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A Thing About You

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Part 1: L.A.

 

Dan Rydell drove to Los Angeles in the summer of 1988.

It might have been a questionable idea. It might even, if one were to listen to his father, be a stupid idea. If one were to listen to Jacob Rydell, affectionately known to his intimates as Jay, one might think that blowing that kind of gas money is a waste, when the plane ticket is cheaper and faster, and it’s not like you need to bring much. What do you think you’re doing, having a adventure? This is a job, Danny.

Dan did not think about that. The open road, with the sky arching beautifully above him, was a truly magnificent thing. He had his favorite tapes and a working cassette player. He mashed play without looking, and when he hit the end he’d swap it out, Simon le Bon’s voice thready against the roar of the pavement. Twelve hours a day of driving would get him there in under a week. There were parks and motels to sleep in when and if it became necessary. He chain-smoked when he started getting tired, juggling the cigarette lighter with the wheel, and kept going.

There was something great about the isolation. The loneliness came with the sky—once he’d gotten out of the Eastern Seaboard, once he’d made his way far enough west that he wasn’t going from city to city to city, it became huge and engulfing. It enveloped him, and the only voice he had to fear in it was his own.

 

(The thing about the unthinkable is that it happens. It happens like mundane things happen: there’s an event and people see it. They talk to each other. They call someone about it. With the unthinkable, they call the police, and the police show up at the front door of a house. And not that far away—though it seems like a million light-years, for a college freshman who has finally escaped the tyranny of the unhappy household—but a few hours later, a phone rings. That college freshman picks up, because it’s a weird hour for the phone to ring, even for a slacker who’s back in his dorm with a belly full of liquor after tagging along to a frat party.

That college freshman, still half-drunk, woozy and tired, hears, “Sam is dead. Your brother is dead,” from his father, and the unthinkable is not only the thinkable, it has become the concrete. The actual. The real. The real wants you to come home and sit shiva. The real says, Your teachers will understand, what are you talking about? The real is a silent house and couches without cushions and bare feet padding over the carpet, and a crowd full of silent people who stare at you and know.

Nine months later, he hasn’t had a toke in nine months. Nine months later he’s barely had a beer. He’s dragging himself through classes like a zombie. He’s fucking up, because that’s what fuck-ups do, even though the one thing he knows he wants, more than anything else, is to work in journalism. He’s racking up Incompletes like nobody’s business, because nobody at Dartmouth wants to fail a student. His professor in Intro to Communication, Dr. Rasmussen, tells him, Dan, you have the potential to be one of the best students I’ve ever seen. Why aren’t you? And Dan doesn’t tell him much, but Dr. Rasmussen doesn’t drop it. Dr. Rasmussen says, Dan. If you apply to internships, and you write me the best essay I’ve gotten from you yet, I will give you credit for the final. You can fix this Incomplete. So Dan writes an essay for internship applications, at the last possible moment. He throws everything he has into it, all of his cleverness and his obsessive passion, and has a moment of pure electric shock when he hears back from one of the broadcasting corporations: Yes.

So in the summer of 1988, Danny Rydell, who hasn’t gone by Danny since he came to college, who’s told people to call him Dan because that sounds better than the name he’s carried since childhood and the name that still sits in his father’s mouth like ashes, gets in his beat-up Chevrolet and drives from New Hampshire to Los Angeles as fast as he can without ever stopping in Connecticut.)

 

Western Media Conglomerate had a sports arm, which had a decent reputation. Dan wasn’t entirely sure why they’d chosen him for the internship over the other applicants. Maybe it was the Ivy League college, despite his fuzzy grades; maybe his passionate application essay on the importance of organized sports to a civil society, peppered with showy ten-dollar words and overheated metaphors. Whatever it was, they’d picked him, and he was going to try to keep them from realizing what a colossal mistake they’d made.

The internship came with two perks: first, a stipend that would allegedly cover groceries, and second, a ratty furnished apartment. When Dan rolled in to L.A., he had a letter with the lockbox code folded into a tiny, thick square in his wallet. He got the key out and onto his keyring with shaking hands. Parking was expensive, it was going to be murder, but he already felt justified in bringing the car—it would be impossible to get anywhere in L.A. without it.

The apartment complex had been painted a salmon pink that showed wear. (There was plenty of wear for it to show.) His apartment was ground-floor. When he walked in, the dark brown carpet smelled faintly of something he didn’t want to put too much effort into identifying. It was a studio, with a futon bed unfolded in the living space, and a kitchenette, and a bathroom with a stand-up shower and a mirrored medicine cabinet over the sink that looked like it had been there since before the building was constructed.

He idly flipped the lights on and off, checking the switches. All the bulbs were in working order.

He’d brought his own sheets, more because he’d packed up his entire dorm room and gone straight from school than for any other reason. His electric typewriter was the first thing he lugged in from the car, setting it up on the rickety table that appeared meant to serve as both a dining table and a desk and was not well-suited for either task. His guitar was next. It wasn’t a nice guitar, but it was his, the one he’d bought with his own money when he was fourteen and that had been the sounding-board for his innermost thoughts since then.

Once he’d brought all his stuff in and put most of it away, he was tired and sweaty and it was getting close to the bedtime. He had a little box of groceries he’d brought from his dorm. He made himself a peanut butter sandwich and ate it standing in the kitchenette under the half-dead fluorescent light. He went outside to smoke—the apartment was supposed to be no-smoking, though if anything it would have improved the smell—and soaked up the heat rising from the parking lot asphalt, the permeating buzz of traffic noise from the street visible through the chain-link fence. He ground out the butt under his heel, hot, dry smoke wafting up in the hot, dry air.

 

(Dan doesn’t sleep well. Dan has never been a good sleeper. It has something to do with his nature—nervous, light, quick; if he were a god he’d be Mercury, a liar and a showman, always in motion—and something to do with the never-ending roiling tension in his childhood home, like writhing storm clouds wrapping around every bannister, every doorframe.

Dan knows his parents love him. He has never been under the impression that his father likes him. David is different; David, at twenty-two, is built solidly in the model of their father, a no-nonsense, salt-of-the-earth kind of guy, who just got his bachelor’s from the University of Connecticut in engineering and is about to start work for a contractor. David likes sports a normal amount, and can turn off a game if he needs to, and doesn’t hoard tapes like a dragon sitting on gold. David has never begged their father to come to one of his T-ball games with a wavering voice, clinging to the newel post.

David even looks like their father. Dan does not, with his face hollow and sharp in all the places where their father’s face is rounded and sagging with age. Dan’s face is his own and it betrays them both: his mouth twists and moves when he is trying, desperately, to pretend that he can be normal, and his father hates how emotional it makes him seem. It upsets Ruthie when you cry, Danny, don’t you see? Stop bringing up Sam. How can I stop when it’s all you want to talk about. No, it’s all you want to talk about—

Ruth is so much younger than Dan. She was a surprise baby, and at twelve, she’s having a lot of trouble with the idea of death. With Sam being gone, forever.

Dan doesn’t sleep well. Dan is tired all the time, but he never sleeps well. Not since he stopped smoking weed.)

 

He was a little bit early to the studio in the morning, despite having left way, way early. The traffic was insane. It was ludicrous. How did anyone ever get anywhere?  

The important thing was that he got there on time. He smiled at the front desk clerk, who waved him back. When he walked into the small, crowded bullpen, it was insane. People were laughing, talking, hooting, someone in the far back throwing a football—it was so much, all at once. It was overwhelming. There was no room left to think. It was great.

“Hey,” said a guy with a couple inches on Dan, stopping in front of him. “Are you one of the new interns?”

“Yeah, my name is Dan Rydell.”

“Come on, you need to see Jimmy.” The guy had a deep voice. He turned and waved for Dan to follow him. “My name is Casey McCall. I’m one of the writers. Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you, too.”

Casey had a flat Midwestern kind of twang when he spoke. Dan knew his own voice had a crisp New England-ness that would read as cultured and educated on television if he played it right. Dr. Rasmussen had been firm with them about the importance of removing all traces of regional dialect. You need to sound universal, he had said, smacking his fist on the podium. Dan knew that there were things he would have to iron out, if he wanted to be heard by audiences. He’d have to drop the Yiddish, all the words that tasted sweet and warm as his grandmother’s kitchen, and he couldn’t let himself sound like his uncle Miles with the Brooklyn bounce to the end of each sentence. He thought he could probably do it.

He followed Casey through a maze of desks. “Jimmy!” Casey bellowed into an office. “Intern!”

Casey turned back to him and shook his hand once, briefly, before vanishing back into the sea of people. Jimmy was a guy in his sixties with a perpetually disgruntled facial expression, wearing a short-sleeved white dress shirt, stained khakis, and a chip on his shoulder.

Dan’s first day involved waiting for the other interns to get there, then getting shepherded around the office on a brief and colorful tour. Casey was sitting with the writing staff, making a face at his word processor. He barely looked up to wave at the interns as the group shuffled by.

There was a lot of crap work to do. Getting coffee, running things back and forth, checking stats in heavy books, calling people who didn’t want to be called. By the end of his work day, his feet hurt and he felt vaguely shell-shocked; it was also seven p.m., and he was bone-deep tired. Around noon he’d snatched a lunch from a taco cart, despite his misgivings, and was ravenously hungry again.

“Danny, right?”

He looked up. It was Casey from earlier. He could have corrected him, said, No, it’s Dan, actually, but he didn’t. Somehow it sounded different in Casey’s voice.

“Yeah. And you’re Casey?”

Casey nodded. “You want to stay and watch the broadcast?”

The show in question was The Day in Sports. It was a mediocre show despite its market share, Dan knew. He’d watched it before coming out. The anchors were stilted, too pleased with themselves, and their banter was flat. Dan could write better banter in his sleep, although their teasers were rock-solid.

“Sure,” said Dan.

They watched it from the very back of the control room. Too small a room for how many people were packed into it, with a tense, expectant air.

The lead-ins were stale. It took Dan by surprise, though, how much the excitement bubbled up in him—how much of a rush it was to listen to the anchors doing their job, right there, seeing them on screens everywhere at once, being broadcast to thousands of homes; being seen by strangers who’d send them fan mail, who’d care about their opinions.

After the show, Casey turned to him right as Dan’s stomach rumbled. Dan felt his cheeks go hot with embarrassment.

“Long day,” said Casey. “Come on, let’s get dinner. My treat. You’re not going to want to go home and cook.”

Dan followed him, feeling too many things at once. It turned out there was a Chinese place across the street from the looming beige hulk of the network building. It was tiny, tucked in a decrepit building between a pawn shop and a psychic.

“I may need to get my fortune told.” Dan nodded at the neon sign in the shape of a hand that said Palms read –  $5 – Tarot. “Seems a little cheap for spiritual insight, doesn’t it?”

Casey grinned. The bell rang on the glass door to the restaurant as Casey pushed it open, and Dan was hit with the smells and sounds simultaneously: pops and hisses, sizzling meat, fragrant citrus. His mouth watered, and his stomach growled again.

Casey didn’t say anything about it, waving him to a seat next to the window. He picked up one of the laminated menus and frowned down at it.

“So,” said Dan, to fill the silence, “are you going to tell me all your wisdom about sports broadcasting?”

Casey’s lips quirked. “I’ve been asked to stop doing that. Apparently I’m,” and he made finger quotes in the air, “‘discouraging possible future colleagues,’ by giving what I see as an accurate picture of the state of the field.”

“Well, I can see how they’d want to keep people from knowing what they were getting into. I always do much better when I’m completely confused. They should try to keep us in the dark as much as possible.”

Casey laughed. “That’s the corporate philosophy in a nutshell.”

“Have you been here long?”

“I graduated last year, and I came out here.” Casey shrugged with one shoulder. The waiter came over to take their orders—Dan ordered a cheap noodle dish whose name he didn’t recognize but had a hot and sour sauce—and Dan took a nervous sip of ice water. Casey continued, as if he hadn’t paused, “I’m hoping to anchor, and I’m getting more experience with writing.”

“That’s cool,” said Dan, who had perhaps had a vague sense that he wanted to be on-camera but whose desire to do so had increased several thousand fold over the last hour.

“Do you know what you want to do yet?”

“Not really, but I love sports, and this internship seemed like a good way to figure out if this might be a good direction for me.”

Casey nodded, frowning out the window at the street. “You just finished freshman year?”

“Yeah.”

“If you want to go into broadcasting, you can have a lot of different majors but I’d suggest Communication. You’ll get more practice with getting up in front of people and talking. You do drama at all? Improv?”

“No, not really.” It had always been too daunting; besides, rehearsal schedules might have gotten in the way of his pot smoking.

“Then it’s even more important to get practice now. I know it’s a cliché, but groups like the Toastmasters can be really helpful.”

Dan nodded. Casey kept giving him advice, and Dan kept trying to be funny, for reasons he didn’t want to examine too closely. He didn’t know why Casey had picked him out of the four interns to talk to, but he appreciated the attention. He also appreciated the noodles.

They wandered through topics strictly centered on work and career (what kinds of jobs existed in sports broadcasting, broadcasting in general, how to succeed at internship) and moved on to the really important stuff (Doug Williams’ Super Bowl performance, the upcoming Olympics in Seoul, whether Tyson or Spinks was the better pick for a betting man). By the end of dinner, they were clearly stretching it out for fun, to enjoy the conversation. Casey was toying with his last couple of bites of rice.

“Damn,” said Casey, checking his watch. “I have to get going. Do you need a ride?”

“Nah, I drove.”

Casey paid casually and walked out with Dan.

“Good talk.” Casey slapped him on the back. “Good luck tomorrow.”

“Thanks.”

They went their separate ways. Dan tried to crush down the thing in his chest, but it was hard: he knew the feeling, this sparkling, exuberant joy. He’d felt it before, every time he met someone new who was really interesting. Casey was interesting. Casey clearly thought of himself as a strong, silent type, but he talked all the time. Pursed his lips and threw his hands in the air and smiled, laughed, chuckled, even guffawed if Dan got it just right. If Dan held on to his joke for the perfect comedic timing.

He remembered to stop and get more groceries that night. It ate most of what was left from his bank account.

He’d need to make sure he had enough money for gas.

He lay in bed on the edge of sleep for longer than he wanted to. His mind kept filling up with things he’d said, jokes he’d screwed up, that had fallen flat or would be easy to misinterpret. It was the price of having a good time while he was at dinner. He paid for it, over and over again, thinking about everything he’d done wrong.

 

(Dan thinks about sex. He is nineteen. He thinks about it a lot. He had his first girlfriend at fourteen. She was pretty and smart, and she let him put his hand up her shirt for about four seconds before she yanked it back out. They went out for three weeks, and then they had a fight about something he can’t even remember and she broke up with him. That started a continuing trend.

Dan thinks about sex every day; if not every minute, then close. His virginity is long gone, lost at sixteen and a half on a tapering silver-bright high, and the big thing they had in common was a love of drugs. She’d been the one who brought him cocaine for the first time. They had sex a couple of times, weeks apart. She was a year older. She taught him about going down on her. He’s learned more with every girl since then, and there have been a handful, enough that he thinks of himself as something of an expert. He loves making them gasp and squeal and come on his fingers, come as he tongues them. Since then he’s had a string of girlfriends, never for more than a couple of months at a time. Since Sam, never more than a couple of weeks.

