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Everything Happens Today

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Everything Happens Today

  Jesse Browner


  Europa Editions

  214 West 19th St., Suite 1003

  New York NY 10011

  [email protected]

  This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously.

  Copyright © 2011 by Jesse Browner

  First publication 2011 by Europa Editions

  All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.

  Cover Art by Emanuele Ragnisco

  ISBN 978-1-60945-900-0

  For Sophie and Cora

  “Seize the moments of happiness, love and be loved!

  That is the only reality in the world, all else is folly.

  It is the one thing we are interested in here.”

  LEO TOLSTOY, War and Peace

  When you’ve walked all the way from the Upper East Side to Greenwich Village in the middle of the night, the first sight of home should be an occasion for joy. Wes felt anything but joyful as he climbed the stoop. He had hoped that a long walk through the dark and quiet city would give him some perspective, but it hadn’t worked out that way. In other circumstances, it might have been an adventure but it was all nothing but a blur, thoughts as flimsy and disposable as plastic bags. If he had been a character in a book—Prince André in War and Peace, say—he would have seized the opportunity for a round of rough, candid soul-searching that would inevitably have led to some brilliant new insight into human nature in general and his own moral frailty in particular. But he wasn’t Prince André—he was just Wes, idiot Wes, the guy who’d just ruined his life forever and forever, and he was as confused and miserable now as he’d been when he’d set out from Lucy’s apartment two hours earlier. He stood at the threshold and took a deep breath, but it didn’t help: the sadness didn’t go away. In fact, he felt a tear welling, and he leaned forward to rest his forehead on the cold, damp lacquer of the front door.

  Wes knew it was a terrible thing for someone so young to feel so sad in this particular way. It seemed to combine elements of exhaustion, shame, hopelessness and loss. A teenager had no business feeling this way. He didn’t have a lot of experience in these things, but he felt instinctively that this was a much older person’s kind of sadness, informed by regrets, nostalgia, a sense of half a lifetime’s squandered opportunities. It was the sort of feeling a middle-aged loser might have when he realizes that he made a bad choice twenty years earlier, and can trace everything that’s gone wrong ever since back to that one moment. It was the sort of feeling that Wes could easily imagine his dad feeling. Another tear squeezed itself from his eye and was caught on his eyelash, blurring his vision. With the key in the lock, Wes changed his mind and turned to sit on the top step of the stoop.

  Wes felt paralyzed by indecision and weariness. He’d been up practically the entire night, but he wasn’t physically tired. He could push on to the river, only five minutes away; letting the sun rise upon him and the fresh winds wash over him might be a cleansing, healing balm. It seemed unlikely, somehow. Wes doubted that he would ever feel clean again. This was usually his favorite time of day; he was often out walking Crispy in the dark before the dawn. He loved the streets of the Village when there was no one around, when it felt like being on an empty stage that belonged to no one but him, but now it was spoiled. The coming of the daylight seemed ominous and bleak, as if the new day would set the night’s events in stone—as if, should the night go on forever, there was still a chance that they could be undone. So long as he lingered out here in the night, somehow they would remain confined to the world of dream; if he entered the house and closed the door behind him, he would cut them adrift and give them their own independent life, where he would be helpless to direct a new outcome. Either way, he was fucked.

