After work, I always stop halfway across the Harvard Bridge to watch the sailboats drift in. Suzanne was a sailor. Is a sailor. Once a sailor, always a sailor. I’m sure she still sails–just not with me.
While staring at Boston from the bridge, I receive a text from Susie: fuck off. it’s over–and another from my sixth grade girlfriend, Penny Arbuckle, who just moved here: you have my photo? Weird–friends only. So I lean over the railing and consider jumping. A hundred and eighty-two “Smoots” gets you halfway across the Harvard Bridge, though the MIT students actually coined the measurement “Smoot,” after some frat boy in the sixties. MIT kids could probably calculate the velocity of my impact, account for wind resistance–not that I’d need them to. But with my current luck, I’d probably land on a sailboat on top of some cheesy Harvard couple wearing matching cardigans, spilling the dregs of a wine bottle. Oh, shit–you okay, buddy? Uuuuaahhhh. Tack, Martha, tack! We’ve got to get this gentleman to shore.
Bikers in space-launch spandex race along the curb. I watch them zip by, then stare at the river. I won’t jump. Not today. The worst would be dropping into Suzanne’s boat. Boom, crash. Charlie? Take me to a hospital–I busted my arm. Marry me. I’m dying. No, you’re not. Fine, after my arm’s fixed up, Susie. Before. I love you. Be mine, forever. No deal.
Everyone’s got a few reasons to jump, if you want to be depressing. The other day, I wrote my list on the back of Penny Arbuckle’s school photo:
- Thirty and lacking a career path (says my overbearing mother).
- Overbearing mother compensating for loneliness by an overbearing four calls a day because her ex-husband ran off with a weather vane with admittedly nice tits.
- Realization that I was happiest before I hit puberty.
- Sailing membership card revoked.
When I was a kid, I saw the movie Biodome. Not Pauly Shore’s finest, but it did inspire me to become a scientist. In high school, I aced the AP biology exam. Ms. Simmons said I was her best student in years. Wonderful woman, dyed red hair, always wore long gray pants with chemical stains. Convinced me to major in environmental studies.
At a liberal arts college to remain unnamed, I studied under one of the nation’s leading environmental scientists. For posterity’s sake, we’ll call him Professor Herbert Hypocrite. He ran a state-of-the-art greenhouse and directed one of the best programs in the country. Professor Hypocrite was my hero until our “disagreement,” when I threatened to expose our school’s dirty secret, that this so-called “green institution” received most of its energy from a local coal plant. I lost my scholarship and had to drop out, ending my career as an environmental scientist and dooming humankind.
If I were twenty-one still, then my current occupation wouldn’t seem so tragic. But I’m thirty, I’ve got a widow’s peak, and I work in a pet store called “Friends Forever.”
Today’s been busy so far. I’ve fed and cleaned the birds, fish, rabbits, ferrets, hamsters, mice, rats, frogs, and just distributed a bag of crickets to the yellow-striped lizard cage–I’ve stopped calling the pets by their scientific names because it weirds customers out, not that the animals themselves matter much. Ninety-five percent of the store’s revenue comes from pet supplies and toys. While I’m feeding the puppies in the back, my boss Mr. Yasmine rattles off his usual lecture on the profit yield of various pets.
“Puppies aren’t the money-makers, Charlie. Push fish, lizards. And mice. Dime a dozen. Literally.”
Mr. Yasmine raises his eyebrows every time I check my phone. But he doesn’t fire me because he knows I’m smart. In college, before the “incident,” my dream was to revitalize the modern city. My most promising idea, which has now been stolen by Professor Hypocrite, was to build skyscraper farms. Hundreds of them, smack dab in the middle of Boston, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles. Waterfall hydroponics. Recycle nutrients. Cut down on transportation. Sayonara, Global Warming.
Suzanne scoffed when I told her my idea. “God, Charlie,” she said. “What would Kansas do?”
I don’t mean to make Suzanne sound stupid. She’s not. Actually, Suzanne is the chief systems analyst for a big firm downtown. She just likes to sound stupid, one of those bright girls who’d play dumb to get noticed. Suzanne was smarter than me, just slightly. I liked that.