Dan thinks about sex. He thinks about the women he sees on the street, wearing tiny black leather skirts, wearing business suits with shoulder pads, wearing bikinis for the beach. L.A. is full of beautiful women trying very hard to look a certain way. There are women wearing ripped fishnet stockings and women wearing bright red lipstick in the daytime. There are women who jog with their dogs, women in pastel blue eyeshadow, women in jeans and t-shirts climbing on to the bus. He tries not to think about it at work, because it’s very distracting.

When Dan thinks about sex he tries to make sure he thinks about women.

Dan thinks about sex.)

 

The other interns were Joe, Frankie, and Mandy. Mandy had bleach-blonde hair styled like the cover of a fashion magazine and she wore mascara every day. Dan noticed these things. Dan had laid in bed watching girlfriends do makeup, had helped them take it off. Dan had kissed them when they were wearing lipstick until his own mouth was pink-tinged, and he’d looked in the mirror with a curious sense of disorientation. Dan let girlfriends put makeup on him, lipstick, eyeliner, and the more he looked like Robert Smith, the closer he felt to home.

Dan enjoyed Frankie, who was a belligerent New Yorker with a mean streak, more than he liked Joe, who was a mealy-mouthed priss from Utah. Mandy was from Vermont. He put effort into charming her. He thought it might be paying off. She had big, pretty brown eyes, and she was funny.

Casey took the other interns out to dinner one at a time. When Dan noticed, he felt a sharp, horrifying pang in his stomach, and he distracted himself by staying up late that night typing up some background research he’d scribbled down by hand for one of the anchors.

One of the other writers was named Dana Whitaker. Casey seemed to know her—seemed to know her pretty well. Dan dropped by Casey’s desk with a packet on the injury list, and Casey introduced Dan to Dana, who was perched on the edge of Casey’s desk like she belonged there.

“Dan, this is Dana. We were at college together. She came out here first, and she got me my interview.”

“Good to meet you, Dan. I hope you like it here.” Dana gave him a bright, hard smile and a firm grip on her handshake. She had the nascent ball-busting quality to her that so many of the women on management track seemed to acquire. Her hair was a middling brown, pulled back in a severe chignon. Casey watched her with a fond half-smile on his mouth.

Oh, thought Dan.

Despite his charm, Mandy turned him down the first night the interns got together at Frankie’s house, and when Dan said, “Should I keep trying?” she smiled and shook her head.

“I’m not here to fuck around, Dan,” she said patiently. “I’m here to get on the air.”

“That’s fair. Very fair. Don’t see why that can’t include some recreational activity, but sure.”

“Because if people think I am here to fuck around, they won’t ask me to come back, and I need this. I need this a hell of a lot more than I need dick.

Dan nodded wisely at her and then said, “Even really good dick?” and she hit him with her purse.

She never did sleep with him.

 

Dan got in the habit of staying for the broadcast.

Most of the time, Casey was there. He’d nod at Dan, and Dan would nod back, all very manly and grown-up. Dan would try to shrink back into a corner without looking like that was what he was doing.

One night, Casey and Dan were talking after the show—a few words here and there were turning into more words, and every time, every stupid fucking time, Dan would find his heart beating faster, find his palms getting clammy. They were standing by the water cooler, next to the supply closet. Casey said, off-handedly, “Lisa thinks we should—” and Dan managed to miss the rest of the sentence.

“Lisa?” he said, and was proud of himself for how level and calm his voice was.

“My fiancée.” Casey’s face went warm and proud as he said it. “She’s great, you should meet her.”

“Yeah, I’d love to.”

“We’re getting married in September.”

“That’s cool,” said Dan, trying to sound sincere.

He must have managed it. Casey’s face didn’t change, a faraway smile. Casey shook his head slightly. “When do you head back for classes?” 

“Around the middle of September.”

Casey nodded. “We’re getting married on the 17th.”

“Yeah, I think I go back on the 9th.” Dan didn’t mention that the dorms opened on the 10th; he’d sleep overnight in his car if he had to, to avoid going home. “Wait, isn’t that when the Olympics start?”

“She felt very strongly about the date. I did not think it was a good idea to suggest we wait to see the opening ceremonies.”

“I guess you can watch all the main events on your honeymoon, anyway.”

“That’s what I’m hoping.”

“How’s the wedding stuff going?”

“Lisa’s taking care of all of the planning. Well, Lisa and her mother.” Casey winced. “Sometimes I think her mom has more opinions about the wedding than Lisa does.”

Danny sensed that he was supposed to laugh, and he laughed obligingly.

“Do you have a girlfriend back at school?”

“Oh. Uh, no.” Dan shook his head. “I’m not looking to settle down yet.”

“Hm,” said Casey. “Lisa and I got together freshman year. It’s been just about five years now.”

“That’s great.”

“So don’t rule it out.” Casey sounded painfully earnest.

“Oh, I won’t. If it comes my way. I’m just not—that’s not what I’m looking for yet.”

 

(Dan doesn’t tell people about Sam. No one here is close enough to hear about it. No one has been close enough. Dan hardly tells anyone about Sam—new people, if they hear about it, get this look that bothers him, the same look on every face, like they all got it out of the same catalogue. He doesn’t need pity. He doesn’t need to hear that it’s his fault. He knows everything.

Dan doesn’t tell Casey about Sam. They talk, more and more, in the gaps between rushes of activity at work, when they run into each other in the supply closet or when Dan’s headed out for a smoke break, and at night Dan takes his shitty tape player and put headphones on and he listens to music as loudly as he can stand, to drown out the noise of his thoughts. Tom Waits scratching out words over a lonely guitar, or Prince yowling like an alley cat in heat; Joy Division, if he’s in the right mood for it, or Michael Jackson on a really good day.

Dan can divide life very neatly, very tidily, into two boxes: before Sam died and after. It’s like a line running down the middle of that nightmare night. The world is different, now, or rather, the world isn’t different but he is. He can never be the same in the world again, now that he knows. He should have known. His mother’s father could have told him, when the letters from the old country stopped coming, when his family winked out of existence one by one like stars plucked from the sky. He should have known that the world was this horror, that it consumed everything that was worthy of love and coughed up the bones, coughed up people like Dan, sitting here pretending to be normal. But he hadn’t known, and now he knows. It’s a terrible knowledge that he can’t pry out of his brain, that the world will eat the good and tender and kind, that it’s possible for an injustice of that magnitude to be committed. And not in some decontaminated history, but in the here and now. There is no time or place that can be safe.

Sam is dead and Dan doesn’t tell anyone, for several reasons: first, that it’s none of their business; second, that people always feel compelled to offer advice he doesn’t want on coping with a grief they can’t possibly understand; third, that they would know, then. They would know what he is.

He lives with an insufferable monster who follows him home, shares his bed, shares his head.)

 

At the end of the summer, Casey and Dana and some other staff took the interns out for dinner.

“No drinks,” said Casey to Dan with a wink as they filed out of the office. Dan rolled his eyes.

Dan staked his chair out first, draping his jacket across the back. Casey wandered up and managed to make sitting next to Dan look accidental; maybe it was. Everyone shuffled into chairs and got settled. Dan had picked the chair up against the wall, so his only company was Casey, except for mostly-deaf Harold across the table, who was the oldest writer by a wide margin and liked to complain about kids these days and specifically the nonsense of letting women work in sports. Dana sat on Casey’s other side. There was still a cloud of noise around them, the interns and the staff talking loudly and brightly, people occasionally looking to Dan to chime in. He tried to be witty, but he had no idea seconds later what he’d said.

“How’s the summer been?” asked Casey.

“It’s been good, you know?” Dan couldn’t sit still. He had to fiddle with the silverware, wrapped in a paper napkin. “I feel like I’ve gotten a lot of clarity about what I want to do with my life.”

“And that is?”

“Work in sports. Sports broadcasting. I knew I wanted to go into journalism, and I’ve always loved sports. This is a great fit for me.”

Casey smiled at him. Casey had ordered a beer, which arrived shortly. “That’s fantastic. I think you’ll do really well.”

Dan was sweating. He could feel the tension building in his body, his stomach starting to churn. “Thanks, man. That means a lot.”

Casey slapped him on the back. He did a lot of that kind of good-natured gesture. “I say what I see.”

“How are the wedding plans going?” As soon as he said it, Dan wanted to take it back. He didn’t want to hear about the wedding, or the honeymoon, or anything else like that.

Casey blew out an exasperated breath. “You wouldn’t think we’d still be planning, but Lisa and her mom are in a knock-down drag-out over it every other day. I can’t wait until we’re on the plane to Hawaii after the wedding.” Dana had gotten distracted by a conversation on her other side.

“Oh, yeah? You heading straight out?”

“Straight out. I’m going to return from this honeymoon a bronzed tropical god.”

Dan squinted at him, assessing. “Sure you are, buddy.”

“Hey!” But Casey was laughing. “Are you saying you doubt my ability to tan?”

“You’re in L.A. in the summer and you’re white as dough.”

“You wait and see. Hawaii will agree with me. We’re going to Maui.”

Five rhymes there, man, that’s pretty weak.”

“You… are right.” Casey laughed, sipping from his plastic tumbler of beer.

“It should be beautiful in Maui, though.” Dan’s palms were wet. He scrubbed them against his pants. He’d been wearing the same three pairs of dress slacks since they were the only ones he owned, rotating through them, and no one had said anything. “Can you give me a minute?”

“Sure,” said Casey, looking confused. Dan got up and headed for the bathroom like a shot. He had to throw up, and then he had to step outside for a smoke. When he got back, his frijoles were waiting.

He made it through most of the rest of the meal without having to leave again. He went out to smoke one more time, and when Casey offered to drive him again, he smiled and said, “No, I drove in, I’d better take the car back.”

“Oh, that’s right,” said Casey. “I forgot you drive.”

“It’s not easy to get around this town otherwise.”

“Ain’t that the truth.”

 

(Dan knows certain things. He knows certain fixed, universal truths. He knows that no one he loves will love him back, because he is not worthy of love. He knows that he will never be good enough for his father, because he wasn’t to begin with and then he cost Jacob Rydell his youngest, smartest, kindest son. He knows that his mother loves him because she looks at him with such tender pity in her eyes and that scorches him, burns worse than his father’s cold, implacable indifference.

Dan knows that he is careless and reckless and selfish. He knows that he is so selfish that if he could take everyone he loves and put them under glass, so they’d be safe forever, he’d do it. He is so selfish that he wants to go on television every night and have strangers sitting in their homes look at him and see only what he lets them see. What he wants them to see. He is selfish and he is a liar, and he’s never wanted anything more in his life than the chance to do this.

Dan knows that Casey will not call him. Casey will probably move on to bigger and better things, soon, and Dan won’t be able to join him. If Dan is lucky, he’ll be able to watch Casey on the small screen. Join the millions of viewers who’ll tune in to listen to that voice, watch studio lights gleam off his hair.

He’s awake to watch the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. He tries not to wonder what Casey is doing, right that moment, whether he’s—no. Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think.)

 

Back at Dartmouth, he got his shit together, for the most part. Dragged up his grades.

Something about the fall weather put him in the mood for romance. If spring was a young man’s fancy, then what was autumn? He loved beauty, he loved looking at beautiful people, and so he’d notice a girl—really notice her—and try to woo her. It happened several times that year, and none of them seemed to stick. The girls would have a good time with him for a night or two or three, and then they’d smile and say something like, It’s been great, Danny, but—and he’d know the experiment had ended.

He went home with an acquaintance over Thanksgiving, because the dorms closed, and spent the weekend smiling and telling people a highly abbreviated story of his ambitions, edited for length and plausibility. He snuck out to smoke and thought about quitting.

He went home to Hartford over winter break and endured, endured, endured, his family. There was no other word for it. It had to be endured. Hanukkah was long over; there was no need for celebrations. Ruth was in seventh grade. Her friends never came to the Rydell house. She always went to theirs, pulling her hair up into a ponytail on top of her head with a sparkly elastic. Their father hardly spoke to Dan. David, who had a house of his own and didn’t need to stay anywhere, came for dinner once.

“Naomi,” said his sister-in-law, leaning in for air-kisses with their mother. David’s wife was from Israel and seemed to have no concept of personal space, of a bubble. She was all right, though. She and David could make each other laugh just by looking at each other.

The way it was supposed to go, everyone was supposed to start teasing Dan about getting married. When are you going to meet a nice girl? Preferably a nice Jewish girl, his mother was supposed to say. No one said anything like that. No one suggested he should think about a future, plan for a family.

 

In the springtime he started sending out applications again.

He got three offers, that time. None of them were Western Media.

One of them was in L.A.

He stared at the letter for a long, long time before he called to accept it.

 

When he got in to L.A., it was second verse the same as the first: a crappy, nondescript apartment, the weather verging on unbearable.

He pulled out his little address book, battered from months in his duffel bag.

There wasn’t a working phone in the apartment, so he walked to the nearest phone booth and listened to the rattle of change before he dialed.

“Hello?” asked a woman’s voice.

“Hi, I was trying to reach Casey? Casey McCall?”

“Whom shall I say is calling?” she asked, in a voice that sounded like she could and would leave his body for the wolves.

“Uh, Dan Rydell? I was an intern last year? I just wanted to say hi.”

“Oh. All right. Hold on just a moment.” There was a muffled noise, like she’d put her hand over the receiver before yelling.

Casey’s voice came on. “Hi, Danny?”

“Yeah, it’s me.” The sun was hot through the Plexiglass of the phone booth. A faded, torn phonebook hung limply from a chain, smelling of mildew. He toyed with it, poking it to see it swing.

“Are you one of our interns again this year?”

“No, I wasn’t that lucky. I’m going to be with the local morning show.”

Casey made a sympathetic noise. “That’s going to be a real change of pace.”

“Yeah, I thought it would be good to get some broader experience, but now I’m wondering if I’m ever going to get any sleep.”

“Not much, I bet. When do they have you report in?”

“Four in the morning. Show starts at five.”

“Ouch.”

“Agreed.”

“Well, you should come over for dinner sometime. You can meet Lisa.” Casey paused. “She says that’s fine.” (Dan somehow doubted that that was what Lisa had said.)

“That sounds great.”

“How about Friday? You don’t have the show on Saturday, right?”

“Right.”

“Great. Do you have our address?”

So there, scribbled in his little book, was an address—their neighborhood only vaguely familiar to him, several cuts above where he lived—and a plan: Friday night at seven.

 

(Dan is twenty. Dan thinks about sex all the time. He has a small, well-worn collection of pornography, from the high—think Anais Nin, Henry Miller—to the very low, Hustler and Penthouse and Playboy. He loves breasts in particular. He loves the way they look, whatever the shape or the size. He knows men who care a lot about bigger breasts, and in L.A. it’s impossible to escape the silicone enhancements, but he has older back-issues of Playboy with women who have perfectly natural breasts, who aren’t completely shaved, and he likes that as much or more than the women he sees on the streets who look like Barbie dolls. Plastic finish, slick to the touch.

Dan still tries, very hard, to only think about women.)

 

The house was small, but still a house, with a postage-stamp sized fenced yard. Dan wondered if there was a dog, but no barking greeted him when he let himself in at the gate and walked up to ring the bell. He pushed the button and listened to a low, mellow chime from somewhere inside.

He heard footsteps right away and then the inner door opened. It was Casey, looking tall and broad, handsome in that slightly bug-eyed, confused way he wore well.

