There they were—the three signs.
Sign number one: I saw my primary-care physician shopping at a
local drugstore. I was about to say hello to him when I noticed
he was buying wine in a box—white Zin. What suddenly bothered
me wasn’t the white Zin in a box, so much as finding my doctor
in one of those depressing drugstores that seem to sell everything:
generic headphones, breakfast cereal, lawn fertilizer. The lighting
in these drugstores is always harsh, like a prison visiting area,
and then you get to the aisle with the Seasonal Items, and you start
looking at the disposable barbecues, and then before you know it
you’re having an existential crisis in which the underlying
futility of Labor Day becomes the underlying futility of Life.
Sign number two: The other night I was having trouble sleeping so I started watching an old movie of the week with Shelly Hack. I’m not sure what the plot was. I think she was a mid-level diplomat trying to outwit a French assassin, played by one of those good-looking Brits who never quite achieve name recognition. I watched about five minutes and then fell back to sleep. Two days later I was in Sears buying underwear and I walked by the section where they sell all those cheap Korean televisions and VCRs. Get this: all of the televisions were playing the movie of the week with Shelly Hack. What was even weirder was that it was the same exact scene that I’d seen two nights before. Shelly was crying her eyes out, telling Cloris Leachman that she was this close to losing it. This close.
Sign number three: My father—the motherfucker I haven’t talked to in over twenty years—left a message on my answering machine. He asked me to call him and left an 800 number. I have to admit, that was a nice touch—at least I won’t have to pay for the call.
I found out I was HIV-positive in 1991, when I was twenty-five.
My doctors told me I probably had less than a year to live, so I
sold off my life insurance policy to a group of investors in South
Dakota. They gave me forty cents on the dollar, the best offer on
the table. A really nice guy named Tom Shanley from Morgan Brothers
Investments had me sign a lot of documents that needed to be notarized.
Eventually I got a big fat check, quit my job, and said goodbye
to my friends. Everything was in order—all I had to do was
The fact that I had $250,000 in life insurance was a complete fluke. When I started my job after college I accidentally checked the additional life insurance box. When I later calculated I was going to have to pay approximately twenty-three cents per pay period, I went to HR and said I’d changed my mind. The woman looked at me as if I’d been sent from Hell and told me she couldn’t do anything about it. Once I’d signed and submitted the forms “there’s nothing anyone can do until the next open enrollment period, which isn’t for another eight months.”
I went to Paris, where my somber mood appealed to a group of radical dramatists. They decided I should die onstage and rented out a theater in the 14th Arrondissement, where I lived and, for fifteen francs, the public could await my demise. I didn’t die but the show, a Lacanian farce of sorts, eventually did.
Then I went to London, where a woman named Rhonda told me I could die in her flat and she would take care of me. Eventually Rhonda got pissed because I remained unapologetically healthy, although she claimed her anger was because I was “always on the fucking phone.” She kicked me out.
I decided to go to Madrid. I tried to meet Pedro Almodovar, but the closest I got was getting drunk with a guy named Mario, who sometimes works for the caterer who does most of Pedro’s movies.
Every once in a while Tom Shanley would call to see how I was doing. I would tell him I wasn’t feeling very well, a true statement because I was mostly hung over. One time he said I was the healthiest guy with seventy-eight T-cells he’d ever seen. He sounded suspicious when he asked me if I was taking any experimental drugs, and I said no, that I wasn’t even taking Vitamin C. Tom said he liked me, but Morgan Brothers was very concerned about its investment. I told Tom I honestly felt the end was near. He said anything I could do to speed up the process would be greatly appreciated.
I went back to Paris and tried opium, but it just wasn’t me. I tried to climb Everest—the idea of freezing to death on the roof of the world was immensely appealing—but I was distracted by all the fantastic souvenirs in the foothills and got separated from the expedition. I went to Pamplona, but there weren’t any charging bulls in the streets, just a bunch of peasants who tried to sell me international phone cards.
I ended up in Sao Paolo, where I was buying a round of drinks for a group of sailors when the bartender took my American Express card and cut it up into tiny pieces. Quite frankly I was relieved, because I knew this kind of death couldn’t be lived for very long.
Tom Shanley took the news that I was coming home with relative good humor. He’d appreciated my postcard from Caracas and, even more, that I’d remembered that his oldest daughter Becky had just been confirmed in the Lutheran Church.
He said, “You’re a nice guy, but we really need you dead.”
And I said, “Well, that’s kind of problem, isn’t it?”
And he said, “Not really.”
And I said, “What does that mean?”
And he said, “I think you know what I mean.”
And I said, “I’ll just change my name and go somewhere where you can’t find me.”
And he said, “You really think that’ll stop me from finding you?”
And I said, “No. But it might buy me some time.”
