Fly on the Wall

My Year In Television Development Hell.


Los Angeles is not a cohesive city. It is a quilt sewn by an impatient child, a jagged pastiche of Tijuana and Detroit and Pebble Beach. The seams were showing as I turned onto Sepulveda, the sushi joints blurring into pawn shops as my future receded into the smog. At Oxnard, I waited for the light to turn green while pretending not to notice a homeless actor with a cardboard sign begging people to watch his reel on YouTube.

My destination was the leasing office where I had agreed to pay nine hundred dollars a month to rent a studio apartment next to a Pizza Hut. It was where real life was supposed to begin, my grown-up home in a grown-up place where men with fat wallets would validate my self-worth. There are no new stories in Hollywood, though, and mine was shaping up to be one of the oldest—kid seeks fortune in television, stumbles, falls. I interviewed for jobs, but no one hired me. I wrote scripts, but no one read them. The past month had been a car crash in slow motion, a sleepless crumpling of time toward the day when I would be forced to beg out of my lease and move back in with my parents in Massachusetts.

“There’s a TV biz here too,” my Mom assured me during our last call. “The yard sale show on Worcester public access cracks me up—maybe you can write for them?”

My cell rang as I crossed the tracks into San Fernando. I pulled over next to a scrapyard and checked the screen—unlisted number. It’s the cable company, I thought, asking me where the hell their money is. I flipped open the phone and answered it anyway.

“Brother! How’d you like to come join the circus?”

I didn’t recognize the voice, but I loved its manic energy. “Who’s this?”

“It’s JP! From Highland Entertainment! You interviewed to be my assistant, remember? The job’s yours, but you have to start right now.”

“Oh!” I said, punching the air with my fist. “Yes, sir. I’d love to work for you.”

“Fuck off, you son of a whore!” JP shouted. In the background, I could hear locking brakes and staccato car horns. “Sorry brother, some cockface cut me off on Wilshire. Anyway, I need you to get up to speed fast. We hired a girl last week, but Dan just fired her.”

“I don’t have a lot of experience, but—”

“You work in TV now, kid. You made the sale, now shut up and get your ass over here—staff meeting’s in an hour.”

Mouth dry, hands shaking, I turned my car around and sped toward the Hollywood Hills.

Highland was located in Century City, a gleaming block of skyscrapers tucked between Beverly Hills and Westwood. There were no pedestrians, just columns of black and silver sedans pulling into underground garages. I passed beneath the proscenium of the largest building on the street and into the darkness below. After months of courting the steely-eyed beast that held this town in its thrall, it had finally agreed to devour me whole.

I lost my way twice before finding Highland at the end of an empty second floor corridor. The oak door was thick and freshly polished, but the white walls and dirty blue carpet gave it the feel of a strip mall law firm. Before I could catch my breath, a tall man with wild red hair, a goatee, and devilish grin grabbed my right hand and pumped it. “Good to see you again, brother. Welcome to the beating heart of the television industry.”

JP pulled me into his office and immediately closed the door. A floor-to-ceiling window bathed the room in warm sunlight, and off to one side a couch was covered in a tangle of white sheets. “I didn’t sleep here last night if that’s what you’re thinking,” he said.

“Oh, no, I would never assume—”

“Doesn’t matter. We’re meeting with Dan in five and I can’t let him fire you. Here’s the plan—no matter what he asks, pretend you know exactly what he’s talking about. Always keep smiling and don’t show any weakness. Questions?”

“Uh, what exactly do we do here?” My job interview had taken place in a Culver City coffee shop, and JP was already late for a meeting at Sony. He’d downed a double espresso, shared a few of his pet theories about Lost, and told me we’d be in touch.

“Oh boy, okay, here we go.” JP sat down at his desk and ran his hands through his hair, exhaling loudly. “So if you want to get a show on the air, you have to sell it to a network. If they like it enough, you’re on TV. Our job is to come up with a great idea, hire a writer to develop it, and pitch it to every possible buyer. Dan owns the company, so it’s his ass on the line. He runs the feature film side of Highland by himself, but he trusts me to handle TV.”

My mind churned with excitement. “You know, I have a script—”

“Stop right there,” he said. “Everyone in this town has a script. I’ll read what you’ve got, but don’t take a run at me until you’ve worked in TV for more than half a minute, okay?”

Before I could apologize, the door swung open and Dan strode in. He was a squat man with white hair and round glasses, a compact Donald Sutherland. “Conference room, c’mon!” he said. “Chop chop!”

I followed Dan and JP into a closet with a table and four chairs stuffed inside. We fit, but it was tight enough that I could smell Dan’s onion breath. “Now that we’re here,” he said, taking off his glasses and flashing me a wide reptilian smile. “Where are we with Fly on the Wall?”

I swallowed. “I’m not sure what that is.”

Dan slammed his palm on the table. “Dammit, JP, this is Sabrina all over again!”

“He’s been on the job for less than ten minutes. Give him a day.”

“We don’t have a day!” Dan roared.                                                   

“I’ll find out everything I can about Fly on the Wall and get back to you this afternoon,” I said, my voice cracking. “It’s my top priority.”

Dan put his glasses back on. His crocodile smile returned. “Since JP doesn’t care to fill you in on our development slate, allow me. I came up with Fly in a meeting with Jeff Bewkes. You know, head of Time Warner? He’d just finished saying something incredibly poignant and I told him that I wished I could be a fly on the wall of his office. He laughed and said that I’d just hit on the next great TV drama.”

 “We’re pitching Fly on the Wall as a fun police procedural,” JP cut in. “A cop meets a fly who can only talk to him. They become friends and the fly helps him solve crimes.”  

I kept a grin on my face like JP had advised, not sure if Fly on the Wall was a real project or some sort of elaborate hazing ritual. Dan nodded, seemingly appeased, and slowly turned to the next page in his notebook. “Okay, now where are we with The Game?”

I told him I’d learn what I could and get back to him. Dan stared at me for a few more seconds, violently jotted something down, and flipped to the next page. We repeated the process for twenty more projects before he finally let us go.  

Back in JP’s office, I stared at the couch and resisted the urge to wrap my head in the sheets. “Lay down if you want to,” he said, sitting at his desk. “I washed those last week.”

“That was intense,” I sighed, leaning against the wall.

“Dan was testing you, seeing if you could handle the pressure. You passed.”

“Hooray,” I shot him a weak smile.         

“Look—I know Fly on the Wall is dumb, but Dan’s made dumb work before. Did you see Mr. Woodcock?” He gestured to a movie poster where Billy Bob Thornton was holding a pair of basketballs up to his torso as if they were giant testicles.

“Yeah,” I said. It had been on an airplane and I had switched the audio into Spanish halfway through in order to try and fall asleep.

“Without the money from that film, we’d be out of work That’s why Dan is pushing so hard—He got Woodcock off the ground last year, but I haven’t made a sale in TV yet.”

“Are we close on anything?”

“Not yet, but there’s one project I know I can sell—watch.” JP grabbed his desk lamp, swung the arm down, and twisted the shade up so that his face was illuminated from below. It made him look like a campsite storyteller with a flashlight held below his chin. “It’s the food court in the mall. Nighttime. The place is empty. That’s when you hear a whoosh—a ninja star flying inches over your head! See, unbeknownst to us normies, the ‘court is home to warring tribes of ancient warriors. A ninja master runs Panda Express, the Hot Dog on a Stick guy is a fencing champion, and Auntie Annie is a master contortionist with a mean streak. I call it Kung Food.

I laughed, a smile creeping onto my face. I wasn’t sure if Kung Food was any better than Fly on the Wall, but JP’s passionate delivery made me want to whip out my wallet. 

