There were three of them—three guys whose wiring you probably could have smelled in Brooklyn—but, my purpose eluding me, I found myself headed straight in their direction.
If I didn’t know what I was doing in that respect, however, I wasn’t in the least unclear about my impending decomposition.
Although none of my vital parts had actually shut down yet, I was convinced, and had been for weeks, that one or more of them was about to, that I was already in the end stages of a fatal wasting disease. In all manner of physical distress—perpetually light-headed and nauseous, my breath short, my vision dim and my gait unsteady—I’d never felt so weak and frail. Or small. Not that, at 5’6″, 140 lbs, I wasn’t small. But I was getting even smaller. In fact, I was shriveling—I swear, I could see myself withering and contracting in my mirror. No, it would not be long before I was reduced to something ghastly, to a thing you might find in a drawer, deep in the bowels of a Port au Prince curio shop cellar.
I’d been living with the expectation of my imminent demise since my fifty-second birthday—which had coincided with my son’s acceptance into college and was when it first hit me that I’d turned fifty. And the anxiety I was experiencing had begun to color my perception of the world at large. I mean here I was, returning home from an errand through the Village on a Saturday afternoon. It was one of those fine days you get just a precious few times in midsummer New York when the humidity’s low and the temperature’s reasonable. The narrow streets were teeming with people celebrating the weekend and the weather, and all I could think was that, at one point or another, every last one of them was going to get very sick and then disappear.
Okay. I know. I didn’t need to be Otto Rank to appreciate that I was in the throes of a monster midlife depression. But my awareness of this made no difference. If I was exaggerating my situation, if my expiration was perhaps not so close at hand as I believed, it was still true that my youth was gone, and my hyperconsciousness of my body’s impermanence, which recognizing that fact had generated, didn’t go away.
So literally staggering under the weight of the menace my body was posing to me, I was turning into West 4th Street (hoping I wouldn’t pass out in the crush of a very dense crowd—and holding a freshly lit cigarette, which would prove to be significant) when I saw them a little way up the block. In their mid-to-late twenties, and emphatically not from the neighborhood, they were swilling beer from bottles and loudly passing judgment on the females who happened near them, even those escorted by men. One of them, his T-shirt advertising a Jersey City tavern, was leaning against a parked car. He had a face that was almost identical to Jack Black’s and he’d apparently nourished his resemblance to a celebrity by shaping his body to match Black’s as well. The other two, similarly proportioned, were sprawled just opposite him on the bottom step of a stoop. Their legs were stretched onto the sidewalk and left with no more than a foot or so to pass, most people were taking to the street to get around them.
As I came up to them and, as I’ve indicated, without a clue as to what, a sizable trepidation notwithstanding, was compelling me to enter their space, my only conscious intention was to slide my way by. But when I turned slightly sideways to accomplish this objective, the Jack Black ringer reached out, grabbed me by the stomach, and pulled me toward him. “Are you a fag?” he said, his eyes not quite looking into mine.
Now his breath—and an overlay of alcohol did little to mute it—smelled like nothing so much as a chicken coop. His skin, moreover, glistening with sweat despite the moderate temperature, was riddled with brutal acne scars (the remnants of a likely bleak adolescence). And yes, his grip hurt a lot. But what I couldn’t help concentrating on was a huge white globule of snot that was hanging precariously from one of his nostrils.
“I think you’re a fag,” he continued, squeezing my stomach harder and grinning at his friends. “And you know what? I hate fags.”
With that my focus shifted to his brain. I think of stupidity as more often than not willful, as a way of shutting out the complexities and ambiguities of life. But this guy’s stupidity wasn’t a choice he was making. No, it was clearly congenital. He was the grim product of his family history, of generations of inbreeding with other people from New Jersey.
And registering then the full sweep of his stupidity, his evident derangement, his heft and his inebriation (not to mention the booger and the prospect of it landing on me), I felt a very real panic. And what I started to say was: “Hey, you’ve got the wrong guy. I’m straight, man. I’m married. I even have a kid. Not everybody in the Village is queer, you know? Believe me, I share your disgust. Of course it’s a perversion. The AMA and the American Psychological Association really caved in on this one, didn’t they?”
But, no, Jesus, I didn’t say that. My pathetic reflex was quickly interrupted by an intuitive recognition of a large reward to be gained here—a recognition that was accompanied by a feeling of elation and a sense of abandon. (Had I connected to my purpose?) And what I said instead was, “Let go of me, asshole.”
When, grinning more, he didn’t let go, and after taking quick stock of the resources that were available to me—the cigarette I held and the single file approach of two enormous guys with gym bags who by all appearances were oblivious to what was going on and about to push past us—I said to him: “Do your parents know you boys are in the big city by yourselves?”
And then, the cigarette between my fingers and my fingers clenched into a fist, I hit him in the face.
It was hardly what you’d call a devastating punch, but the lit end of the cigarette more than compensated for the limitations of my swing. Crying out, he freed my stomach immediately and before he could retaliate—or his buddies, who rose in unison, could react with more than a “What the fuck!—”I darted (with an agility it amazed me to learn I still possessed), between the gym guys. Remaining ignorant of my circumstance, or indifferent to it, they were, in any case, visibly irritated by my abrupt intrusion. So hanging with them for only a few yards, I reluctantly abandoned the shield they provided to less than graciously barge ahead of a group of tourists who were just then emerging from a restaurant and starting up the block. From there on, muttering “excuse me’s” and “sorry’s,” I seized upon every space that presented itself and, twisting and lunging, stumbling once, but not falling, I finally arrived at the relatively open expanse of Sheridan Square, where I turned right on Seventh Avenue.
As I headed north, alternately running and marching double-time, I was certain that the Jersey boys were right behind me and I didn’t want to look back. But when I happened to notice the faces of people coming toward me from the opposite direction, I saw no alarm in them, no sign, in their expressions, that danger lurked at my rear. And when, three blocks later at Charles Street, I dared to stop and turn around, my adversaries were nowhere to be seen.
At that point, with the adrenaline evacuating my blood and my heartbeat returning to its normal cadence, I realized that all of my symptoms were gone and I began to feel good in every imaginable way. In fact, for the next few days (for about as long as the welt on my stomach and a blister on my knuckle lasted) I was buoyant. I felt precisely like what I’d needed to feel like. I felt like a survivor.
And the thing was that when I came down, when my high evaporated and I settled back, as it were, into my body, my symptoms were still gone and I was something like comfortable with my body. I understood, of course, that in the risk and challenge department the feat I’d devised for myself hadn’t been all that heroic. Still, I’d succeeded in winning a measurable victory and I’d learned, in the process, that my body was not without a lingering capability or two.
With this information to fortify me I had my balance back. Indeed, my mirror reflected, such as it was, my full height again.