“Hey, man,” said Casey, opening the screen door and pulling Dan into a hug, “good to see you.”

Dan squeezed and let go as the screen door hit him in the butt. “You, too.”

“Come on in. I’ve got hamburgers on the grill and Lisa’s making salad.”

“Sounds great,” said Dan, a little baffled at the idea of people working to make him food. It felt alien in a way that was almost unbearable, his presence in this strange house in a city he was barely nodding acquaintances with. But Casey was there and that helped.

“Honey!” called Casey into the kitchen. “Dan’s here.”

“Oh, good,” said the voice he recognized from the telephone. She emerged a moment later, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. “Hi, Danny.”

Dan felt like someone had boxed his ears: they were ringing dully, and he couldn’t breathe.

Lisa was a pretty woman. Tall—at least five eight in her stocking feet. She had shining hair, somewhere between brown and gold, not far from Casey’s own. She had a lively, intelligent face. She and Casey could have been models in a lifestyle magazine.

She was also clearly pregnant. Her belly was soft and round, sloping.

“You can ask,” she said with a laugh. He yanked his eyes back up to her face, cheeks burning at having been caught staring. “I’m due in August.”

“Congratulations!”

Casey was grinning at her proudly. “Thank you,” he said, still looking at Lisa.

Lisa put out her hand, and Dan shook it automatically.

“How was Hawaii?” Dan asked. “Last time I saw you, I seem to recall hearing about how great the tropical sun was going to be.”

Lisa burst into musical laughter, and Casey looked embarrassed. “He forgot his sunscreen on the second day! He turned as red as a beet! We had to hide indoors for half the honeymoon.”

“Well, there are worse times to have to do that,” said Dan. Lisa grinned at him.

They had dinner on the back porch, narrow and cramped but with a nice strong breeze. The grill made the meat smell fantastic. It was all so Norman Rockwell that Dan felt like a ghost.

After dinner Casey said, “I’m going to grab a beer. Do you—oh, you’re not twenty-one yet, are you?”

“No, I am not. Thanks for the offer, though.”

“I’m pregnant and he’s driving,” said Lisa, smiling. “So you’ll have to drink alone.”

Casey was shrugging, smiling, as he came back out of the kitchen with a beer in hand. “I can manage that. If I get rowdy, she can put me down with a haymaker.”

Lisa laughed. “What on Earth is a haymaker?”

“In boxing, it’s—”

“He’ll actually tell me,” she said to Dan in a stage whisper. “It’s exhausting.”

Dan nodded wisely. Casey shut his mouth, looking theatrically offended.

“A cup of coffee for the road?” Lisa asked Dan.

“No, thanks, I’ll be up all night.”

“Soda? Casey didn’t offer because he was raised in a barn, but we’ve got root beer in the fridge.”

“That would be great.” Dan was getting to his feet, forestalling Lisa from heaving herself up. “Where in the fridge?”

“Top rack.” She waved loosely in the general direction of the refrigerator. “Grab me one, too?”

“You got it.”

In the warmth of the air, with the cold can of root beer in his hand, somehow it was all right that he was at a stranger’s house, that people were paying attention to him. They talked a little bit about Germany, about President Bush, about the Kings’ chances for the Stanley Cup that year with Gretzky.

“He’s a powerhouse,” said Dan.

“He’s a machine.” Casey leaned forward, gesturing with his beer bottle, staring intently at Dan. "He sets the other players up and boom, their stats look better, just by being on the same team--"

Lisa yawned widely.

“I should get going.” Dan stood. “Thanks for having me over for dinner, that was great.”

“We should do it again sometime.” Casey was standing up, too. “I’ll walk you out.”

Lisa waved from her chair. “See you later, Danny!”

“Nice to meet you!” he called as Casey steered him through the house to the front door with a hand on his shoulder.

At the door, Casey hesitated. “It was good to see you again.”

“You, too, man,” said Dan.

“You got a local phone number?”

“No, the place I’m staying doesn’t have a phone.”

“Oh.” Casey considered that. “Well, call me again in a couple of days. You should meet some of the new writers.”

“That sounds great.”

Which was how, that summer, he ended up hanging out with Casey a couple of times a week. (He developed a particular affinity for the phone booth where he would place the calls, sliding precious nickels and dimes into the slot, waiting for Casey to pick up.) Sometimes on Casey’s back porch, sometimes with Lisa, whose belly kept getting rounder and firmer, and sometimes at a restaurant for dinner, sometimes with other writers. A handful of times, just the two of them. That was always best; they could relax into the conversation, talk without thinking about anyone else, what anyone else would say.

Lisa went into labor on August 11th and delivered on August 12th. Dan found out when Casey called a writer he knew on Dan’s staff and asked them to pass it along.

“He said the baby’s name is Charlie,” said the writer, squinting at the scribbled note. “You know Casey from work?”

Dan called him back to congratulate him. Casey kept yawning, but he sounded pleased beyond words. “He’s amazing,” said Casey, in a hushed voice, maybe reverence or maybe fear of waking a sleeping baby or wife. “He hangs on to your finger with this grip like iron, you have to feel it to believe it.”

Dan laughed. “I believe it. He’ll win all the arm-wrestling championships.”

He saw Casey a few more times before the end of the summer. He met Charlie, wrinkly and tiny and pink-faced, curled up in Lisa’s arms. Lisa looked softer, blurrier around the edges, and she always seemed tired, but she’d hum to herself and to Charlie, sweet lullabies that echoed in their kitchen. She was still an impeccably polite hostess, even when she was tossing a blanket over her shoulder to feed Charlie while Casey and Dan talked about the Red Wings.

When he left that year, Casey said, “Hey, don’t be a stranger, okay? Call me sometime when you’re back in New Hampshire.”

Dan laughed. “Sure,” he said. “Why not.”

 

(That’s the year Dan gives up on trying to only think about women. He does it slowly, not all at once; he starts letting the other things creep in, the things he’s tried so hard not to think about for so long. There are a lot of reasons—Santa Monica is one of them, in the glittering sunset, full of glittering, brash, femme men who want to dance at the clubs and who press their bodies against his in the crush—but the biggest reason is probably a French exchange student. Henri looks a little bit like James Dean and speaks excellent English, and he likes to lean insouciantly on walls around Dan and bite his lip and smile. Henri kisses Dan first, on the ratty couch of the artsy girl from their photography class, after she’s gone to sleep and they’ve been listening to experimental music for hours.

Henri doesn’t give a damn about Dan’s past, only what Dan is doing tonight, and every couple of nights for most of fall semester, Dan gets laid. When Dan shows Henri Top Gun, Henri delightedly insists that Maverick and the Iceman are doing it—“They are fucking, Daniel,” says Henri, in his syrupy accent; “’Ow could they not be? Look at them. Either they fuck or they want to fuck,” and then he distracts Dan completely. Henri, despite being French, is not sentimental. Henri is assiduous about condoms, and Dan’s comfort; he has done this before.

The week before Henri leaves they fuck one last time. Henri makes it last like the inverse of torture, sometimes long strokes and sometimes short but always slow. Teasing. Playful, intimate. And it feels good, so paralyzingly, blindly good, the hot length of Henri’s cock filling him and stroking him from inside until he comes, shaking like a leaf, and Henri sighs dreamily and comes, too.

Dan shocks himself by discovering afterwards that he needs to cry. He leaves the room in a tremulous panic while Henri looks on with a combination of what Dan thinks is probably pity and disgust.

Dan looks into signing up for a study abroad experience. It is not about Henri, because he doesn’t have any way to reach Henri, back in France. It is about broadening his cultural horizons.

He quits smoking. He’s not sure how or why. Just that the day after Henri leaves, he crumples his last partially-smoked pack in his hand and punches the wall, and after that the thought of cigarettes makes him sick.)

 

Dan pushed himself harder that year, harder than ever. He worked his ass off in all of his classes for his major, and he kept in touch with the advising office. It was his last summer for an internship—he’d be a senior and looking for a job, the next year—so it mattered where he went. It mattered a lot.

His father had no comment to make on his grades, even though they kept going up and up and up. His mother smiled when he went home for breaks and told him that she was proud. He barely spoke to David. Ruthie, at fourteen now insistent on being called Ruth, was always either locked in her room, on the phone, or headed out to the mall with her friends. Being home felt like rubbing salt on an open wound from start to finish. That was fitting, though. It ought to hurt, to go home, to see the crater left wide open where Sam should have been.

Sam’s room was still there, right next to the room that had been Dan’s and where he still slept even though they had converted it into a more generically appropriate guest room. Door shut, Sam’s things quietly gathering dust.

He called Casey three times: once around Christmas (from the phone in his old room, the off-white receiver warming in his hand as they chatted casually about the playoffs and how Charlie was sleeping), once in February (three days after Valentine’s Day; no connection), and once in April, because he had news that he wanted to tell Casey about.

He had a letter from Western Media with an offer.

(Casey called him once, at his dorm, on a bewilderingly ordinary Thursday night in October, when Henri had just gone home for the night and Dan was fucked-out, blissed-out. Dan managed to get through a conversation about whether basketball was as good a sport as baseball without, he thought, giving the state of his ass away.)

Casey congratulated him warmly. Dan could hear Charlie crying in the background.

In the car on the way out to Los Angeles, Dan couldn’t help wondering whether that would be his last summer doing that drive. Whether, the following year, he’d be able to break into the industry at all, or whether he’d be on the outside looking in.

It was a different apartment than he’d had the summer after freshman year, but the same complex. The other interns were younger than he was. He seemed to accumulate leadership responsibilities not so much because he was qualified for them as because people handed them to him and he didn’t know where to put them down.

He worked more with Casey.

He worked more with Casey, and he found himself noticing more things. Casey was a nerd. Casey couldn’t make it through a conversation without a convoluted literary reference. He put way too much creamer in his coffee. He was always huffy about something; half the time it was real and half the time it was an act, put on for someone’s benefit. Mostly that someone was Dana, who always took Casey too seriously and would throw her hands in the air in frustration. She’d gotten a promotion that came with managerial responsibilities, and Casey seemed to take a special delight in irritating her.

It drove Dan nuts, but it was still pretty funny.

He still couldn’t sit at tables with large groups of people; the bullpen was all right, because he was always on the move, finding and delivering and doing. He’d given up completely on eating in the dorm cafeteria and had started cooking on a hot plate in his room in self-defense. He was getting better at it, and he felt some small pride in that. His apartment kitchenette offered more options, so he kept doing it, with his one dented saucepan that he washed in the scratched-up kitchen sink.

He got back in the habit of hanging out with Casey. More and more often he’d go over to their house, the same little house with a little nursery where Charlie would nap. He remembered dimly when Ruthie was a baby. She’d been a difficult baby, and he’d helped their mother with her often enough. He’d take Charlie for a while and Lisa would disappear—for chores, for a nap. He said to her, “You know, when I’m off, I don’t mind babysitting for you.”

“I’m going to take you up on that.”

And she did, more often than Dan had thought she would. Danny would go over and take Charlie while she ran errands. Charlie had a soft head and always smelled like baby shampoo. It was kind of amazing to think that Charlie was already almost a year old, and that Dan had met Casey before Casey and Lisa were even married.

Charlie loved peas and hated carrots. Dan thought that was a little silly, since they were both sweet for vegetables.

Dan brought his guitar over and sang to Charlie. Charlie liked that better. He’d drift off, fast quiet baby breaths, and Dan would keep futzing around on the strings, careful not to hit the body of the guitar or slap the strings. Charlie needed his naps. Chickadee, chickadee, fly through my window, he’d sing to Charlie under his breath. Through my window, my sugar-lump, fly through my window, my sugar-lump, and find molasses candy.

Charlie would turn in his sleep and drool, and Dan watched him with a kind of fierce and vibrant love for which he hadn’t realized he still had the capacity.

It was a good summer.

 

(Operation Desert Storm falls into Dan’s life, into all their lives, like a grenade. No one wants it. Correction, no one sane wants it. It’s garbage, fucking garbage, fucking Republican—and the thing about death is that Dan knows more about death than he wants to. Three years later he still can’t say the words “my brother Sam” out loud. He can’t. He’s tried, once or twice.

The thing about war is that war is death. When he says that to Casey, two beers in at a bar close enough to his shitty apartment to walk, Casey blinks at him in surprise, because Casey probably doesn’t know what grief feels like. How it reaches up and strangles you. How it chokes you on broken glass.

War is death, and sending kids younger than Dan out to die is murder.)

 

He was invited to Charlie’s first birthday party. He was surprised and alarmed to discover, upon arriving, that several members of the extended McCall clan were there: Casey’s parents, Lisa’s mother, Lisa’s sister Brenda. He felt their eyes on him, burning like hot coals: who is this guy? unspoken but loud in the air. Not a lot of Casey’s friends were there. Dana was.

Brenda, who had some of her sister’s height and a lot of her beauty, cast an assessing glance his way. “This is Danny,” said Casey. “He’s an intern at the station.”

“Nice to meet you,” she said, holding out her hand to shake.

“Uh, thanks. You too.”

Everyone sang to Charlie, who blinked at them and then let out a poignant wail, and Dan accepted a slice of cake and a beer. “Are you twenty-one?” asked Lisa, with a sideways smile.

“I am indeed.” He grinned at her. Sometimes he thought Lisa liked him; sometimes, not so much. She could be hard to read, with her practiced, polished politeness. It looked effortless.  

She handed the bottle over. “Then enjoy.”

He saluted her with it and wandered off. The back porch, which had become familiar to him, was empty. He sank down into one of the lawn chairs and stared out over the patchily-mown grass.

“Hey,” said Dana, sitting down next to him.

“Oh, hi.”

She looked more comfortable and relaxed than she had recently; of course, he usually saw her at work. On rare occasions she’d come with him and Casey for drinks after work, but more often she’d head back to her apartment.

“How’s your summer going?”

“It’s been good. I mean, I’m glad I’m back here.”

“L.A., or The Day in Sports?

“Both, really. It’s a good team. And L.A. is a long way from Connecticut, which is just a bonus.”

Dana laughed. She was wearing purple eyeshadow that was probably a little bright for her face, but her sundress hugged her bust and then flared out flatteringly, and she seemed more peaceful than she had when they’d first met. She had a boyfriend, someone named Troy she didn’t bring by the station much.

“I know what you mean. It’s not exactly Cedar Rapids. Can’t complain.”

“You’re from Iowa?”

“That’s right.” She took a sip; it looked like she had a glass of sangria. “You’re looking at a down-home farm girl.”

“Well, you’ve certainly made the transition to the city with grace and style. Flair, even.”

She grinned into the middle distance, not looking at him. “Casey said you were a charmer.”

“Oh, did he? Glad to know I’m getting a much-deserved reputation for my silver tongue.”

“Dan, I’ve got a serious question for you.”

“I won’t marry you,” he said to her solemnly, tilting his bottle in her direction. “I know it’s hard to resist me, but I could never do that to Troy.”

She burst into laughter and then subsided, tapping the bowl of her wine glass with her fingernails. “We’re looking at putting Casey on air next year.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. And if we do that, that’s going to open up a position in writing.”

Danny nodded, his mouth going dry.

“If we were to do that… you’ve been a big favorite, interning for us. I’ve seen your writing. I know what you can do.”

“Are you asking if I’d apply for the job?”

“I’m asking if you’d take the job. If we pulled some strings.”

“Hell, yes.”

