Katie used to spin the ring on her middle finger using her thumb. The ring was a thin band set inside another thicker one, sitting on a groove, so it could rotate and whir at her prompting. It made a terrible clicking sound. She wore lots of rings, wood and steel and bead, on every finger, and they all cracked, clacked and clunked as she touched things, dug for articles in her purse, or intentionally banged her hand against counters. Her hands back then were often chapped, from working at a restaurant, or sun poisoned, from working at the fair. One especially rough summer her knuckles were flecked with white bits of pus.
She was working in an office now, for an internship, and she was a grown-up, and all her little grotesque adolescent details had bloomed into something pretty and offbeatly elegant. She still felt like a goose, which is an admirable quality in a five-foot seven, thin, trim, marathon-running blonde with big eyes and an aquiline nose. She was still clacking around clunkily, prettily, ashamed of herself for no reason that anybody could see. Everything she ever said slipped out from a warped smile that was at once shy and Chesire-cat.
She was drunk in her hotel room and raving. It was an overstuffed, over decorated Egyptian tomb of a place, 77 stories up, facing eastward and overlooking the lake from above a shore of smaller, backlit buildings. Windows were the walls, so the view was inescapable.
The last time I had been in a downtown hotel, I had been at the top of a much shorter structure, peeking out of a small ledge on something like the thirtieth story.
The man whose room that had been found the view stunning. “Do you believe now that I’m a king in my castle?” he had asked, “Or at least a prince?”
If that view, thirty stories facing the meeting of the rivers, was “princely,” then this one was godly. The massiveness of the room, the height of the ceiling and fireplace, the ambrosial trinkets arranged in the kitchen, the macadamia and sparkling gummy bears and gold-bar-shaped chocolates, and the Scotch all suggested self-deification. Worship at the altar, before the mirrored wall of the walk-in shower. Make an offering to your god, with nuts or tiny loaves of biscotti. Bury the tired king in the sarcophagus of sheets.
I could marvel at it, as a visitor. I could fondle the chocolates and decorative potpourri bowls knowing that I would return to the dusty confines of my studio apartment in a matter of hours. But Katie was staying there, regularly, and the constant onslaught of wealth set her teeth on edge.
“I’m so fucking tired of pretending to be rich!” she said.
We were sitting at a glass table in the hotel’s living room. The hotel room was for Katie and her boyfriend, Ken; it had been paid for by Ken’s parents, who lived permanently in the equally lavish and doubly expensive Trump Tower apartments immediately across from it. For a while we’d been fidgeting at the table and drinking wine, Katie’s rings clicking and clunking, my hands wandering across plants, vases, potpourri leaves, and chocolate bars. In the bedroom of the suite, Ken was sleeping, or drunkenly shuffling about in the sheets, pretending to sleep.
“Well, but why do you have to pretend to be rich?” I asked. “Like, Ken’s parents know you aren’t. They know you, hasn’t it been long enough to act like yourself?”
Katie leaned back and made an exasperated display. Ken’s dad was openly haughty and proudly judgmental; Ken’s mother Nilofar was, Katie always said, “Intimidating.” That I had known Ken and visited with Ken and Katie as a couple for years and had not once met their parents was, in retrospect, telling. They had every interest in keeping Katie’s middle-class trashy Cleveland friends at bay. At the wedding, they would cleave themselves off from everyone else, standing behind a wrought-iron fence at the venue’s balcony. But that wouldn’t be for another two years.
At this point Katie and Ken were still just dating, and the parents were unhappy about it, and so Katie was stumbling drunk through the suite’s two rooms, glass in hand, some pinkish gin concoction of Ken’s invention swiveling around inside, leaving fuchsia rings about the edges. In high school and early college, Katie could really put the booze away, but I hadn’t seen her ravingly tanked in a long time.
They were thinking about breaking up.
She rambled about how desperately the two had missed each other, the year they’d lived in different states.
“It was the worst year of my life,” she said with no melodrama. “I was OK, but I was miserable deep-down, and so was he. Even when he leaves for Christmas, the minute he goes to the plane, I feel like part of me is actually missing and I’m not whole. I mean it’s a cliche…”
She rolled her eyes and her hand, at the wrist, in a mockery of how her feelings sounded.
She sat down in a chaise by the dining nook, where a smattering of room service laid partly eaten. She fingered her glass at the table, where it sat amid bowls of granola, Greek yogurt, blood oranges, and a carafe of ruby red juice. She didn’t look at me, but I frowned empathetically anyway, like a dope.
