Today is my 30th birthday. I’m not actually dwelling on age or mortality, the way it seems natural to do when we turn over decades, but I am thinking of the only moment in my life that I ever stopped and said to myself, “Huh, you’re really coming of age.”
It was a warm October Saturday in 2010. At the time, I was 24 years old and living in an apartment complex on Massachusetts Avenue in the Chinatown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. My best friend James and I had moved in that fall and we cared so little for the place that neither of us even bothered to unpack our boxes. It was objectively a good building and to this day, the nicest apartment I’ve ever had, but it was corporate and sterile and it seemed to drain out all the energy that people live in large, overpriced cities to capture and feed off of.
What happened that fall was this: I learned that I had had the wrong dreams. When I’d started my D.C. adventure two and a half years before, I was 21 years old with a vague sense of what I wanted. It took me a while to convert those undefined aspirations into something concrete and attainable, but in a few months time I had my dream job picked out, and even more importantly, my dream girl too. Her name was Ellen McConnell. She was a Legislative Assistant (LA) on the House side, and her beauty was dwarfed only by the sharpness of her mind.
Ellen was the one I wanted, and she also had the job I wanted, a Capitol Hill LA, which is the political equivalent of an Associate at a bank or a Manager at a studio. It was six months before she even knew my name and almost a year longer before she finally said yes to a date. We met at a pizza a restaurant a few blocks away from my apartment and I spent the hour before covering-up the pickeye I’d been diagnosed with that morning, knowing that I’d get as many chances at a first date with her as I would Rihanna or Gwyneth Paltrow.
But I got a second date and a third after that. A month later, sitting in her apartment in Virginia, I told her the hardest thing in the world for me to do was hide how happy I was whenever she was around. I assumed she’d think I was freak if she ever knew, that she’d run away and find someone better.
A year later, in the fall of 2010, all of that fell apart. I’d finally got my promotion to LA and at the same time, Ellen and I broke up – and it was my idea (with full respect to Ellen, she would have done it if I’d waited a day longer and she remains fantastic, even if we were wrong for one another). In fewer words, or perhaps more exulted ones, I’d gotten the job and gotten the girl and for all of that, was more unhappy than ever. I was the same old guy – only less. I had succeeded and it had taught me that I’d really just failed.
That’s when I started writing. It was my way of looking for something – who knows what – because I sure didn’t. I set my alarm for 5:30 and wrote until 7:30, when I’d put my suit on and go to work in the Capitol. Over time, I worked out a story that spoke to the feeling in my gut, the one I had late at night in Georgetown or Adams Morgan about the excitement of being young in the city and the letdown of doing it in the worst economy since the Great Depression.
It starred a kid named Hank Bladen who was about to get laid-off by his goliath consulting firm in the economic inferno that my class, the Class of 2008, experienced uniquely during the Great Recession. It was titled Northeast Regional, after the Amtrak train that runs from Boston to Washington, D.C., because it told the story of one day in Hank’s life, when his big-money friend Drew Scarborough talked him into a trip to their college homecoming in Philadelphia after one-too-many mimosas at brunch in New York. The story ended the following day, when Hank wakes up on a stranger’s couch in his hometown of Washington, D.C. Its thesis statement was basically this, on page 3:
“…Scarborough let go of his glass, its cold weight slipping from his hand to mine as the lights around the ceiling changed from blue to red and the bass pounded boom-boom-boom to the Avicii bootleg I’d pulled from SoundCloud after his show at Webster Hall this summer. It was the sound of New York after the crash, a kind of pink lemonade electro for all of us whose first taste of maturity was buying a beer for our friends who got laid off when the mortgage markets blew. Which brought me back to the sights I imagined – my imagination, though I’ve never really been accused of having one – it was more a feeling I had. That I belonged here, as Harpo and Scarborough’s equal. Unfortunately, my story was really about why I wasn’t.”
An agent briefly came on to the manuscript, had me do a round of edits, and then departed, explaining that he had been wrong and there was no chance in hell that it would ever sell. And as I look at it now, I understand why: Hank was me – the good and the bad – and I loved him too much to torture him the way any real author would. Northeast Regional wasn’t actually a story at all – it was just me begging to be heard.
So today I’m going to do something I should have done long ago: I’m going to kill Hank Bladen. I’m going to delete him. I’m going to send him into the same blackhole that all of this time, these 29 years plus one day (which I now must begrudgingly refer to as “30”) have slowly slipped into. It may seem odd to you, but I’ve come to understand that in order to end this decade, I also need to end Hank.
But before I send him to the gas chamber, I’m to give Hank one week’s grace in the public eye because you know what, I’m selfish and I want to be heard. Vanity is my fatal flaw and vanity is what is forcing me to do this now, to show the world Hank Bladen, to deify him before I crucify him.
So below you’ll find the last chapter of what I guess is the unofficial diary of my Twenties: Northeast Regional. It’s a fraction of Hank’s story but it remains the part closest to me, after Hank wakes up unexpectedly in Washington, D.C., on a girl named Henley’s couch.