  During the week, even at this hour, commuters often slowly prowled these blocks in their cars looking for free parking, but on a Saturday morning the streets of the neighborhood were deserted. A distant rumble of trucks from the avenue; the wind rising off the river rattled the few dry leaves still clinging to the ginkgos, which hissed and groaned with a sound of shale in the tide. A few late autumn clouds, underlit by the city, stood out against the magenta sky, and even as Wes watched began to turn from yellow-white to pink. A guy in a hoodie, shoulders hunched and hands in pockets, glanced up at Wes without breaking stride and was gone. Wes wondered what he himself would look like to a passer-by who knew nothing about him. Would he be mistaken for a junkie, a spurned lover, a homeless mental case? Wes generally spent a lot of time imagining what he looked like to other people, friends and strangers alike; he sometimes stood before a mirror and tried to see himself as others might, but it was useless. He was altogether invisible to himself, and he wondered briefly if this is what it felt like to be a vampire—dead to all hope, all eternity stretching out before him like a lifeless, frozen sea. All the girls he knew were reading Twilight; Wes would never go near a book like that, but he bet he could teach them a thing or two about loneliness and hopelessness. Wes moaned and dragged his palm across his face. One thing was certain: no stranger hurrying by at the foot of the stoop would be likely to take him for what he really was—a seventeen-year old boy who had just lost his virginity. He stood up, turned once more to the black, gleaming front door, fumbled in his coat for the keys, and let himself into the house.

  No one had waited up for him, of course. All was dark in the front hall, except for the faint blue glow of a cabinet light in the kitchen and a splash of pre-dawn luminosity through the lead-paned fanlight. No sound but the slow settling of floorboards—too early, even, for the boiler to wake up in the basement—and the refrigerator humming to itself. Wes was home. Now the night was truly over; there was no turning back from its truths, or evading its consequences, because it no longer belonged to him. What he had done, the mistakes he had made, belonged forever now to the petrified past, the past of textbooks and Wikipedia entries and Twitter logs. Wes could not pretend it had not happened; the whole school would know about it by Monday morning, and never, ever again—no matter how long he lived, no matter what he did or where he fled, until the day he died—would he be the person he had been on Friday morning, someone with a choice between two futures, bright with justified hope. Almost anyone Wes knew or could imagine in his position would be celebrating right now. How many fucking movies had he seen about desperate nerds with hearts of gold trying to get their dicks wet for the first time? And when they did—they always did, of course—everything changed for them. Everything changed for the better, naturally. Everybody Wes knew took their cues from movies like that—horny and pimply before, manly and reticent after. And the sorriest part about all this mess was that Wes had bought into the whole rite-of-passage thing too—a bold expression of self-confidence, a source of pleasurable memories from the very fountainhead of youth. I mean, he said to himself, have I or have I not just spent the night in bed with a beautiful, willing girl who chose me, and whose scent clings to me still? Am I or am I not a virgin anymore, and will I or will I not be a virgin ever again for as long as I live? Did it really matter all that much that she happened to be the totally wrong girl?

  But it was no good, and Wes knew it. The more he struggled against the feeling that he had destroyed every prospect he’d ever had for happiness and moral bearing, the tighter it compressed his heart—a Chinese handcuff, only not one that can be released by relaxing. He pulled off his sneakers and placed them gingerly on the floor beside the coat rack. He already had his tiptoe on the first riser when he heard a sound, a rustle of paper, from the kit

  He found his father, barefoot in sweatpants and T-shirt, leaning on both hands over the counter. The bluish light of the cabinet fixture picked up the incipient bald spot beneath the thinning hair on the crown of his head, and illuminated the architectural blueprints spread out between his hands. Wes had seen these blueprints before—they’d been drawn up for a gut renovation of the kitchen that had been put on indefinite hold by his mother’s illness. Poring over them in the fish-tank glow of the cabinet light, his father looked like a hapless criminal caught in the act, especially when, startled by Wes’s sudden appearance, he hastily folded them up and pushed them aside.

  “Hey kid, you’re up early.”

  “You too.”

  “Couldn’t sleep. Guilty conscience, I guess.” The joke fell flat, for obvious reasons.

  “Me neither.”

  “Are you coming or going?”

  “I just got in.”

  “Don’t you have a curfew?”


  His father nodded and took a long draw on a glass of water, tipping his head back, to cover the awkward silence. It was odd: his dad was a perfectly healthy guy, as far as Wes knew, not otherwise nervous or clumsy, but his hand always shook visibly when he drank, which made him look like an alcoholic, or at least much older than he really was. Wes imagined that, in some other distant world, if he remembered nothing else about his father, he would remember that his hand trembled when he drank water. That, or the fact that his eyes teared up whenever he heard “Brown-eyed Girl” on the radio.