And he said, “Well, I hope so. ’Cause like I said, you’re a nice guy and all.”
And I said, “How will I know if you’re getting close to finding me?”
And he said, “Let me put it this way: When you spot your primary-care physician
in a lousy drugstore, and then you see a movie of the week with Shelly Hack twice in two days, and then you hear from your father, you’ll know that everything is about to fall apart.”
And I said, “Thanks, Tom.”
And he said, “No problem, kid.”
The good thing about buying rounds of drinks is that I had a lot
of friends around the world—I knew at least one of them would
know exactly what I needed to do to change my identity.
Don’t ask me why but I moved to Portland, and since I was broke I had to get a job. I registered with the Right Away Employment Agency. They call themselves the Right Away Employment Agency because all the employees are supposed to answer their bosses “Right away!” when asked to do something.
Right away I told the woman interviewing me that there was no fucking way I was going to answer “Right away!” I told her I might consider saying “sure” or “okay,” but only if my boss wasn’t an asshole. The woman doing the interview coughed and said she was sure none of the bosses who used Right Away were “quote unquote assholes” and I said she was living in a “quote unquote tragic world of fantasy.” Then she noticed my typing test score: 140 wpm. She asked me if I knew Lotus and I said yes, and then she smiled and said she had the perfect assignment for me.
The perfect assignment turned out to be with a marketing firm working as an assistant to one of the VPs. It doesn’t matter the name of the firm—all the marketing firms in Portland are interchangeable because they’re all whorish handmaidens to Nike. It’s the defining problem of every American city with just under a million inhabitants: One ultra-huge international corporation moves into town and then every business becomes, in some way, dependent. People in Portland make crude jokes about the mating habits of Appalachians and I say substitute “whorish handmaidens to Nike” for “Appalachians” and it seems to add up to the same thing.
The VP I was to work for was a woman named Brianne Volger, about my age with a Harvard MBA under her belt. The HR woman at the marketing firm was savvy enough to inform me that Brian ne had gone through fourteen assistants in less than two years. I asked the HR woman how much life insurance I could get through the firm and she told me the maximum was a million dollars. I asked her if an employee had to do a medical exam for the policy, and she said no, that you just had to pay an extra ten dollars every pay period. Then she laughed nervously and asked if I was worried that Brianne was going to kill me.
I said no, that I could take care of myself.
I had about fifteen minutes before I had to start working, so I found the smoking area. I don’t smoke, but I believe you can get a quick read on any corporate situation if you hang out in the smoking area. During the next thirteen and a half minutes I learned that Brianne was bulimic, that she was having an on-again, off-again affair with a married guy who worked for a rival company, that everyone in the marketing firm had some kind of grudge against her, and that all the executives were looking for a way to get rid of her, although for now she was the company’s top performer.
I settled into my new desk and booted up my computer. I looked into Brianne’s office and she was already on the phone, yelling and occasionally pounding her desk. She was attractive enough, although her outfit was of that Harvard MBA circa 1993 style: the backlash against solid blue suits with dowdy white blouses. Brianne looked a little like a porn producer’s image of a female corporate warrior, which I suppose would have been hot if I weren’t gay.
She motioned for me to come into her office. I got up and waited in the doorway for her to get off the phone. Instead, she threw some handwritten notes at me and mimed typing them up. I walked into her office and shut the door behind me, then I hung up her phone. I told her if she ever threw anything at me again, said objects would find themselves lodged up her ass. She stood up and told me to get the fuck out of her office. I sat down in the chair across from her and started to tell her every detail I’d learned from the smokers. Eventually she sat down and stared at me in silence.
I said, “Am I wrong?”
And she said, “No.”
And I said, “Do you still want me to leave?”
And she said, “No.”
And I said, “Okay. But here’s the deal if I work for you: First, stop with the barfing shit. It’s going to kill you. Second, we’re going to go for a walk every day after work, for thirty minutes. A leisurely walk, none of this power walking crap. And during our walks you’re going to have to say at least one positive thing about someone other than yourself. Third, enough with the married guy. It’s a futile situation that only deadens you to the possibility of real love.”
And she said, “Is that all?”
And I said, “I bet you see a therapist, don’t you?”
And she said, “Yes.”
And I said, “Well, you’re going to quit that asshole and I’m going to find you someone who won’t put up with your bullshit.”
And she said, “Okay.”
And I said, “Any questions?”
And she said, “Who are you?”
And I said, “Julio Alvarez.”
And she said, “You don’t look hispanic.”
And I said, “I’m not. By the way, if anyone comes around asking about me, tell them you’ve known me since we were kids.”
And she said, “I can do that.”
And I said, “Great. I’ll take the job.”