“I have seven-year-old triplets, and that’s the kind of shit they eat up,” he said. “I’m thinking Disney Channel, Cartoon Network, maybe MTV.”

 “I’m sold. Where do we start?” I imagined working side by side with JP, spending late nights eating takeout and brainstorming big ideas.

He handed me a three-ring binder. “Potential Fly writers,” he said. “Call their agents and check if they’re available. It might take a few days.” I opened the binder—dozens of pages, ten point font. “Okay,” he admitted. “maybe a few weeks.”

My workstation was just outside JP’s door. While I booted up the computer, I noticed a skinny, well-dressed man sitting cross-legged on top of the desk next to Dan’s office. He looked older than me, but it was hard to tell by how much.

“Hello?” I said.

“This place is condemned, you know,” he said, staring blankly at Dan’s closed door. “Dan rents at a discount because the whole fucker’s coming down if the big one ever hits.”

I chuckled politely, not sure if this was another hazing ritual.

Sam got up and walked over to me. “I’m not joking. They built this place before there were earthquake codes. That’s why it’s so tall.” I stood up and extended my hand. He ignored it, standing back and giving me his once-over. “You’re a writer—good. Writers are fun drunks.”

“How did you know that?”

“Well, you’re clearly not an actor and no one moves to LA to be a fucking producer,” he said, finally shaking my hand. “I’m Sam, Dan’s assistant. If I wasn’t quitting in two weeks, it’s possible we could have become friends.”

“Sam!” Dan shouted from behind his closed door. “Get in here, Sammy boy! I can’t remember where I put my pen.”

Sam rolled his eyes and walked toward Dan’s office. “What are you waiting for?” he yelled at me, clapping his hands in the air sarcastically. “Get back to work, c’mon! Chop chop!”

I spent the rest of the day glued to the phone, speaking with low ranking goobers at every agency in town. It was dull work, and most of the assistants acted as though I had just pulled them away from something far more important. What if they were the beating heart of the television industry, I wondered, and we were just a fly on their wall?

By working straight through lunch, I was able to hand Dan eight pages of Fly names by the end of the day. He grunted, snatched the paper out of my hands on his way out the door. “A grunt on your first day? That’s amazing,” Sam deadpanned. “You’ll do well here.”

I staggered home at 8 PM, exhausted. The delivery guy asked me why I didn’t walk next door and pick the pizza up myself, but I paid him and slammed the door before he could say anything else. I sat in the dark and inhaled three slices of supreme, replaying my interactions with Dan and JP over and over. I had no idea if every production company was like Highland or if I’d just hopped a runaway freight train, but in that moment I didn’t care. After months of peanut butter and canned soup, the pizza was hot and salty and perfect. I can stay, I thought to myself over and over until the words had burrowed inside me and taken root. I can stay, I can stay, I can stay. I’ll write the best script of my life. JP will read it and fall in love with my words. He’ll help me sell it and I’ll be on the air by next spring. I’ll be rich, I’ll be famous, I’ll be smart and clever and in control of my life. My talent is undeniable. This town will be mine.

After dinner, I poured myself a beer and opened the file for my latest script, Back Issues. It was the first of the seven screenplays I’d written since moving to LA that I was truly proud of, a story about an anxious romantic who buys a failing comic shop. I’d loved Back Issues when I left home that morning, but every line rang false to me now.

“Who wrote this shit? We can’t sell anything this boring,” said the Dan inside my head.

“It was just something my assistant gave me,” said JP. “He doesn’t get it yet.”

I began deleting conversations, then entire scenes. JP wouldn’t be able to sell a protagonist who was forty years old and balding, so Felix became twenty-seven, handsome, fit. The conversation in the bar was too talky, so that had to go, and Dan would never buy that Felix and Nori were just friends—I’d add in some sexual tension, maybe a fling in their past. Sully would need to broaden out, of course, and if this was going to be a family friendly show, he couldn’t get away with saying anything that dark, and oh god, did I really write a line of dialogue that requires working knowledge of both Pokémon and Friedrich Nietzsche?

By 3 AM, my fourth bottle of beer was empty and I was staring at a blank page one.

The next three months disabused me of the notion that TV development was a business based around creative inspiration. I developed a crick in my neck from holding a phone between my ear and shoulder, and my Fly on the Wall spreadsheet bloated past the hundred page mark. My workday began when JP got in his car and called me at the office. It ended when he pulled into his driveway long after his children had finished their dinner. With twenty-two projects on our slate, there was always an agent to call, a sample to critique, a name to vet, a pitch to practice.

We had a staff meeting every day, and it always began with the same question. “Where are we with Fly on the Wall?” Dan asked, staring at me with his toothy smile.

“We’re still looking for a writer,” I said, wiping the sweat off my brow. It was late July, the air conditioner had failed, and the office smelled like the locker room on a submarine.

“Well? What’s taking so goddamned long?”

Because this is the dumbest project anyone has ever heard of, I thought, fanning myself with the first page of my spreadsheet. Because in the dramatic final scene, the fucking fly returns home to an actual pile of shit. Because we’re a pimple on the scrotum of the corpse of the television industry. Because you’re a hack, a troll, a tyrant—

JP kicked me under the table. “We’re waiting to hear back from Julia,” he said.

“Then get her on speakerphone. C’mon! Chop chop!”

Julia, our agent, was an effervescent battle-axe. She was also the only person who could back-talk Dan without getting fired. “You fuckers realize I get twice as many calls from you than any of my other clients, right?”

“We need a writer for Fly and we need him today,” said Dan.                    

“You’ve rejected everyone! Wentworth, Alvarez, Sackheim & Donner, Vivenzio—”

“None of those writers have worked since Judging Amy,” said JP.

She sighed. “I like Fly. Good characters, fun premise. But if you want an A-lister, I need some source material to sell them on—a book, maybe, or a comic. You’ve worked with Sterling before, right? Have you considered going back to that well?”

“They took twenty percent off the back end last time!” Dan shouted.

“Well, this is your come-to-Jesus moment. If you want to get Fly off the ground with a respectable writer, give me something to work with.” She hung up the phone.

“What do you think?” Dan asked JP.

“She’s right,” he said. “If you really want to sell the project, let me meet with Sterling.”

“I’ll sleep on it,” Dan grunted, smacking his lips. “Sam? Sammy boy?”

Sam, who had been staring at the floor, snapped to attention. “Yeah, Dan?”

“I’m thirsty. I need you to go down to the Whole Foods on Pico and get me a can of Perrier—yellow label, not green.”

“Sure thing,” he said, mouthing the words ‘two more weeks’ to me as he strode out of the room. I winked at him. It was a declaration he made at least once a day.

It took until September for us to get in the door at Sterling Comics. With Dan’s reluctant permission, JP attempted to broker a deal for Sterling to release a Fly on the Wall comic book. After that, Julia assured us, getting a top writer would be no problem.

  “I have to admit, I kinda love it,” said Tim, a tall man with thick-rimmed glasses and a Green Lantern T-shirt. JP and I were sitting across from him in the cavernous meeting room on the top floor of the Sterling Comics building in Westwood. Thirty floors below, I could see the stalled brake lights of the 405 Freeway stretching for miles toward the ocean.

“I’m glad,” said JP, still catching his breath. He had just delivered an inspired version of the Fly on the Wall pitch that he and Dan had spent weeks rehearsing. The light that had shone behind his eyes during the Kung Food pitch was missing, but JP was still a riveting salesman.

