Robert Heaton

Software Engineer /
One-track lover / Down a two-way lane

In context

09 Apr 2016

Peter wished he still lived in New York. If he still lived in New York, he could have spent the last night of his trip in the strip club next to his hotel. He could have told Diedrich that he was far too wet and hungover to see him tonight, and cordially invited him to a dive near wherever-he-lived for a brace of tallboys and chasers sometime next year. Instead, he was crawling to the bottom of the East Village in a rain-lashed cab, paying a small fortune to be taken to a bar on the absolute other side of the city that his driver insisted did not exist. The driver didn’t mind, as long as Peter understood that the meter was always running and always had to be paid for.

He wiped condensation off the window with his sleeve; still nothing but a watery mess of refracted yellow and red light and dark that could be any street on the island. There was nothing to do except block out the radio’s incongruous mariachi music and the driver’s continued insistences that the bar he was looking for had never existed, or had perhaps shut down back in ’84, or perhaps did exist but was actually a laundromat. Nothing else to do but finish forgetting whatever had been said during the day at the New York University Dostoyevsky symposium.

They arrived. Peter paid the fair and stepped into the rain and black noise of the East Village.

He was instantly as drenched and disoriented as if he had walked the hundred and fifty blocks himself. ‘Novella’, apparently now a bar as well as a stunted art form for cowards, was nowhere to be seen, and knowing Diedrich only announced itself by a discrete bronze plaque above the entrance. He stumbled into a partially sheltered doorway and phoned Diedrich.

“I’m at 5th and Lexington, it’s pissing it down, and Novella doesn’t fucking exist.”

“It’s maybe halfway towards 6th. On the west side of the street.”

“I’m an English professor, not an Arctic explorer. Which side is west?”

“You’re coming from 5th?”

“Yes I’m coming from 5th.”

“Then it’s on the left. In between the chess board shop and the intellectual homeless people.”

“You’d better be getting me a whisky so strong and piquant that it the first drop dissolves my tongue, but I keep drinking it until I am nothing but a cloud of carbon dioxide and water vapor floating in and out of your stupid lungs.”

Peter knew that for all his infuriating faults, Diedrich would indeed greet him with a tumbler of the closest thing to his demand that man has ever created, and, just as importantly, would pay for both it and the one after too. Buttressed by this anticipation, he turned up the collar of his black felt trench coat, a gesture of defiance and misplaced optimism rather than advantage, and broke for 6th.

Diedrich was dry and untouched. He greeted Peter warmly, and immediately set about helping with his saturated coat and calling for towels from behind the bar. Peter barely had time to say hello before he was engulfed by the protective cloud of intellectualism and money that had been growing around Diedrich for the last fifteen years.

Peter and Diedrich met at parties in Chicago when they were both twenty-five. Initially they bonded over their complete disagreement about everything. As good, open-minded people, they saw each other as an opportunity to understand the twisted and misguided minds on the other side of the political and philosophical tracks that they so rarely came into contact with. They argued about the what should be done with the poor, the proper function of the profit motive, what should be done with the extremely poor and the existence of an objective standard of worth in art. They did share tastes in movies and cheap weed, passions that they indulged together most evenings after spending the days being a graduate English student and a junior advertising executive.

Peter noticed that as Diedrich got paid more, he started cultivating more. Audio equipment, artisan shoes, coffee, whiskey, detachment. It became hard to say what was from the heart and what was affectation; the two become the same given a year or two. Diedrich started winning more arguments. Peter demanded to know which periodicals his new opinions came from; Diedrich insisted that they were his own. He seemed to start actually understanding the differences between Bayesian and Frequentist models of statistics, an unsporting advantage in their debates on the subject.

Diedrich hung up Peter’s coat. He saw the same bedraggled Peter that he had seen for the last fifteen years. He chased the same girls and lost the same arguments; he probably taught the same classes and drove the same car. Some stasis can be fashionable. Valve amps, the right kind of kitsch, Abraham Lincoln. There had never been a better time to be long in vintage clothing. Intrinsic beauty is durable, and there’s nothing quite like nostalgia for a time you did not experience.

