only known each other for five, maybe six hours, even though our lives had little in common besides a nicotine addiction (me being a writer from Brooklyn and he being an Upper East Side lawyer), it felt as though we shared something fundamental. A belief in kindness, liberal politics, love of literature, yadda yadda yadda: We both listened to NPR and went to state school, you know?

I don’t even think he was that interested in money. (No, wait: status. I don’t think he was that interested in status.) His ambition was fueled, at least in part, by his mother’s financial needs; after his father died, he had to support her. And the nest egg they always assumed would provide for her after he was gone turned out to be a snarl of debt and bad business decisions. It’s the kind of thing that could impel a good kid from suburban Florida to uproot himself and settle down in the whitest part of Manhattan, rent a $2500/month apartment, and get a job working for the devil.

"I want to take you for seafood this week," he told me.

"I like seafood," I told him.

He kissed my nose again. And, at nine A.M., neither of us having slept a wink, he left.

I didn’t have his number. I told him not to bother giving it to me; I wouldn’t use it. I have no qualms about calling men, but I had come to a place where it was simply more interesting for me to be pursued. I figured anyone who wanted to date me would have the balls (or the bourbon) to do something about it, and I was tired of getting numbers from men who woke up the next morning only to change their minds.

So I gave him my number.

I wrote back: "Is this Billy?"

And he didn’t call. He didn’t call later that Saturday, and he didn’t call on Sunday, and he didn’t call on Monday, and by Tuesday, I had stopped feeling annoyed and started feeling pissed. Even if he had called on Wednesday, I would not have gone out with him. I was too irritated. Because, listen: If a relatively attractive single woman does you the great courtesy of asking you back to her Brooklyn apartment and fucking your brains out, then you owe her a phone call the following day. Got it? If you don’t, you better have a goddamn good excuse.

And, it turns out, he did.

I had gone to happy hour with a friend that Wednesday and was just settling back in my desk at home when a text message popped up on my phone. It was from a number I did not recognize, a number whose area code was New York.

"S.," it began. "I lost my job this week. I lost all my money in the stock market. I think my mom is seriously ill, and I’m probably moving back to Florida later this week. I don’t think we can date right now."

I wrote back: "Is this Billy?"

I feel horrible that I did that, by the way. I wasn’t trying to be glib or funny. I was genuinely confused, a kneejerk reaction that I wished I could have taken back the moment I hit "send." Of course it was Billy. What the fuck was wrong with me? And yet, my mind couldn’t quite absorb the information. It was like an epic tragedy condensed to a text message. I mean, wow. Seriously: Wow. I lost my job, I lost all my money, my mom’s dying, I’m leaving this week? You could write a Russian novel with that shit.

Over the next few days, I told the story many times. And what struck me was how differently people reacted to it.

"I don’t believe him," my ex told me a few days later. (And why was I talking to my ex about this anyway? Smart women! Foolish choices!) But my ex is a homicide detective who prides himself on the ability to slice through bullshit. And I was curious what he would say. "He has too many excuses," he continued. "It rings false."

"But that’s why I do believe him," I said. "He didn’t have to make up that many excuses. He didn’t have to text me, even. I didn’t have his number. He could have never called me!"

He thought about this. "Maybe he didn’t want to hurt your feelings."

"That’s possible." (Although, to be honest, I think it’s my ex who doesn’t want to hurt my feelings.) "But it just seems like — if you were going to make up a lie, why would you make up one that makes you look so bad?"

He didn’t know what to say about that. And neither of us knows jack about the stock market collapse, about global markets; I don’t even know exactly what Billy does for a living. I mean, what he did.

"Do you think he worked at Lehman Brothers?" my friend Julie asked me the next day. "Maybe he was their lawyer."

"They have transactional lawyers?"

Of course. Of course they do.

My friend Dara made a point about why he’d lost the money. "Because, if he was trying to pull his family out of a black hole, then it would lead him to invest more aggressively, to gamble. You could be wiped out quick."

"Yes! I hadn’t even thought of that!" I told her.

An investment banker I know just shook his head when I told him.

"So the economy hits home," my friend Bryan joked a few days later. "The economy is affecting your pants!"

"Do you believe him?" I asked.

He nodded. "Yeah. That stuff is happening, all right."

I asked everyone I spoke to that week what their opinion was. Most of them believed him. The few who didn’t believe him invariably did not live in Manhattan. I don’t know what that means, exactly, except that living here right now, you are aware that the world can be too easily upended. You are aware that this is some scary shit.

"So the economy hits home," my friend Bryan joked a few days later. "The economy is affecting your pants!"

I laughed, but I felt kinda crummy. It’s easy for me to be glib about all the money-hungry frat boys losing their (Polo) shirts, but the truth is, some of the money-hungry frat boys are probably pretty good guys. Besides, I happen to be lucky enough to have a secure job doing something I love. I don’t have to support anyone but myself — not a family, not a deadbeat brother, not a sick mom, not a kid. Just a kitty cat who will eat cheap wet food and settle for playing with cardboard. So I don’t know exactly where I get off being snide about someone who wants to get rich quick. Isn’t that the best way to get rich?

So I feel bad for Billy (which is not his real name, by the way). Even if what he told me isn’t true, I feel bad for him. I feel bad for anyone who has an amazing night with a total stranger and decides that, for whatever reason, they should never see them again. And the truth is: I think it was the truth. I think he was terribly sad and lost. I think he was ashamed at how he had fallen short of his own expectations, his family’s expectations, the world’s expectations of him. I think he was disappointed he couldn’t see me again. (Or maybe that’s me. Maybe I’m disappointed I can’t see him again.) I really don’t know these things.

A few minutes after I sent that dumb-ass text, I wrote him another one: "i’m sorry to hear that," it read. "but i’m glad i met you, and i wish you the best of luck."

And on the off-chance that Billy is reading this, I would like to add that, also, I owe him a pack of smokes.  

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Sarah Hepola has been a high-school teacher, a playwright, a film critic, a music editor and a travel columnist. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, The Guardian, Salon, and on NPR. She lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
©2008 Sarah Hepola and Nerve.com