 “This isn’t Cowboys & Aliens, of course,” Tim said. “We’re not talking seven figures. We’ll be taking a bath on the book regardless, so our stake in the show has to be significant.”

“You don’t think the comic will do well?” JP asked.

Tim laughed. “No one makes money on comics anymore—maybe if you’re Marvel or DC. I don’t even think of us as a comic book company. We’re a multimedia content aggregator that happens to publish the occasional graphic narrative.”

“You do lots of deals like this?” I asked.

“It’s all we do. It’s hard to sell a story on its own, so people come to us. We put out an underlying property that acts as a vote of confidence for attracting talent. That’s the game.”

That evening, I walked into my apartment and turned on the TV. I flipped channels absently, my mind humming with anxiety. I worked in television now, but I felt further from my goals than on the day I’d moved to LA. None of my scripts had an underlying property. None of them had a talking fly who helped fight crime. I jammed my finger on the channel-up button—cop show, cop show, sitcom, car commercial, local news, beer commercial, reality show, infomercial, scrambled channel, static. I couldn’t answer phones forever. I couldn’t keep walking into that stinky, cramped closet. I couldn’t face Dan’s toothy grin day after day after day.

Out came the laptop. I hadn’t worked on Back Issues in weeks, and my notebook had ten pages filled with changes waiting to be made—plot and character updates informed by countless sales meetings and script analysis pow-wows. My vision blurred as I scanned the latest version of my script. I knew what I needed to do, but I wanted to fight it. I began typing anyway, the keys stinging my fingers as I worked.

The Sterling Comics version of Fly on the Wall was released in early February, though an Amazon search for ‘Fly on the Wall’ still only turned up the AC/DC album. Regardless, two large cardboard boxes filled with the things showed up on our doorstep one Monday morning. The comic was markedly better than our pitch pages—the writer had injected some much-needed humor while removing the actual pile of shit at the end—but the part where the cop helped the fly try to attract a mate still felt forced to me. JP and Dan were both satisfied, though, and I spent the rest of the week mailing copies of the book to prospective writers.

“Blow ‘em off and come drinking with me,” Sam said after Dan and JP had left for the day on Thursday. “I’ll come in early tomorrow and help you finish.” He didn’t have to ask twice.

The entrance to the bar was an unmarked door in an alley just off Venice Boulevard. After triple-checking that his car was locked, Sam grabbed my shoulder and pulled me down a steep flight of wooden stairs. The room looked like something out of a Twin Peaks dream sequence, with bright red walls and a checkered floor. The place was about half full, mostly with dead-eyed schmucks pounding drinks while squinting at script pages in the low light. Lady Gaga blared through the sound system at top volume, but there was no dance floor. The mirror behind the bar was plastered with un-cashed residuals checks for fractions of a cent.  

We grabbed a booth in the corner, away from everyone. “No, Dan, I don’t know what the Wi-Fi password is at SoHo House,” Sam shouted into his cell phone. “Can’t you ask your waiter? Or someone you’re with?”

I snatched the phone from him and closed it. “Stop. Healthy boundaries, remember?”

Sam sighed. “You’re lucky—JP’s one of the good ones. There aren’t many.” After glancing around to make sure no one was watching, he pulled a flask out of his pocket and dumped the contents into his blended margarita. “I used to be a millionaire, you know. I had my own production company. I wasn’t as successful as Dan, but I got a few shows off the ground.”

“Really? What happened?”

“Drugs, bad decisions, I dunno. I thought my friends were the right kind of people and they ended up being the wrong kind of people.”

“I can’t imagine going from that to Dan and his stupid talking fly.

“Dan actually sold a feature film version of Fly on the Wall to Universal four or five years ago. Will Ferrell was attached to star. Vince Gillian wrote a draft of the script. Dan’s a mean son of a bitch, but he’s not stupid.”

“You can’t be serious,” I said.

“We’re all flies, and we’re all orbiting the same pile of shit. I’m in here two or three nights a week, and I’ve heard it all. See that girl?” He pointed to a tall woman with frizzy black hair at the end of the bar. “She’s a writers’ assistant on a reality show about the third Kardashian sister no one even likes. The dude she’s talking to edits Disney Channel sitcoms for tweens. Those guys in three-piece suits? They work in the mailroom at CAA. Every one of them would strangle me with their bare hands if it got them just one step closer to what I had. And once you’re up there, you’ll do whatever it takes to stay. No one wants to be tossed back into the snake pit. No one wants to start again at forty fucking four.”

 I took another swig of beer and shook my head in commiseration. For the first time, I noticed a few small stripes of gray staining Sam’s youthful haircut. “It’s not all shit,” I said. “There’s The Office, AMC, Aaron Sorkin—”

“Fuck Aaron Sorkin,” Sam said. “He gives us miserable pricks something to shoot for when what we really need is a kick in the ass.” He took a swig of his margarita and grimaced.

I sniffed the air. “Jesus, did you put gin in that thing?”

“Doesn’t matter. I’m giving notice tomorrow morning. I can’t take this shit anymore.”

 “Yeah right. You’ve been saying that since the day I got here.”

“What’s the alternative, huh? Admit that I’m gonna be straightening papers on Dan’s desk until I kick off from a heart attack in twenty years? Shit, man, you’ve gotta have hope.”

I barely saw JP during March. The comic book had changed everything, and Fly on the Wall’s image around town transformed from water cooler punchline to viable project. JP met with every interested writer, power-walking between the two different Starbucks locations where I set up alternating meetings.

 “Let’s hire Michael Chernuchin,” Dan said one morning, waving a Daily Variety article in JP’s face. “See this? He’s coming off ten seasons of a hit show.”

JP skimmed the paper. “I’m not sure Law & Order has much in common with

Dan snatched it back. “Chernuchin’s a name. I can sell him. Make it happen.”

JP called Julia that afternoon. She was apoplectic, her voice an octave higher than normal. “Chernuchin’s a hack,” she said. “He’s old, he’s out of touch, and he’s completely wrong for Fly. Worst of all, he’s with ICM!”

“I know, Jules, but Dan—”

“Fuck Dan!” She slammed down the receiver. Three days later, Michael Chernuchin was attached as the head writer of Highland Entertainment’s Fly on the Wall.

I finished my script that night. It was elevator pitch perfect, a microwave-safe goulash of borrowed sitcom tropes. The tone was clear. The jokes were facile and translucent. A studio audience filled my head as I wrote, pausing for laughter at all the right moments. I remained above them all, an uncaring god surveying his three-camera kingdom.

“My script is done. Can you take a look?” I said to JP the next morning.

He grinned up at me. “I thought you’d never ask.”

A few days later, JP took me to lunch at Pink Taco, an upscale Mexican joint in the Century City Mall. “Come for the apps and stay for the innuendo,” JP said, loading half a cup of guacamole onto a tortilla chip. “Anyway, you’re a funny writer. Decent characters, neat world, a good twist.” He took a huge bite of his chip and chewed it with his mouth open. “Holy shit, this guac is orgasmic!”

“Don’t bullshit me, JP,” I said

“I’m not,” he swallowed. “You’re a good writer. Raw, but talented. I can help you whip that script a good staffing sample, maybe get you hired as a writers’ assistant on Fly if it goes.”

“Thanks,” I said, waiting for the other punch to land.          

He sighed. “Look. There’s a quality in great writing that can’t be faked. A certain kind of spirit. This script felt like you wrote it with a gun to your head.”  

I rolled my eyes. “Like that isn’t what you’ve been doing with Fly on the Wall.”