There is, however, nothing fashionable about a feeble, food-encrusted microwave, a ‘92 Ford Escort and not having an iPad.

But the world expects change. People get older, they dislike loud loud noises, they want to get some babies, they pack up their politics and inch them gradually over to the right. They want to be kinetic, not just potential; they want to just stay in whoever’s bed they’re in when the music stops, until a few years later when they start to hear it again, faintly, in the distance, and remember how much fun that game could be and how good they were at it when they’d had just the right number of doubles and the music was just low enough that you could talk and be heard without having to make any sense. Diedrich knew that Peter had read Richard Yates, that he knew all this, but that he didn’t know that it applied to him too.

Peter felt Liberal dissonance as he begrudged the cost of Medicare. He dismissed the pangs of regret when one of his good women found out about the others. He made only brief attempts to analyze his desires for a larger apartment and a Kitchen Aid, when his current place had ample room for all his belongings and was only a twenty-five minute bike ride from the centre of town.

When you’re an English professor, changing is expensive, and Oscar Wilde mostly stays the same from year to year.

Novella was the type of bar that Peter never went to and was only tangentially aware existed. So he hated it. Sitting, soaking, squeaking in a dark-leather armchair, he saw a dimly lit, pocket-gouging lack of price lists. He heard droll chuckles and hushed bullshit. He smelt an admittedly tall and powerful whiskey that Diedrich had paid for, and put aside his misgivings and complexes for another twenty minutes.

“Thank you,” said Peter, offering a small nod and arm-raise of appreciation. Diedrich returned the gestures and sunk into the armchair opposite.

“How was the conference?” asked Diedrich.

“An expensive boondoggle that took us all one step closer to tenure and the grave.”

“Did you present?”

“Dostoyevsky isn’t my guy, I was only there to represent the department.”

“Did you represent?”

“I was first in and last out to the closing cocktails, which is not part of my job description but shows initiative and willingness. And I would have made it with a gorgeous professor from UCLA if her colleagues hadn’t run a cripplingly competent defense.”

“How’s being a Harvard English professor when you’re not pissing away your student’s college fees and failing to womanize?”

“It’s extremely similar to being an NYU English professor, except there’s more money to piss away and the buildings are older.”

Diedrich took a taste of whiskey and breathed out. Peter used to put effort into being a drunken rake. He used to soften his approaches, throw up smokescreens, back off if he sensed resistance and humiliation ahead, just at the point where an employment tribunal would still be able to frame the case as high spirits and a misunderstanding if they closed one eye and squinted and didn’t want any trouble. He used to disguise his failures; he had a batting average and a Casanovic image to preserve and present. Now he carefreely gave his hotel room number to anyone he half-liked the look of, and relied on his strong jaw and high throughput to keep him warm at night. This transformation could hardly be described as a tragedy of a great man, but it saddened Diedrich to see his friend this way.

“The students are the same, wherever you go.” But at Harvard they did not yet have six years of institutional knowledge warning attractive young girls - even plain young girls now - to handle themselves with care around Professor Peter Harris. “They know that if they don’t expect anything from me before midday and write sufficiently coherent essays that eschew the phrase ‘the fact that’, they’ll get at least a B. The pushy and the pretty ones know that they stand a good chance of an A.”

“How’s Samantha?” Diedrich asked.

“She is more special than anyone I have ever been with, but I think that I’m about to lose her.”

Peter was not shy about his failings. But he usually required that they were viewed inside his strategically lit and curated museum, from behind the red velvet rope, through a thick veil of irony that a guide would be happy to provide if you did not bring one with you. Diedrich was surprised by this sincerity.

“Keep talking.”

Peter looked down into his tumbler and paused. “I’m not drunk enough yet.”


“How’s your writing?”

Tumbler. Pause.

“Diedrich, you know that these are probably the only two things in the entire world for which I can still dredge up real feelings.”

“That’s two more than anyone else I’ve spoken to today.”

“I feel this compulsion to write, to record the things I think and feel and dream in some tangible, durable form that will outlast me.” He crossed and uncrossed his legs awkwardly. “It’s hackneyed, but it’s true.”

“It’s only hackneyed until you’re famous.”

