Brian settled into a seat on the terrace of Bar La Sardine, on a tree-lined square in Paris’s trendy 10th arrondissement. The canopy of leaves undulated softly in the early September breeze, that moment where the summer heft gives way to the brisk beginnings of fall.
He had selected an isolated table, disconnected from the groups of laughing young people drinking pints, enjoying each other, the weather, the scene. Beautiful young people, as they so often are in Paris, especially the women, those delicate girls who seem to float so agelessly in their thinness, inhaling cigarette after cigarette with such nonchalance that they must be invincible. He caught himself staring at one of them, a blonde with flawless skin and a loose tank top that periodically slid off her slight shoulders. He thought about those straps slinking off further, but he stopped himself. She was somewhere around the age of his younger daughter, Hannah, who he had seen the night before for what ended up being a mostly silent, hostile meal.
He had never heard of Bar La Sardine, but the apartment Tim had rented for his yearlong sabbatical was nearby, and he’d suggested they meet there. On the phone, Tim had told him that the happy hour prices were decent, adding, enthusiastically, that he was looking forward to catching up. It had been years since they had seen each other last, and it would be fun to meet up in Paris, he had said. And what a nice coincidence that they were both in town! Typically in the summer, Tim reminded Brian, he stayed at his place on the coast, vacationing with Marie, and Brian, if he remembered correctly, was living in Dubai, inhabiting air-conditioned high rises, making money he had no time to spend. They could always get dinner afterwards, Tim had also said—there were plenty of restaurants in the neighborhood, and it would be warm enough to sit outside.
He wasn’t particularly in the mood to talk, and he feared Tim’s curiosity would unearth the ongoing lull that had come to define his middle age. But still he had decided to show up. He wanted Tim to think he was thriving, that the lifestyle of an international consultant he had tried to foster had launched him to new heights, that he was working with ever more prestigious clients, putting away hundreds of thousands a year, planning luxurious vacations with women half his age, and fattening his IRA.
He wanted to exude the image that he had maintained the momentum of his younger, jet-setting self. That might make Tim jealous. Leveraging the imagined joys of the high-powered jobs that, for months on end, had proven out of reach: glass-windowed offices in skyscrapers, alternating between skylines in Dubai and New York and Los Angeles, pressed suits and polished shoes against Tim’s predictable life as an academic, his uniform—as Brian used to joke—of cargo shorts and a North Face jacket, and his rugged hiking shoes.
He hadn’t been in Dubai in more than a month. His youthful charm was apparently no longer compelling professional currency. He was, he had realized, unemployable, after months of failed attempts to secure a job with a hole-filled résumé that revealed nothing more than a career kept afloat by arrogance and a reputable family name. And so he had gone to Paris, where he thought he might feel inspired, where he might invest himself in rebuilding things with Hannah, who was living in the spacious apartment her mother’s family owned and who, she had reminded him the night before, wanted nothing to do with him.
But as far as Brian was concerned, Tim could very well go on believing he was still living in Dubai. That he was just in Paris for a business meeting, staying at the Georges V in a suite with high ceilings and clean sheets. Lingering for the weekend to take his loving daughter out to dinner, to catch up, to share laughs. Enjoying all sorts of good times that took place far from the cramped room he was renting on the city’s edge, in a dilapidated building where sad men could rent rooms by the hour or the week, where they could find a momentary reprieve.
He considered something business-casual, to give off the impression that he might have just come from a meeting, or that he was at least remotely connected to professionalism. A collared shirt, perhaps, which he would leave un-tucked, and dark jeans—the type of outfit that had looked great on him when he was young, trim, sexy. But it was a Saturday, and Brian had been unemployed since January—or, as far as Tim knew, since June, because that’s what Brian had told him over the phone.
He settled on a worn white t-shirt with a V-neck, because he frankly didn’t have the energy to invent some story about whom he had been meeting, or where the meeting had taken place, or what it had been about. Not that Tim would have pried. He would have likely accepted the story, even glorified it as a way to propel their conversation, to comfort Brian into thinking that he was doing OK, that he was still impressive, still cool.
More than anything, Brian wanted to restore the dynamics of their unexpected college friendship—he being the attractive, charming one, with a sense of humor that made women immediately cave, Tim being the ungainly stack of lanky limbs whose virginity seemed to endure even after he had lost it.
He closed his eyes, taking a mental departure from Bar La Sardine and reclining into a photo reel of that late-August day. He had driven up from the San Fernando Valley—L.A., he had told everyone he met—with his parents, so proud and excited. It was a warm, yellow afternoon in the throes of the Bay Area’s Indian summer, and they parked their blue Volvo on Hearst Avenue before heading to Foothill, his assigned dorm. He unloaded his four suitcases, his guitar, his skis—he brought skis!—and packed them into the building’s elevator before arriving at what his mother would, for the next year, describe as a third-floor closet.