“No guarantees, you understand. It’s a tough market and even though we know you and we like you, there are going to be other good candidates.”

“I understand.”

“But you’re special, Danny.” She finally looked over at him and met his eyes. She was smiling wryly. “You’re one of a kind.”

He couldn’t remember much of the rest of the night, because he had the sudden revelation that he needed to go throw up in the bathroom and escape. He made hasty excuses to Casey, who looked baffled, and waved bye-bye to Charlie. When he got back to the apartment he drank the rest of a six-pack of beer he’d been saving in the event that Casey visited.

He felt sick and gross at work the next day but he smiled and smiled and covered it up.

He was raiding the supply closet for neon paper, the door cracked, when he overheard Dana talking to Casey: “…gay?”

His blood ran ice-cold.

“No? Why?” Casey sounded confused. There was the sound of the water cooler: blorp, blorp, blorp as it dispensed into a cup.

“Brenda was asking.”

“Oooh, does Brenda have the hots for him?” There was laughter in Casey’s voice. “She know he’s six years younger than she is?”

“Oh, I don’t know. She was just asking and I realized I didn’t know.”

“I don’t think so. He was trying pretty hard to sleep with the girl intern last time, what was her name.”

“Mandy?”

“Yeah, Mandy.”

“Okay. I was just wondering. Hey, did you see what Harold wanted to do with that—” and their voices trailed away.

Dan looked down at his hands where they’d come to a complete halt, flipping through a stack of hot pink paper. He couldn’t remember why he needed it or who this was an errand for.

He shook his head a few times. He just needed to—he’d fix it. He’d make it right.

 

(Dan has an end date, now, for his liaisons being acceptable. Dan knows how sports works. He knows how sports broadcasting works. He is going to have to be a man’s man. A ladies’ man.

So he embarks on a quest to get it all out of his system. He’s careful; he’s meticulous. But he spends his remaining weeks in L.A. getting laid like it’s going out of style. It’s wild, a little delirious, and when he goes back to Dartmouth he’ll sleep with a couple more guys for good measure. He gets tested, more than once, and resolutely does not cry on the clinic staff with relief when everything comes back negative.

He has the rest of his life to sleep with women. Right now, he’s a kid in a candy store, and the doors are about to close.)

 

The night before he left, Casey took him out to a bar and threw an arm around Dan’s shoulder, raising his glass, their fourth and final drink of evening.

“To showbiz,” said Casey. “To sports.”

“To brotherhood,” said Dan, who was getting dizzy.

“To fatherhood!” Casey laughed. “That one’s just for me, at the moment.”

“To playing the field. Sorry, that one’s all mine.”

Casey laughed again and clinked their glasses together, and they drank.

It occurred to Dan that he had never told Casey about Sam.

That was just as well. Casey liked him, as things stood; as things stood, Casey might, in fact, have been his closest friend. Casey had known him three years, albeit intermittently, and showed no signs of burgeoning disgust.

Dan didn’t talk about Sam that night. They talked about Sims and his chances for the season.

 

(Dan, in his fourth and final year at Dartmouth, is a disaster, but he is the kind of disaster other people enjoy being around, like rubbernecking at a car crash or watching a burning house collapse. Dan drinks, these days, and he drinks hard. He can buy his own liquor at the quickstop a few blocks from the house he shares with some other guys, mostly Jewish, who never ask if he has horns or if he eats babies. There’s a certain comfort to being around people with whom one has a shared cultural background, and some of that comfort is that if his parents call, whoever picks up the phone knows enough to tell them, “Dan is studying at the library tonight,” even if Dan is standing four feet in front of them with a half-empty bottle of tequila.

His parents don’t call much.

They do come for graduation. His father is stiff and cold. What, no magna? when Dan is cum laude. His father says it as if it is a joke, but they all know it is not a joke.)

 

Dan came back to L.A. with his car for the fourth and final time in 1991, the last annual pilgrimage.

He never did the trip to Israel. (He did do a two-week trip to France, despite not speaking the language with any degree of facility. He spent a good portion of it blotto for reasons that wouldn’t bear careful examination, but certainly weren’t related to Henri, whose accent was suddenly all around him like a sea of too-close memories. He was not sure later why his passport looked so waterlogged.) He never went to Mecca and it didn’t seem likely that he ever would. So L.A. would remain his only religious destination, and the religion in question was television.

Being a writer meant a lot of things. It meant he had a couple of composition notebooks full of half-finished songs he would never show to anyone. It meant his electric typewriter was slated to be replaced by a real word processor as soon as he had the money. It meant he had about fifty pages written on the history of sports that he had a dream of one day turning into a book.

But in L.A., being a writer also meant that he could, if he played his cards right, potentially end up as an anchor. On the small screen, getting paid to do the thing he loved most: talk about sports.

He stayed with Casey and Lisa for a week while he looked for an apartment. He found one on the sixth day, when Lisa’s patience was starting to wear thin with this goofy interloper, and Casey helped him move in—not that there was much moving necessary. When they were finished, Casey ordered them a pizza and then Casey sat with him on his tiny, shitty balcony, and they stared out at the backside of an even shittier building.

“It’s really good to have you here,” said Casey, which was roughly the most emotional Dan had ever heard him get about anything other than Charlie or a dangling preposition.

“It’s good to be here, my young friend.” Dan tapped the rim of his beer bottle against his lips absently. “Congrats on your promotion.” It had gone through just two weeks before.

“Have you been watching the show?” Casey looked at once smug and nervous, like he knew he was doing well but was nevertheless afraid of what Dan might say.

“Hell, yeah. You’re kicking butt and taking names.”

“Kicking butt and taking names.” Casey leaned back in the cheap plastic chair, laughing. “Damn right I am.”

“What are you going to do with yourself now that I’m all moved out?”

“The usual.” Casey half-smiled into the evening. The usual meant work, first and foremost, but Dan knew from the week of sleeping on their fold-out couch that it also meant time with Charlie; it meant walks and meals and Casey fumbling with his ridiculous Camcorder trying to capture every milestone, and getting quietly but sternly reprimanded by Lisa for waking Charlie up on the nights he got home late. “Spend time with the family.”

“Charlie’s a heck of a kid.”

“Oh, he’s great. He’s figuring a lot of stuff out now, we have to keep changing up how we baby-proof. He’s not much of a baby anymore. Turning into a toddler right before my eyes.”

“That’s fantastic. I can see him getting that McCall wiliness.”

“You think I’m wily?”

“Wily like a fox.”

“Are foxes known for their wiles?”

“I do believe that is one of the things for which they are known.”

Casey was laughing into his beer, making a hollow blowing sound.

It was perfect.

 

(Dan notices several additional things over the next few months. He organizes them into a list, because Casey’s bad habits are wearing off on him.

  1. Casey and Lisa are not always getting along. He can tell because Lisa is looking frayed, and when Casey gets on the phone with her, his face goes tight and pensive.
  2. This is at least in part Casey’s fault, because Casey has cranked up the dial on flirting with Dana. Dana is single again. Everyone notices. Everyone exchanges long-suffering looks behind Casey’s back.
  3. This is exceptionally bad, because Charlie is getting big enough that he’s going to notice his parents fighting.
  4. Dan can’t stand the thought of Charlie growing up like that.
  5. Dan offers to babysit. He does it all the time. Even though his schedule is insane, he keeps nudging Casey to take Lisa out, have fun, do something together that isn’t argue.
  6. It doesn’t work. Casey finds more and more excuses to stay out late, drinks with Dana and Dan being among the most popular, and if Dan were a better person he’d say no, he’d say go home to your wife, he’d say stop making me the uncomfortable third wheel on your bad relationship bicycle.
  7. But Dan isn’t, so he doesn’t. He goes out with Dana and Casey.
  8. He watches Casey flirt badly with Dana.
  9. He watches Casey.

It is not, in short, his best year.)

 

They were halfway through October and Dan’s story about the time David broke his baseball bat trying to hit rocks when Casey asked, casually, “Hey, how many siblings do you have, anyway?” and Dan opened his mouth and couldn’t answer.

Casey didn’t notice at first. After a few heartbeats of silence, though, he looked over at Danny, sitting on the stool next to him in a smoky dive bar, and his eyes got wide.

“Danny?”

Dan shook his head tightly.

Casey’s mouth set in a firm, resolute line. “Right. We should go.”

Dan let Casey pay their tab (he was making… a lot more than Dan) and shepherd him out into the relative quiet of the parking lot. Dan sat on the curb.

“What is it?” asked Casey, and that was so strange, because that was the exact voice Dan had heard him use with Charlie over a skinned knee.

And that, somehow, was enough: Dan opened his mouth and said, “My brother Sam is dead, and it’s my fault.”

Casey’s eyes got very, very wide. His eyebrows drew together and up. He looked alarmed and he looked pained.

“I don’t believe that it’s your fault,” was the first thing that Casey said.

It was touching, but wrong.

“He’s dead.” Dan looked down at his hands, blurred by tears he kept frantically trying to blink back. His hands were shaking. “He died—he died four years ago.”

Casey opened his mouth to say something else, but Dan stood up convulsively, dimly aware of Casey’s hand falling off his back. He hadn’t even noticed it there.

“I have to go,” said Dan. “I can’t talk about this. I don’t want to talk about this.”

“Okay. Okay.” Casey held up his hands, palms out, like he was trying to calm an animal. “Just… Let me walk you home. All right?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Dan shook his head, closing his eyes. “You’d have to walk back here for your car. This neighborhood is shit.”

“Fine. Let me drive you back.”

“Whatever.”

Dan climbed into the passenger seat, undone by his own concern for Casey, which he didn’t fully appreciate until they were driving and Casey inhaled, opening his mouth.

Don’t,” said Dan.

Casey exhaled slowly, grimly.

When they got to Dan’s place—it was only a couple of minutes’ drive—instead of dropping Dan off, Casey parked.

“What are you doing? Don’t be crazy.”

“I’m going to need to borrow your phone,” said Casey with deliberate nonchalance. “Let Lisa know I won’t be home tonight.”

“Casey, she’s going to go ballistic. So help me, you get back in that car and you drive home right now, buster,” he said, channeling Dana.

“Nah, don’t think I will.” Casey followed Dan into his apartment. “I think I’m going to sit on your couch.”

“What, until I, until I tell you everything?” Dan sneered, but his heart wasn’t in it.

“Pretty much.” True to his word, Casey planted his butt on Dan’s couch and folded his arms, staring at Dan.

Dan sighed and went into the kitchen. He came back with two beers and when Casey reached for one, yanked it away from him. “No, you have to drive your ass home, I am going to need these.”

He didn’t tell Casey the whole story. He said, “—picked up my bad habits,” mumbling shamefaced. He said, “right when I went to college.”

Casey kept picking at the knot, or maybe it was more like a scab. He kept asking things like, “So he was really sharp?” and “What did he like?” until Dan found himself talking about how fucking smart Sam had been, the time Sam’s science fair project pupated right in the middle of the show, how Sam liked tennis so Dan played tennis with him even though tennis was kind of stupid.

By the time Dan had gone through both of his beers, he’d been crying, really crying, for so long his eyes felt like they’d been scoured clean. And his heart did, too. There was a curious lightness around that hideous lump of molten grief. The lump wasn’t gone, but.

Sam had been more than a burden. Sam’s memories could be, too.

Finally Casey did get up and leave. It was close to midnight. Lisa was absolutely still going to go ballistic, Dan could predict it with certainty, but he couldn’t bring himself to care.

They hugged on Casey’s way out. A long, tight hug, Casey squeezing him fiercely as if he could impress upon Dan all the words he wasn’t saying: as if he could make Dan believe that he was cared about by pressure alone.

After Casey left, Dan cried some more, and then he crawled into bed and was out like a light.

 

(Dan knows he doesn’t deserve Casey’s friendship or Dana’s careful trust. He doesn’t deserve his job and he doesn’t deserve—well, maybe he does deserve his apartment. It’s tiny and pretty terrible. But he doesn’t deserve the chances people keep handing him like candy.

He works extra hard to make up for that. He writes Lisa’s birthday in his pocket calendar so he can remind Casey when it’s coming up. He takes note of things Lisa likes, things Lisa mentions, so he can give Casey tips about what to get, what to wear, what to do. Casey gives him sidelong, highly skeptical looks when he tries.

But Charlie needs Casey and Lisa. Casey needs Charlie.

Dan needs to believe in happy endings. The problem is that he knows happy endings don’t count until everyone is dead.

Dan doesn’t think about what his happy ending would look like. He’s not going to get one, so it doesn’t matter. Sometimes he looks at the fortune teller’s neon sign across the street and wonders what she would say if she saw his palms. How it would be to have a stranger holding his hand in a room full of cheap incense and dark draperies, looking down at meaningless lines, trying to tell him that there was such a thing as fate.

Dan doesn’t believe in fate, or God, or anything that would suggest that human beings are part of some kind of plan. Their choices control what happens. And their choices have results that range from blandly predictable to completely unimaginable. Dan made a single choice when he was fourteen, accepting a joint handed to him by a friend, and then a series of similar, slowly worsening choices. And now he has to live with that. With what choices can do.)

 

The next two years went by in a heartbeat. In the blink of an eye. Dan had realized he had a long way to go, but he hadn’t known how much it was going to take to be ready to get in front of a camera and talk. In his first bits, he was smiling all wrong, stuttering, blinking.

“I did the same things,” said Casey, frowning at Dan’s first attempt at a demo tape. “Here, come on, we’ll practice.”

He made Dan face him and his handheld Camcorder. There was a tape of Dan laughing, turning away from the camera. “I can’t, I can’t,” he said.

“You can, too,” said Casey with determination. “Come on. Report some news.”

He got better. And better. Got into the substitute pool.

And then, in late 1993, everything happened at once.

 

Part 2: Dallas (An Interlude)

 

“I’m Casey McCall.”

“And I’m Dan Rydell.”

“We’ll be bringing you the highlights and more. How’s Bernardo Vicini’s slapshot looking?”

“Do the Raiders need to raise the white flag?”

“And is Miami really feeling the Heat?”

“Join us for Sports Watch on Lone Star Television tonight.”

 

(Dan knew he was luckier than anyone had a right to be.

Dan knew he had everything.

Dan knew he needed to stop, really needed to stop, watching Casey’s mouth move.)

 

Lisa and Casey fought constantly from a few months before the move to Dallas to a few months after. Then things seemed to ease; Casey stopped looking so pissy all the time, and Lisa went back to humming to herself when she was puttering around the house. Dan still went over to babysit, from time to time, and Lisa would smile a real smile at him when she opened the door.

“We really appreciate this, Dan,” she said, the night Casey took her to the most expensive restaurant in Dallas. She was wearing a sleek black sheath dress that made her look phenomenal, with a pair of dangling diamond earrings Casey had gotten her for her last birthday in one of his few recent good choices.

Dan followed her back into the house. In the Dallas suburbs, on Casey’s salary, they could afford something that resembled a mansion, complete with a huge foyer and a dangling chandelier. Middle-class heaven. They had a pool out back and everything. “Hey, it’s my pleasure. Your kid’s a real cut-up. You know what he said to me the other day?”

Her lips twitched. “What?”

“Well, I’m not entirely sure I heard it right, but I think he told me that ducks can fly because they hate people.”

She burst into laughter. “That sounds about right.”

“It’s so surrealist, it’s brilliant. He’s prepared to relaunch the Dada movement single-handedly.”