“And then it becomes the mythic, quoted spark that gives you your bestselling ability to observe and reproduce what mere mortals only see; probably the first line of your autobiography. I know. But right now I’m a mediocre dissecter of great, other people’s mythic sparks, and it’s hackneyed.”

Diedrich agreed completely. But he had never given much credence to Peter’s claims to compulsion. He had seen compulsion in his brother’s fractious relationship with heroin, in documentaries about slot machines, even in his own ritual daily espresso. Compulsion begets action; without action all that’s left is a misleading word for interest.

“What are you working on?”

“I’ve got a short story that’s maybe two-thirds finished, and something closing in on being a novel that’s about half-done.”

“Have you told me about them?”

“I can’t remember - Dark was the fight and Toward the End of Time?” Diedrich recalled that the former had been two-thirds finished for the last two years. The latter was new, but also already the title of a 1997 novel by John Updike. And he sincerely doubted that it was anything approaching half-done.

“The second one is new - what’s it about?”

“It’s too early to say for sure.”

“You’re being over-literary.”

“I’m all literary, Diedrich.” He half-stood, gesturing at his friend’s glass inquisitively. Diedrich raised a palm and shook his head. Peter had hoped that Diedrich would intercept him and insist on continuing to buy. He still had no idea how much a triple-whiskey would cost in this place. He hovered for a second, then sat back down. “You know what Samantha says about my writing? She says that I should put it to one side and concentrate on my career. And when we argue, when things get nasty, she says that it’s all pretentious double-talk and I’m wasting my time. And when we really argue, when things get really nasty…when she thinks she’s found out about another girl, when furniture gets smashed and bathroom doors get barricaded, when neither of us think that the other will forgive us this time, she says that I’m just desperately scrabbling to capture the last semblance of feeling before it vanishes forever and I’m a bitter old man with no way to prove that I was ever anything else.”

“Is she right?” Diedrich knew that she was.

“Probably. New York keeps you young, Diedrich. It keeps you suspended in potential. When I left - was it nine months ago? - I immediately felt twenty years older. All my erudite, vicarious anguish became real. Suddenly it was my life that was directionless and meaningless, not just Everyman’s. And writing was the thing that would allow me to express, analyze and make peace with this.”


“Was the thing, is the thing, past progressive tense, you know that.”

Diedrich did not believe that New York kept you young. He could believe that it kept Peter so busy and his senses so saturated that he failed to notice he was getting older. Maybe that’s all it took.

“Is it helping?”

“Sometimes. Most of the time you’re just rearranging the same words and ideas that everyone else is using into a slightly different order so that you can’t get sued. But sometimes you come up with a new one, contribute a new block to humanity, and that is really special.”

“You actually think that?”

Peter frowned. “I know I don’t care about humanity or contributing to it in any other way. But yes, this feels special. Writing is important. It’s not just stringing together sentences that make contextual sense and conform to The Elements of Style. When you find the right adjective to complete the sentence “he felt X”, the word that no one else has every thought to use, it’s sublime. Last week I wrote “he felt hazardous” and it was perfect.”

Diedrich steepled his hands over his nose. Last year he had found Peter’s notebook of story ideas. Or rather, he had found one of Peter’s notebooks of story ideas, with the number fifteen written in the top right corner of the tattered cover. He had been pleased to see how many of the entries were based on events from his own life; they looked good on paper.

He remembered a one am phone call he had received from Peter a year after they had started smoking together. “I’ve got the whole night free for my life’s work,” Peter had said, “and it’s terrifying.” The next evening Peter had dismissed it as the nocturnal ramblings of too much good weed, and they never spoke of it again.

Peter wasn’t finished. “You have the everpresent fear that you write a perspicacious gem of a sentence and nobody notices. You write a paragraph that says little but allows the reader to infer a filthy wealth of meaning, if only you could stand behind them and tell them how to read it. You know that you have to have confidence in your connection with you reader, that Hemingway would know when he needed to add and expand, and when he had said just enough to be all-powerful. But you are still scared.