The room was sparse and symmetrical: Two single beds, two bookshelves, and two narrow armoires. There was also Tim, who would be his roommate for the next year. Tim, whose long legs were curiously clad in corduroys in the late-summer heat, who must have arrived an hour prior, just enough time for him to abandon his half-opened suitcase, letting clothes spill out as he neatly arranged his collection of books on the white, sapwood shelves the university had provided. He had already begun decorating what he had claimed to be his side of the room, the side farthest from the window, he explained, because he didn’t want to impose: a cream-colored poster with colorful diagrams of bugs—bugs!—a map of the national parks of the United States, and, last but not least, a poster of the Grateful Dead. Brian quickly learned that Tim aspired to be an entomologist, which, he subsequently learned, was a person who studied bugs.
And so it’s no surprise that, from that day on, their relationship would be one of complementary imbalance—Tim, a textbook nerd with a love for what Brian considered to be the most overrated band of their time, and, of course, for insects. And Brian, who managed to get fine grades but had little interest in academics, and mostly wanted to see the world and meet women—that beautiful species he had, at that point in his life, just barely explored, having only flirted with the early bases during his senior year of high school, but never more.
Brian soon found that Tim—those “six feet of pure geek,” as Brian described him in an early phone call with one of his high school buddies—was irreproachably kind, and their apparent differences quickly gave way to easy commonalities. Notable among them was a late-teenage curiosity for marijuana and sex—the latter of which Brian experienced firsthand, just days after moving into that room on Hearst Avenue. Sex, which wide-eyed Tim asked about incessantly for the rest of freshman year, as if carefully preparing himself for a far-off trip that he wasn’t sure he would ever take.
As for the marijuana, they had, within weeks of living together, established a nightly ritual of leaning out of that third-floor window, coughing over poorly rolled joints that required constant relighting but left them laughing hysterically. They would stumble into the elevator and head down toward Telegraph Avenue in pursuit of those dripping slices of Blondie’s pizza—so doughy and cheesy—topped with crispy rounds of spicy pepperoni that left their paper plates translucent and their mouths glistening with grease. Tim always added extra toppings that Brian found so strange yet so expected because of course Tim liked weird toppings. Anything to make him slightly less normal than the average college student.
Mushrooms and pineapple and extra garlic and extra jalapenos. That’ll bring on the ladies, Brian always joked.
They hadn’t seen each other since the summer of ’90—Brian’s first wedding, to a British woman named Janine, whom Brian hadn’t seen since the summer of ’93, his first divorce.
Before that, their last meeting had been Tim’s own wedding, to Marie. Sweet, inoffensive Marie, who Brian had, when Tim shared his plans to propose, warned was “too nice.” The spark would quickly fade, Brian cautioned, as if he knew anything about sparks and how they fade. Marie, to whom Tim was still happily married.
They had spoken sporadically on the phone after that, but with Tim in Berkeley and Brian in London (for his brief years with Janine) and then in Dubai (where he fell for Inès, a French-Lebanese woman who taught at the French lycée there), they hadn’t had the chance to meet up.
Not that anyone really knew what that meant. It was a wonderfully vague title that implied wealth and contacts and cosmopolitanism, but was opaque enough to obscure its questionable substance. He was fine with all that, until the money and contacts became harder to come by and the lack of substance seemed to take center-stage.
He thought about Inès, striking, olive-skinned Inès, with whom his relationship lasted longer than his brief union with Janine. It had also ended far more bitterly, with more baggage: two daughters, Hannah and Leila, who had inherited Inès’s good looks and always took her side and never his, and mostly for good reason. Two daughters with whom he was on limited speaking terms, who had seemed to lose interest in him just as potential employers had. Little, rosy-cheeked girls who were no longer little but who had grown up to be beautiful and mean, who dolled out occasional and calculated portions of transactional empathy and retreated into silence when there was nothing apparent for them in return.
Brian scanned his surroundings and tried to brace himself for Tim’s arrival, for his saccharine sincerity, his eager inquiries about his daughters. He had foolishly told Tim that he was having dinner with Hannah the night before, not quite expecting how poorly it would go. His clumsy attempt to feign enduring fatherhood, and to, he hoped, make Tim feel bad that he never had kids of his own, even though it clearly wasn’t a sore subject for him.