“Casey!” she called up the stairs. “Danny’s here, we can go.”

“Be right down!” Casey yelled back.

“So, any big plans after dinner?”

She grinned. “Symphony tickets. It’s not bad.”

“Yeah, you get spoiled living in L.A., don’t you?”

“Only for some things. Sushi! Can’t get decent sushi out here.”

“Isn’t that the truth?” he agreed sadly. Casey hated sushi, but Dan and Lisa were united in their appreciation for it. And if they didn’t have much more in common than that, then that was fine. They were still getting along.

Casey came down the stairs at a brisk trot, still fastening his cufflinks. He looked up and gave Dan a huge, bright smile.

“Hey, how’s the babysitter?”

“Just fine, and if you mock me, you risk losing my uncompensated and highly skilled services.”

“For God’s sake, Casey, listen to Danny,” said Lisa, laughing. “Come on, let’s get going!”

“Oh, are you hungry already?” Casey gave Lisa a private, smug grin, and she flushed with a reluctant smile struggling across her face, which Dan tried very hard not to think about.

Casey waved over his shoulder at Dan on their way out. Dan waved back.

Charlie wanted to watch some television and have a snack, and that was very important business, too.

 

(Dan needs to be careful in Dallas. Careful in a way he didn’t have to be in L.A. People know his face now, and he’s glad he saw this coming, because sometimes he sees men in the street so handsome he wants to do a double-take.

He doesn’t. He’s trained himself out of that. He knows better than that.)

 

Dan started seeing Marielle during their first spring there, in 1994. Marielle worked for an advertising firm that shared their parking lot, and he kept bumping into her, because she went in late and worked late just like he did. He liked her face, model-pretty, and her body, and the way she raised her eyebrows at him and refused to take one ounce of his shit. She had a tumbling, curling mane of silky black hair. She liked fine wines and handcuffs. One thing led to another, and pretty soon she was sleeping over at his place more nights than not.

Casey tried very hard to like Marielle. Dan could see it in his face, his stiff handshakes. Lisa, by comparison, loved Marielle. There was a lot to love. Marielle was bright, witty, accomplished. She could make anyone feel special when she turned her attention on them, and Dan enjoyed being on the receiving end of that almost as much as he enjoyed showering attention on her.

He dated Marielle longer than he’d dated anyone in the past. He watched Charlie less often, which was probably part of what bothered Casey, but Casey was making more than enough to hire a real babysitter. Lisa was even pushing for a nanny.

Dan brought Marielle to the inaugural pool party Lisa threw that May, and Marielle tugging on her black bikini top before diving smoothly into the water was a sight for sore eyes. He could imagine getting serious about her.

Which was why it was particularly, uniquely, devastating when he asked her to move in with him and she told him she was seeing someone else.

Casey came over to Dan’s place—a much nicer apartment, this time, celebrating what his new on-air money could buy him—and brought a bottle of rum, and sat with him until he cried.

 

(Dan has never cheated on anyone. There are a variety of factors at play in that: he has rarely stayed with one person long enough to cheat, but he is also, at heart, something of a romantic. When he’s with someone it’s because he wants to be. Because they’re interesting, because he likes them.

He has been the other man more than a few times. He’s always thought of it as not really his problem. He wasn’t the one who made a commitment, so he isn’t the one who’s breaking it. And he doesn’t mind dating cheaters. It means that he’s special, doesn’t it? That they’ve chosen him over someone else. He’s won.

There’s a challenge to catching someone who’s forbidden. But there are hard lines, bright lines: no one who’s married, and no one, absolutely no one, ever, who has a child. It’s something like honor among thieves.

You can’t steal a person. Not really. But sometimes he pretends, and he likes to think it’s his charm, rather than their moral failings.)

 

In 1995, he dated Samantha, Carolyn, and Jennifer. None of them were quite as sharp as Marielle, and none were quite as ruthless.

 

In 1995, they got the news about Sports Night.

 

Part 3: New York

 

Dan threw up before their first show on Sports Night. He threw up every night for the first week.

Then he settled in, slowly, gradually, coming to the realization that the show might or might not survive, but here at last he had found his unlikely home. Among equals, people who were also driven, and often also a little bit deranged. A tiny bit of paradise on Earth; a place where he could go, every day, to be surrounded by family.

It would have been perfect if not for the ongoing, slow-motion, complete disintegration of Casey’s marriage. Lisa hated New York. Lisa hated that she had left behind a house she loved and had lovingly decorated, a pool of her own, a circle of friends, Charlie’s school. Lisa made sure Casey knew that. Casey had never been particularly prone to confiding in Dan, emotionally, as any kind of communication about feelings seemed to give Casey acute dyspepsia, but Casey started to talk to him about it on rare and unfortunate occasions.

Casey started sleeping on the couch, and then in the guest room. Casey and Lisa, Casey said once from the wrong side of several fingers of Scotch, had stopped having sex altogether, which news Dan received with a jolt in his stomach that was at once unwelcome and unsettling: it was inconceivable, really, that even when someone was mad at Casey, they wouldn’t still want to—but he folded that thought up and put it away as fast as he could.

There was no cliché moment where Casey showed up at Dan’s condo with a suitcase in hand. Casey and Lisa decided to get divorced, from all appearances, like rational adults. Casey continued to sleep in the guest bedroom, then got a temporary furnished apartment, and finally moved to a condo of his own. The divorce went through. Casey sulked for weeks, outraged the network, threatened to quit, and got his shit together.

The next two years went by quickly, not unlike the two years of relative peace in L.A. Dan met Rebecca. Dan courted Rebecca aggressively, perhaps imagining himself in the role of a romantic hero. Dan lost Rebecca; Dan nearly lost the show, and nearly lost Casey; and then he got to keep everything, Casey, the show, even got Rebecca back, with long blonde hair that didn’t suit her nearly as well as her beautiful auburn bob had. Her stylist agreed, and before long Rebecca had been converted, in stages, back to the style that made her look luminous yet approachable.

He even had Abby, a therapist on his side, and she was coaching him—he’d played baseball and basketball and run track, back when he was younger. He knew what coaching felt like. And she was coaching him like a pro, molding him into someone who could, maybe, finally, forgive himself for a shitty childhood (that hadn’t been his idea) and a drug problem (that millions of Americans shared) and a dead brother (who was not, perhaps, entirely his fault, because a drug problem shared might well come in large part from a shitty childhood shared).

Everything was different. Everything was the same.

 

After they almost lost the show, Casey came in to the show one morning with a thunderous expression on his face.

“Okay,” said Dan, “what’s up with that?”

“With what?

“Your face. You look like someone made you eat a bug.”

Casey grimaced at him, exaggeratedly, but did relent enough to answer. “Lisa wants us to do family counseling.

“You going to do it?”

“I don’t know.”

“I think you should, man.” Dan shrugged. “I know I may not always look like a walking advertisement for therapy, what with the, with the meltdown and the panic attacks and everything, but it is getting better since I started seeing Abby. I think it’s worth it.”

Casey was still frowning deeply at him, but finally, grudgingly, he said, “I told her I’d think about it.”

“For Charlie’s sake, it’s probably not a bad idea.”

That got to Casey, the way Dan had known it would—the way Lisa had probably known it would. Casey had emerged from the divorce with a sharp and ready rage towards Lisa that had never fully abated, but he loved Charlie dearly. He tried to use every minute of custody time he had. He’d have walked through fire for Charlie, no question.

Of course, hot coals were one thing. Therapy, Dan was all too aware, was quite another. At least hot coals didn’t ask you how they were making your feet feel.

 

A few weeks later Casey said, over a light game of mid-afternoon office golf, tapping a shot neatly into a tin can, “Therapy is bullshit.”

“Oh, yeah?” asked Dan, trying to figure out a good synonym for “scored” that he hadn’t already used fourteen times that day.

“The therapist keeps asking what I’m doing differently now to make my life better.

Dan glanced up. “It’s a fair question, isn’t it?”

“It’s a bullshit question.”

“Isn’t the definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result?”

Casey pressed his lips together in annoyance. The ball rang out loudly as it skidded off the edge of the can.

“I see you’re on their side.”

“Casey, getting better isn’t a side. It’s a… a way of life. And sometimes you backslide and sometimes you make progress, and you just have to fight your way through it.”

“I’m consorting with the enemy,” Casey muttered under his breath and put his golf club away with deliberate care.

 

(Dan loves Rebecca. Dan loves Rebecca so much he can hardly stand his own skin. Abby looks at him askance when he talks about how he’s sure, this time, this is it, and he’s going to spend the rest of his life with her. They’re young; they could have children, he’ll move to the suburbs for her, if that’s what it takes. He’s going to make all of her dreams come true, as soon as she agrees to marry him.

“Dan,” says Abby, “are your expectations for this relationship realistic?”

So he blows her off for two weeks in a row. He pays for the visits, but he doesn’t go.

He’s too happy to need a therapist right now.)

 

“I need advice,” said Dan. It was August of 2001, a fact which would, in retrospect, have some significance.

Casey looked up from his computer. He’d had his shoulders hunched up around his ears, which seemed like his new default position. He looked constantly sour, like a man sucking on a lemon, and he’d been making fun of words like self-actualization and emotional literacy.

“About what?”

“I’m thinking about proposing to Rebecca.”

“Oh?” asked Casey politely. His shoulders crept even higher.

“Come on, Quasimodo,” said Dan impatiently, gesturing at his own shoulders. Casey frowned at him for a second before getting the memo and grudgingly relaxing. “I need to figure out where and when and how, and I need help picking out a ring.”

“You’ve been dating for three months.”

“Three months this time. I’m telling you, this is it.”

“You should ask Natalie for help with the ring.”

“You’re right. Natalie is a woman of exceptional taste, which does make you wonder why she wastes it on Jeremy.”

“And for the rest… Do it somewhere quiet. She’s a private woman. I think she’d appreciate that.”

Dan snorted. “You mean so if she says no, I’m not getting rejected in public?”

“That thought had occurred to me,” said Casey. “Can I please go back to working?”

“You seem neither surprised nor curious about this announcement. You’re the first person I’ve told. Well, except for Abby. Who was also neither surprised nor curious, now that I think about it.”

Casey sighed heavily and then didn’t follow it up with anything.

“Case? C’mon.”

“Danny…” Casey trailed off. “You… Do you remember Marielle?”

“Of course I do. She would be hard to forget.”

“You were so excited about her. You were so into her. And it was, what, about three months in with her, too, when you wanted to commit, and she said no?”

“She said she’d been sleeping around. This is different. Rebecca isn’t cheating.”

“It wouldn’t kill you to give it a little more time, that’s all. Time to grow. Room to breathe.”

Dan was stung, and he let it make him mean. “Room like living in the spare bedroom for six months?”

Casey’s shoulders returned to their defensive huddle position. “You knew I was divorced when you started this conversation.”

“Point.”

“I don’t…” Casey sighed. “I don’t know what you want me to say, Danny. I’m worried. Rebecca is a lovely, very intelligent woman, and I can see why you want to be with her. I don’t think you started in a great place, that’s all.”

“But we’re past all that.”

“Are you?” Casey ran a hand through his hair. “Can you get past something like that?”

“I can. I have. Watch me get over it. I’m a jockey clearing the fence like a Preakness champion.”

“All right. I just… I think you should let it breathe for a while.”

“Your advice has been noted.”

“Danny—”

“I’ll talk to Natalie.”

“That’s probably a good idea.”

 

Natalie said, “You’re insane. Give it at least six months.”

“Natalie, I’m going to do this. I’m buying the ring. Are you going to help, or at you going to let me do it with no idea what I’m looking for?”

She went with him, grumbling the whole way. He had at least managed to filch a ring from Rebecca when she was staying the night with him, so he had an idea of her size.

The saleswoman, naturally, assumed that Natalie was his fiancée, to which Natalie replied with hearty and ego-damaging laughter.

He settled on a half a carat emerald cut with flanking marquis diamonds, which the saleswoman assured him had “lots of sparkle.” Natalie approved, which was also very important.

(Natalie discussed the return policy at insulting length.)

He made a reservation at the Rainbow Room. He wasn’t going to do it there, though; he’d do it when they got back to his place.

He wrote fifty thousand drafts of what he wanted to say to her. Rebecca, you’ve brought joy and light into my life—Rebecca, you’ve made me so much happier—but it all came out hackneyed, cliched, and she deserved better than that. She deserved something original, something brilliant. (Someone better than you, the back of his mind whispered.)

The reservation was for September 8th. Since she’d dyed her hair back, she looked like his Rebecca again, not Steve’s. She wore an ivory dress that flowed around her legs and he thought it was a good sign, that it looked so bridal.

It all went off without a hitch: the dinner, the dancing, the romance; when they got back and he dropped to one knee, her hand flew to her mouth.

“Rebecca,” he said, and everything he’d tried to come up with fell out of his head. “I love you. Will you marry me?”

She stared at him, long enough that he started to panic, and then she said, “Yes. Yes. I’ll marry you. Oh, my God. Oh, my God,” over and over, starting to cry.

He brushed the tears away and slipped the ring onto her finger. She stared at it with huge, wet eyes and said, “It’s beautiful, how did you pick it out?”

He laughed. “Natalie helped me.”

She fell asleep cradled in his arms that night, wearing his ring.

It was the happiest he’d ever been in his life. The happiest he could ever remember being.

 

(Dan is so scared he can’t sleep. He doesn’t know what he’s scared of, only that he is, only that there is something so terribly wrong that he can’t even begin to feel the shape of it.

He tells Casey about the engagement the next day. Casey is surprised, it’s written on his face, but Dan doesn’t even resent it. Casey shakes his hand and then pulls him into a hug and congratulates him.

And then September 11th, 2001, happens in New York. And later on, everyone will know how it goes: the screams, the crashes, the dust and the waves of ashes rolling out, debris covering the city in grit. It doesn’t bear repeating.

September 11th, 2001, happens, and the first thing Danny thinks about when he sees what’s happening is not Rebecca. It’s not even Casey. It’s the studio.

Everyone he knows lives. That matters. Everyone—but there isn’t a person in the city who isn’t, on some level, also razed. Broken down and rebuilt.

It changes everyone. Everything.)

 

“Danny,” said Rebecca. “I need… God. I don’t know how to say this.”

Dan reached to take her hand. They were sitting in her kitchen, and he had been talking about when she’d move in with him, or whether they wanted to get a new place together. “What is it?”

“I don’t want to move in with you.”

“You want to keep your own place?” He was frowning. His face didn’t feel right. It was September 14th, and he still hadn’t told his parents he was engaged, for reasons that remained murky to him. He had not been back to see Abby.

“I want to have my own place.”

“It seems like a waste of money, but if that’s what you need—”

“Because I don’t want to get married.”

He stilled. “What?”

Rebecca was crying, tears welling up in her eyes and starting to fall. She was so beautiful they seemed like part of a Renaissance painting. She reached for her ring.

“I don’t want to get married,” she repeated. “I was married, Danny. I did that. And it ruined my life. It took—it took everything away from me. And you’re such a good man. You deserve happiness. But I’m not going to get married again. Not now, not ever.”

“But…” He stared at her. There was a flat refusal in his brain to accept this. “We’re—”

She handed the ring back to him. He put his hand out without thinking, and the ring fell into his palm. It was still warm from her hand.

“You should find someone who’s going to be right for you,” she said.