Mr. Yasmine sidles over, licks his finger and smoothes up his eyebrow, a scar comb-over. “Damsetto, you feed Bertha yet?”
Bertha’s our biggest boa constrictor. Columbian.
“Not yet, Mr. Yasmine. But I keep telling you not to worry. I’ve been experimenting.”
He places his fat wrist on fatter hips. “This should be good.”
“It’s simple,” I tell him. “I like to make Bertha wait. I find she appreciates it more.”
The store bell sounds as two teenagers in skater attire enter, lingering by the birds. Mr. Yasmine eyes them. Once, a teenage Susan Sarandon-type stole a parakeet and tried to let it go outside, but of course its wings were clipped and the poor sucker flew into a Corolla’s windshield. Free at last.
Mr. Yasmine takes a few steps towards the gawking teenagers. “What happened to Susanne? Haven’t seen her in a while.”
I raise my eyebrows. “I made her wait too long.”
He points to Bertha’s cage, nodding wisely. “Don’t make them wait, or you’ll end up like me.”
“I’d rather jump off a bridge.”
He smiles. “Wouldn’t we all? Wouldn’t we all?”
Mr. Yasmine is smarter than I give him credit for. For one, he never got married. He used to be an investment banker, but had a heart attack and got out just before the economy crashed. Now he deals in pets. “Pets don’t depreciate, they appreciate” is our store motto. I shit you not. Go to yellowpages.com and look it up. One of these days, I’m gonna make tee-shirts.
Without warning, my mother will show up at my apartment at midnight. It’s been two months since her last impromptu road trip, so I’m crossing the days off my Hello Kitty calendar. What can I say? Kittens make me feel young again.
My dad went off with a weathergirl from Detroit when I was in middle school. Mom still obsesses about them. Whenever she visits, invariably, she tries to impart on me the lesson that you can never really know a person until a crisis. Until then, Mom insists, everyone’s just an actor. Susie loved my mother.
The other week, Mom asked why I didn’t marry Suzanne. I told her that I’ve got Bertha, and she’s more than enough for me. Real thick, affectionate, squeezes hard. And to top it off, she’s willing to wait until I get my life back on track. After all, I can’t work at “Friends Forever” forever.
Susie and I were on the rooftop at my place in Cambridge, watching the Charles mist. She had asked me about my first love, and so I was telling her about Penny Arbuckle and how at the school carnival in sixth grade she let me kiss her after a big bite of candied apple. Sweetest kiss ever, I said. Then Susie started to cry.
I apologized and reached for her hand, but she pulled away. We watched the mist settle over the bridge. The last red train of the night came into Cambridge and spread the fog line. Light pollution drained the stars into a beautiful, milky haze. I stroked Susie’s hair, kissed her ear. Finally, she looked up and asked me if I’d marry her. I said I didn’t know yet, that I wanted to fix some things about my life before I settled down. She went to bed, but I sat out there awhile longer, thinking about my dad. When I was a kid, he was always away on business trips, and would return with souvenirs in fancy wrapping paper from Peru or Japan or Spain. My parents were married fourteen years before their split. I’m convinced this economic crash is all because of men like him. A city full of fathers would be rubble in no time.
Eventually, I got cold and went inside, but Susie was already asleep. In the morning, I tried for some make-up sex, but she took my hand off her muff and said she’d done some dude, some MIT dude interning at her firm.
After work, about a month after our break-up, I stopped to watch the sailboats again. Then I thought that some sailing might make me feel better, so I made my way around the river walk to the Community Boating Club. After locking up my bike, I fished out my member card. While the attendant studied it, I noticed that his nametag read Emmanuel, but I didn’t comment on it. Instead, I went into the locker room, stowed my backpack, took off my shoes, put on a life vest and headed to find boat twenty-five.
They were coming in just then, Susie and the MIT dude. He was a squirrelly Asian guy, dark-rimmed glasses, no taller than a Smoot, brainy-looking in a lime-green polo. Instantly, I felt like a Neanderthal, which I’m not. Susie was wearing the Shins shirt I had bought her.
“Hey,” she said slowly.
“Suzanne.” Then I regarded the MIT dude and extended my hand. “Charles Damsetto.”