“Brother, if you’ve been following my lead this whole time, I’m really and truly sorry. I’ve been trying to sell out since the day I got to LA and I still can’t find a buyer. You’ve gotta write what gets you off—anything else is gonna read as fake, no matter how hard you try.”

I turned on the TV when I got home that evening, but it didn’t hold my attention. I stared out the window instead, eating a bowl of Captain Crunch while watching the sun set behind the Pizza Hut. What am I doing here? I thought. What’s the point? It had been almost a year since I’d written anything I’d cared about, and it looked like I was even worse at selling out than JP. After dinner, I got in my car and drove for hours, making long, lazy loops from Hollywood to the valley and back again. The lights and sounds of Los Angeles washed over me as I groped around in the dark, searching for a way forward, going nowhere.

I got back to my apartment at midnight and tried to get some sleep. After twenty restless minutes, I reached under the bed and grabbed my notebook with the half-chewed Bic jammed down the spiral. I got up and walked over to the kitchen counter, wincing as I turned on the overhead light. I was beyond tired. The room was too hot. My hands were stiff from gripping a steering wheel for four hours. I flipped past the notes from the latest staff meeting, past my Back Issues changes, and settled on a blank page near the end.

I wrote for nearly an hour. The words were awful, but they were mine.

It was amazing how quickly things ended. Dan and JP pitched Fly on the Wall to eight different networks over a two day span. They each turned us down. By Friday, Fly was dead.

“We did everything we could,” JP said. I was leaning against the window in his office. The sun was shining outside, the sky an ebullient shade of blue. The weather in another city might have darkened to fit our mood, but Los Angeles rarely delivered that sort of resonance.

“What happens now?” I asked.

“That’s up to Dan. This was his baby, and I’m not sure he’s ready to let it go.”

That’s when the phone rang.

Three minutes later, we burst into Dan’s office. “We did it!” JP shouted.

“Someone bought Fly on the Wall?” Dan stood up, excited.

“Someone bought Kung Food! We’re in at Cartoon Network, brother! Our first sale!”

“Oh,” said Dan, sitting back down. “Did TNT call back yet? I know they passed on Fly, but if I can get Kathy on the phone again—”

“I spoke with her this morning—they’re still not interested. But Kung Food—”

“Damn it, JP, I told you to come find me when Kathy called back!”  

Sam ran in with a bottle of champagne. “Mazel Tov, you guys! Welcome to the bigs!”

“Sam, get me Kathy Brill at TNT,” growled Dan. “Then Reilly, then Greenblatt.”

“I’ve gotta take a leak first, okay? Five minutes—then I’m all yours,” JP said.

Dan groaned and leaned back in his chair, but he didn’t say no. Dazed, the three of us walked into the hallway. “You done good,” I said, slapping JP on the back. The TV industry didn’t have a beating heart—the whole business was a vaudeville trick, a balancing act of spinning plates and unicycles and clowns wobbling around on stilts made of money. But some of that money was ours now, damn it, and I wanted to celebrate.

“I can’t believe it. Kung Food doesn’t even have a writer yet—I only pitched it to the president of Cartoon Network because I had an hour to kill after the last Fly meeting and I ran into him at the commissary. That kind of sale just doesn’t happen.”

“Best not to question things like this,” said Sam, popping the champagne cork.

“I guess not,” JP said, grabbing the bottle a taking a swig. He staggered back, laughing as warm champagne bubbled out of the bottle and spilled onto the carpet.

“A toast,” Sam said, “to two more weeks.”

“Two more weeks,” I agreed. “And then I’m done with all this shit.”

Things That Outlive Us

Garbage, grief, and why you shouldn’t buy a dog toy for your child.

Things That Outlive Us

Blaire wrinkled her nose as though I had just lit up a fat cigar. We were standing in our mother’s kitchen on Christmas Eve, bags still packed, drinking drive-thru iced coffee. “Is this a joke, Chas? Because I’m so not in the mood right now.”

“No joke,” I said. “I don’t recycle. It’s pointless.” I sucked down the last few drops of coffee and sent the cup arcing into the trash. Her frustration was an improvement over our silent drive home from the airport, but not by much. I had exited the plane with the confident affability of adulthood, but by the time we’d crossed the Burnside Bridge I was ten years old again, kicking my sister under the table just to garner a reaction.

“I’m not doing this right now, Chas, swear to God. Nick and I adopted a highway last year. If you saw the garbage people throw out of their car windows—”

Nerve hit, order restored. Tuning Blaire out, I walked to the fridge in search of a beer. My sister had left for college an awkward mess of sweatshirts and hair dye, but she’d come back from law school with heels, suits, and enough confidence to challenge my imperious ego. I self-consciously tugged at my T-shirt with the cartoon pirate on it and tried to remind myself that we were both adults now, that the four years between us meant nothing.

The fridge smelled of ginger and orange, and I could almost taste the German stollen that our mother baked for us every Christmas morning. This wasn’t the house where my sister and I had grown up, but everything in the kitchen was a genuine childhood relic. The wall phone still had the same tattered cord I used to wrap tight around my arm whenever I got into a fight with my high school girlfriend. The flower-print mixing bowl on the counter was the one my sister used when she tried to make cookies in the microwave. The cat clock over the stove still stared me down with its wide plastic eyes, its tail swinging back and forth like a wrecking ball.

“Recycling is like stealing from the future,” I said. “Someday, we’ll have entire industries dedicated to mining trash. Plus, old dumps are fun. Didn’t dad ever take you digging in Maine?”


I found a Sam Adams in my dad’s old hiding place under a bag of spinach in the crisper. The label was soggy and half torn. “In the woods behind Grandpa’s house. I was eight. You would’ve been four, maybe five.”

“I thought he took you to the movies without me.”

“You kidding?” I put my hands on my hips in mock authority. “What is it with you kids and the movies? Tell me one good thing about the movies that you can’t find at the beach, eh?”

Blaire grinned a little. “Yeah, but every time we wanted to see the ocean,” She lowered her voice. “What’s so great about the beach? Crowds, sand, parking…Give me the old backyard any day!”

I smiled back at her. Instead of meeting my gaze, she turned away and walked toward the sink. I followed, watching as she dumped the ice from her cup onto a stack of dirty dishes. We both stood silent for a moment, watching as an ice cube slid toward the center of an egg-stained skillet. “How’s school going?” I asked.

“Remember those giant balsa wood dolls he carved for me?”

“Sir Mouse and Princess Kitty, I remember.”

“The only way I could even pick them up was to hug them around the waist and totter around the yard like a blind person. God, I could play with them for hours.”

“More like bore me for hours,” I said. “That’s why dad took me digging the first time. I threw your dolls in the shed. Then you started crying.”

“Yeah, because Grandpa’s shed was crazy with bees.” Blaire gave my arm a playful punch. I recoiled, feigning incredible pain. A reflexive move. Old joke.

“Dad knew we were seconds away from  a meltdown, so after saving the dolls, he asked me if I wanted to help him dig up treasure in the old dump.”

“There was a dump?”

“Yeah. Dad told me that grandpa’s house had been a tavern during the American Revolution and they dumped their trash out back. I figured I might dig up a musket or something.”

“Did you?”

I took a deep swig of beer. It had aged poorly, and the acridity made me shudder. I grimaced, but kept drinking. “Nah. Found a spur once. I thought it was a spur, anyway. Dad said there were no cowboys in Maine.”

“He was right.” Blaire pulled a smartphone out of her pocket, swiped the screen, checked her email, put it back. Our father, every inch a 20th century man, would have said something about it. I did not.