Henley was his twin sister’s college roommate and though Hank is suffering from a crippling hangover and spent his teens chasing her around like a piece of meat, he suddenly finds himself respectfully in love. On top of that, he’s grappling with a guilty conscious: To go home to New York, like he wants to; or to take the Northeast Regional one stop further south, to his parent’s home in Manassas, Virginia, on the far edge of the D.C. metro area – in short, to be a cool guy or a good son.
So as I say goodbye to my Twenties, please say hello to Hank Bladen. After all, he isn’t long for this world.
From Northeast Regional:
We walked on P Street, along the old two- and three-story brownstones. Kids my age were coming and going, and couples — some straight, others gay — were sipping coffee on their stoops. A skinny Indian guy and an Irish-looking girl jogged past me, but what I heard was a taxi’s brakes hiss on the wet pavement. I started to reach my hand to hail it but Henley grabbed it from the air and took it by her side. Her touch, warm as anything I’d ever known, was enough to melt away the chill in the autumn air. It doubled the goosebumps on my neck, then tripled them while she held on for a few seconds longer than she had to.
“We’re almost there,” Henley said, pointing up the road to where, in the distance, cars were backed up, crawling around a traffic circle with a fountain going in the middle.
“What happens when I get there?” I asked.
“Is that a metaphor, Hank Bladen?”
“No. It’s a question.”
“You take the Red Line to Union Station. It’ll be for Glenmont.”
The houses turned into wine stores and coffee shops. People sat at sidewalk tables, scarves over sweaters, occasional blazers, a few fleece jackets, all nice clothes but nothing that I couldn’t find at Nordstrom’s in Indianapolis. Traffic lumbered by at a Sunday pace while people talked about law and politics in these cafes that could have been on the Upper East Side they were so dull. The men parted their hair, the women wore flats; there was a little salt to the scene wherever the occasional gay guy in his florid pants sat, maybe with spiky hair and an espresso.
We reached the circle and walked though the park in the middle to where the Metro was. There were hipsters in pea coats on the grass by the fountain and homeless guys on benches. Range Rovers passed under green lights, taxis let people out and took new ones in. There was the smell of diesel fuel from idling buses and drying rain in the freshness of the morning. As we approached the Metro station, the domesticity of this city began to seem normal. Like a tourist in Manhattan, habituated to the sound of horns, buses, and squeaking brakes after a weekend in town, I was finally comfortable in the tranquility of the world west of the Hudson River. After all, this was home.
“Red Line to Glenmont?” I repeated to Henley at the top of the droning escalators that went down to the Metro.
“Yes, but get off at Union Station.”
“Of course,” I said, shaking inside because I didn’t know what to do now with these feelings simmering inside me — feelings for her. I was a linebacker at a swim meet; I was a vegan in Texas; a penguin on the moon; I was completely out of my element. Where was the bar? I couldn’t buy this girl shots right here at the mouth of the Metro stop. I couldn’t play her off against another one, and hang out with her girlfriends at the other end of the bar until she approached me in jealousy. All I could do was wonder, Why now? Why, after all these years, would she look at me now? The only choice for me was to do the unthinkable: to look her in the eye and tell her that whatever that drug I took was, it made me fall hard in love with her; blonde hair with bright blue eyes, soft voice, curves, and a beating heart.
“Well?” She shrugged her shoulders up, letting her hands fall slack at her side.
“I’ll give you a call if I make that trip out to California.”
“Yeah, Erica can give you my contact,” she smiled anticlimactically, and turned her head like she was leaving. I knew I was supposed to do something now but I couldn’t bring myself to show her the last card I had, the one that said I love you. I bit my tongue and took a step toward the escalator before she spoke up. “Hank?” she interjected into the emotional space that I’d forgotten how to reach.
There was a pause and I hoped for the impossible as I balanced my whole body on the ear closest to her.
“I’m going to be interviewing for a job in New York around Christmas. I was wondering if . . . I was wondering if maybe we could get a drink, you know, maybe just to check in?”
“Yeah,” I said, putting my hands in my pockets that were full of credit card receipts and crumpled up bills. “Tired of babysitting the feds, right?”
She laughed. “Tired of babysitting the feds. That’s right.”
I took a step toward her instead of away. We didn’t kiss or anything but the ordeal was awkward enough for me to believe she maybe wanted more when I gave her a hug and thanked her for taking care of me.
“You know, I could be dead,” I told her.
She laughed and said it was all Justin. It might have been, but in my heart it would always be she who saved me, and that alone was worth all my sins. I swallowed my pride and asked her for her number and I gave her mine. Then I was coasting down the escalator, through the long granite tunnel to the station below, thinking of all the places we could go. I wondered if she liked beer or preferred cocktails; or maybe she would be tired and would just want a barstool in the quiet; I didn’t really know. I just knew that I wanted to know her, I wanted to see her laugh and catch her with bad breath when she was out of gum. I wanted to learn what made her smile but also to learn what made her human, what made her stomach sick or kept her up at night.
