Etiquette for the End of the World — Excerpt


The final bomb went off, and her life went up in smoke.

“Tess, I’m afraid we need to talk,” Josh was saying, with a sad shake of his dark, silky head. Dear god, those horrible words, we need to talk. Didn’t people understand this was a cliché? Couldn’t they ever think of something else? Like, for instance: “Tess, what I am about to tell you has more to do with the caprices of the Universe than it does with anything you have caused,” or “Tess, sit down and brace yourself for impact.” But no, it was always just: “We need to talk.” That dialogical death knell. Tess loved talking in general—long phone calls, long coffee dates, intimate bonding over dinners. She practically had a black belt in talking. But why was everyone using this particular sentence on her all of a sudden? We need to talk. Do we? Do we really?

First it had been her friend Rebecca, back in March. “Tess”—she had smiled warmly, apologetically, when she’d said it—”we need to talk. I have an awkward situation to tell you about.” And it was about how she was not inviting Tess to her country house in Millbrook for their traditional “Scrabble and scrapple” four-day mid-summer weekend, the way she had for the last eight years, because of it being a married-couple-with-kids-only thing this year. (So Tess would miss out on Clyde’s famous spit-roasted pig and the luxurious late night swims in the pool, two of her favorite things in the world). And then it was her brother who “needed to talk,” about how, on the advice of his lawyer, he was in fact not going to rectify the injustice of their father’s will, which had left him the beach house, and almost everything else. And then there was her boyfriend. Well, okay, her ex-boyfriend now. Matt, who for the last two years had categorically refused to talk with her about the future of their relationship, suddenly “needed to talk,” to let her know that he had cheated on her with their upstairs neighbor—a twenty-three-year-old feng shui practitioner—which he felt it was only fair to tell Tess (because after all he was such an honorable guy). The worst thing was, it wasn’t a talk at all, it was a fucking email:

Subject: —
05/13/11 11:14 AM

Tess, we need to talk. Last night when you were teasing me about Sarah I said you were crazy (and btw sorry about that peri-menopausal crack, that was probably uncalled for) but the truth is, we did in fact sleep together. I know I should not say this in an email but I thought once I could get the hard part out in the open, it would be easier for us to discuss it. I still care alot about you but I know this is going to change things for us. C u tonight, I’ll cook.

Now, sitting in her editor’s office, Tess felt as if she were caught in a nightmarish loop in the time/space continuum. Another “talk” forced upon her.

“It’s this last letter … you’ve gone way too far, Tess. It’s not in line with the paper’s spirit. And it’s not the first time either.” Josh picked up Sunday’s edition from where it was lying on top of a pile of mail and read aloud, “‘The best way to a man’s heart is through his rib cage, preferably with a hacksaw.'” He peered over his green-and-purple-rhinestone-studded glasses at her, his eyebrows raised for emphasis. “Darling, I know what you mean about men—no one knows more than I—but people do not want to read this kind of thing, and we have had a lot of negative posts on this. Jonathan is, I’m afraid, putting down his large and powerful foot.” (Jonathan was the publisher, who was not crazy about women writers in the best of times.)

Tess could feel panic rising. She tried to steady herself by focusing on something in the room besides Josh’s face—the brown felt back of a photo frame he had propped up on the edge of the desk. Whose picture was on the other side? Tess could not remember. She felt like grabbing it and hugging it to her chest, no matter who it was.

Her life was blowing away, piece by piece, like a Tibetan sand painting. Her father’s sudden heart attack and death had put her in a funk for most of the past year, affecting her ability to score freelance writing assignments. On top of that, a few months ago her agent had called her, and after stalling in a horribly frustrating way with chitchat about the weather and baseball, told her he was sorry but he had exhausted every venue and was going to stop sending out her book proposal (for a self-help guide, unofficially based on her “Tess Knows Best” column and tentatively titled Tess Eliot’s Quick Fixes for Life, Love, and Your Mother-in-Law). Having depleted her savings, for the last six months Tess had been running up credit card debt and had been barely been scraping by with the money from her column. And now this. This simply could not be happening. She opened her mouth, not sure what would come out. “But … arrhm … maybe I could run a … a … retraction?”

“A retraction? What are you going to say, sweetie? ‘Oops, sorry, I didn’t mean a hacksaw, I meant a scalpel’? Anyway it’s not just this piece. You’ve been on a negative tear for a while now.” Josh’s desktop PC chimed with incoming mail. He glanced over at the screen, then at his watch. His wrists were as thin as a nine-year-old’s. “I’m sorry but I have got to go, Tessie. You should go down to HR. Sorry. Believe me, this is not my decision. I think you are brilliant and funny and fabulous.” He smiled stiffly and rose to give her a hug and at the same time reached for the phone, which was buzzing. The hug turned into an awkward one-shoulder grab. “I am really going to miss you, girl.”

