God And Man At Madison Square Garden: A Short Story
“Erica, Erica, listen Erica… It isn’t because I support Trump or anything like that because I voted for Hillary so I’m not that guy… Erica?” Erica Swansea, who moved here for college from the Twin Cities back in 2012 and has been here ever since, isn’t listening to me. She’s engrossed in her IPhone X and she just doesn’t care but what I’m saying is important and I spent a lot on this date and she won’t look up…
“Erica,” I continue. “And it is not that I’m religious because I’m Protestant and anyway, I haven’t been to Church since nearly a year ago at Christmas or even went to Ivy League School and it was written in 1951 so what William Buckley has to say in “God And Man At Yale” has nothing, nothing, to do with anything. He is going on about battles, battles lost long ago.”
I don’t know why she went on this date at all… I’ve known Erica from work for about two years, and she is a little younger than me, she’s 26 and I’m 31 but I noticed her and smiled at her. She smiled back and I thought we’d be friends -that was the day she started, I really liked her but she was much friendlier with Joe and at the company Christmas party last year I saw them leave together. I felt sick, you know the feeling, like nauseous. Joe is OK looking for sure but he isn’t gorgeous, and I’m not gorgeous, but I’m not a monster, like not awful awful. I’ve had girlfriends, not in a couple of years but I am medium height and my acne has left some scars but not horrible horrible.. But I watched them slip out together and I don’t know what happened but I saw it. They weren’t dating.
“The question isn’t religion though it was for Buckley, more than economics, when he writes about, like being a Christian, and the beliefs and decency and…
“This fucking thing,” she said to the phone. “It’s crazy…”
“Swipe up,” I replied.
“Yah, yah, thanks hons,” she went, looking down again before sticking a fork in her Ceasar salad.
I received my bonus early and told Erica I had an extra seat for Billy Joel at MSG. I could see her mind flicker over, I could see she didn’t want to go out with me but Billy Joel might be worth the annoyance. I didn’t care that she didn’t like me really, I figured all I needed was my shot and I could get something to happen. I was smart, I was interesting. She’d like me. When? December 20th. She doesn’t reply. We can go from work. She half shrugs, then hides a smile under her eyelashes, painted brown on the light skinned ice queen.
I told my friend Robert after work over drinks. He smirked. “Why are you wasting your time? She’s awful, you’re not going to get anything out of it.”
“She’s so beautiful.”
“Erica? Flat chested and rude… Save your money and invest in a hooker…”
I bought us another round, black jack and beer chaser, our fifth, the bar was crowded and we were getting drunk and Robert had heard me go on about Erica before. “Your problem is you lack self-esteem. Even if she liked you, which she doesn’t, you’re too needy and squirmy and smiley. You’re turning her off. Look at Joe…”
“We don’t know what happened between them for certain.”
“JOE FUCKED HER, GET OVER IT. They were drunk at the party, Erica was hitting on him, they went back to his place and first he tit fucked her…”
‘How? How would he have managed that…”
“Whatever she has David -he FUCKED HER CHEST, whatever he has she used on his dick and then he fucked her and then he got back with his girlfriend over New Years and dumped her and that is what happened. Deal with it.”
“Why are you being such an asshole…?” I asked, though I knew why exactly, he was drunk and so was I. I shook my head, sobered up on my way to Sunnyside, told my Mom, dad had died two years before from a massive heart attack. Nobody saw it coming. He was a good guy and had a ton of life insurance though there was only the two of us to give it to. Mom had a better response than Robert… which isn’t saying much.
“When will we get to meet the mysterious Erica?” Mom asked. Well, the obvious answer was never in a million years but maybe, you know if she could go for Joe and sure Joe was good looking, I mean, he was popular with the girls for sure. He wasn’t very talkative and he just sorta brooded till the end of the night and walked out with any girl that took his eye. But I was real, I am. Real. I don’t do that, like if Erica liked me she would get a real guy who really wanted her.
“So Buckley wrote “Man And God At Yale” because he had this belief… you know how you think about conservatives, or maybe Conservatives with a capital C, and they are all these rednecks from the deep south with two rifles in the pick-up truck, listening to Luke Bryan…”
“I like Luke Bryan,” Erica replied her eyes glued to her IPhone X.
“Well not him as such maybe, you know what I mean. It is a cultural thing.” I paused because she was giggling, maybe she’d found that funny but apparently she was back to texting. “He sounds good but all that other stuff, right?” No answer. “Right.. “
We were at Nick And Stef’s, a steakhouse that lead right into MSG and it was very busy but I had ordered the table three weeks in advance, you know, make an impression. Though I should probably have checked with Erica before. “I don’t eat meat,” she shrugged.
“We can go somewhere else…”
“They have other things, it isn’t just meat. What do you think it is? steak or go home.”