“You’re also scared that you don’t know if your characters are acting like actual, real people. The only way to be sure is if they’re doing things that you or another actual, real person has already done, but if that’s all writers allowed themselves to draw on then the world would have even more books about suburbia and taking a shit that it already has. So you have to go out on a limb, on lots of limbs, all the time, and the further away you get from the trunk of what you know and understand, the more scared you get that you’re writing pages and pages of sheltered, speculative drivel that are going to weigh you down and snap your flimsy branch.

“Sometimes though, sometimes you find the perfect words, words that you know are true and that give away and hold back exactly the right amount. That is the special thing.”

Diedrich mostly believed him. He believed that Peter wanted to write, and he believed that perfect words and sentences were important to him. He never read a novel without a pen to underline the good bits. The few of Peter’s sentences that Diedrich had read were extremely good, and Diedrich felt it was entirely probable that one day he would string enough of them together to make something coherent and salable. Diedrich had heard evolving versions of this speech over the years, but this was the most urgency it had ever been delivered with. It had never included any words with the earnestness and surety of “special” or “important” before.

Maybe New York hadn’t been keeping Peter young, but it had keen keeping him distracted. Maybe it had made him forget that he only had a few more decades before his brain disintegrated, that he wasn’t young enough to live forever, and that his inevitable Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s or cancer would certainly outrun the race for a cure.

“You sound much more immediate about writing your way out of the slums of academia,” said Diedrich.

“You could say that. But it’s so, so slow. When I was at college, on the other side of the table, I had this brutal, oppressive prose professor, whose name I have managed to forget but whose deep red pen I never will. Whenever I wrote a sentence, I could feel him staring over my shoulder, correcting, sneering. Now that I’m older I have my every word choice dissected by a council of him, David Foster Wallace, and the Dark Lord Satan. It’s paralyzing.

“Struggling with their writing and their lives is part of what made the greats great. It just makes me drunker and more likely to go on the internet. Foibles feel so much more predictable and shrink-wrapped nowadays; they’re all some variation on giving just a little too much of yourself to one of the thousands of Men and Machines who want to swap your dollars for some gently addictive, saccharine cocoon. You used to have drink, gambling, and that was pretty much it. Now you have drink, gambling, office work, misguided marriage, over-trusting your political representatives, mistaking advertising for news, class and racial insulation, dopamine substitutes, drugs, home ownership. And I know that these all existed two hundred years ago too, but back then people didn’t seem to be as good as exploiting them for profit as they are now.” Diedrich disagreed with everything that Peter had just said, but held his peace and a straight face. This too was largely a new speech to him.

“And it’s so long since I had a deadline that mattered. I don’t even have the heart to make my students’ deadlines matter - ‘The final deadline is Wednesday, but I don’t actually have to give anyone the marks for two Thursday’s from now, and we all know that I’m probably going to copy your grades from your other classes anyway. So I suppose the final final deadline can be Monday, and then we can talk about the final final final deadline.’

“I don’t care about fame or fortune anymore; I just want to make something that I feel good about.” Pause, time for something different. “How’s Frieda?”

“She’s well. Her mother is sick though. How’s Samantha?”

Peter knew that he had told Diedrich most of what he had just said several times already. He hated the way in which he always ended up giving so much of himself to Diedrich, and never got anything back. He found it extremely boring when someone gave him every unfiltered thing that passed through their life, but just as boring and not a little insulting when they censored absolutely everything with any color or personality. He felt like the patient to Diedrich’s psychologist. It was his role to be a mess and Diedrich’s be the tolerant, nonjudgmental listener, giving him the room he needed to express his emotions fully before offering gentle, carefully phrased advice and thinking that Peter couldn’t see as he judged the fuck out of him.

“We do everything at the wrong time.” He hated Diedrich when he was being a therapist, but at least he listened. “We’ve drifted into roles and habits that neither of us want, and neither of us know how to escape from.”

Diedrich tilted his head. “I don’t think that means anything. What roles, what habits?”

“I can hear her phrasing things in terms that I will understand and relate to; I both hate and appreciate this. She makes every decision about where to eat; we both know that she is terrible at this, and she barely even eats anything nowadays. I choose the music when we have sex; I know nothing about music. We do things we both despise at times that are extremely inconvenient for both of us.”