So that was that. She was fired from her column, which she had been writing for four years. No more fan mail, no more speaking engagements, no more invitations to exclusive cocktail parties, and, most important, no more paycheck. She was unemployed, broke, single, childless—and even what felt like friendless—at age thirty-nine. Somehow her feet carried her down the long hallway lined with framed front pages, past the busy newsroom, past the production department, and finally to the bank of elevators and out of the building.

On the subway home, standing mashed between several large sweaty men, one of whom reeked of beer, Tess thought, Why is it so crowded already at four p.m.? This city is inhuman. She was fearful that any second the lump in her throat would navigate its way upward and transform itself into tears. The last thing she wanted to do was to start crying on the damn train, in front of all these strangers. She closed her eyes and, turning her head away from the beery man, drew a slow breath deep into her diaphragm, the way she had learned to do in a yoga class last year. She reminded herself that she was invisible in this crowd. Everyone in this car was thinking only about themselves—their own stressful days, their own problems.

She took another breath and tried to get her mind on something else besides her crumbling life. Glancing at the back of a newspaper someone was reading (naturally, she thought, it would have to be her newspaper; it couldn’t be the Times or The Wall Street Journal), she saw Billy Witz had written another NRA editorial. Suddenly a suicide poem by Dorothy Parker echoed in her head: “Guns aren’t lawful, nooses give, gas smells awful, you might as well live.” She pictured the illustrious author sitting on the seat just to the left of her, between the expressionless Chinese woman and the sulky pale white teenager glued to his iPhone. Tess would look down at Mrs. Parker and say, “Listen: I don’t have the right kind of pills, my window’s too close to the ground, I can’t stand the sight of blood, I’m too afraid of pain, I have no choice but to keep going, and let me tell you it sucks big-time.” Mrs. Parker would smile back at her from under her hat and tell her that that didn’t rhyme.

After Tess had squeezed and pushed her way out of the subway she headed straight for the Scrub-a-Dub-Pub, so named because it had once been a Laundromat. They had kept one original wall lined with the machines, for ambience. (Plus they used them for storing wine.) One of the best things about it was that it was only a block and a half from her West 89 Street apartment. A delicious wave of air-conditioning engulfed her as she entered, a welcome relief from the 98-degree August heat. Thank god Richie was there, instead of the meat-headed Patrick. As soon as she sat down, he came over and placed a chilled martini glass in front of her. Another great thing about the Scrub-a-Dub-Pub was that, since they made their money on trendy theme cocktails like the Gin-Spin Cycle, and the Tide Me Over, the regular drinks were not outrageously priced. Tess crossed her arms on the bar and rested her head down on top of them. She closed her eyes.

“Tess. Jesus. What happened to you? Usually no one looks like this until three in the morning,” Richie said, digging into the ice bin with the scoop. “Your ex-boyfriend still torturing you?”

“No, it’s not that. Anyhow I’m too old for ex-boyfriends. Shouldn’t I be on to ex-husbands by now? No, it’s … I lost my column, Rich. My last steady gig. I can not fucking believe it.” She opened her eyes and watched him fill her glass from the metal shaker. “On the other hand I can’t say I really blame them. If I were my boss I’d probably fire me too.” At this, the beginning of a smile appeared at the corners of Richie’s mouth, spurring her on. “In fact, if I were in a serious relationship with myself, I’d break up with me. Or if I were my own landlord, I’d evict me.”

Grinning, Richie pointed an index finger at her like a gun. “And if you were a terrorist you would blow yourself up?” he added.

“Exactly!” Tess found herself smiling. Richie somehow always made her feel better. “For that matter, if I were my own bank, I would close my account. Hey”—she lifted up her head hopefully—”can I possibly run a tab? Like, until next month?”

Richie laughed, though silently. It was really more of a tilting his head back with his mouth open than an actual laugh. He had bushy, dark-blond hair and a rampant red and blond beard. He was positively furry. Tess thought he looked like an ancient king who had been magically transformed into a dog, a dog who was now pretending to be a man. (Obviously a metaphor like this had required many hours at the bar.) He had kind eyes. Tess would have had a major thing for him if not for the fact that he was gay. The unfortunate fact of his gayness had been made crystal clear to her by Patrick, months ago when he caught her gazing wistfully at Richie one day. Patrick had leered and leaned his red face close to hers and made sure Tess knew hewas certainly available, but that “the Rich-meister plays for the other team.” Wasn’t that always the way in this town? The jerks were straight, and the wonderful ones were gay.

“A tab?” Richie said, “What do you think this is, Cheers? Tell you what. The second one’s on me.”

She looked at him gratefully, making a mental note to 1) stop after two and 2) make sure she ate a substantial dinner. Because tomorrow she was going to have to swallow her pride and go see Harriet to beg for work. And groveling with a hangover was no fun.

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