  “How was it?”

  “How was what?”

  “Your party, or whatever.”

  “Uh, you know.”

  A porcelainy sound, like a teacup shifting in a saucer, rose from the garden parlor downstairs where Wes’s father kept his apartment, and they both turned to the half-open door, through which Wes glimpsed, or thought he glimpsed, a shadow glide across the stairwell wall. He locked eyes with his dad for the briefest moment, but it was a pointless exercise and they both knew it. Nobody was going to be making any confessions tonight.

  “Must be Crispy.”

  “I’ll walk her when I get up. ’Night.”

  “’Night Wes.”

  On the second floor landing, Wes paused to listen for sounds of wayward wakefulness. His mother was a fitful sleeper, easily awakened by little noises or her own discomforts, and even at this hour she was capable of making demands if disturbed. Wes himself was an early riser, but on a weekday he often heard her summoning Narita with her little glass bell even before he was out of bed. Narita wouldn’t mind—that’s what she was paid for—and in theory Wes didn’t mind either. It wasn’t such a big deal, having to take care of your mom once a week, fixing her meal or whatever, but still. He knew it wasn’t true, but sometimes it seemed that his mom woke up especially early on Saturdays, when Narita stayed with her family in Ozone Park and the glass bell rang not for her but for Wes. As he stood there in the loosening dark, it was not difficult to imagine her on the other side of her bedroom door, staring at the ceiling, sending out waves of probing consciousness into every corner of the house. Not now, though; her door was ajar, and from deep inside he could hear her regular, sinus-heavy breathing. Even so, it would not be long before she needed him. Wes moved on past Narita’s room and up the stairs towards his own.

  The top-floor landing, with its little bell-jar skylight, was the brightest area of the house, but the glass had not been cleaned in so many years that even on the brightest summer’s day the light that made it through was pallid and compromised. Now, the grayish smudge that heralded the dawn perfectly complemented Wes’s mood, as if he were not going to bed after a long, trying night in New York City but waking up to a day of hopeless drudgery in a coal mine in Siberia. He staggered into his room and threw himself on his bed, determined to sleep, but almost immediately became aware of his clothes clinging to him in a way that made him feel unclean; he got up and stripped down to his underwear and lay down on top of his bedclothes. But even his boxers, slipped on warm from the dryer and fragrant as fresh-baked bread only twelve hours earlier, felt damaging and polluted, so Wes wriggled out of them and squirmed naked beneath the blankets. But now it was his body that seemed to pulse with foul emissions, his own skin coated in a film of rancid oil overlaid with a dusting of grit, cigarette smoke, stale vodka and organic decay. With an inward sigh, Wes recognized that it would be pointless trying to get to sleep feeling so soiled; he rolled off the bed and padded across the landing to the bathroom. Stepping over the sill of the ancient claw-foot tub, he grabbed a tube of Nora’s lavender bodywash, positioned himself beneath the showerhead and turned on the water. As he scrubbed himself from neck to toes, then shampooed and conditioned his hair, he tried to will his mind to go blank, and to convince himself that all his troubles were simply the accumulated sweat of an eventful day that could be sloughed off and washed down the drain. But that was no good, either, because when you betray yourself and your deepest-held convictions you become a different person forever, and no bodywash ever invented can bleach out that stain, and even washing your hair becomes an act of consummate hypocrisy. Add hypocrisy to the list of his failings. He returned to his room, dropped the towel on the floor, climbed into bed, pulled the blankets over his shoulder, turned to face the wall and went to sleep.