“How do you know she despises these things?”

“She always looks so miserable, like nothing will ever be good again. She’s become very anxious, completely terrified of her job. Every morning she’s mutilated by the decision of what to wear. Leaving the house is somatic torment for her. I participated for the first two weeks, offering the requisite base of ‘you look lovely dear’ with a sprinkling of ‘I think I preferred the red one’ for believability. Now I invent early morning meetings that require my prompt attendance and doze in my office.

“She is perpetually terrified that she has missed deadlines, even those that are six months away. She barely seems to sleep, and she often shakes me awake in a panic - ‘Peter, Peter, is it August fifteenth yet?’ It never is.”

Diedrich decided to tell a story. “Frieda and I ask each other the same six questions and listen to the responses for an hour every day.

“One, what’s the worst thing that happened to you today?

“Two, what’s the best thing that happened to you today?

“Three, what’s the most surprising thing that happened to you today?

“Four, what’s the most interesting thing that happened to you today?

“Five, what’s the worst thing you did today?

“Six, what’s the best thing you did today?”

“What’s wrong with pouring a glass of wine and asking her what’s up?”

Diedrich swirled his whiskey; Peter felt his nostrils flaring. “Frieda and I use ceremony for it’s benefits in structure. Creating a ritual around talking ensures timely, constant, meaningful communication with the most important person in my life. I listen to people talk for ten hours a day at work; it’s inconceivable that I wouldn’t take the time to listen to my wife for one.”

“I hope you’ll forgive me for saying that it sounds wildly dull.”

“Already forgiven. Ceremony is a tool. The goal is communication. Often I can predict what Frieda will want to talk about, but that does not make it dull. It gives me an invaluable chance to fine-tune my understanding of her mind and emotions. The delta between what I predict and what she actually wants to talk about is an excellent education in empathy.”

The passion with which he spoke these words made Diedrich wish that he and Frieda really did talk to each other like this. A colleague two pay-grades above him claimed to have performed the ritual with her partner every evening for the last nine years. He had persuaded Frieda to try it for a week but they had found it stilted and awkward.

He continued, regardless. “She often says that her biggest advantage at work is that she has an intelligent, invested and attentive counsellor at home. I give her thousands of dollars of excellent work-related feedback, because I see things differently to her. That can be extremely valuable.”

Peter rose to this. “Do you already have so little in common that all you have to talk about is your monotonous workday?”

“What we talk about is certainly factual, and all too often our days have monotony in them. But it’s important that I hear how Frieda feels about these things in her life.”

“And that she hears how you feel?”

“Yes, yes, it works both ways.”

Peter was not surprised to find that he didn’t care what Diedrich spoke to his perfect wife about, and he didn’t care why he was telling him. “The sex is still fantastic when we have it,” he said.

“When do you have it?” replied Diedrich. Peter was silent. “And how does all this make you feel?”

Peter raised his eyes. “It makes me drink and try to sleep with other women.”

“Have you considered that Samantha might be depressed?”

“Of course I’ve considered it. I had my friend who used to be on prozac who opened up to me and in twenty not-always-comprehensible minutes helped me understand every single depth and nuance of the depressed mind. Just like everyone else had theirs. But just like I don’t want to have to have a disabled child or a parent with a very, very slow degenerative illness, I don’t want to have a depressive wife. If Samantha is depression, then it’s not artistic or pervertedly inspirational. It’s boring as fuck, and I don’t want it to belong to me.

“But I do love her.”

It was raining harder than when they had arrived. They were silent for a long time. Patrons came and went, bringing the weather in and out with them. The light music had stopped. The bar had run out of Grey Goose, and the barman wasn’t sure if they had another bottle out back. Peter wished he had said less. For the first time in years he felt an honest compulsion to leave this place and write and explain himself better and more sympathetically.

“What is it that makes this an important meeting of minds, rather than two irrelevancies misunderstanding each other?” he asked, eventually.

For once, Diedrich had no answer.

Subscribe to my new work on programming, security, and a few other topics. Published a few times a month.
Follow me on Twitter ➜ RSS ➜