She had a dover sole and I had a rib eye steak and if I thought I was winning her over, she was keeping it well hidden from me. I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t no how to make her like me, or, for that matter, why she didn’t like me. I was so uncomfortable I didn’t know how to act and her damn IPhone X was like a shield hiding her from me. Like a defense. A utility belt.. no not that, a chastity belt. When I looked at her face I could see her tongue kissing Joe and it was infuriating. When I could her face. Her head was down, staring at the screen, and all I could see was the top of her head. I kept talking, I mean I’d come this far. “So Buckley was saying look, Yale is a private college funded by Christian billionaires and they have the right to expect Yale to be both Christian and capitalist and they said, no, it is up to the professors to teach what they see fit. But it wasn’t. I get his point, at the start of the cold war why would they be teaching collectivism, right? Like now we are so neck deep in capitalism, like tax cuts for the billionaires, but then they were talking about super taxes, like 100% of your capital gains gone and that’s NOT CAPITALISM, is it?”
Erica turned to our waitress. “Where is the ladies room?” she asked and walked towards the door. I was feeling spectacularly depressed. What could I say that might interest her? Why was I talking about a book written SIXTY SEVEN YEARS AGO. What do normal people talk about? I had a mini daydream and I was saying something and Erica was laughing and squeezing my hand. I tried to listen to what I thought I was saying but I was skipping over that part. Maybe I should talk about work? Or about Joe?. Or maybe I could mention how her last boyfriend died, she was 17 years old at the time. I’d googled her name and Twin Cities and found the story. It wasn’t very interesting really, she had nothing to do with it. It was December 2008, Erica was at home, the guy had been at basketball practice and was driving home and a drunk driver back ended him. The guy wasn’t wearing a seatbelt and went flying out the windshield and the drunk ran over him. I went onto Facebook and searched for the boyfriend but it was a little early for Facebook. But I kept searching and I found his family and while there wasn’t so much mention there was some mention of him. It was very sad, I searched around and found newspaper clippings of Erica as a cheerleader, and more information, about NYU. I’d like to have discussed it with her, I’d like to have comforted her. Perhaps I would have but the waitress had put down our main course ten minutes ago and she still wasn’t back. I texted her. Ten minutes later she returned to the table, so that means she managed to get rid of me for a whole half an hour.
Erica put her IPhone X near her plate and sat down without a word. I couldn’t understand why was being so rude, there didn’t seem to be any reason for it. I had done nothing, and I mean that quite literally, NOTHING to her. I sighed, had a mouth of ribeye, and continued. “I think we can all agree that communism doesn’t work and what we know of Stalin now, sure we know he killed millions upon millions of his own people but in 1951 that was more like a rumor than a truth. Like some people believed the USSR were the men in the white hats, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago” wouldn’t be published till 1973.”
I tried a different track. “So you like Billy Joel?” I asked. No answer. “I’m sorry, did you hear me?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied though whether to her hearing me or liking Billy Joel I don’t know. I assumed the latter because I had listened into her talking on her pre-X cell with a friend about trying to get a seat but it was always sold out.
“I’m not a huge fan,” I said. “Don’t get me wrong, I do like him but I am more of a Springsteen fan… I’ve been trying to get tickets to Bruce’s Broadway show but it is crazy, crazy. Like $1,500 for last row. That’s insane.”
So I went back to “God And Man”. “I’m not saying I believe or don’t believe but I agree with Buckley when he says everybody essentially agrees about Christian sense of morality. My Mom is religious, not crazy but she belongs to a Church. Ever since my Dad died… it’s like a second family for her. She worries about me, you know. I don’t know why. But I can see she does, I think she thinks I’m lonely…” I stopped myself mid-thought, I didn’t want to get into that. “… but how can you not be Christian, right. Like if we were all real Christians they’d be no war because we’d all be turning the other cheek. I think, and if you disagree please tell me, that you can’t be too kind to people. Do unto others and don’t throw the first stone, all that stuff. That’s how I want to…”
Erica looked up from her IPhone X. “Get the check, I want to go.” She said.
It was 745pm, which meant 45 minutes before Billy went on stage. We went to our seats which were really quite good, mid-way and to the side. Good, she should see him well. I took a seat and Erica looked around her and then looked down at me, pointed in the opposite direction with her thumb and walked back out .
I just sat there and was quiet, deep inside my brain, thinking about kindness, and bad manners, and just bad vibes. And Billy Joel. “And so it goes and so it goes and so will you soon I suppose…” That’s the trouble with living so deep inside your own brain, it’s hard when you are back out of it. The clever conversation, the unknown mutual interests, the giggling, the holding hands, the singing along to Billy Joel songs, the brief, shy kiss (she starts it, with a muttered “thank you” under her breath and sometimes a “you are perfect…” Me looking at her, questioningly. “For me, perfect for me,” and we both giggle). The drink that leads to ten after the show so we are drunk and dizzying and dancing at O’Lunney’s. And later, over at The Pennsylvania, I book a room for the night and then…
I remembered the daydream and alone at MSG I just shake my head and laugh at myself. But I made a decision. I was going to try and kiss her after the show. How bad could it go? How much worse. I felt like Buckley and Erica was Yale and nothing I can say or would say would break through to the rightness of my quest.