“Beautiful day, huh? Man, sun’s out, not too chilly. Just perfect. Perfect, perfect spring day. Life abounds!”
“Don’t what, Susie? Just appreciating this gorgeous river.” I planted my hands at my side. “What a breathtaking city!” An almost-empty bottle of wine nestled in the crevice of a discarded life vest–hers. I tisked. “Say, where’s your jacket, Susie-e-cue? Oh, there it is? Why, that’s against club rules. What if you capsized? That means your boat sinks, MIT dude–just so you know.” I started to choke up but quickly summoned the vindictive spirit of my mother. “Wow, and is that an illegal beverage I spy? I heard they started taking away memberships for that. Makes total sense, if you think about it.”
While Susie and her new squeeze were having one of those silent eye discussions, I fetched Emmanuel to settle the dispute and pointed out the various club infractions.
“I mean, we’re not savages,” I insisted. “This is Boston.”
The MIT dude cocked his head. “Leave us alone. So what–”
I tackled him into the water, but because of the lifejackets we sprang to the surface instantly, sputtering and punching. We took our hands off each other only long enough to pull ourselves up onto the dock. Getting to my feet first, I pushed him right back in. The MIT dude had stretched the collar of my shirt. It looked ridiculous. Then Susie screamed. I spun as Emmanuel clocked me. He cried out. The idiot had tucked his thumb in his fist and probably broke it. Cradling his hand, Emmanuel cursed me out, and then left the dock just as the MIT dude was just getting out of the water. I pushed him back in. Susie had her hands on her stomach, like she was about to puke. The MIT dude came to her side and began to comfort her, massaging the small of her back.
“She’ll just leave you,” I said, rubbing my jaw. “Once a cheater, always a cheater.”
“Leave us alone, Charlie.”
A few minutes later, Emmanuel returned with his supervisor, who promptly asked me to clean out my locker and “never return to this place,” which I thought was a tad melodramatic. Emmanuel also cut up my membership card right in front of me. Now I just watch the sailboats.
The other day, I was at Bertha’s cage, admiring her thick, cookie-dough body squeeze in the heat lamplight when I heard, “Charles.” Only one person calls me Charles. Mom had on one of those old fashioned stiff-brimmed hats, like a tiny old Indiana Jones. I could tell she had just taken one of her anxiety pills because she was very, very calm. Fishing out my cell phone, I saw that I had missed seven calls.
“What are you doing here?”
She pressed her hand against the glass, admiring Bertha. “Charles, may I hold her?”
“Now’s not a good time, Ma.”
“What happened to your eye?”
“You need to leave.”
“Wow. She’s so…big…”
“I’m serious. Get out of here.”
Mr. Yasmine marched up, examining the new dog toy, an iPaw, shaped like an iPod, which read ‘It’s only Bark and Roll but I like it.’
“Damsetto! How dare you speak to a customer like that.”
“Oh, Mr. Yasmine, this isn’t–”
“I won’t hear of it.” He turned to my mother. “I’m so sorry, miss. What can I help you with?”
Mom looked up dreamily and smiled.
Mr. Yasmine handed her the toy. She smiled and turned it over. The other side read: ‘Under my paw.’
They shared their first laugh. A mere three weeks later, Mr. Yasmine asked for her hand in marriage. Friends Forever is now a family business.
After work, on an almost-raining day, I was coming up the bridge when I saw someone lying on the sidewalk between Smoot 182 and 183. The man was covering up the famous spray paint marking that reads “halfway to hell,” an arrow pointing to MIT. He had a frosty beard but brown hair, and was wearing a suit and a cherry-red tie, a pair of glasses splayed on the sidewalk beside him. The craziest thing was that pedestrians were walking by as though he didn’t exist. That day I was seriously considering jumping. Mom had just moved into a Somerville home with Mr. Yasmine, making her a mere three stops on the redline from my apartment. But mainly, it was that even so many months after we broke up, I was still dwelling on Suzanne screwing that MIT dude.