He dreaded the innocent questions Tim would inevitably pose: about how Hannah’s studies were going—poorly—about the state of their father-daughter relationship—irreconcilably hostile—about whether she had heard recently from her mother, his ex-wife—she refused to talk about it because, she had said icily, he “didn’t deserve to know.”
Tim was a few minutes late, and by the time he showed up, Brian was already pissed off. Not because of Tim’s tardiness, but because of the sympathy he anticipated his old friend would spoon on. He was preemptively angry over the way Tim would carefully craft each sentence, so as not to offend, not to trigger, not to remind Brian of what he was or what he had become.
To be clear, Tim wasn’t smug or arrogant, but Brian wanted him to be. He fantasized about a version of Tim that was detestable enough to warrant rudeness, he wanted to justify what he knew would be his despondent half-answers to all of Tim’s well-meaning questions, but he knew that wouldn’t be possible, because Tim wasn’t a bad guy. In fact, he was a fundamentally good guy; he was earnest, which, for Brian, was the worst someone could be.
Tim had said so in an email several months back, one to which Brian hadn’t responded. Why should he have? He was no charity case, and he certainly didn’t need advice or consolation from his awkward old friend.
Who was Tim to tell Brian how to live, how to get his career back on track? What did Tim, who had, without thinking twice, gone straight from college into a Ph.D. program, to formalize his passion for insects, know about the fast, competitive and elusive world of international consulting? How could Tim, who had married the first girl he had fucked, who didn’t go on a date until his junior year of college, offer any meaningful guidance on the long slog of a life of relationships undone by infidelity, or soured by empty, expedient declarations of love?
When he finally managed he walked hurriedly toward the bar, still wearing his bike helmet, waving with one hand and stuffing his keys into his messenger bag with the other.
He sat down across from Brian and took off his helmet to reveal a sweaty poof of mostly gray hair, before bending forward to grab his hand. “It’s been too long, man,” he said, grinning widely, the stupid grin of a man unoccupied by his poor decisions. Brian kept his hand limp in Tim’s and mustered enough enthusiasm for a “Yes, it has been too long.”
Fifty-eight-year-old Tim was simply a more-evolved version of the pimply teenager Brian had learned to love in that dorm room on Hearst Avenue. He was still thin, gangly, and unsurprisingly wearing army-green cargo shorts that so resembled the ones he would wear in the past, to the point where Brian wondered if they were the same pair. He wore hiking shoes, an odd call for the Parisian summer, and gray socks that seemed equally unsuited to the context—breathable socks, “smart wool,” Brian guessed.
But Tim’s cascade of queries unfolded just as he imagined it would, each question a subject Brian wanted to share less about, and he couldn’t help himself. He knew he would stumble, or worse, reveal his distress, if pressed about his dinner with Hannah. He knew he would entangle himself in circles of lies if Tim asked how work was going. And he feared what he might be capable of saying if Tim hit a nerve, what cruel and callous words he would emit to protect his own cocoon of inadequacy and self-loathing. He regretted having agreed to meet up at all.
And so contrived despondency was, at first, Brian’s best recourse. He answered vaguely and with disaffection, keeping his eyes low and his arms folded in front of him. He recalled being admonished by a sixth-grade teacher for this “closed, unwelcoming body language,” and tried to draw on the techniques of his teenage angst to shield himself from Tim’s good intentions. But Tim was relentless. “I understand that work hasn’t been going well,” he offered carefully. “But when it was, did you at least put away for retirement?”
He didn’t need to entertain Tim’s apparent imperviousness to his hints that he didn’t want to talk about his plans for his impending old age, didn’t want to talk about anything. He had saved nothing for retirement, but at this point opacity was his last form of self-preservation. Brian wanted to get up and run in any direction, away from Bar La Sardine, away from Tim and his breathable socks, from his self-assured, well-rested eyes that only wanted to help pull Brian out of his rut of a life—really, they did.
Brian reached into his pocket and took out his iPhone, that smooth rectangle of instant comfort and infinite possibility, that escapist orb of other people’s lives, and he leapt in, and immediately he floated on an imagined sea of elsewhere. He had churned Tim through the most resentful, fuming corners of his mind, and had successfully transformed his old friend’s well-intentioned words into sanctimonious whines.
And so he sat, fixated on his luminous respite, as Tim talked and talked, talking at what had become a shadow of Brian, a hologram of the man who faded away as he scrolled through Instagram, through Facebook, through Twitter, who dove deeper into alterity, farther from Tim, farther from his questions, which blended into the background sounds of the terrace at Bar La Sardine, became dimmed and were no longer his problem.