“You remember how obsessed I was with the Wild West, though. I spent the rest of that week convinced I’d dig up an old sheriff’s badge. I mostly found old liquor bottles.” I walked over the pantry and opened it, looking for a snack. As my fingers ran over the bags of rice and wheat berries, I could feel the cool Maine soil, smell the sweet scent of decomposing leaves. How long had it been since I’d had earth beneath my fingernails?

“I remember those bottles,” Blaire said. “You put them on the windowsill in Grandpa’s mudroom. My favorite one made the whole room glow blue at sunset. I called it the underwater bottle.” She blushed. “I used to jump around with my legs held together pretending I was a mermaid.”

That had been my favorite bottle, too. I shook a box of table crackers. Nearly empty.

“What happened to them?” Blaire asked. “Do you still have any?”

“As far as I know, they’re still there. Your dolls, too.” Neither of us had been back to the house since our grandfather’s death a few summers earlier. He had outlived his wife by fifteen miserable years, all of them spent staring at the TV in his living room, unwilling to move. The tavern turned into a tomb, and our family vacations to Maine became a flimsy pretense for my dad’s attempts at keeping his own father from fading into the dust of time, alone.

Blaire went to the fridge and began her own purposeful rummaging. “Dad never took me digging. That was a Chas thing.”

“What was a Blaire thing?”

“He read to me.”

“He read to both of us,” I said.

“Before bed, sure. But Sunday mornings were just the two of us. That was when Mom took you down to the park for baseball practice.”

“I bet you liked having me out of the house.”

“It didn’t suck,” she smiled. “Your impromptu battles with Darth Vader got pretty old, especially at six AM.”

“Evil never sleeps.”

“Yeah, but little girls do, especially on Sunday mornings. And if I timed it right, I could walk into the kitchen when the first pancake came off the griddle. Too early and I’d sit there kicking my legs while the house filled up with the smell of butter and blueberries. Too late and dad might eat the first pancake himself.”

“He’d never do that.”

“Probably not, but I was seven, so it was a real concern. Ah—here we go.” She emerged from the fridge with her own bottle of beer, this one missing its label entirely. “Dad always hid one behind the baking soda. Learned that freshman year.”

She held her bottle up to mine and we clinked their necks. “You and mom never got home until after lunch, so we had the mornings to ourselves. Did dad ever read you The Wind in the Willows?


“Well, the book has this toad who’s a bit of a dick. He crashes his car, yells at his friends, breaks out of prison, that kind of stuff. He reminds me of you, aside from the prison part.”

“Har har,” I said.

“Anyway, Toad was my favorite. Dad had this great voice for him, all high pitched and frustrated. It made me laugh so hard that he’d have to repeat all his lines three or four times.”

A bolt of memory hit me. “Is that who the toad song was about?”

“God, you remember that? Yeah, at the end of the book, Toad has a song. Dad used to carry me around the house on piggyback while we sang it to the rafters.”

I laughed. “I hated that song.”

“That’s probably why I liked it so much. Anything to get a rise out of you.” A grin crept across her face. “Remember my squeaky bat?”

“Oh my God, you squeaked that toy in my ear from morning to night for two weeks straight.” I walked over to the thick oak table in the center of the kitchen and sat down. My bottle was empty, and I began picking at the label.  Blaire had been four when she found the toy baseball bat at a flea market in New Hampshire. We had stopped there on our way to see our grandmother for what would prove to be the final time. As my sister begged for fifty cents, my thoughts were on a small wooden truck that I had made for my grandmother a few years earlier. She kept it next to my photo on her mantle, and I knew I could count on finding a five dollar bill stuffed inside whenever I came to visit. That was good for ten, maybe fifteen packs of baseball cards if I could convince my parents to stop at the flea market again on our way home. That night, I bypassed my grandfather’s hug at the door and ran straight into the living room. The truck was empty.

Blaire sat down across from me. “This beer is horrible,” she said.

“Too old. Probably been in there since summer.”

She took another sip. “You got off easy, you know.”


“With my squeaky bat. I lost it on the flight home. If I’d made it back with that thing, I’d have made your life a living hell.”

I stood up. “Dad never told you?”

“Told me what?”

“We stayed at a motel in Boston on the last day of that trip. I left your bat under the bed.”

Blaire shook her head. “No way. Dad always triple-checked hotel rooms before we left.”

“I waited until he was done. Then I told him I had to use the bathroom.”

Blaire wrinkled her nose again. “You’re a dog.”

“If I were a dog, I would have loved that bat. You know it was a chew toy, right?” The arm punch again. The recoil again. “Don’t beat me up too much. I confessed about a week later.”


“How could I not? You weren’t even five years old and you were walking around the house calling yourself stupid, stupid, stupid for leaving it behind.”

Blaire drained the last few bitter drops of her beer. “He never said anything to me.”

“I spent that whole week waiting for him to call me down to his studio. I hid my Jose Canseco rookie card in my math book because I figured he’d let you flush it down the toilet or something.”

“I wouldn’t have done that. You practically slept with that card.”

I was at the windowsill now, almost completely lost in thought. This was a memory I had left untouched for twenty years, a vintage action figure mint in its box. I was standing in my father’s grubby basement studio, the air filled with wood shavings and the sweet smell of charcoal pencils. I wasn’t supposed to be up this late, but he had known I was coming. He beckoned for me to sit down next to him. His eyes were flinty and austere, but he was smiling.

“He told me that I had to work this stuff out with you because he wouldn’t always be around,” I said, still facing the window. “He said that I’d have friends and a wife and kids of my own someday, but that you’d be the only one who could truly understand where I came from.”

Outside, the sun was minutes away from breaching the early morning clouds. The front lawn was brown. The trees were bare. I turned and walked back into the kitchen, still avoiding my sister’s gaze. I picked up the empty bottle and walked over to the trash can.

“You still don’t believe in recycling?” Blaire asked me.

I turned the bottle over in my hand, running my thumb along its seam. Its brief existence was over. In a few days, a man would bring it to the dump where it would never see the sunlight again. At least the bottle had fulfilled its purpose, I thought. How many things had I thrown out without using? Magazines printed, received, and discarded. Party favors and stocking stuffers too crude to play with. It takes five hundred years for plastic to biodegrade, so they’re all out there, somewhere. Every cup, every spur, every bottle, every bat.

I bent down and placed the bottle in the recycling bin. An unopened milk carton lying on its side between a pair of soda cans caught my eye. I picked it up and was shocked by its heft.

“Why did mom recycle this? It’s full of milk.”

“She must have put it there by accident. Is it expired?”

I checked the date. “November 6th. That’s the day after….”

“Oh. Yeah.”

My eyes dropped to the floor, briefly focusing on the scuffed white tile beneath my feet. Had it always been so old, so shabby, so dull? The wick-wok coming from the clock was duller and louder now, filling the entire room with a tremulous energy. I kept picturing those plastic eyes, that wrecking ball tail, those moments ticking away.

Blaire scraped her chair back, stood up, and  shuffled toward me. I felt a hand on my shoulder sometime later. I did not want to look up, did not want to look into her eyes, did not want her to see mine. There was a small drop of beer on the floor and I stared at it for a long time.

“Dad gave me a gold watch before I started law school last year.” Blaire finally said. “It belonged to his great grandfather, I think, so he’d be our great-great grandfather. I still don’t know anything about him. I can’t tell you if his life was satisfying or disappointing. I don’t know if he was wealthy or if this was his one luxury. All that’s left of him is the fact that he used to own a watch.”