“Is this—do you mean not now, like, if I wait—”

“I mean never, Danny. I am never going to get married again. Not to you, not to anyone else.”

“Rebecca,” he said. All he had left was her name.

“And I thought—I thought I could make this work, if I wanted it enough. If I tried hard enough. But I can’t. I shouldn’t have tried.”

He stayed, longer than he should have. He tried to argue. He tried to convince her. He watched himself doing it, watched his hands moving in the air, and hated himself for it. For not being able to walk away with his dignity, at least.

When he left, he had the ring in his pocket, and he made it all the way back to his apartment in one piece. He didn’t remember later how.

 

The next morning, his alarm went off, exactly as if he hadn’t passed out face-down somewhere in an endless, sleepless night. No alcohol, for once. It had been starkly obvious that there wasn’t going to be an amount of alcohol that could drown this, so he hadn’t bothered trying.

He got up. He got dressed. There was something vastly surreal about getting into the shower, as if his relationship with Rebecca had been some kind of brief interlude, a poorly-rated episode that could be recorded over. He didn’t look like someone whose world had collapsed in a spectacular failure. In the mirror, he looked like he always looked. Maybe the circles under his eyes were a little darker.

He got into the studio and sat at his desk. That was it. That was as far as the routine got him. He stared at the desktop of his computer, and he waited.

Casey came in shortly thereafter. Casey looked at Dan and his mouth compressed.

“Danny.” Casey’s voice was unbearably gentle. “What happened?”

Dan shook his head mutely.

“Is it—did someone you know—” die in the rubble after all, was the question Casey wasn’t going to ask.

Dan shook his head again.

Casey hesitated. It felt like ripping off a band-aid when he said, “Rebecca?”

Danny began, tiredly, to cry.

And Casey did the oddest thing. He crossed to Dan’s desk and dropped to his knees next to Dan’s chair, and he took Dan’s hands in both his. “I’m so sorry,” Casey said. His face was wet, too. That was—Dan had seen Casey after the divorce, he’d seen Casey when Charlie broke his arm falling from a tree, he’d seen Casey sleep-deprived and furious. He’d never seen Casey cry. Casey said, “I wanted—for your sake—God, I wanted it to—” and then Casey stopped, shaking his head, hard, blinking fast.

Casey stood up abruptly, letting go of Dan’s hands. “Tell you what,” said Casey. “Tonight, we go out after the show, and we drink like kings.”

Dan rubbed the back of his neck. “Sure. Sure.”

Dana, who knew a thing or two about broken engagements, appeared to have wielded her terrifying iron fist, such that absolutely no one on staff said a single word about it to him all day. Everyone knew—their pitying stares made it obvious—but no one said anything, and for that he was grateful.

They went out to the bar. Dan ended up crying again. Casey hustled him out into a cab so there wouldn’t be any pictures.

“At least I didn’t tell my parents,” Dan said. “Can you imagine? Can you imagine my dad? I’d rather be dead than tell him.”

“Danny,” said Casey.

Dan let his head loll back. “I don’t mean it. I’m—I’m fine. I’ll be fine.”

“You need to see Abby.”

Dan nodded without opening his eyes. Casey was right.

“Can I—should I stay tonight?” asked Casey hesitantly.

Dan shook his head. “Nah. I’ll be fine.” He’d only managed to get two and a half drinks in to the night before falling apart.

Casey heaved a big sigh. “I’d feel better if I—I was around.”

“Fine. You can sleep on the couch if you want. My couch is always open.” That set him off again, and he was crying again.

Casey was rubbing his shoulder.

“I loved her so much, you know?” said Dan. “And I thought, this time, this time it will be all right. She knows me. I know her. All I ever wanted—I wanted to be known, Casey. I thought she’d know me.”

“If she’d known you,” Casey said, low and brittle, “she wouldn’t have left you. You’re too good for her.”

Tears were streaming down Danny’s face, dripping off the sides onto the seat of the cab. “I wish that were true.”

“It is, Danny, goddamn it, it is—

Dan rubbed the back of his hand across his eyes ineffectually. “God, I’m so tired of crying.

Casey closed his mouth.

He walked Dan upstairs, and slept on Dan’s couch, and drove Dan in to work in the morning.

 

Part 4: New York Renaissance Redux

 

It took a while. It took months. By the time Dan felt even remotely human again, it was 2002.

The show, strangely enough, hadn’t suffered. Abby said he had a lot of practice in compartmentalizing his feelings. She said he’d had a habit, a long-standing habit, of taking the things that he felt weren’t acceptable for whatever reason and cramming them into a box in his head instead of dealing with them, and that as he tried to let go of that and learn how to let himself be a whole person, he was likely to experience some hiccups.

Abby said many things. Some of them were helpful.

A lot of therapy that winter was rehashing the lessons he thought he’d learned. But it turned out knowing something, learning something in therapy, a skill or a tool or a way to challenge your negative thoughts, was easier when you weren’t fucking falling apart under significant external stressors. When you were, it turned from something like swatting flies into a Sisyphean task of heaving a boulder up a never-ending hill. Abby had a catchy way of describing it: when we’re stressed, we will regress. We’ll act like children, we’ll lose the skills we learned.

In January, he was starting to feel better. He was. He’d stopped crying every time he drank. Dana no longer watched him with a pinched, awkward kind of sympathy for a fellow member of Club Dumped.

They were at the bar one night and he said, “Hey, Case. Thanks for never saying you told me so.”

Casey glanced up, confused, and Dan could see the moment when he figured it out; his face went startled, scared, all at once.

“You’re… welcome?” Casey tried.

Dan just nodded.

 

A few nights later, Dan was out with the crew at Anthony’s, having a pretty good time. He hadn’t found it in his heart to have any meaningless rebound sex. He didn’t know if he ever would. Maybe this thing with Rebecca was a sign, and he should just hang up his skates. Accept that he wasn’t going to be a relationship kind of guy.

He was sitting at the bar, chatting from time to time with Casey about nothing in particular while he worked on a gin and tonic, when he heard a voice he hadn’t heard in years.

“Daniel?”

He turned around, blinking in slow-motion surprise. “Henri?

“Daniel!” Henri was laughing, brightly, already flinging his arms around Dan and air-kissing both cheeks. “I cannot believe this!” He still had trouble with the th- sound. Cannot believe zis.

“How long has it been?

“Let me see. It was—1990? Was that it?”

“Junior year. So that was—no, 1989. That fall. I graduated in ’91.”

Casey was looking back and forth between them in confusion.

“Sorry, sorry. Manners! Casey, this is Henri, a friend of mine from Dartmouth. Henri, this is Casey, my co-anchor.”

“Ah, yes.” Henri shook Casey’s hand with warm fervor. “I have seen you on television! You are quite good!”

“Thank you,” said Casey, looking dazed.

“You look fantastic,” said Dan to Henri, laughing. “What, does France have a Fountain of Youth somewhere?”

Henri burst into laughter, too. “You are still a flatterer! Most terrible habit, Daniel. He does this to you, too, yes?” he added to Casey, who blinked many times.

“I can’t say that he does,” Casey replied.

“Daniel! I do not wish to steal you away from your good friends, but I am in town for tonight only, and we must catch up, no?”

“I think we must. Sorry, Case.”

“No, no.” Casey waved his hand at them vaguely. “Catch up, by all means.”

So they grabbed a table. Henri, it transpired, was doing very well. He’d gone into something to do with computers, and was making a pile of money at it, though he was too well-bred to say how much of a pile. “Sometimes I come to New York,” he said. “Business trips, they are so tiring! But you know this, you are the famous sports anchor now!”

Dan laughed. His face hurt from smiling so much. He hadn’t had such a good time in—in a while.

“So you’re staying tonight?”

“No, mon ami, alas, I am flying out on a red-eye, or else, yes, I most certainly would be interested to resume our acquaintanceship on its previous terms!” Henri winked at him outrageously, and Dan dissolved into laughter.

Henri coughed delicately. “That is to say, unless you are—I did not ask if you and your…”

“My what?”

Henri raised his eyebrows and pointedly glanced back to where Casey was sitting. Dan followed his gaze; Casey was openly staring at them with a look on his face that Dan couldn’t immediately place, but didn’t look good.

“Co-anchor?” Henri suggested dryly.

“Oh. Oh, uh, no, we’re—that’s—we’re partners on television. That’s all. I don’t think he’s…” Dan trailed off.

“Of our persuasion?” Henri finished.

“That’s what I always liked about you. You have a gift for a turn of phrase.”

Henri grinned. He looked good, really good, like probably seeing a dermatologist (and maybe a plastic surgeon) good. “As for me, I always appreciated the turn of your calves.”

“Did you just—you’re ridiculous!” But Dan was laughing, and his heart felt curiously light.

Henri looked down at his drink; he had a murky cocktail that smelled like rum. “If I may say, Daniel, I did want to tell you one thing. I have always regretted how things ended between us.”

“What do you mean?”

“That last night. You were… I think you were in some distress, no?”

Dan shrugged, the sense of wellbeing draining away. “It wasn’t a big deal.”

“But Daniel.” Henri leaned forward, setting his glass down, fixing a powerful stare on Dan. “It was a big deal. Oui? Because to you, to me, it was a fall, but such a fall. Youth is made for adventures like so.”

Dan covered his face with his hand, smiling crookedly. “I don’t know how to feel about this.”

“You were sad! I wish you had not been sad. I do not know what it was I did to make you sad.”

“It wasn’t you, Henri. I was just… I was sad, then.” Dan took a deep breath and steeled his nerves. “My brother had died.”

“Oh!” Henri reached across the table to clasp his hand. “I am sorry!”

“You didn’t know. I didn’t want to talk about it.”

“Daniel.” Henri still had dark hair, a few silver strands showing through. It curled heavily over his forehead. Henri said, intently, “I am sorry I did not ask. I should have talked with you. I should not have let you go in such a state.”

Dan realized, to his distant horror, that he was going to cry. “I need to—Henri, I’m sorry, but I’m going to start crying, and I’d rather not do it here.”

Henri was on his feet in a flash. “I will take you home, by cab, before I go to the airport. We will talk more in the cab, yes?”

Dan was laughing again, even as he felt the tears prickling. “God, Henri, you’re so nice. Were you always like this?”

“Pff, no. All young men, we puff up our chests, no? We try to pretend we are not human, we are not weak, we do not feel. I have learned better, in ten years—more than ten? More than ten. I think I am better, now, than I was.”

“I believe it.” Dan took the hand Henri was offering him, to help him get out of his seat.

“Hey, Danny.”

Dan looked up. Casey was looming behind Henri. Henri let go of his hand, and Dan slowly tucked his thumb into his beltloop. “Hey, Case.”

“Just wanted to check in.” Casey shouldered in front of Henri and whispered, “Are you okay?”

“I’m good, I’m good. Henri’s just going to share a cab. He’ll drop me off on his way to the airport.”

“Oh.” Casey’s mouth relaxed a bit. “That’s, uh—okay. I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“Yeah, I’ll be in.”

“Okay. Good night.” Casey turned back to Henri. “It was nice to meet you, Henri.”

“And you as well!” Henri seized Casey’s hand in both his and pumped it effusively. “Such a pleasure to meet an accomplished television—what is the word you say, Daniel? Personality! I am very fortunate!”

Henri took Dan by the elbow and steered him to the door, waving back over his shoulder.

Dan broke down in the cab and cried for real. He told Henri about Sam—the things he’d had stuck in his throat like a chicken-bone that whole year, for years. Henri rubbed soothing circles on his back. Henri smelled like a dark, comforting cologne, and when Dan had cried enough, Henri pulled him to rest his head on Henri’s shoulder.

“Death does this to us, no?” said Henri, softly. “We are left behind like so much refuse on the shore, and the ones we love are much too far away to bear the distance. Mon dieu, if I have only my loved ones back with me—but no, death is greedy, death keeps all it takes.”

Dan nodded, tired beyond words.

Henri let him out of the cab at his apartment and leaned over to kiss both cheeks. Not air kisses, this time, but the real press of his lips, firm and lingering.

“It has been good to see you again, Daniel, mon cher.”

“You, too. Look me up next time you’re in New York.”

“And you in Paris, non? You will visit?”

“Sure.”

He slept well for the first time in—a long time. A long time.

 

“So,” Casey said the next morning while Dan tried to feel his way through a teaser about the Stanley Cup. “Henri was a friend of yours?”

“Oh, yeah. He was an exchange student at Dartmouth for a semester. He didn’t know anyone, obviously, being from France, and we hung out a lot. I got him up to date with all the modern movies.”

“He’s a big movie buff?”

“You wouldn’t believe it. Sucked them down like soda pop. I think he must have seen every French cinema classic before he came here, so I took on the responsibility of showing him the good stuff from the 80s. Breakfast Club, Back to the Future, Die Hard—”

Casey was laughing. “So you really expanded his horizons.”

“Did I ever.” Dan found himself grinning. They’d watched the movies, but not always to the end.  

“You seemed… kind of…”

“I never told him about Sam.” Dan got it out there, in one piece. “He knew… He said he could tell I was sad, but he didn’t know why, so I told him.”

“Oh.” Casey looked deeply uncomfortable.

“It’s okay. We don’t have to talk about it.”

“I’m getting better at feelings, you know.” Casey set his jaw. “All this… therapy.”

“Yeah, you sound like you’re ready to hit the talk-show circuit and dispense some wisdom on emotional healing.”

“I’m not saying it’s been fun. But… the shrink has some good points.”

“They often do.”

“I thought she’d take Lisa’s side.”

“Does she?”

“Not so much. It feels… pretty balanced.”

“There you go.”

“She says I should think about seeing a therapist individually.”

“Oh, that’s not going to happen, is it?”

“Why not?”

“You… never struck me as someone who’d be willing to do that.”

Casey was folding a paper airplane. “There were a lot of things I never did. Because I was married, because I was in sports, because I was from Michigan. Take your pick.”

“Sorry, what does Michigan have to do with this?”

“I was in a frat, Danny.”

“I am aware of this,” said Dan, deeply confused by the direction the conversation was going.

Casey huffed angrily, creasing one of the folds of paper with the side of a pen. “I’m just saying, there may be more to me than I have ever fully explored.”

“You’re going to start skydiving?”

“Maybe.”

“Oh, God, that was a joke. Please don’t start skydiving.”

“I might. I’m a complex individual, Danny.”

“I really thought we had until at least your forties before you’d get this far into a midlife crisis.”

“If I went skydiving, would you go with me?”

“Hell, no. I have a healthy respect for gravity.”

“I’d call that cowardice.”

“It took me a while to really appreciate the finer points of being alive, but I’m sticking with it.”

Casey threw the plane at his head; Danny ducked to the left and it sailed past him, hitting the window and falling to the floor. “Don’t underestimate me, is all I’m saying. I can be an exciting dude. I am capable of surprising you.”

“Casey, my fine friend, I think this therapy has gone to your head.”

“Where else is it supposed to go? The problem is in my head, right?”

“Is there a problem?”

Obviously, Danny, or Lisa wouldn’t have dragged us all to therapy.

“I’m lost. What is this problem?”

“The shrink says I need to learn how feelings work.” Casey was working on a second paper airplane with a few structural tweaks. “I’m learning. And they suck.

“Hey, yeah, no arguments there. Feeling things is awful. I have always wished I didn’t do quite so much of it.”

