Just look at me. Isn’t it obvious?
I have no style. I’m just a human blur.
On me expensive clothes look second hand.
They droop or sag. The color’s never right.
I wear the wrong apparel to the party.
I pick the dullest item on the menu.
Each haircut brings some new humiliation.
That’s why I always loved to visit Tom.
He had the perfect sense for what was perfect.
He never wore a sports coat or a shirt
That didn’t seem exactly right—not just
For him but for the time, the place, the people.
It wasn’t just his clothes, but how he smiled
Or shook your hand or listened to a joke.
I’ve never seen a person comparable,
Except in movies of a certain era,
The sort where Cary Grant casually enters
In clothes of such exquisite tailoring
The cameras caress him like a lover,
Or Garbo lifts a cocktail to her lips
So that you, sitting in the dark, can taste
A dozen heartbreaks in a single gesture.
I know exactly what you’re thinking now—
My story and my friend seem superficial.
You don’t take people like us seriously,
Though every day you pass us on the street.
What does style matter? Quite a lot, I say.
Style isn’t fashion. It’s knowing who you are
And how you hold yourself up to the world.
It’s the clear surface that lets you see the depths.
I wake up many mornings full of dread,
Knowing my life is not what I intended.
Just like my clothes, it doesn’t really fit.
(What was it I intended anyway?)
Most lives consist of choosing the wrong things.
We try to compensate by choosing more,
As if sheer mass bestowed integrity.
We met in college. Never closest friends,
We always stayed in touch. I’ll never know
Just what he saw in me—perhaps an audience.
No, that’s unfair. I think it was pure kindness.
I stumbled through life losing jobs and girls,
Wasting the little money that I made.
Tom was a golden boy. While others climbed,
He took flight. His success was existential:
It wasn’t what he did; he simply was
The way he was, which is to say, he was
Exactly what the business world wanted.
At thirty-two he started his own firm.
At thirty-five he took the venture public.
He prospered like one chosen by the gods.
His corner office seemed built on a cloud—
With miles of open sky and bright blue water
Shining through the glass walls above the bay.
So effortless and absolute his triumph,
Who could have guessed the way the story ended?
Tom put me on the list for all his parties.
I had no dignity. I always went,
Eager and underdressed. He had the trick
Of going to the limits of delight
While never overstepping to excess.
He booked the most astonishing locations—
The Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center,
The Hall of the Great Whale, the Stock Exchange,
And the Egyptian temple at the Met.
He turned each place into a sort of stage.
These parties made me feel as if I’d walked
Into the secret movie in my mind
Where I’m the star, and everything is bright,
Glamorous, and romantic—even me.
Tom dated a succession of tall beauties.
And then came Eden. I can’t be objective
In any way about her. She was perfect—
Beautiful, elegant, intelligent.
I want to say divine—probably because
The first time that I saw her she was bathed
In golden light against a colonnade
At the Met’s temple of the goddess Isis.
The vision was purely theatrical—
Tom’s party planners doing their paid magic.
But even tricks bestow a sense of wonder.
I watched him climb the temple steps to join her.
They were magnificent, and utterly
Asexual. They seemed like seraphim
Who had transcended bodily desire.
Their love, so eminently evident,
Expressed in warmth and courteous attention.
I was a caveman staring at the stars.
After they married, I saw less of Tom—
The occasional lunch or cocktail party.
Eden was always gracious. So was he,
But his success took all his time to manage,
Not just his business but his boards and charities.
Then suddenly the invitations stopped.
I didn’t feel insulted or surprised.
I had expected such a break for years.
I barely had a life. Tom had it all.
Later I read his firm had been shut down.
I figured Tom had cashed out and retired,
Still young enough to sail around the world,
Climb Everest, or whatever it is
Ex-CEOs do with their portfolios—
An afterlife of private jets and yacht clubs.
One night I found myself at the St. Regis.
I’d made another unsuccessful pitch
Over a dinner I could not afford—
My shabby life about to crash again.
Angry, depressed, I lurched into the bar.
There at a table, by herself, sat Eden.
She wore a silver-sequined evening gown
And held a glass of wine between her hands.
She didn’t drink but rolled it back and forth,
Staring at the bright murals on the wall.
Seeing her there gave me a twinge of joy.
“What a surprise to find you here,” I said,
Acting as if I came there every night.
“Waiting for Tom?” She barely raised her eyes,
Looking at me as if I were a stranger.
“No,” she said, after a pause. “Not for Tom.
There was a benefit upstairs. I needed air.”
Then came another pause. “Didn’t you know?
Tom and I are not together now.”
I probably should have left her at that point,
But I’m not skilled in social situations,
And so I simply blurted out, “What happened?”
She turned the glass around again and told me.
“About three years ago, Tom became ill.
The doctors couldn’t pinpoint what was wrong.
He was in constant pain, but he insisted,
‘We won’t let this condition slow us down.
It’s just another problem to be solved.’
We both knew he was good at solving problems.
But month by month, the symptoms got much worse.
The doctors offered different diagnoses.
They gave him drugs, more drugs, then radiation.
If it had only been the pain, I think
We would have made it through this trial together,
But something unexpected happened to him.
His looks began to change. His face puffed up.
His features thickened, and his hair thinned out.