I bent down. “Look, buddy. If you don’t mind, I’d like to–”
Now I could see the man’s bloody nose. From a distance, the blood had blended in with the tie. My first thought was that I was witnessing the opening evidence of urban decay–like the dead man who rode the New York subway for six freaking hours before some kindly citizen finally reported the body. Then my eyes wandered further down the bridge, towards the Cambridge side, where another man, also in a suit, was watching us intently.
I pointed. “Did that guy punch you?”
Reaching for his glasses, the man groaned, nodding.
Placing my backpack beside him, I handed him the glasses and hopped on my bike. “Hold on a sec. I’m gonna get him.”
I took off down the bridge. The man saw me and started to run, but my bike, not to brag, is a ten-speed 1972 vintage Paramount road bike–my dad’s parting gift. When the man realized that escape was impossible, he stopped next to the bridge railing.
“This is not your concern,” he said sternly as I approached.
His hair was heavy salt with a little pepper, and the way his eyes darted reminded me of the lizards at the pet store. The man actually looked a tad familiar, but I couldn’t quite place him–probably a “Friends Forever” customer.
I parked my bike. “Why’d you hit that guy?”
“None of your business.”
“See, this is why our country is falling apart. Economic crash. Global warming. All these sucker punches.” Then I froze. Of course he looked familiar. “…Professor Hatchley?”
My old professor’s face paled. He leaned back and took his hands off the railing, staring at me. It could have been the sudden gust, or the fact that he was filthy drunk, but as I took another step towards him, Professor Hatchley abruptly lost his balance and started to tip over the railing. Quickly, I reached out and scooped him up with my right hand, pulling him back towards me. There Professor Hypocrite lay, in my arms, helpless, as though I had dipped him in an elegant dance. His breath was the delightful combination of clam chowder and some sweet liquor, brandy maybe, or schnapps, as though the Cadbury Bunny had laid a rotten, creamy egg. After a moment, he eased off me and onto his hands and knees, panting.
When I looked up next, the bloody-nosed man was standing beside me, shaking his head sadly. “Two scientists in a fist fight on Harvard Bridge. What would my mother say?”
“Good thing you weren’t a boxer–you alright?” I held out my hand. “Charles Damsetto.”
The man cocked his head, smiling at Professor Hatchley. “It seems that, once again, Hubert, that my cousin’s fame precedes mine.”
Then we both looked down as Professor Hatchley, who had stolen my idea of skyscraper farms, began puking on my tennis shoes.
The two professors had met at the MIT Global Warming Collective Conference, the intent of which was to bring together scientists of all backgrounds to collaborate on solving the most catastrophic problem of my generation, aside from all the other ones. Professor Smoot, an astrophysicist and cosmologist, had received his PhD from MIT. He had also won, among numerous other honors, the Nobel Prize. Professor Hatchley had just accepted a position as director of the Environmental Management graduate program at Harvard.
Together, the three of us walked up through Kendal Square to the Meridian Hotel, where Professor Smoot was staying. Professor Hatchley cleaned off his suit while Professor Smoot stuffed cotton balls in his nose. After both men were presentable, we went to have a few drinks at the hotel bar. Eventually, the conversation settled on why these two men had been fighting on the Harvard Bridge. It turned out that Professor Smoot had earned his Nobel Prize for sending up a satellite to record the inner-workings of the universe, the Cosmic Background Explorer project. On its completion, he had noted: “the COBE-project can also be regarded as the starting point for cosmology as a precision science.”
Apparently, Professor Hatchley had disagreed rather strongly with Professor Smoot on the merits of cosmology. In turn, Smoot had insulted Hatchley’s ex-wife, who had run off with one of the leading scientists from the human genome project. Professor Hatchley then goaded Professor Smoot, noting that his cousin of the famed measurement would be remembered long after he was worm chow. Add to this the fact that both scientists had been impressively drunk, and that is how they had come to blows on Harvard Bridge.
These things happen, even to smart people.
Finally, Professor Smoot asked me what I was doing with my life. Admittedly, I already downed two whiskeys, and after failing several times to explain my stalled-out life and general pessimism towards humanity, I started to get more than a little emotional. Instead of stumbling on, I pulled out the photo of Penny Arbuckle, made some revisions to my list, and handed it over for the scientists to peruse:
- Thirty-one and I work in a freaking pet store.