She was back with a bag of merchandise and a nod of the head, she was next to me as the lights dimmed. It was a great show, I could see Erica beaming just there. Early on, Billy cut off a carol to crack “That’s enough of that, this isn’t the first Joel,” before extolling the virtues of New York during the season, and ignoring the joke to perform Christmas songs between the hits anyway: “The First Noel”, “The Christmas Song” (a nice double there: he botched the lyric and went out of tune), “Jingle Bells” (“wait, we can play it shittier”), “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (with the audience spontaneously taking over), “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” (the greatest Christmas song of all time).. Awesome show, no doubt, and anybody you were with during it should get closer to you just because of the music but not Erica: she managed to be right next to me and at arm’s length. It was as though she resented me but I couldn’t guess why, I’d spent something like $800 on the night and if she didn’t have any interest then fine but why did she have to be cold about it? Why did I bring this coldness out in women? I know I wasn’t handsome, I know I was ordinary and nothing special, but I am sweet and kind, and a gentleman, does that count for nothing? Does nothing count for anything? How can you get through to someone that you care if they just don’t care that you care. I had a lump in my throat and tears swelling up every time I sneaked a peek at her.
It’s hard for me to come to terms with this sort of rejection, it could only be physical because even if she wasn’t interested in “God And Man At Yale,” even if the way in which God has been hijacked by Conservatives, for all that, why didn’t she just change the subject,? Just tell me what to say…
I couldn’t wait for it to be over, all I wanted in the world was for this slow motion hatred to just end and let me get home and cry. And then it was over and we took the escalator to the entrance and she was on her IPhone X again and she turned to me. “I’m taking an Uber home,” she said
“OK, where?” I asked.
“Hotel Wyndham… see you.”
“I’ll wait with you…”
She looked at me, plainly irritated, but said nothing and we walked to the Hotel on the corner of 34th and 8th. Erica studying her IPhone X, me standing by her side irrelevantly. The seconds dripped into minutes and I could feel my heart pounding, why bother trying? She obviously has no interest in me, why put us both through it. But I couldn’t convince myself not to, win or lose I had to do something. I’d tried so hard and this was my moment. She looked up as her cab approached and walked towards her. I took her arm and pulled her towards me and she, well she put her hand between us, right center on my nose, and pushed me so hard I went back, tripped on my feet and fell on the floor. And Erica was gone. But her IPhone X wasn’t, she must have dropped it with the force of her weight. I picked it up, went to run after the cab but the lights had changed, I looked down at a text
“You shouldn’t have gone.” It read.
I walked into the vestibule of the 34th Street AMC and read her texts to her girlfriend BB…
“I shouldn’t have gone,” Erica replied,
“It’s better than staying home”
“But is it?”
“Today of all days”
“I need to mourn not listen to this fucking idiot”
“Why didn’t you see Joe”
“He’s with his girlfriend.”
“Is he jealous?”
“Maybe, if it was someone else….”
“That’s not an answer”
“He knows I don’t like David, he’s a creep.”
“You should have tried someone else.”
“Robert asked me out but I wanted to see him.”
“Billy Joel… Oh fuck, why doesn’t he shut up.”
“At least you’re doing something.”
“I hate this day, every year it’s the same fucking hell.”
“I know. Tell David to shut up.”
“I’m ignoring him.”
“He bought the tickets?”
“I don’t care, he is spotty and oily and no one can stand him. Such a fucking loser, he thinks he knows everything. Why doesn’t he shut up…”
“How is the show?”
“FANTASTIC… Here are some pictures.”
“At least David got good seats.”
“I wish Joe was here, I wish Allan was still alive. Anything and anyone but this guy, just looking at him and I want to hit him. Ugh. His arm is touching mine.”
“I wonder if I can run out and leave him here.”
“It should have been David who died.”
“Are we going out this weekend?”
“I think so, Friday. Unless Joe can get away.”
“Joe is such a waste, Erica. You can do better.”
“Maybe not David, lol.”
And that’s where it ends.
I took Erica’s IPhone X and put it in my pocket , and I walked across the street to where the crosstown bus stops. It was boarding passengers. I stood right in front of the bus and put the IPhone X in front of the front tire and waited as the bus drove over it. By the time the bus was gone there was nothing but the tattered insides resembling nothing so much as the inner workings of my heart. My IPhone 7, on the other hand, was in great shape and there was a worried text from an unknown number, “This is Erica, Have you seen my phone?”. “No, I haven’t,” I replied. “Want me to look?”
“Would you mind.”
I waited ten minutes and told her I couldn’t fine her fucking phone.