I wondered if my father began to think differently about his possessions after his diagnosis. Did he know that he would be survived by his loving wife, two adoring children, a half-full vacuum cleaner bag, most of a roll of toilet paper, a bottle of dish soap, a case of off-brand cereal, a box of blueberries, three smoke alarm batteries, and a carton of milk? Did he realize that he would stop existing before his printer cartridge ran out of ink? Did he know that he was going to die before his computer, his car, his cat?

Blaire wobbled back to the table. She sat down, took off her glasses, and covered her eyes with the palms of her hands. “I always believed you couldn’t actually die until your shit was together, you know? No death until your book’s been written, your inbox is empty, your kids are grown up…”

She trailed off, her voice cracking a little. I looked over and saw the confident law student of twenty-five and the frightened girl of four. “At least we got to know him,” I said. It felt empty, but it was the only thing I could think to say.

“He’ll never get to meet my family,” she blurted out, tears pouring down her reddening cheeks. The moment she said it, I knew that it was the heart of everything, the contents of the black box in the back of my mind as well. I could see the future unfolding before me, as clear and true as any memory. A daughter, maybe two, running into the kitchen for pancakes with the same tattered brown hair that Blaire had as a girl. They will exist someday, their toes dipping into the river of time somewhere downstream, but my father will be forever lost to them, nothing but words and pictures and a few trinkets on my nightstand.

Blaire cleared her throat and asked the question I’d been dreading since the moment I saw her in the airport parking lot. “What was he like at the end?”

My sister and I had alternated weekends during the last few months, and I’d drawn the final straw. It was the last weekend in October, and Oregon was on fire with autumnal brilliance. It was the nicest display anyone could remember, a real Maine style fall. “He was in the hospice bed, upstairs,” I said. “Breathing slow, really slow. And loud, like a clock. He was facing the window, looking out at the orange hills, but I don’t know if he could see them or not. He looked so ancient. I think the worst was his beard, all that soggy white hair.”

Blaire nodded. “That’s what he was like the week before, too. I tried to help mom shave him, but he started shaking his head back and forth and saying that they were killing him.”

My eyes dropped to the floor again. “The men in his head?”


My father had said less than ten words to me that entire weekend. Half an hour before I had to leave for the airport, he finally turned to face me. Tears were streaming down his cheeks. “I’m dying,” he said, squeezing the words through chapped lips. “I don’t want to die, but they’re killing me. The men are killing me. Make them stop. Please make them stop.”

This is what the brain tumor did to my father. He spent the last days of his life haunted by images of evil men. I don’t know what they looked like to him. By the time his hallucinations had begun, he was too far gone to say much. I pictured them as a dark gang of shadows, like people trapped in an hot and crowded subway car. They wore jackets and fedoras like gangsters in an old film noir. They all carried shovels. They worked tirelessly, digging his grave, hitting him in the face with each arcing shovelful of soil. They were drowning him in dirt, burying him where he would be lost to time and memory. No deposit, no return.

“I’m glad you’re here,” I said, fishing the bottle out of the recycling bin and placing it on the windowsill. I knew that the low winter sun wouldn’t hit it at the right angle, but on bright afternoons next summer, the room would be bathed in warm amber light.

“You aren’t going to recycle that?” Blaire asked.

“No,” I said. “Not today.”


Living with someone is hard. Being alone is harder.


didn’t have the worst luck in the freshman year housing lottery. That belonged to my friend Gunnar.

Gunnar spent his first semester of college living with an experimental pianist named Troy. Troy kept a giant Casio under his bed and spent the year trying to compose what he called “a one-note symphony.”

Every evening, Troy pulled out the keyboard and hammered away at a single key. After ten or fifteen minutes, his finger got tired and he’d hold the key down, allowing the note to drone on and on. “I’m diggin’ this second movement,” he told Gunnar one night, “I just don’t know where to go next.”

“Have you thought about adding a second note?” Gunnar asked.

Troy’s shoulders slumped. “You’re just like all the others, man,” he said.

On that scale, my roommate – a lanky hipster named Bryan – didn’t even register. Sure, his goatee made him look like the bass player in Satan’s indie band, but this was art school in 2004; everyone looked like they had just wandered in from Garden State. As long as I pronounced Bryan’s name with a ‘y’ instead of an ‘i’ –and he could always tell – we were square.

That didn’t stop me from hating his guts, though. My problem wasn’t with Bryan himself – not entirely – but with the idea of sharing my space at all. As an introverted weirdo, I craved a safe space where I could watch The Simpsons and eat junk food until gummy worms oozed out of my pores. This wasn’t possible on those patchouli-scented nights when Bryan’s girlfriend came over and played the panpipes while he slurred Bukowski poems at her.

I just wanted to be left alone, and my wish was granted when I moved to LA after college. The smart move would have been to find a friend to split the rent with, but the idea of living by myself appealed to my poetic vision of what I imagined adulthood to be. “Here I am, making it in the City of Angels,” I told myself while signing a lease for a tiny studio apartment. “It’s like Entourage meets, uh, Walden or something.”

That’s about the time I started losing touch with reality.

I don’t have many solid memories from the year that followed. I didn’t have a job, but I was registered with several temp agencies that had me on call every weekday morning. I woke up, showered, dressed, and made my calls. “No work today, Mr. Andrews,” they’d say, butchering my last name. “Call us back tomorrow at eight.”

“Do you know what the definition of insanity is?” I asked them one morning.

“Uh, what?”

“It’s doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

“Look, maybe if you had a degree in something useful, like telephone repair or metallurgy -”

“Can I have your job? I’m well qualified to tell people ‘no’ every morning for seven straight months.”

Goodbye, Mr. Andreas.”

My other constant during that period was the ringtone I used as a morning alarm. It was Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’, a song that had taken on a mythical quality in my social life during college. It always seemed to play at the right moment during a party, giving me the push I needed to kiss the girl, make the joke, or chug whatever giant and disgusting cocktail I was drinking like a goddamned boss.

The ringtone version on my phone was tinny and compressed, though, and whoever made it had screwed up. The audio didn’t start playing until halfway through the chorus.

“Stop believing,” Steve Perry reminded me each morning. “Hold on to that feeEEEeeling!”

I stopped calling the temp agencies. Pants became optional. By May, I refused to leave the apartment except for those glorious, fleeting moments when my love of tacos overpowered my hatred of reality. I started scanning my lease for loopholes, ready to hoist the white flag and move home.

I was saved by my college girlfriend Emma. She graduated a year after me, and we had been living on opposite ends of the country since then. She wanted to join me in LA, but the only way we could afford to make the cross-country move work was if she lived with me in the studio until my lease ran out in September.

I knew the risks. I hadn’t seen Emma in almost a year, and now we’d be living together in a single room. In fact, it would be the first time either of us had lived with someone we were dating. But I also knew that she would cut through my bullshit with a chainsaw, refusing to let me sink into an emotional swamp. I needed her, and desperately.

It didn’t take long for me to realize just how unprepared I was to share my space with anyone. The first issue cropped up when she brought in her first pair of bags and dropped them in the middle of the living room floor, which was a narrow strip of carpet between the couch and the foot of the bed.

“Where’s my dresser?” she said, smiling ear-to-ear.

I pointed at a wood-paneled filing cabinet I had dragged home from a yard sale. Above it, I had taped three poster-sized moon landing photos to the wall in order to give that side of the room a classic NASA theme.

“Isn’t it awesome?” I said. “I call it The Moon. You know, because- “

“Did you know this thing only had two drawers when you bought it? I’m going to need at least three or four.”

“Oh,” I said. “I guess there’s no chance my comics can stay in the bottom drawer, then?”

She laughed and squeezed my hand. Then she realized I wasn’t joking.