- A mother who no longer calls me because she’s happy now.
- Realization that I never take anything seriously, and thus will be doomed to irony.
- Sailing license still revoked.
The two men, one by one, started to dissect my list. Professor Hatchley began. “Mr. Damsetto. A majority of the great thinkers of our time did not achieve significance until the age of forty-two. Do you have any desire to go back to school? If so, perhaps I can pull some strings at Harvard.”
“Second,” Professor Smoot quickly added. “No one likes a mother’s boy.” Then he furrowed his brow. “Third, there is a theory which states that if ever for any reason anyone discovers what exactly the universe is for and why it is here it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another that states that this has already happened. The universe, you see…”
“–Oh, George, don’t start with that mumbo–”
“If you would like another punch in the nose,” Professor Smoot warned, balling his hand into an awkward fist, “by all means, Hubert, blather on.” He cleared his throat authoritatively. “It was a joke—from a British comedian, if I’m not mistaken. I was trying to lighten the mood.”
Professor Hatchley was beginning to look a little green again. “In regards to your sailing membership. As a student of Harvard, you will have access to the Harvard Yacht Club. Finest sailboats in New England. Just last year, Karen and I went out during a visit, before she decided to become a genome whore.”
Promptly, he ordered us all another round.
After all, these scientists, two of the smartest men of the 21st century, seemed to have an answer for everything. Professor Smoot looked at Hatchley, Professor Hatchley at Smoot. Each began to stutter in his own unique way.
Finally, Professor Smoot smiled. “Charles, I may pretend to understand the complexities of much of life,” he said softly. “But not love.”
Professor Hatchley broke into tears.
In the fall, I started the Harvard Environmental Management Program and became Professor Hatchley’s teaching assistant. I even started dating one of his former students, a senior biology major named Jenny Blackwell. She loved sailing. Mom was happily working alongside Mr. Yasmine at the pet store. Life was pretty dang good. I didn’t think about Susie much–only on nights when the Charles would mist.
Jenny and I were sitting on a bench in the commons, watching kids splash around in the Frog Pond. Jenny pointed at a little girl in the pool in front of us, maybe seven, crying, whose brother had just splashed her. Grinning, we jumped in and splashed the boy, much to his sister’s delight. Within a minute, we had a full on splash fight on our hands. Then, all of a sudden, the mood of the pond shifted, some threatening pheromone now present. Sure enough, at the edge closest to us stood the MIT dude, staring me down coldly. I couldn’t believe it. As he made his way toward us, slogging in his tennis shoes, mothers put down Oprah Book Club selections and fished their children out of the water. The MIT dude stopped three feet from us, still staring. There was already a cop at the edge of the pond, debating whether to get in or to police from afar.
“Listen, ancient history, right?” I said. “I mean, there’s no reason to ruin a perfectly fine day.”
In the spray to our right was a really pretty rainbow, though no one bothered to point it out. But then, as I watched the MIT dude advance, I figured that I probably deserved a punch in the face, and that I might as well just take it.
Meanwhile, the cop had folded his socks and placed them neatly in his shoes. When the MIT dude noticed the cop, however, he looked at me with those same, sorry eyes that puppies summon when customers visit Friends Forever. The guy was in over his head. He had probably never even taken a free sample from a grocery store. Not knowing how else to resolve the matter, I hugged him. To my surprise, the MIT dude wrapped his arms around my shoulders. I think he started to cry. Jenny was already talking to the cop, who was surely just about to enter the pool. Later, she told me she had explained that we were just two over-excited childhood friends who hadn’t seen each other for years.
After the three of us dried off, we walked across Harvard Bridge to Sakura, a sushi restaurant in Kendall Square. Over rolls, Robert Kao told us the firm he had been interning at hadn’t hired him. I talked about my program at Harvard. A few hours later, glancing at her watch, Jenny said she had to get up early and, kissing me on the cheek, excused herself. As she was leaving, I felt my phone vibrate–it was my mother. But one look in Robert’s sad eyes, and I could tell that he had something to say, so I silenced my phone and ordered another pair of Kirins.
“She left me,” he said finally.
He sighed. “You were right, I guess.”