“When I imagine Ken,” she said, “It’s like he’s a fog, something I can try to reach out and touch but my hand goes right through it, but it’s everywhere, it’s always around me, and it blows away and I can’t grab it, and sometimes I don’t even see it, but I’m reaching around trying to find it.”
Her head slumped in the chair.
She started asking me strange, incoherent metaphysical questions I didn’t know how to answer. I can’t even remember them, because they were so devoid of structure and sense that I have no orderly schema by which to organize and hold them in my mind. I just remember I couldn’t figure them out, and kept asking her for clarification, and she kept unspooling and becoming less and less structured, just a heap of barely-worded notions I didn’t get.
So, Ken was a fog. He was moving away, for graduate school, and so they were finally over. He had stormed out of the room, slamming the door to the master suite, the very moment that Katie had begun alluding to it. I remember his hair in a snarled, dark black tuft, and the red wine bottle in his hand.
I fumbled with words, saying how hard it must be, to live with someone when you know it’s over. Except. It’s not really over in that moment. I mean, one still has sex in such a situation. And one or both cry afterwards, and cling shivering, despite the heat, to the other’s body in the morning and night. And beg, if silently, for a change. A retraction.
And I said that after that, after the parting, there would come a time when she’d be standing over the sink and it would hit her like a blow to the skull: some of the memories and experiences that they’d shared were incapable of being recreated. There would never be another man who was there the first time. There would never be another chance for a lover to attend your dad’s funeral, to see your uncle break down crying at the podium and take hold of your hand. There would never be another person who knew her when she was young and foolish, when she was innocent, before she’d been fake rich.
Maybe it was an unhelpful thing to say. But I said it. I thought, maybe, it would be helpful to warn her of the feelings that would come.
“Oh well.” She said casually. Many minutes had passed since her incomprehensible talk and her head had dropped down. She looked at the pink drink Ken had made her; She pushed it away.
“Are you feeling better?” I asked.
“Yeah I’m ok. I mean things aren’t really as bad as all that. Most of the time we get on awesomely. We don’t talk about this much. It’s mostly the same as it ever was.”
I nodded. Hadn’t been that way for me. Lucky.
Katie said, “I will not miss this…lifestyle.”
She regarded the room we were in with a broad sweeping of her hands.
“Pretending to be rich and not intimidated by all this shit. Smiling and carrying on with his parents in cabs and five-star restaurants all day until my eyes want to scream. Or like — his brother! His brother comes to meet us for dinner, at a place where even the water is twenty dollars, and he doesn’t say a word or do a thing that isn’t entitled and rude. He just slumps at the table, with his headphones on, his $500 headphones, and he has his elbows up and he doesn’t talk. And all this money could feed, I don’t know, dozens of people, and he won’t even take his headphones off or look around and appreciate it.”
I sighed and said, “That sucks. I mean, they’re really gonna screw that kid up, raising him like that — ”
“I feel guilty all the time when I’m here,” Katie cut in, “ Like I don’t deserve it, like nobody deserves it, to live here and eat like this and not even think it’s special.”
“I don’t know how you do it,” I averred, “How you can handle all that.”
She leaned back, her face going pink. “Ohh and I hold it in. I hold it in and I’m so. Excruciatingly. Nice. And Nilofar hates me anyway. She tore me a new asshole when she caught me trying to give a homeless guy money. Holy Christ, that’s when I knew it was done, really no matter what.”
“…What did she do?”
“We were standing on, like, Chicago and State, waiting for a few minutes before we hailed a cab to meet Ken’s dad here. I said to her, why don’t we just walk? It’s four blocks away. Let’s just walk there. She looked at me as if that was preposterous and said we didn’t have to.
“We didn’t have to, ha. I said, you know, I actually kind of want to. All we do with Ken’s parents is eat and drink. Five-star breakfast, five-star lunch, craft beer, cocktails…so I told her, I want to walk.
“So we walk there, and I’m like leading, and it’s almost like she doesn’t know exactly how to get there. We go down State, over the bridge, and on the one side, where the two rivers cross over one another, there is a small homeless man. He’s looking up at me, not Nilofar, like he knows she’s a lost cause.
“And I look back and I see Nilofar clutching at her bag, and she’s glaring at me. I go up to the man and I ask him what he needs. He asks for a meal. I would love to buy you a meal, I tell him. There are a few fast-food restaurants nearby, so I kinda point and reach into my wallet and say I can pick something up for him, or I can give him cash; whatever he wants.