He didn’t look that bad, at least at first,
But he no longer looked at all like Tom.
One morning he stopped going to the office.
He was the one who always closed the deals.
Without him, business slowed, the clients fled.
A few months later Tom shut the place down.
His face kept getting worse. One afternoon
When I came home from work, he left the room.
Shutting the door, he cried, ‘Don’t look at me!’
I leaned against the door and said I loved him
No matter what he looked like. I see now
What a mistake that was. Later that night
He took the mirrors down in the apartment.
I didn’t like it, but I understood.
I hardly saw him after that. He hid
Whenever I was home. A few days later
I saw that all our photographs were gone,
Even our wedding book, all thrown away.
I screamed at him, then cried. I asked him why.
He said, ‘I didn’t like them anymore.’
Six months ago he simply moved away—
No note, no warning, nothing else was missing,
No clothes, no books, not even his cell phone,
None of the beautiful things we chose together.
I thought he would come back. I waited for him.
I worried that he might have killed himself.
Then a new check came through on his account—
Just for a small amount, but signed by him.
Finally, some detectives tracked him down.
They gave me an address. And so I went.
The taxi took me to a tenement.
Could the address be right? The place was sordid.
I hesitated to get out alone.
I had the driver wait along the curb.
Garbage was piled on both sides of the door.
The corridors were dark and smelled of grease.
How could Tom leave me for this awful place?
I found his door and knocked. There was no answer.
I knocked again, and then I lost control.
I pounded wildly, screaming at the door.
Finally, a voice spoke. His voice. It said,
‘The person that you’re looking for is gone.
Tom isn’t here. Tom isn’t anywhere.’
I begged and wept. He wouldn’t let me in.
A neighbor came out in his underwear
And stared at me. I felt ashamed and left.”
Back in the bar, as Eden told me this,
She started crying, sobbing quietly.
I reached to touch her hand. She pulled away.
Then she looked up at me. Her eyes were blackened,
Smeared from her streaked eyeliner, but they shined
With the intensity of the insane.
“Charlie,” she said. “You’ve got to talk to him.
Tom always said you were his closest friend.”
The “sordid” tenement turned out to be
An ordinary building, down on its luck.
Despite the filthy brick façade, it wasn’t
Much worse than the apartment where I lived.
His hallway, though, really did stink of grease,
And half the bulbs were burnt out in the stairwell.
I knocked three times, then shouted out my name.
After a pause, I heard the deadbolt turn.
Then a familiar voice responded softly,
“Come in, old friend. I hoped that you would visit.”
I walked into a dark and empty room.
Only a folding table and a chair—
The sort of junk you see left on the street.
Piles of old newspapers littered the floor.
Some slats of light leaked through the window blinds.
I did not recognize the man who sat there,
His coarse, flat features or his bloated face.
His hair was gone. One eye was swollen shut.
He was dressed only in a dirty robe.
His body was a leopard skin of bruises.
“Welcome,” he said, “to the Kingdom of the Dead.
I wish that I could offer you a chair,
But don’t expect good manners from the damned.
I should apologize about the smell,
But once apologies begin, where would I stop?”
“I’m here,” I told him, “because Eden asked me.”
“I hope you’ve seen enough to understand
I can’t go back. The man I was is dead.
I’m just the fellow waiting for the hearse.
Mentioning Eden only makes it worse.
Even a monster has his vanity.
I left the other man his life intact.
I didn’t steal a thing, not even her.
Don’t think I wasn’t tempted, but why pack
All of the beautiful things you can’t take with you?
My new style, as you see, is minimal.”
“How can you talk that way about your wife.
This is no time for striking clever poses.”
“You seem surprised to find me eloquent.
Being well-spoken is all I have left.
I want to make this conversation matter.
We’ll never have a chance to speak again.”
“Not if you end up staying here!” I cried.
“I’m glad,” he said, “to hear you speak of endings.
My downfall makes a very shabby story.
Reality has made a botch of it.
First up, then down—no nuance, no panache,
In short, no style. After playing the prince,
I find it difficult to be recast
As Caliban for my farewell performance.
I could endure this suffering or worse
If I could end as something other than
An object of intolerable pity.
The ending is what gives a story meaning.
So let me start my new and last career—
The editor who will revise this story.
If I’m compelled to play the monster’s role,
Then let the monster have his grand finale.
Give me a death scene and a juicy speech,
Not a morphine drip in a hospice bed,
Nor a last whimper to a paid attendant.
Report whatever details you see fit.
It might be easier for everyone
To term this denouement an accident.
For me, it is enough that you bear witness.
You always understood my sense of style.”
He took a book of matches from his pocket.
Struck one. It flamed. He dropped it on the floor.
The fuel-soaked papers at his feet took fire.
“You’d better go,” he said. I backed away.
The inferno had been carefully devised.
The blaze reached out in lines across the room.
As the fire spread, the flames were beautiful.
“No one knows how the accident occurred.
It happened after I left,” I told Eden.
We sat on an immaculate divan
Beneath a David Hockney Swimming Pool.
The windows gave a view of Central Park.
“Tom and I talked about his situation.
He said that he was sorry you had suffered.
He had almost decided to come home.
As I walked out, he stopped me for a moment.
He made me promise I would visit you.”