“Fair. Hey, Danny?”

“Yeah?”

“Incoming.”

The paper airplane hit him smack in the forehead that time. Casey whooped and pumped his arm in victory.

 

“So, the Super Bowl,” said Dana with a veneer of faux calm.

“Yes.” Dan went back in the video. He was still trying to get the hang of the digital interface they were switching to.

“It’s happening.”

“It is indeed.”

“Soon.”

“I believe so.”

“You know the rules, Danny.”

“Well, there’s a ball, and some kicking and running, but I get a little fuzzy after that.” The video kept glitching right where he wanted to see what one of the wide receivers was up to.

“Either you or Casey can go, but not both.”

“It’s in New Orleans. I’m obviously a better fit.”

“How so?”

“Because New Orleans is a cool city and I am much, much cooler than Casey.”

“No one would dispute that.” There was a little smile on her mouth.

“So send me.”

“The fact that it’s in February and you hate winter has nothing to do with it?”

“No, that has a great deal to do with it, but it’s immaterial to the question of who should go from your perspective.”

“I’m going to ask Casey who he thinks should go, too.”

“That’s fine. Just know he will be deeply wrong. Unless he says me, and then I’m prepared to allow it.”

“I’m not going to say you,” said Casey, who had stuck his head in the door while Dan spoke. “I’m going to say it should be me, and I’m prepared to use whatever leverage necessary to ensure that it is me.”

“Fine. Suit yourself. Dana is a highly intelligent woman and a respected manager. She’ll make her own choices.”

“Nice try, Danny,” she said, smacking him on the back of the head. He smiled at the screen.

Dana left, and Casey came to sit next to him. “Checking out Gervais Lord?”

“Yeah, don’t you think it looks like he’s gimping on that ankle?”

“You think he’s got an injury?”

Casey leaned in. He was sitting so close to Dan, and Dan had been doing an excellent job of throttling back the inconvenient thoughts and feelings for so long, it was frankly a shame that the warmth of Casey against Dan’s side was the first thing that had made Dan feel like he had a body again since breaking up with Rebecca. Maybe seeing Henri had broken open some mental padlock, or maybe it was just that Casey had recently changed shampoos and Dan kept noticing the new smell.

“Dan,” said Casey, “I wanted to ask you about something.”

“I noticed the ankle last week, but I was thinking—”

“Not that—”

The door opened. “Hey,” said Jeremy, “did you hear about Gervais Lord’s ankle?”

“Dammit!” Dan smacked the desk. “I thought we might get an exclusive on this one.”

Casey leaned forward and rested his head on the controls. The video went nuts.

 

“Danny, you’re not permitted to kiss me.”

“Okay, Dana.”

“I mean it.”

Dan scooted back from his desk in his chair, trading glances with Casey. “I’m unclear on why this needs to be said.”

“Because you’re going to want to kiss me in a minute.”

He lifted both fists into the air. “Super Bowl?”

“Super Bowl.”

“All right!” He kissed the tips of his fingers. “Sweet, sweet New Orleans, how I’ve longed for you. I’ve missed your humidity and the weird coffee.”

Casey made a face at his monitor, but it didn’t look like his heart was in it.

Dana folded her arms and added, “And Casey.”

“Yeah?”

“You are also not allowed to kiss me, although for much more complicated reasons. However, you, too, are going to the Super Bowl.”

“What?” Casey sat bolt upright, eyes wide. “They’re sending us both?”

“They want to test-drive some substitutes for that evening’s show. It’s not on at the regular time anyway, who cares if it’s any good?”

“You care,” Dan pointed out. “You care a great deal.”

“Nevertheless, you’re both going to the Super Bowl. Enjoy it.”

“Oh, we will.” Casey cracked his knuckles, smiling. “We will.”

 

“I’m just saying,” said Casey for the fortieth time since boarding the aircraft.

“I have heard you.” Danny closed his eyes and wished fervently for the plane to finish taxiing to the terminal. “In fact, I have heard you every single time you’ve said that. Largely because I’m buckled in to a seat next to you and I cannot, at this point, escape.”

“Some people might think that I’m boring.”

“Those people wouldn’t happen to be your ex-wife, would they? Because, and I hope you can take this in the spirit in which it is intended, the woman who divorced you may not be the best judge of your character.”

Casey ignored him with some effort and continued. “However, I would argue that in order to be truly boring, one can’t have skeletons in the closet. If there are skeletons in the closet, that renders someone, by definition, interesting. There’s at least the potential there to be interesting.”

“You have skeletons in your closet? What, did you kill a man in Reno just to watch him die?”

“I was in a fraternity, you know.”

“As if I could forget.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Casey, how many times have you gotten drunk and told me the story about the time you and your frat brothers put a sheep in your professor’s house?”

“Okay,” said Casey, holding up his index finger, “for the record, that story is hilarious, every time.”

“It really is not. And I think the sheep would agree.”

“The sheep is no longer alive, Danny, they don’t live that long.”

“Oh, great, now the story has an even sadder ending.”

“Danny—”

“Casey, please, just let me deplane in peace.” The door was finally, thankfully, opening. Casey stopped talking, but with a belligerent jut to his jaw that suggested they’d be revisiting the question of whether he was an inherently exciting person at some point.

They shuffled off and caught a cab to their hotel. It wasn’t half bad, nestled in the French Quarter, with a small pool in which they wouldn’t have time to swim and queen beds in which they’d barely have time to sleep.

“You know it was never really French?”

“Casey, at this point I am begging you to stop talking. I have been awake for a million hours and I have a lot of work to do.”

Casey frowned at him, but left him alone. Dan grabbed a quick nap—the plane had not been nearly as restful as he’d hoped, thanks to someone’s insatiable desire to talk—and then had to haul himself up to get ready.

The official NFL-blessed announcers would be handling the coverage during the Super Bowl, so Dan and Casey were doing a little of column A and a little of column B—some pre-game discussion that QVN could air for fun, which they’d be doing in a tiny local studio, followed by hauling ass to the stadium to watch the game from a corporate box where they could also listen to and watch the coverage, followed by post-game interviews with players. Dan and Casey had been assigned players to interview on the opposing teams, which inevitably led each to postulate that their assigned team would win, regardless of their previously-held beliefs. It was just more fun to interview winners.

“I’m just saying,” Dan said as they got wired up for their pre-game segments, “the Rams have a pretty spectacular defense, and I don’t know if the Patriots can go that hard.”

“Oh, the Patriots can go hard, Danny. Never doubt it.”

“It’s their first Super Bowl. I’d cut them some slack. You don’t want to set up unreasonable expectations for them.”

“You’re like this all the time?” asked the person who was doing Dan’s hair.

“Yeah, pretty much.”

“Wow,” the stylist muttered. “Okay, you’re set.”

The segments ran smooth as butter despite Dan’s lack of sleep, and the game was a nail-biter. Any game that came down to a three-point lead was, by definition, a nail-biter, and the fact that those three points had come after St. Louis made a comeback of fourteen points was pretty amazing—Dan had thought Tom Brady seemed like kind of a dick, but that was a good fucking game.

Afterwards, Casey had his microphone out for the kicker, who was all smiles after clinching the game for them; Dan saw the footage later. Meanwhile, Dan was interviewing a dejected Ram, whose voice cracked on the usual platitudes about playing hard against very good opponents.

By the time they made it back to the hotel, it was very late and they had to be up early. “I feel like, overall, I could have enjoyed New Orleans itself more this time around,” Dan mused as he climbed into bed. “Beignets and chicory root coffee. A languid afternoon stroll. Po’ boys made by the world’s finest experts on gravy.”

Casey sighed, flipping off the bathroom light as he came back into the room. “That sounds… good.”

“Doesn’t it, though?”

Casey, instead of going straight to sleep, sat on the edge of Dan’s bed. “Danny…”

“That’s my foot!”

“Sorry!” Casey scooted off his foot. Dan wiggled his toes to make sure nothing was broken. “I just…”

Casey paused, sighing, and ran a hand through his hair.

“Whoa, whoa, what’s this about?” asked Dan. He didn’t particularly want to know; it couldn’t be good, and he was in no mood for another rendition of But I’m Really a Fascinating Fellow, regardless of whatever had set Casey off on that.

“I’ve been thinking a lot lately.”

“You are not quitting the show.” Dan sat up and jabbed a finger at Casey. “I don’t care which athlete was a dick this time, you’re not quitting and that’s final, and if you make me have this fight while I am this tired, I will murder you. I’ll, I’ll shoot you and leave you floating face-down in that pool like this is Hollywood and you’re a hotshot young writer.”

Casey was getting a funny look on his face. “Doesn’t that make you the aging ingenue?”

“That’s a risk I’m willing to take.”

“I’m not quitting the show.”

“Damn right you’re not.”

“You seem… tired.”

“In the sense that I have been saying the words ‘I am tired’ out loud for the last twenty-seven hours, yes, I am tired.

“Should I let you sleep?”

“We’ve established that you’re not leaving the show. Are you dying or getting married?”

“…No.”

“Then I would strongly suggest letting me sleep.”

“I’ll let you sleep.”

“Thank you.”

 

In the morning, Dan woke early to Casey making vague noises around the room. It was ludicrously early; had to be, it was still practically dark. He had an alarm set, anyway. He closed his eyes and went back to sleep.

He woke up to a smell pervading the room and creeping into his consciousness. It was somehow familiar, but he couldn’t place it right away. It was definitely a good smell, though. Sugary.

Eventually, he sat up. Casey was sitting on his bed next to a paper bag and pretending he was reading some pretentious thick best-seller he’d only bought because he was bored at the airport. Dan could tell Casey was pretending because when Casey was really reading he whipped through pages like a lawnmower, and he hadn’t turned a page in at least three minutes.

Dan yawned.

“Morning,” said Casey without looking up from the book.

“Mrng.”

Casey picked up the paper bag and lobbed it at Dan. Dan caught it with an impressive display of dexterity given the hour and opened it.

“Case,” he said.

“Mm-hmm?”

“Where did you find beignets?’

Casey shrugged with elaborate nonchalance. “Around.”

“I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth, here.”

“Yeah, I’d suggest you eat them.”

“I’m also not going to eat a gift horse. These beignets, however…”

“I already had mine.” Casey did indeed have a light dusting of powdered sugar over his chin, which he would surely remedy shortly, and which would secretly amuse Dan in the meantime. “You go ahead. Coffee?”

Dan stared at the cup Casey was holding out. “Is that…”

“It’s the weird coffee.”

“Bless you, my generous friend.” Dan took it and drank. It had reached a temperature just below that of lava, which meant it was perfect.

Casey was watching him with a slight frown. “I don’t know why you like that stuff. It tastes like its total failure to be actual coffee.”

“It’s about the experience, Casey.”

“The experience of ersatz coffee?”

“That very same experience.”

“And this is somehow desirable.”

“It is.”

Casey shrugged. “All right.”

 Halfway through the beignets, Dan thought, but why did he get beignets and chicory root coffee? But the thought fell by the wayside as they packed up for their return to New York.

 

“I’m saying,” Casey said about ten seconds after the plane reached cruising altitude, “that there are elements of the traditional fraternity experience that are typically opaque to outsiders, by design.”

Dan leaned his head back against the headrest of his seat. “I’m at a loss as to how and why this conversation is continuing to happen to me. Haven’t I been a good person? Don’t I deserve better?”

“I think it’s funny that people assume I’ve never experienced wild and crazy times just because I seem straight-laced.” Casey winced slightly.

“Casey, I can’t even begin to fathom where this conversation is going. Unless you’re going to tell me about mass Satanic rituals with virgin sacrifices, I don’t see how anything that happened in your frat is going to surprise me.”

“I admit there were no Satanic rituals.”

“There you go.”

“Virgin sacrifices, however—”

“Oh, what, at the altar to mixers with the sororities?” Dan chuckled.

“Not quite.” Casey was staring fixedly at the seat back in front of him. They’d sprung for first class, so they had some amount of space to themselves and a tiny bit more privacy than they would have had in coach.

“Not quite?”

“Not quite.”

“Not quite what?

“Sororities were not inevitably involved.”

“Wait, are you trying to tell me that there were orgies?” Dan found himself staring in some combination of horror and delight.

“No!”

“Oh. Then I’m losing interest again. No orgies at all?”

“Very few orgies.”

“Very few, or none? Because that is a significantly different level of orgy, some orgy versus no orgy.”

“Very few.”

“So there were orgies?”

“It’s… the definition of orgy is—”

“Four or more people doing it. Or people doing it in twos, but in a semi-public space where there are additional people also doing it.”

“Is that an orgy? Huh.”

“Casey. Focus.”

“I guess there were orgies.”

Holy shit. You’re telling me that you, of all people, were in a frat with orgies? Casey.”

Casey closed his eyes and slouched in his seat. “This is definitely not a conversation I should be having at thirty thousand feet.”

“What about when we get back to sea level, huh? Am I going to get to hear more about this? Because I tell you, you have my full and undivided attention as long as there are orgies involved.”

Casey groaned, putting his palms over his eyes. “This is why I try to keep things vague! You have to get past the orgy thing.”

“There is no chance of that happening.”

“Don’t tell Dana. I don’t think she knows. One of her older brothers was in the same frat.”

“Cross my heart.” Dan did the movement fervently. “That is not a piece of information I would want to be responsible for sharing with Dana, even indirectly.”

“Exactly. So you can see why I keep skeletons where they belong.”

“I will say, this has radically altered my perception of your level of boring-ness. Boring-osity? I’m going to have mull that over.”

Thank you,” said Casey, in the aggrieved tones of someone who felt he had finally made his point. Dan wasn’t sure what the point had been in the first place, but he was willing to call it a draw with his new knowledge, which he was finding more unsettling by the moment.

Casey spoiled the whole thing by pretending to go to sleep. Dan could tell he was pretending, because Casey’s lips would drift open and he’d snore when he was really asleep on planes, but Dan thought Casey had earned something of a respite.

 

At the show that night, Dan opened his mouth to say something about it half a dozen times, but inevitably closed it again.

Casey, meanwhile, didn’t seem to have abandoned his quest to be considered cool after all. Dan had really hoped that the bit about the orgies was it, but Casey persisted in his discussion of his wilder youth.

“…and once, when I visited Florida,” Casey said earnestly to Alyson, who looked like she deeply wanted to be somewhere else, “I went skeet shooting with a man named Alligator Bob.”

“Oh, that is just not true. That cannot be true,” said Dan. Alyson took advantage of Casey’s momentary distraction to flee.

“It is! I was fourteen at the time. He was a friend of my mother’s cousin, and he went by Alligator Bob, and I don’t normally tell the story because, to be perfectly frank, it does not cast me in the most heroic of lights.”

“What happened?”

“Long story or short story?”

“Start with the short story.”

“The alligator ate my gun.”

“I’m going to need clarification on that, and also, I don’t believe you.”

“Casey,” said Dana over their earpieces, “whoever you’re trying to impress, stop, because I need you and Danny to both be doing your jobs tonight and that’s not going to happen if we’re all thinking about Alligator Bill.”

“Bob.”

“I don’t care if it’s Bartholomew, get it together.

Casey glared at the monitor, but he didn’t talk about Alligator Bob again for the rest of the show.

After they went off air Casey said, “Want to drink some beer and watch Cheers reruns at my place?”