Sacrificing personal space for Emma was difficult, but little by little I gave up control. Our clothes intermingled in the closet, her copies of the Harry Potter books went on the shelves next to mine, and the shower filled up with all kinds of weird shampoos.

The messes were harder for me to handle.

“I didn’t know you were such a neat freak!” Emma said one day when she noticed me straightening up the room right after breakfast.

“I’m not a neat freak – I’m a tidy freak. It’s a totally different thing.”

“I’m not sure that’s true.”

“It’s fine if a mess exists as long as I don’t have to see it. Radiation leak under the sink? Fine. Bacteria gaining sentience behind the toilet? I don’t care. But if the bed isn’t made, I can’t function.”

“It’s nine AM. We’re going to clutter up the house all day. Why clean now?”

I tried to explain that my brain is like an old airplane and I can’t do anything with it until I’ve gone through all the pre-flight checks. If my workspace isn’t organized, my mind can’t focus. I’m stuck on the ground listening to alarm bells and watching warning lights flash.

Emma nodded, trying to put herself in my shoes but not really seeing my problem. She was born in clutter, molded by it, and her last apartment had been an altar to slovenliness. The floor in her room was a stew of clothing and textbooks piled deep enough to cancel school had it been snow. She slept in a nest of rags on top of a futon mattress with no frame. Her walls were bare other than two torn-off Rolling Stone magazine covers. It wasn’t the dangerous sort of mess, mind you – there weren’t any bugs, or mice, or moldering pizza crusts – it was just very, very sloppy.

“I’ll try to be better,” Emma said. “I promise.”

Slowly, steadily, things began to turn around for us. By midsummer, we both had jobs. Emma found a home at a call center for magazine subscriptions, and I took a gig answering phones for an abusive old movie tycoon. We weren’t living the dream, but we were comfortably dream-adjacent.

I had expected that living together would get easier once we weren’t stuck at home together all day, but as our free time shrunk, our problems grew.

Things boiled over on one particularly horrible evening in August. Coldwater Canyon was closed, so my commute grew by over an hour. By the time I got back to the apartment it was almost nine PM. I wanted to wolf down whatever food was left for me on the stove, crawl under the tightly-drawn covers, and watch TV with Emma until I fell asleep.

I walked into a dark and messy room. Emma was tangled in a nest of sheets, eating crackers and browsing the internet. All of her dresser drawers hung open. Several discarded outfits lay in heaps on the floor.

“Hey hon,” she said. “Long day?”

“What the hell are you doing?” I asked her.

She swallowed a cracker and looked up at me with deep, soulful eyes. “You were late, so I got into bed. Then I got hungry and ate some crackers.”

I sat down at my desk, head pounding in frustration and disbelief. “What about dinner?”

“We can still eat dinner. I haven’t had that many crackers.”

“You had four hours to throw some food together and clean the room,” I said. “I told you I was going to be late and you know how much this shit bothers me, but you couldn’t even make the bed before you started getting crumbs all over everything! For fuck’s sake, you couldn’t even close your dresser drawers! How is it possible for anyone to actually be that lazy?”

Emma said nothing. I went on, seeing white.

“I don’t get it. Do you hate me, or are you just bad at life? Seriously – I want to know.”

The worst part about fighting with Emma is that she doesn’t hit back. She’ll keep her attitude positive right up until I go too far, at which point she’ll completely break down. Then I’ll spend the next hour feeling like I just ate a bowling ball made of sadness.

“Why are you being so mean to me?” Emma asked, turning around and sobbing into a pillow. “I don’t hate you. I love you.”

I said nothing. I just put my hands over my eyes and felt the room implode into a small point of heat at the center of my forehead.

In happier moments, Emma and I like to tell people that our biggest fight was over which Beatle is the worst.

“Ringo!” I shouted, looking over at her. She was in the passenger seat scowling defiantly, eyebrows arched and arms crossed. “Ringo is clearly the worst!”

“You’re wrong,” Emma said. “Ringo is amazing. He’s the most underrated Beatle.”

“So which Beatle do you think is worse? Paul? John? It can’t be George; I know he’s your favorite -”

“None of them are the worst,” she said. “They’re The Beatles. The Beatles are the best.”

“That’s not the point, though! Look – is Ringo better than John?”


“Is he better than Paul? Or George?” I said.

“Probably not.”

“Right, so Ringo’s the worst Beatle.”

“Ringo’s awesome,” Emma said. “There is no worst Beatle. It’s an unfair question.”

That fight was brisk and adorable, like something out of a sitcom about two people who love each other but don’t quite know it yet. This fight was not like that. There was no witty banter. The jokes had left me. All we had left was my irrational frustration mixed with Emma’s sadness and confusion.

“I want you to change,” I kept telling her.

“I’m trying, but I still don’t get why you’re so upset over something so small.”

When you get into a fight with someone in a studio apartment, there are very few places to hide. Storming out the door felt childish, so I stripped off my clothes and climbed in the shower. I stood there for half an hour, head bowed, watching a stream of water trickle off the tip of my nose and down the drain.

I could break up with her, I thought. My lease was almost up. I could go anywhere I wanted.

Thinking about life without Emma made me chuckle a little. It wasn’t the kind of laughter like when you watch a fat man fall down in a cartoon, though; it was kind where you are the fat man in real life and the sight of yourself in the mirror is too much to handle.

Even in that moment, my love for Emma felt bottomless. It was a bond forged on a deep, molecular level that had been reinforced over a thousand weekend drives and midnight conversations. Her loyalty and commitment to me had been unwavering, even as I spun off into the darkness. I would not break that trust over something so trivial. I could never forgive myself for that.

In the movies, young men – usually neurotic writers like me – are coaxed out of their bubbles by women who teach them how to enjoy life. In the fictional version of this story, I would loosen up and learn how to appreciate Emma’s style of living. I might even come to find her messes endearing.

Real life is always more complicated, though.

After I turned off the shower and started drying off, I heard a faint sobbing coming from the bedroom. “I’m sorry,” I said, walking over to the bed where Emma was still lying face-down. I had rehearsed what I was going to say several times while I was in the shower, rolling the words around on my tongue until they felt like tempered steel. “This whole thing was stupid. I had unfair expectations of you that I failed to communicate clearly. If cleaning the room isn’t important to you, that’s fine. I’ll do it myself when I get home from now on.”

“Do you know what my job is?” Emma asked me.

“Sure. You work at a call center. Making calls.”

“Every call I make is timed,” she said. “Everything I do is measured, ranked, and displayed for everyone to see. A guy in Alabama calls me up. His subscription to Knives Illustrated has lapsed. Do I have his credit card on file? Can he charge it to his dead grandmother? And all the while, that little fucking clock just keeps ticking up and up.”

“That sounds…wow, I had no idea.”

“The worst part,” she went on, “is that I’m awful at it. I’m terrible. I’m in this room with dozens of other people, many of whom didn’t make it through high school, and I’m the worst one. I keep having these performance reviews where my boss looks at me with these sad eyes and tells me that I’m letting her down. I’ve tried everything to get better, but I can’t, I just can’t. I don’t even know what I’m doing wrong. I make the calls as fast as I can, but at the end of the day I’m always at the bottom of her stupid fucking chart.”

She buried her head in my lap and I held her for a long time, gently stroking her hair. I felt her shiver a little; a small animal, cold and afraid. Like me in the shower.

“I’m trying to be the person you want me to be,” she finally said. “But I’m not even the person I want to be yet. And the only way I’m ever going to get there is if I have a place where I can relax and feel safe. Eat junk food and play video games sometimes, you know?”

“Yeah, I actually do.”