“He says, ‘Actually can we go to the Whole Foods in the Loop?’ Nilofar is totally outraged when I say, like, yeah, of course. She wrings her hands and stomps silently, pissed, behind me, as we go down the street with this man. It takes like twenty minutes to get there, because he’s so slow and she keeps a distance of two yards behind us.
“He gets a big salad from the salad bar, and some dried fruit, and a big vitamin water. And he asks if he can put some tofu on the salad too, and I’m like sure! And Nilofar is bursting a vein in her temple. So it’s like fifteen bucks, what do I care? How am I gonna resent this guy for wanting to eat healthy? I always feel terrible when I give a homeless person money and they get something unhealthy, like McDonalds.”
I shrugged and said, “Well, if that’s the worst they get…”
That set Katie off. She sat up in her seat, suddenly rapt and sober-seeming.
“Well yeah, but you know what? I don’t care! That’s exactly what I told Nilofar!” she nearly shouted, her hand clamped against the back of her seat. “I told her, I didn’t care if the people I give money buy wine or McDonald’s or vodka or porn or crack. I don’t care, if that’s what they want! I don’t care! They are freezing, or burning up, and alone and judged and miserable, and I’ve decided to give them something, since I already have too much.“
She regarded the room with another big sweep of her hands.
“I have a warm coat, and I get to sleep in this huge fucking bed with 1000-count sheets, and I have food, more food than I can stand, honestly, and then we make these silly frivolous whatever-the-hell drinks just because we’re so bored that we might as well consume more stuff. And we have more, more than can ever make us happy, we have so much that it doesn’t make us happy, because there’s just a glut of it, a sickening, disgusting glut, of things that are so bountiful there’s no joy in it.”
She gestured to the door behind her. “I am so sick with luck and privilege that all I can stand to do is give a little away, a scrap, when I’m asked. And when I have so much I take advantage of, and abuse, and waste, how the fuck can I blame someone for wanting just a little bit of comfort?”
I stared at her. “So if that guy had asked you for money for drugs,” I began, “that would be okay?”
She swallowed and nodded, gaining courage. “Yes, exactly! I don’t care! I don’t care if it’s crack, or heroin, or alcohol! I don’t care if it’s cigarettes! I don’t care if they’re a liar or an addict! They have a cold, hard life and I don’t, and don’t they deserve some comfort? However they want it? If I’ve chosen to give, why do I also get to decide how they use what I give? If I’m giving it away, it’s not mine. That’s what charity is.”
Then Katie laid back in her seat and traced the edge of her cup with her hand, a ring occasionally bumping and scratching loudly. For a while I had nothing to say and neither did she. The finality of her declaration hung over us. I knew without asking that this was a turning point, somehow; that Ken hadn’t understood this perspective and never would. And that Katie had come to her decision immediately, standing in the Whole Foods, helping a man choose nourishing overpriced food while her richer loved ones scoffed.
We were both drifting to sleep in our chairs, but before bed I told Katie about a legless man who frequented the door of the CVS down my block. He sat rigidly in his wheelchair, a small felt-looking blanket over his lap. He sat for hours, barely whispering for money. For food, he said. I’m sure many people passed over him, doing the same inhumane calculus that Nilofar apparently had. I’m sure lots of people silently asked the same questions I had just asked Katie: what if he doesn’t spend the money well? Is he still worth it, then?
One day I saw a young white couple leave the CVS and stand over him eagerly. They were petite, pale and smooth-skinned, white as snow, with cute brunette heads wrapped in scarves. They beamed with the self-satisfaction of a deed well done. The male half of the couple reached into his plastic CVS bag and removed a green box of granola bars — the hard, crunchy, wholesome kind that comes two in a sleeve.
The young man presented the box rigidly to the old man in the chair, a slight smile playing on his lips. The couple waited half a beat, as the man silently fingered the box, then they turned away and left him, arm in arm, smiles escaping, and trounced down the street on their healthy limbs. The man, who always requested money for food, not food, held the box indifferently, as if they’d just handed him an old Kleenex to throw out. His shoulders shrugged slightly. The couple was long gone, swiftly skipping away on the high of the decent thing they believed they had done.
Originally published at erikadprice.tumblr.com.
Like what you just read? Please hit the ‘recommend’ button and check out the Human Parts bookstore for long-form writing from our contributors.