I’d leave my gold AmEx at home when we met. No shots, no sweaty dancing, no hope for cheap sex. This time I was going to do it right.
I crossed through the turnstiles and descended onto the platform. It looked like the dome of the Capitol rolled into a torpedo. At the bottom a few people milled around waiting, listening to their iPods, pacing, sitting on benches, reading, doing nothing, just getting by. I saw a light in the distance, moving up the tunnel and then the wind started shifting toward me. It ruffled through my greasy hair and I knew there was a train now, here to suck up all the air and the people along with it.
It glided to a stop in front of me, brakes squealing under the weight of one, two, three, four, five cars that passed me by before luck landed on my shoulder for the first time in a while. The doors slid open in front of me, not a step out of my path, and I was inside, where the ventilation hummed and the doors jingled before they closed again. Not very crowded, not many conversations inside. A woman, mid-thirties, green Barbour jacket; two Georgetown kids in their school hoodies, one navy blue, one gray; black guy, preppy white shirt with baggy jeans; me, a wreck, more thankful for Advil than the air in my lungs; and a lot of empty seats.
My phone buzzed in my pocket and somehow I knew it, I just knew that it was Katie. Nice to see you, it said with a period added after you. It was a punctuation mark for us. I knew I’d never see her again. I thought about what was gone from her, how time had robbed her of her smile, and wondered what part of me was disappearing each day. I hoped it wasn’t my hair. I ran my hand through it just to be sure.
I lost track of things in the Metro’s start and stop monotony. All I saw were the feet of those who came and those who went, and next I knew, the conductor was calling out Union Station.
* * *
In the Great Hall the PA was still indecipherable, the crowds still plush with the possibility of an unwanted rendezvous hidden in all the fanny-packed tourists here for the long weekend. I walked over to Au Bon Pain along the wall, the chain I’d eaten at with Walsh yesterday, and bought myself a coffee and a sandwich. I realized I needed water too, and went through the line again, hoping I could kick this hangover while it was down.
A TV was on in the corner, a flat panel hanging above. It was CNN, live from Chile.
“Did they rescue them?” I asked the guy in line before me who had a canvas bag slung over his worn-out blue button-down.
“They’re saying Wednesday now,” he said. “Hopefully Wednesday.”
I nodded, paid, and walked on.
In the middle of the beehive, I looked up. The ceiling towered above; mosaics turned in the Roman arches; people streamed toward gates and others streamed away. The chaos was peaceful, there was a calm in the never-ending flow of those who were coming and those who were going. On the walls there were paintings hung of the big bicep trains done up like Stalin’s propaganda minister would have, in that old art deco style, laid out from west to east. The trains were powering through the California orange groves that were all shopping centers now, then under the mountains, across the high plains, through wheat fields that became dust bowls and then grew combine harvesters where men in Levis used to work a hoe. There was a train in purple winter light; it was called the Great Lakes Limited; and then another snaking between the Adirondacks. The last in the series was the Northeast Regional. It was arriving under the twinkle of a Manhattan skyline so geometric that it might have been traced from sticks of gum. Victrolas were crooning; it was dusk on Broadway. There was plenty of gin, and tonight Manhattan was about to discover this thing they called jazz.
There was a connection there, I was sure of it: some metaphor under my hangover, something about the cocksure Gatsbys of my life, the Scarboroughs and Dangeloses with their limos, electropop, and carnivorous everything. It had always been the Roaring Twenties for them and yet, for the rest of us, well, one of these days it would be fine again. That’s what my mom said, at least.
I walked up to the kiosk that would sell me my ticket home. I paused when it asked me where.
On the master timetable hanging in the Great Hall, the 12:15 northbound Regional flashed Arriving, Arriving, Arriving, Arriving. I wondered if Scarborough would stoop to be on that train, two hours up the road in Philadelphia, or if he really was too indignant to ride with the rest of us on the Northeast Regional. I typed in N-Y-C and my stomach twisted at the thought of going back into that jungle of red taillights, leggings, concrete forever, bass, bass, bass, and of course, the eight-dollar beers.
Someone approached the kiosk next to me. I saw his reflection on the monitor. I looked down and caught sight of his wing-tipped loafers and navy suit that shined like the moon on the Hudson. I could not bring myself to look at his face.
I thought about the peace that wasn’t waiting for me in the city and the dirty dishes I’d left in my kitchen sink as I hit the Backspace key three times and typed M-A-N. I didn’t want Manchester, Mansfield, or Manhattan; I wanted the one at the very top. I chose Manassas, and the machine told me the 1:00 southbound Regional could take me there for 28 dollars.
I looked over my shoulder again, then wiped my brow on the orange cuff of my Vineyard Vines shirt. The regional to Boston — my ride to New York — switched to Boarding and the sight of it spooked me enough to clear the kiosk monitor all over again.
I had a choice to make. I had choices to make. I’d entered into the world of non-reversible decisions. I guess this was growing up.
I wondered if it was time to go home, and if I did, I wondered if I’d ever see New York again.
I had seven minutes until the Northeast Regional left.