“Sure. I would say I have more interesting things to do, but since none of the activities I had planned involve a man named Alligator Bob, I think I’m automatically losing.”

“I have hidden depths. That’s all I’m saying.”

“Yeah, and you’ve been saying it at great length. Seriously, it ate your gun?

“It’s not as impressive as it sounds. They’ll eat almost anything.”

“Still.”

On their way out of the building, Natalie said, “Dan, can I talk to you for a minute?”

“Sure thing.” He said to Casey, “I’ll meet you at your place. You have any good beer?”

“I’ll grab some.”

“Sounds like a plan.” Dan turned back to Natalie, who was tugging on his sleeve like a Dickensian orphan.

She watched Casey sharply until he vanished, and then she leaned up and whispered into Dan’s ear, “I think I know what’s happening.”

“What is it?”

“I think Dana was right. I think he’s trying to flirt with someone.”

“Oh.” Dan looked after where Casey had gone. “Oh, man.”

“I know!”

“He’s so bad at it.

“Dan, you’re his friend. You have to tell him he should get over it and ask her out.”

“I don’t even know with whom he’s attempting to flirt!”

“It doesn’t matter, does it? If he keeps this up he’s never going to get laid. And frankly, I think it would do him a world of good.”

“Yeah.” Dan nodded firmly. “You’re right. I’ll just… have a conversation. About dating. With Casey.” He tipped his forehead against the nearest wall and sighed deeply. “I’m sure he won’t have some preposterous justification that takes seventeen hours to explain and makes no sense.”

Natalie patted his back sympathetically. “You’ll survive.”

“Are you sure? Because he was going on and on about his fraternity on the plane and how they led exciting lives and I almost strangled him. And he’s got a couple of inches on me, so if I try to kill him, I may perish in the attempt.”

“You’ll both live. Neither of you have a killer instinct.”

“That cuts me to the quick, Nat. To the quick.

“Now go. Drink your beer. Watch sad people live sad lives while coming up with snappy one-liners. Oh, and watch some Cheers while you’re at it.”

“I hate you!” he called after her retreating back.

“You love me!” she shouted without looking.

 

He was thinking about it the entire drive to Casey’s. Who on earth would Casey have been trying to impress? Everyone in the studio knew him. There was Alyson, of course, but Casey had never expressed interest in her before, and with her haircut and outfits there was a little bit of a pinging of the ol’ gaydar. Casey could easily have missed that, of course. And there was Kim in the control booth, who was smart and funny, and also very, very attractive. It was always possible he was pining over Dana again; he hadn’t made noises about that recently, but it couldn’t be ruled out.

He parked and made his way up—Casey’s doorman knew him. Dan, personally, thought he probably couldn’t have survived a building with a doorman. Small talk with strangers was bad enough, but having to be pleasant to the same guy at least twice a day, every day? Torture.

Casey’s door was ajar. “You’re going to get murdered!” Dan yelled as he kicked off his shoes.

“Yeah, my secured building definitely seems like a killing field,” said Casey, appearing from the kitchen with a beer bottle in each hand. “I was going to make nachos, you want some?”

“Hell yes.”

They settled in on the couch. Casey was humming the theme song under his breath as he flipped through channels to find the reruns.

“Casey,” said Dan, “Natalie had a theory.”

“I’m sure I’m going to enjoy hearing about it.”

“She thinks you’re trying to flirt with someone.”

Casey froze like a deer in headlights and then slowly looked over at Dan. “Does she?”

“She does, and I think I have to agree with her. You should know it’s probably not going to work.”

“Oh,” said Casey. He stared down at his hands, wrapped around the beer bottle. “Wh—why not?”

“Because you can’t just say things in someone’s general vicinity and expect that to read as flirting. You’re going to have to actually talk to the person you’re trying to flirt with.”

“With whom I’m trying to flirt.”

“Whatever.”

Casey set his beer down on the coffee table and leaned back, stretching. Dan was watching him doing it, and suddenly he thought, he knows I’m watching him do it. He’s—and his brain refused to finish the thought.

“Yeah, well,” said Casey on the tail end of a sigh. “Who am I to disagree with Natalie?”

“Casey,” said Dan blankly.

“What?”

“I’ve known you since I was nineteen.”

“That’s correct.”

“Since you were twenty-three and engaged.”

“Yes.” Casey glanced over at him, eyebrows drawing together. Dan knew his voice wasn’t right for the conversation he’d thought they were having, and he was probably confusing Casey, but he plowed ahead.

“Prior to that, you were in a fraternity with orgies.”

“You can stop—”

“No, I don’t think I can,” said Dan distantly. He felt like Jessica Fletcher on Murder She Wrote having an epiphany about the dog in the beach house or whatever. He pointed an index finger at Casey accusingly. “You wanted me to know about the fraternity. You’ve been—you wanted me to know you had skeletons—you don’t even like chicory root.”

Casey was staring at him. Casey’s eyes had gone wide, and his lips were clamped tightly shut.

Dan set his beer bottle down blindly on the table and turned to Casey.

“Danny—”

Dan cut him off with a kiss. Casey shuddered, and then Casey crashed into him, pushing him back against the couch cushions, kneeling over him. Casey was going for it, with tongue, and Dan kept thinking, I’m going to wake up. This can’t be happening.

Casey broke off in the middle of a kiss and drew back. His face was flushed and comically stricken. “I thought I missed it.”

“What? Missed what?” said Dan, trying to get Casey to scoot forward so he could grab Casey’s ass.

“The window. The statute of limitations.”

What?

“After your breakup, you know—I thought it was ninety days, but then Dana said it was sixty, and anyway—”

“You’re mental, you know that?”

“I’m in therapy, Danny, of course I’m mental!”

“Is this all some kind of nervous breakdown?” Despite the possibility, Dan couldn’t bring himself to relinquish the handful of ass he’d managed to secure. “Are you going to go Jekyll and Hyde on me or something?”

Casey slid both hands under Dan’s shirt and up around his back, and Dan strained forward to help him. “No! I’m—you jerk—”

“Why now, you sexy lunatic?” Dan used his grip on Casey’s ass to pull him down into Dan’s lap.

“You think I’m sexy?”

“Either that or I’ve been replaced by a very convincing clone with some strange ideas.”

“It was—I didn’t think you—there was Henri.” Casey managed to say Henri’s name in a way that was both appropriately French and somehow scathing. “I never thought—but then I saw you talking and I thought, wait a second. Maybe he’s just European, but no. It was more than that. Right?”

“You are correct. He is European but he’s also very fond of men, which I’m assuming is what you’re talking about.”

“Yeah. And you—and he—you looked cozy. Very cozy.”

“We were, once upon a time.”

“So if—if Henri—then why not me, you see what I’m saying?”

“Vaguely?”

“Dammit, Danny.” Casey rested his forehead against Dan’s, closing his eyes. The gesture was somehow shockingly intimate. “How much more obvious did you need me to be?”

“You really, really need to rethink how you approach flirting, because you are so bad at it that I would say it isn’t even funny except for how it’s definitely still funny.”

“I hate you.”

“You have a very peculiar way of showing it.”

Casey’s hips moved, and Dan gasped.

“Yeah,” muttered Casey, “I’m hilarious, right?”

“Oh.” Dan bucked up against him. “Oh, God,” he said, quietly and a little surprised, because he hadn’t expected this, and he never would have expected it to be like this, laughing and talking and warm and fond, and he somehow hadn’t expected it to feel like this.

Casey reached between them; Dan reached to help him, and their hands seemed to get in each other’s way more than anything, but then they were finally getting to skin. Casey grabbed Dan’s cock and Dan grabbed Casey’s and they were pulling in time, the friction of palms and fingers against cocks, the pleasure of it building like a feedback loop, knowing that Casey was feeling what Dan was feeling when he was feeling it, listening to Casey’s breathing getting faster and faster until Casey was holding his breath and stiffening and Dan couldn’t stand it, how good it felt, how good it must feel for Casey, and they came within a fraction of a second of each other.

“Jesus Christ.” Casey was struggling to breathe, his forehead touching Dan’s again, sweat-slick now. Dan tipped his head back and Casey kissed him immediately, mouthing his lips, his jaw.

“Casey,” said Dan. “Those frat boy orgies. Were there any girls there?”

“Not always,” Casey mumbled against his neck.

“You son of a gun, did you get more dick than I did?”

“Probably not.” Casey shrugged somehow, still close and getting sticky. “It wasn’t like they happened all the time or anything.”

“When did they? You know what, no. You can tell me all about your kinky sordid frat sex later. Right now, I want a washcloth, and I want sweatpants.”

Casey sighed heavily into his ear. “Mkay.”

Casey was pretty clearly dead on his feet. Dan had always been the kind of guy who felt peppier after an orgasm, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, while Casey was leaning against the bathroom wall and yawning as he shucked off his clothes and mopped up.

“You need to hit the sack, Sleeping Beauty?”

“Mm,” said Casey.

When Dan came to bed, Casey was already dead to the world. He was sprawled out across the bed, whistle-snoring, mouth wide open. He’d probably drool in his sleep.

Dan stood there, watching him sleep, and he almost couldn’t stand it. There were a million things happening in his head at once, shouting at him simultaneously: this is all a big misunderstanding. He doesn’t feel that way about you. You’re pathetic. You’ve been following him around like a dog for a decade and he’s lonely and he hasn’t been fucking anyone, no Lisa, no Sally, no wonder he decided to get some easy ass. But also: he’s a grown-up. He knows what this is. He knows what he wants. You know what you want, and just because it seems too good to be true doesn’t mean that you don’t get it.

Casey suddenly jerked out of a snore and lifted his head. “Danny?” he mumbled blearily.

“Right here, Case.”

“Oh. C’mon.” Casey patted the bed next to him clumsily. “Loan you a shirt in the morning.”

“No sweatpants?”

“Sleep naked with me,” Casey said, more clearly, and then sighed as his head dropped back to the pillow.

Dan got into the bed cautiously. There wasn’t a lot of space. He poked Casey, and Casey rolled a few inches.

But once Dan was in bed, lying on his back, staring at the ceiling and wondering what the hell he thought he was doing, Casey abruptly rolled back and threw his arm over Dan’s chest and pinned Dan’s legs with one of his own.

“Were you ever in wrestling? Jeez,” Dan said, trying to lift Casey’s arm. Casey’s grip on Dan’s far arm tightened.

Dan stared at the ceiling some more.

“Okay, okay,” Dan muttered under his breath. Casey sighed in contentment, too loudly, right next to his ear.

 

“Dan!”

“Oh no oh no oh no oh no,” muttered Dan. “Casey, move. Run for the office. Save yourself.”

“Okay,” said Casey, that coward, and took off walking as fast as his flamingo-long legs would carry him.

“Dan.” Natalie caught up with him. “Did you talk to him?”

“I did. I did indeed talk to him.”

“How did it go?”

“It went.”

“Is he going to stop being so weird?”

“That, I don’t know. I’m not sure he’s entirely capable of giving up his incredible weirdness. He has a vein of crazy that goes miles deep, we’re going to have to send in miners with canaries and pickaxes to excavate it.”

She nodded briskly. “But you talked to him about the flirting?”

“I did.”

“Did he admit it?”

“Yes.”

“Did you tell him he’s not good at it?”

“I did bring that up, yes.”

“How did he take it?”

“Surprisingly well.”

“Good.” Natalie glanced around and then leaned in and whispered, “Look, I don’t want to seem conceited, but I just really want to make sure it’s not me.

“What? No. No, it was definitely not you.”

“Thank God.” She sighed. “Not that he’s not, you know, a great guy and everything, but Dana would go all Silence of the Lambs on me and I don’t need that at this point in my career.”

“I can see how being murdered would put a real damper on your professional advancement.”

“Exactly.”

“But you’re safe for now.”

“Good. Good man, Dan. Taking care of business.” She slapped him on the back in a congratulatory kind of way; Dan could see Casey peering out through the glass wall of their office while trying not to look like he was spying.

“That’s me,” said Dan, trying not to give in to hysterical laughter. “Taking care of business.”

“At least you know how to flirt. One of the two of you should. It brings some balance to our fragile ecosystem.”

“That’s true.”

“Oh, Kim!” Natalie hurried off, Dan forgotten in some actual work-related task.

Dan hustled to their office and let himself in.

“Did she guess anything?” whispered Casey.

“No! She wanted to know if you were trying to flirt with her.

“Oh, my God!” Casey looked appalled. “She’s so young!”

“I wasn’t going to tell her that.”

“No, no, that’s probably a good idea.”

They both squinted back out through the glass wall at her. She was off on another mission.

“Hey,” said Casey.

“Yeah?”

“You left your clothes at my place.”

“I did indeed.”

“You should probably come back over tonight. Pick them up.”

“I’ll pick something up,” said Dan. Casey cracked a smile.

“Is that flirting? I’m not sure I can recognize your deep and subtle craft.”

“You’re just jealous that I’m so much better at flirting than you are.”

“How would I know? Evidently I’m totally incapable of recognizing flirting.”

“Given how bad you are at attempting it, I wouldn’t be surprised.”

“I brought you coffee and beignets in bed and I got up like an hour and a half early to do it, I don’t know how you missed that.”

“Is this how it’s going to be?” Dan realized he was smiling. “You do nice things for me and then I have to listen to you list them? God, are you going to do that in alphabetical order, or in descending order of niceness?”

Casey threw a paperclip at him. “You’re a butthead.”

“Learn that one from Charlie?”

“Maybe.”

“Throwing office supplies and insults. I do believe you’re flirting at a third-grade level, Case. I think you’re going to need some serious remedial coursework.”

Casey’s mouth was twitching. “Oh, really? Who’s supposed to be my tutor?”

“I have it on very good authority that I’m an excellent teacher in the arts of love.”

Casey couldn’t contain it: he burst into full-throated laughter, throwing his head back.

 

Dan Rydell drove to Los Angeles in the summer of 1988, the summer after his brother died.

In 1988, Dan Rydell was sad. He was sad all the time, and it was hard to recognize that sad was something all its own, something separate from but deeply intertwined with the way that nothing felt good, or the way he felt guilty all the time, or how his sleep was forever screwed up. He’d been sad for so long that it had become his natural state. Here we see the anxiety basket case in its habitat. He had no idea that therapy would help, or that he’d find his way there.

In 1988, Dan met Casey, and he didn’t know at first. How would he have? What would have told him that this guy, in this bustling office, was going to be so terribly important for the rest of his life?

In 1988, Dan heard Lisa’s name for the first time, and he didn’t know he’d hear it over and over again for decades—“It’s Lisa,” Casey saying on the phone, hand covering the receiver, “she wants to talk about who has Charlie next weekend”—and that her name would go from being something that made him feel an ache like the tingling of hitting his funny bone, to the sharp-edged discomfort verging on panic that family fights had always elicited in him, to a kind of calm acceptance.

In 1988, Dan had no idea. He got into his car and he got on the open road. Twenty years away, thirty years, seemed impossible. He couldn’t imagine growing up, much less getting old. (And there was no question that being in his forties, at that time, would have struck him as disturbingly old.)

In 1988, Dan still smoked. He played guitar (well) and wrote songs (badly, but with feeling) and he loved sports (because sports, unlike one’s family, could reward one’s love). He was desperate and angry and felt terrible and didn’t know what to do with his howling grief or how to love anyone or allow anyone to love him.

In 1988, Dan hit the gas and hit play, and he changed his future forever.