I don’t think I’m bragging when I say that I was the
best thing that ever happened to Brianne. I found her a new therapist
named Mike Underhall, a Vietnam vet and former Navy Seal. Brianne
stopped throwing up after meals, but she worried that she was putting
on weight so we started walking twice a day. She dumped the married
guy, who subsequently got all weird and stalkerish. I solved the
problem by calling in a favor from a guy who used to work for the
Mossad. My friend didn’t kill the married guy, just firmly
reminded him about the importance of boundaries and good manners
in this age of chaos.
I stopped hanging out with the smokers and moved on to the Early Lunchers. ELs are those harried, middle-aged assistants who gulp down lunch between 11:30 and 11:45 so they can be back at their phones while their bosses are out. They convene in the kitchen like a flock of nervous parakeets and microwave their Lean Cuisines and bitch about their daughters-in-law. You don’t get immediately useful information from ELs, but the long-term payoff is extraordinary. Over time you offer to cover an EL’s desk so she can get her hair colored, or you bring in an extra sticky bun. Before you know it you find out who’s falsifying expense reports. Before you know it you find out who’s sleeping with a client. Before you know it, you find out who’s trying to move in on your boss’s accounts.
I told Brianne the information I provided her wasn’t to be used maliciously, that it was only to be used to save her ass and, by default, mine. I would do almost anything to keep my job at the marketing firm, because I knew that my job was my future. I had great health benefits. I had a million-dollar life insurance policy. And I had five Optional Personal Use Days, in addition to ten vacation days, five sick days, and all federally recognized holidays except Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
Important piece of information:
My father is a con man who’s been in and out of jail as long as I can remember. My mother divorced him when I was twelve—when faced with child support, he claimed we weren’t really his children and disappeared. No one cared that much, except my oldest brother, Kevin. Kev became a professional victim and eventually orchestrated a healing ceremony where all of us adult kids could resolve our father abandoning us. We were given small rocks and told to pound a clay jar to bits. I’m still not sure what the rocks or the clay jar represented, or why Kev was dressed in traditional Blackfoot garb.
Everyone was in tears and hugging, except me. Kev accused me of being emotionally stunted, and I thought fine, I don’t really care. Except he added a look of pity that triggered such violent feelings within me that the only option was to punch him in the face.
My family never talked to me after that.
But back to my present situation.
I dialed my father’s 800 number and got a recorded message. I was caught off guard because it was my father’s voice but he was speaking Japanese. I speak fluent Japanese because I took seven semesters of it in college, a misguided period in my life when I thought being an East Asian Studies major would make me an interesting person. My father’s Japanese was pretty bad, as he told the caller “to leave an audible record after the unfortunate noise that will disturb your thoughts at the opposite of the beginning of this audible record.” I thought about telling my father to go fuck himself in Japanese, but I’d forgotten that particular colloquialism, so instead I started to tell him what a rotten bastard he was in English.
Suddenly, he picked up the phone.
My father acted like we’d talked just the other day. He told me I hadn’t done a very good job going underground and explained my mistakes in impressive detail. I told him I’d remember the information for next time, and he got kind of quiet and said he feared there wouldn’t be a next time. My father knew all about Morgan Brothers and Tom Shanley. His voice became increasingly sad and I almost believed he cared about my circumstances, until he berated me for settling for forty cents on the dollar.
My father said, “Even though you’re an idiot, I’ve got a proposition for you.”
And I said, “I’m not interested.”
And he said, “Do you still prefer dick?”
And I said, “If you’re asking, in your crude way, if I’m still gay the answer’s yes.”
And he said, “Well, that complicates things, but I don’t think it’s a deal breaker.”
And I said, “We don’t have a deal.”
And he said, “Listen, I need you to come up here. I’ve got a Japanese prospect,
and she’s coming in two days.”
And I said, “Why do you need me?”
And he said, “I’ve tried teaching myself Japanese, but it’s not the easiest language to learn.”
And I said, “I’m not getting involved.”
And he said, “If you were here you could translate for me and, you know, massage the situation. You were always the best looking of the kids.”
And I said, “Massage it how? By fucking this chick?”
And he said, “Now who’s being crude?”
And I said, “Didn’t I just tell you I was gay?”
And he said, “You don’t have to do anything except be nice to her and translate. You know how the Japanese are about fags. If she thinks you’re a fag everything will fall apart.”
And I said, “I’m hanging up now.”
And he said, “If this deal happens, your little problem with Morgan Brothers will be solved.”
And I said: nothing.
And he said, “I promise you.”
And I said: nothing.
And he said, “You know the irony? I always figured Kev was gonna turn out to be the queer in the family.”
(end of excerpt - the entire story appears in print)
Patrick Tobin was born and raised in Montana and now divides his time between Los Angeles and Stockholm. He is currently finishing a novel. (10/2003)