And when he did look up, he saw that Tim had stopped speaking entirely and was staring at him blankly, wounded and fatigued and out of ideas, and Brian put down his phone and slowly reentered the scene. Inside, he was humiliated and ashamed, overcome with the dangerous sensation of being uncontrollably exposed. But outwardly, he was proud and bored, as if he had been responding to time-sensitive emails that eclipsed Tim’s company in importance.
Brian saw his detestable reflection in Tim’s mirrored sunglasses and expected his old friend to simply stand up and leave, to stiff him with the bill. But instead he offered they relocate, perhaps to his apartment just around the block, where he had a mostly full bottle of rosé they could share, and talk in private. Maybe Brian wanted to be away from the crowds. Perhaps he would feel more comfortable, and finally relax a bit because he seemed a bit tense, and really all Tim wanted was for them to catch up, to have a laugh, to feel light.
He considered the offer—a glass of rosé on Tim’s quiet courtyard balcony, where the waning evening light might soften his anxiety, might help him “open up”—those last ones being Tim’s words, of course. But he also could see himself drinking his first glass in three hungry gulps and slipping into a second glass and then a third, drinking until his diabolical worst self had triumphed over his attempts to appear cold and reserved, and soon he would be groveling at Tim’s feet, crying like a child, begging him for forgiveness, for help and encouragement—what his friend had been trying to give him all along, really. Tim would stand tall, patiently and strong, comforting him with soft coos, telling him that it was OK and would all be OK, even as Brian crumpled and contorted into smaller and smaller versions of himself, choking on his words, unraveling. He would look up at Tim, he thought, and try to resent him, try to dress him up in his own sorrow, but it would be futile because Tim had won, and because he had lost.
Brian couldn’t tell for how long he had been silent, perhaps minutes considering one dangerous glass of rosé. He reached for his phone instinctively and stood up in a huff; it was time to go. He cobbled some words together—something about a call later that evening, coordinating time zones, an important contact—and thanked Tim, who hadn’t offered, for picking up the bill. It was dark by then, the sky was a muted blue, and he didn’t turn back to wave or to see Tim’s face again, because he knew it would look angry, or sad, or confused, or some regrettable combination of the three.
He was hungry now, and saw a Vietnamese restaurant across the street that looked lit up, Asian Soupe, it was called, and he thought a warm bowl of broth would be soothing. Now that he was alone he could finally allow himself to be comforted before heading back to his damp hotel, where he would be kept up by the nauseating moans of commercial sex, hating himself for listening intently to the sounds of other miserable men. Men who were as unhappy as he was but less proud, less afraid to be pathetic, who had long ago assumed exactly what they were, exactly what he was becoming.
Yes, a piping hot bowl of noodle soup was what he needed, and for the first time in days he felt the relief of hunger, the reminder that his body was functioning, that even as his mind hovered elsewhere—tangled in retrospect or enthralled in the mindless allure of his iPhone—he was still a man with needs, and hot food was one of them, and so he would have it.
He headed toward Asian Soupe with determination, and paused outside the large glass window. He looked in—a family young and old, with babies and teenagers and parents and grandparents, eating enthusiastically, ladling steaming broth into small, colorful bowls, passing around a dish of noodles. He would join them, they would welcome him, of course they would. They would see in him a man in need of company, a man who would slurp soup in aggressive spoonfuls, who wouldn’t wait for the broth to cool off but would instead let it burn his throat, wincing momentarily before having some more.
The grandfather stood up from his chair, just halfway, and shook his head and waved his hand; Asian Soupe was closed. He stood outside the storefront and hoped the family wouldn’t mind his staring, hoped they would understand who he was and what he needed—that if he couldn’t have his soup he at least needed to watch them have theirs. He needed to watch their family get full, to watch the grandmother, almost as small as the tiniest granddaughter, reach for a second helping, to see the father swat away the hand of the chubby son who greedily reached for more rice.
Brian watched intently and imagined losing himself among them, relishing that warm meal at the end of the day, that daily ritual of closing up shop, scrubbing all of the tables down except one. The father lifting up his toddler, smoothing out the ruffles of her dress before placing her gingerly into a high chair, and the family would congregate around, eating and sharing toothy laughs. They would eat until they were satiated and then retire to their apartment upstairs, humble but warm, and the next evening they would do the exact same thing.
But Brian was not part of their family, hardly part of any family. And so he said a silent goodbye and headed up the boulevard, past the old men lingering on the median strip, consumed by tasteless beer and cigarettes, hollering at the girls who passed by. It was absurd to think that he was any better than them, deluded by his false sense of superiority. He was just the same as they were, only worse, because he clung to a world that he no longer occupied, he refused to enter theirs, and so at least they were somewhere, because he was nowhere at all.