By Yalun Tu
I entered the terminal in a rush, wondering if I’d be asked to turn my phone to flight mode before the what the hell? texts started coming. At that point, things were basically over. Trying to explain your actions via SMS is the same as cybersex. You might finish, but is anybody really satisfied?
The problem had started at dinner, somewhere between coffee and “The Tonight Show.” This was the end of a busted week in Los Angeles. I had told everybody I was coming to “take meetings” when the real purpose was to surprise my manager, who had been steadily ignoring my calls. Desperate to prove I still had value, I had pitched him a series of increasingly poor ideas: the girl with daddy issues stuck in an evil computer. The hitman who kills using an Asian ghost. The billionaire who pretends to be two competing billionaires to get the girl because all girls dream of being lied to by a rich guy.
“I kind of like the robot one,” Nathan said, chewing his burger while I pawed at his fat fries.
“Me, too,” Jen said. Jen was Nathan’s wife and the only girl I’d met in California who didn’t talk about juice cleanses. They were a young power couple in LA and I’d spent the week sleeping on their couch, wondering if they had any faults besides talking about their cat like he was a human being.
“Nobody has any patience for non-evil robots,” I lamented. “By the way, Jen, you look very attractive in that dress.” She was one of those people in complete harmony in every situation, meaning the opposite of me. I could never think of anything to say. I preferred to stay on the fringe of social situations, mocking the successful around me, following the old if-you-can’t-build-something-destroy-it philosophy. Faced with someone who simply enjoyed life sapped me of my observational jabs. So instead I complimented Jen often and ecstatically, a toy dog yapping for its master’s attention, steadily ignoring the WTF looks I’d been getting from Nathan.
“You look nice in that button-down,” she rejoined. I had worn the shirt three days straight. Nathan raised his eyebrow, anticipating my response. It was, “You’re so wonderful. I love you.” The tone was supposed to be jokey but the words left my mouth sounding open, earnest. It was truthful, too, since I had fallen in love with her the moment we had met, as well as their anthropomorphic cat, Sam.
“Oh, I-love-you-too” Jen said in a way that meant both the opposite and I-pledge-undying-fealty-to-my-husband-angrily-chewing-a-cheeseburger. I couldn’t be stopped at this point. It was weird.
“We should have an affair. Elope or something,” I said. What the fuck are you doing? one side of my brain asked. Don’t worry. If you go too far past the point of no return it will go meta and be seen as performance art, the other side said. “I’m much taller than your husband,” I added.
“Don’t you have a flight to catch?” Nathan asked.
As we crawled down the 110 in traffic I tried one more joke, the social equivalent of that last bet in Vegas when you’ve lost it all and are borrowing twenty dollars from the former best friend you’re trying to cuckold. I don’t remember exactly what I said but it was something to do with “Wife Swap,” a popular show on ABC once upon a time, except I didn’t have a wife so Nathan could borrow a life-sized wax head I won at a carnival. That went over predictably well and we drove the rest of the way in silence. I should have just taken a bus, I thought, but since this was Los Angeles, it’d probably be more efficient just to give my wallet and phone to any passing transient rather than go through that whole shiv hassle.
We arrived at the drop-off spot and I shook Nathan’s hand and looked him in the eye, a thing guys do when they want people to think they’re serious. I offered Jen a limp handshake and when she looked confused, I gave her a light hug, whispering “You’re both very lucky with each other,” into her ear. That was as close as I got to an apology. I grabbed my bags and headed to the terminal, looking back once to see if they watched me go. They were already gone; their hybrid slunk away silently. The automatic doors to the terminal parted and I automated myself inside.
“Just you?” asked the check-in girl and I nodded, yes, just me, always. “Did you enjoy your time in LA?” she cooed.
I nodded again, wondering what would happen if I told her the whole dinner situation. “Um, okay…” she would have said, uncomfortable at my honesty, confused why I’d messed things up. “These things just can’t be helped,” I’d explain and she’d be the one nodding, silently judging me as she passed me my boarding pass.
By the time I got on the plane I had not received any messages. Maybe they’d never come, I reasoned; maybe Nathan would sleep on it and understand that hot wives deserve to be hit on by your childhood friends. This was a sort of male bonding — Nathan had won the wife game and I was indicating my approval by dropping lines about affairs. Men can’t be straightforward with their feelings. It’s part of the rule book. Yes, that’s it, I decided. All is fine in the world. I asked the flight attendant for a glass of wine and wondered what they were selling in this month’s Sky Mall.
But as time passed, my mind replayed the week’s events in lurid detail. That’s the trouble with planes; they’re engineered to make you reflect on your life. Buses and trains offer the dual distractions of finding your stop and not being murdered by crazies, but in the sky there’s no scenery, no proper indication of time passing. There’s nothing but the noise of the engines, the buzz of your life at a crossroads. I tried to distract myself with more wine and in-flight entertainment. But all I could think of was what had got me here, and why I had messed with a friendship simply because I couldn’t be bothered not to.
At this point, the only thing to do was wait. I waited for my ego to take over, for my momentary bout of self-awareness to become hard, defensive. I channeled my inner Homer (the classic one not the yellow one) and readied my yarn for spinning. I must be the hero of my story, so heroic I would become. It was Nathan’s fault I was in this position to begin with. If he were feeling weird he should have said something. My brain analyzed each situation not for my indiscretions but for Nathan’s. It rewired each memory, rewriting my role as the falsely accused.
What the hell, Nathan? We were long and fast friends. I had got him his first condom at age seventeen in a Chinese sex shop while dismissing an old woman’s upselling attempts for nipple clamps and rust-colored anal beads. I had shopped with him for flowers to impress one of his many sub-par girlfriends. I was there to commiserate right after Lindsay dumped him on the phone, his angry yelps cut short because her roaming charges were too high. Did Nathan really think I was brazen enough to hit on his wife? Or stupid enough to hit on her in front of him? So I’m a cad and a moron. Real nice, Nathan. I jabbed at my in-flight meal angrily, fully convinced now that I was the scapegoat.
Next I played our upcoming exchanges. It would start with the thank-you note I’d write. My dearest Jen and Nathan, it would read, thank you very much for letting me stay at your great apartment in LA. What a view! I had a wonderful time and you guys are great. I hope you appreciated my unique sense of humor and hope to see at least one of you in Hong Kong. You know what I mean. Nathan would respond rudely. Fuck. Off. It was as if he had no sense of propriety, or humor for that matter.
In time, the story would spread to family emails, dinner party tales, and class-reunion letters. “It was a normal dinner …” I’d begin. Jen would still be perfect—at least that part of the story would be true—but I was the happy-go-lucky everyman who had come to LA to find my old friend transformed! Nathan was a workaholic, rage-fueled beast; his green-eyed irrationality scorched everything around him. “You should have seen it,” I’d tell my audience, “his eyes literally turned green.”
“Like the Incredible Hulk?” one might say, looking for validation.
“Exactly like the Incredible Hulk,” I’d affirm.
“That sucks. Some people are just dicks,” another would say.
I’d take a moment to process this truth. “We used to be close,” I’d offer. And I’d sigh a heavy sigh, full of the terrible weight of others not living up to their expectations. “I just—” here’s where I’d pause for dramatic effect—“wish that it weren’t the case. That everybody could be cool and not make a big deal out of nothing.”
I imagine the cute girl next to me putting her hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry. We’re cool.”
“We are cool,” I’d agree happily. Then I’d raise my glass to friendship and to the people who really understood me.