  He dreamed that he was sitting at a long gleaming table in the Rose Reading Room of the public library. Before him was a yellow legal pad with many pages rolled up and tucked under the top of the pad. The page open before him was covered in meticulously calligraphed mathematical equations and diagrams that he could not remember having written, and so exquisitely drawn that he could hardly believe they were his. He was a member of a team of efficiency experts that had been tasked with calculating the number of light bulbs hanging in the chandeliers overhead. At the same time, looking around the room, he realized that it was the physical embodiment of someone else’s Facebook homepage, and that a related task was to identify the person to whom the page belonged by triangulating the hundreds of people sitting at his and the other tables. By calculating which were friends in common with each other and with the unknown subscriber, he would be able to find the subscriber himself, and thus determine the number of light bulbs. He was working under the assumption that the subscriber was Barack Obama, but as he glanced out of one of the enormous arched windows to see a jetliner angled nose down and speeding silently towards the western façade of the library, he suddenly understood that the Facebook page was none other than Prince André’s, and that he would therefore never be able to calculate the light bulbs. He woke up to find himself on his back, and from the angle of the light streaming in from the yard he knew that he had only slept a few hours. The night was over, it had really happened, and suddenly this new day was at the beginning. He began to cry again, only silently and without tears. It felt like dry heaving of the eyes.

  The boiler had kicked in since he’d fallen asleep; the ancient radiator hissed and clanked, and the room felt close and too hot. He rose abruptly and opened the window at the foot of his bed. He leaned his palms on the sill and stuck his entire upper body out the casement. It was a crisp late autumn day, with just a hint of wood smoke and woodlands pulling through the air. The sky, cloudless now, retained the promise of magenta it had shown before sunrise, and the sun hung coolly in the naked branches. From here he could see the backyards of just about every house on the block and the jumbled rooftops, chimneypots and water towers of half of Greenwich Village. Some were shabby, unkempt and cankered with ancient wooden sheds, cracked paving of brick or slate, tangles of skeletal briar and vigorous ivy, angled limestone lintels and crumbling mortar. These belonged to the long-term, pre-gentrification residents, like Wes and his family. Others had been remodeled, sporting new rear walls made of thick glass and heavy pivoting doors of brushed steel, stucco additions and terraces lined with cedar planters and expensive garden furniture, Japanese rock gardens or hedges of well-tri
mmed heritage hydrangeas. These belonged to bankers, hedge fund managers and media moguls.

  Wes looked down into his own yard. Nothing grew under the ancient sycamore at the far end; it was just dirt, a farmyard where the dog peed when no one could be bothered to walk her. There was an old, warped wooden school desk and chair where his father sat on sunny days, and a white extension chord running into the basement window. Over the years the yard had been the scene of a number of utopian construction projects: a tree house, chicken coops and rabbit hutches, a wood-fired bread oven. All had reached various stages of completion before being abandoned and cannibalized. Now there was nothing but some unhappy shade borders of variegated hostas and ghost ferns, an outdoor dining set of green rubberized iron and an old kettle grill that was barely able to stand on its tripod. And there, too, was Nora, sitting on the bench that circled the foot of the sycamore, knees up to her chin, a teen magazine in her left hand, her right thumb in her mouth. She rocked as she read—in an absorbed way, not a crazy way.

  Wes called down. “Hey cookie!”

  Nora looked up and smiled. “Hiya daddy-o.”

  “Watcha doing’?”

  “Memorizing slang from the old days.”

  “Mom up?”


  “She get breakfast?”


  “Dog walked?”

  “Climb it, Tarzan.”

  He smiled at her again and blew her a kiss. Wes couldn’t help himself. Every time he saw his sister he was filled with love for her. She was the most delightful, easy, dependable, kind and intelligent child on the planet, and all he wanted to do was to protect her from all this, have her call him “daddy-o” forever and make sure that she didn’t grow up too fast or around the wrong sort of people. But then Wes remembered that he himself had become the wrong sort of person, precisely the kind of person that little sisters need protecting from, and maybe she needed protecting from him, too. He withdrew from the window and returned to the bed. He slid beneath the covers, lying on his back and cradling his head in his palms, and looked up at the cracked plaster overhead.

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