“So you’re not going to kick me out of bed for eating crackers?” She said.

I laughed, and she did too. I gave her a kiss on the small of her back, exhaling for the first time in what felt like hours.

That fight happened almost five years ago. Emma and I moved into a larger apartment two months later, and we still live there together. We’ve helped each other through several firings, multiple career changes, the death of her grandparents, and the death of my father. My love for her still feels bottomless.

Emma still doesn’t make the bed very often. When she does, she usually tries to cheat by spreading out the comforter without straightening the sheets. She still leaves her clothes everywhere and can’t seem to close her dresser drawers. It still bothers me, though not as much as it used to.

The difference, I think, is that we’ve finally learned how to be alone together.

“Do you want to go out?” I asked Emma last Friday after work.

“Nah. We’ll see our friends tomorrow. I’d rather stay in tonight.”

Simpsons?” I said.

“And video games. And candy. And crackers. And possibly some cheese. But not too much!”

I turned on the TV and crawled into bed, balling up my jeans and throwing them into a heap on the floor. A few minutes later, Emma handed me a few small squares of chocolate and cuddled up at my side. For the first time all day, I was able to relax.

The Trade

How much would it cost to buy your friendship?


The last bell of the day rang at 3:55 PM. By 3:56, kids were pouring out of the high school on their way to the soccer field, the library, or the houses of their latchkey friends. Seniors with cars hit up the mall two towns over, the band dorks mustered in the music room, and the punks snuck into the woods to get high.

I was a geek, though, so my afternoons were spent holed up at Legends, the local comic shop. The building that housed Legends was a pharmacy back when the town had several large textile mills, so it still felt like a relic from another century. Old boards creaked when you walked up and down the rows of comics. The air smelled like an old farmhouse, lead paint and all. There was a big table in the front, family dinner style, and it played host to a giant daily game of Magic: The Gathering.

If you don’t remember the game from your own lunchroom days, Magic is a trading card battle where people build personalized decks filled with monsters and powerful spells. Imagine a game of poker where your jacks and kings can pick up swords and fight for you from the back of a giant dragon. I’d play for hours, shuffling up and rejoining the game whenever I died, happy to be around people who thought the game was as much fun as I did.

Without Magic, my time in high school would have been a whole lot worse. My two best friends were veterans of the big table at Legends, as was my first real girlfriend, so it’s no exaggeration to say that the place was the nexus of my social life. After graduation, I took my cards with me to college and brought them to the big regional store in Somerville. I played ranked matches against many of the best players in the northeast, several of whom traveled the world playing the game professionally. Before long, I was accepted as one of their own.

I returned to Legends the summer after my freshman year of college. I was a wizard among acolytes. The best Magic cards are expensive and hard to find, but I had just spent a year training and trading with the best.

My decks were unstoppable. Wave after wave of my goblins crashed into my hapless opponents while they were frantically trying to summon a dragon. If they ever managed to get one out, I’d cackle, drop a mind control spell, and kill them with their own giant beast.

It wasn’t long before a bounty was placed on my head. Kids ripped open packs and bought cards just to try and beat me. Whenever anyone opened a particularly good spell, everyone in the store converged on him and begged for a trade. The games became shorter and more cutthroat. You were no longer allowed to re-join if you died. Many of the younger players had stopped going altogether, frustrated by their inability to win.

Thankfully, my job at the summer camp started in June, so I had a good excuse to stop showing up for a while. By August, I was only stopping in once every couple of weeks.

One Saturday afternoon near the end of summer, I was engaged in a free-for-all game with six or seven others when a pudgy kid entered the store carrying a shoe box. My opponents immediately scooped up their cards and ran over to him. “It’s Craig!” one of them told me. “C’mon! Get in line!”

Craig sat down at a small table next to the side window. He looked to be fifteen or sixteen, but his weight made his age hard to tell. He wore a long-sleeved polo shirt, odd considering the stifling heat, and his dark hair was cut neat and short. His glasses were thick and oblong, like hand-me-downs from the 1970s, and I considered why a boy who had clearly been dressed by wealthy parents had chosen such dopey and anachronistic frames.

“I’m here,” he said, his voice fae and slightly grating. “Who wants to trade for my Magic cards?”

The nerds descended on him like coyotes snapping at a scrap of meat. After a few minutes, a jittery kid named Rob squealed and pulled a shiny, rare card out of the box. The art depicted an elegant Japanese dragon, scales hewn from opal and obsidian, emerging from a cloud of dust on a mountaintop. It was worth at least twenty or thirty dollars, and the last time I saw someone successfully trade for one, he had been so excited that he nearly burst into tears.

“I want the dragon,” Rob told Craig. “Trade me for this?”

Rob handed Craig a ratty common that I have never seen anyone actually use in a game. On it, a smiling jungle frog emitted a cloud of noxious gas. I suspected that Rob had pulled it out of Craig’s collection in addition to the dragon and was trying to pass it off as his.

Craig weighed the two pieces of cardboard in his sweaty palm and gave Rob a deep, soulful glance. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll make this trade if you’ll be my friend.”

Rob wasn’t shaken by the question. In fact, it appeared as though he had been expecting it. “Sure, I’ll be your friend,” he said, snatching up his dragon. Then he wandered off to get a drink from the vending machine in the back of the store.

The next trade was even more lopsided. A buck-toothed twenty-year-old abandoned all pretenses and demanded that Craig give him a card for free. “You can keep it if you’ll be my friend,” Craig said, and the guy ended up with a legendary sword.

For the next ten minutes, player after player pledged their friendship to Craig in exchange for Magic cards. Some went back two or three times, digging through the box until every good card in his collection was gone. Then they left him sitting there, alone, surrounded by piles of bent, worthless cardboard.

The game started up again and I joined in, shuffling my deck and drawing a new starting hand. Craig continued to sit there, ignored, at the table by the window. He didn’t have enough cards left to make a deck and no one in the room seemed eager to lend him one, either. He followed the action as best he could, sneaking glimpses of the table over people’s shoulders.

“Hey, uh, Rob?” He said. “Maybe you should, uh, maybe you’d want to play your dragon now?”

“Don’t give it away!” Rob snapped.

A few minutes later, Craig left the store. I never saw him again.

I haven’t been back to Legends in six years. The internet tells me that the store still exists, albeit in a larger and more modern location. I don’t know if they brought the large Magic table with them. I don’t know if it is once again the kind of place where a high school geek can make lifelong friends.

I don’t think much about the store these days, but I do think about Craig. His face fills my mind when I feel alone in a crowd, surrounded and bound in silence by a group of laughing friends. I think back on the extra decks I had socked away in my backpack that day. I imagine Rob’s shiny dragon, long forgotten, tucked away in a binder in the back of his closet.

I think about Craig the most whenever I enter a comic shop alone and make my way to a table in the back. I still love Magic at age 28, though many of my friends have given up on the game and moved on to purely adult hobbies. I attend tournaments almost every week, often by myself, and find myself staring at the small plastic deck box where I keep my favorite decks. There is a stunning blue dragon on the front, peering out at me from behind a waterfall. The lid is fraying, having accompanied me on two cross-country moves and countless trips to shops and convention halls.

“Will you be my friend?” Craig asked me as I turned the box over and over in my hand, admiring its weight. “I’ll give you that box if you’ll be my friend.”

“Yes,” I lied, handing him a couple of useless cards.

I keep waiting for him to walk into my life once again, a rumpled, prematurely balding mess, still carrying the same worn shoe box.

“Craig?” I’d ask him. “Want to play a game of Magic?”  

“Nah,” he’d say. “I don’t need it anymore.”