“Wish I wasn’t.” I took a gulp of beer. “So what’s Susie up to now?”
Robert shrugged. “I’m not sure. I haven’t actually seen her for a while.”
We stayed for another round, talking science. In the end, I just couldn’t hate the guy. His parents were those stereotypical strict types: MIT chosen for him since birth, school posters on the wall, straight A’s or banishment. Then he started to talk about Susie. They had been together for five months in all before she broke up with him. Shortly after the two started dating, Susie told Robert she was pregnant. Of course, he was terrified, but the guy took the news like a champ and asked her to marry him. Months later, she miscarried, returned the engagement ring, and disappeared.
“I’m really sorry,” I said. “Maybe it’s for the best.”
“It was yours.”
“Yours. Your kid.” Robert squinted. “I thought I should tell you in person–I found you at the pond with mobile tracking.”
“Wow,” I said, putting down my beer very slowly. “You MIT dudes are smart.”
As we left, a cool breeze was weaving through the Cambridge blocks. Robert and I said goodbye, taking off in separate directions. She had probably wanted to tell me that night on top of the apartment. At Mass Ave, I headed towards the bridge. Boston was all lit up, yellow and white pulses. The city looked beautiful. Leaning over the rail by 182 Smoot, I brought out my phone. There was a voicemail from my mother. Emergency Room. Hysterical. Mr. Yasmine’s heart, it turns out, was too fragile for love.
After the funeral, Mom left Somerville. I visited her when I could, but grad school and Jenny kept me so busy. I hardly had time to think about Susie. Besides, her phone was disconnected, and none of her friends knew where she’d gone. Biking the green strip along the Charles, I just assumed I’d run into her.
Eventually, the subject of Susie and the miscarriage came up. It was probably the prolonged dishonesty that sent Jenny off, but she said she wasn’t ready to settle down anyway, and started applying to graduate schools in California. She left Boston after New Years. I didn’t expect to see her again.
With Jenny gone, I let my studies consume me. My apartment filled with books. I even stopped sailing. One night, after the trains quieted, I took a six-pack up to the roof. Three beers in, and I thought about quitting school. I could never have made a city work anyway–not with people like me in it. But the universe surely is strange, indeed, because when I came back inside, I found a curious email waiting in my inbox.
Dear Mr. Damsetto:
Hubert told me about your break-up and that you were considering leaving the program. I thought that some words of perspective might be in order, especially given your generosity on the bridge. Besides, there is an age-old tradition of scientists passing down their knowledge. Due to our discerning, logical nature, many scientists have the unfortunate tendency to assume that love, life, and happiness are problems with eventual solutions. Yet in my long career, I have found no evidence of equations for much of what governs our lives. Perhaps I am alone, but I find a certain comfort in this. After all, Mr. Damsetto–our work will never end.
My old professor at MIT would open his lecture with scientific anecdotes, in order to put a human face on the governing scientific principles we sometimes take for granted. For example, he told us that when Einstein was teaching at Princeton, an exasperated teaching assistant complained to him: “The questions on this year’s exam are the same as last year’s!” And Einstein replied: “Yes, but this year all the answers are different.”
Remember this, Mr. Damsetto. The stars we view are merely remnant representations of actual stars millions of light years away. The real stars, of course, have already moved on. The stars we see, even if illusionary, are no less stunning. At least we can agree on this, can we not?
In the midst of this global crisis, I find my students a rather pessimistic bunch, all told– unable to understand that progress is not always incremental but often comes in unexpected leaps and bounds, as is the case with evolution. At the end of the semester, I often pass on what my cousin Oliver, the infamous Smoot of Harvard Bridge, once told me. You might not know this, but Oliver later became the chairman of the American National Standards Institute. And yet his life’s work began as a prank. One day, I called Oliver up to ask why his brothers had chosen him, out of all the others, to be measured across Harvard Bridge. After all, this was the impetus for his career. How he replied has stayed with me all these years. And I quote: “Why was I chosen? It’s very simple, George. I was there.”
For what it’s worth, hope this helps. Looking forward to your paper on the perfect city at the conference. And for the universe’s sake, Mr. Damsetto. Have a little faith. Now get off your ass and take someone else sailing.