The Decline of Paul
NobodyDavid’s friend falls off the cliff wants to end up dead in a ditch, right? People want to die happy, loved, and satisfied with the life they have lived, right? It’s a neurotic tick to feel reflexive regret. It takes practice to become an expert. Or you can be a New Yorker. Or you can be a Jew. But enough about me. Then there’s that line, too, that some cross into DSM-IV disorders. By that I mean you can also be Paul, who, by once promising not to off himself, set in me the fear, which hadn’t before existed, that he would.
Paul went from, at 25, a charmingly neurotic, a maddeningly talented and entertaining mess, who was loved by women, who had stories of outrageous escapades, who could bring the house down when he read one of his short stories, to a shuffling alcoholic, and the object of resentful worry by everyone who knew him.
People think they can straighten out in Vermont. They come with all their problems, their meds, their worries, their addictions, and they expect an instant cure. They expect not to need their meds any more, to be worry-free, and free of their demons. It never works out that way. People have been known to wander naked at midnight down the streets of this town, because they had stopped taking whatever anti-something they needed to function. More than once the sheriff’s office has come to take someone to Cromley, a hospital in the neighboring town.
Paul dropped into Vermont, hired for some office job that he was uniquely unqualified for, in that he had never held one before, an office job, but also any other kind of job. He immediately resented the entire setup. He resented his boss, Roger, who had shown Paul mercy by hiring him in the first place. Paul had languished in Augusta for a year, drinking expensive wine. “I convinced myself that by drinking fancy wine I was a connoisseur and not really a drinker. It was the cost, you see. A real alcoholic needs to stretch his dollars.”
He had been at the new job for a week when he began to crack. He complained bitterly. “Roger only hired me so I could do his job for him.”
“Paul,” I said. “That’s what a job is.”
Paul looked at me, stunned, and then laughed. “Holy shit.”
We’d go biking a lot. When we hit the main roads, he would bike on the incoming traffic side, while I wanted to go with the traffic.
“Yo! Come back over to this side!” I’d yell across the road.
“No! It’s too dangerous. I want the cars to see me!”
“You go against the traffic when you’re walking, not when you’re riding a bike.” As always, Paul brought out in me the hectoring parental unit.
We’d go on day trips to a lake in Paul’s red Town Car that he bought for 800 bucks. Its power windows were busted and the chassis listed like a leaky boat. It drew attention among the Suburus and Volvos. Paul wore an ink-stained herringbone cap. He bent his arm across the opened window, New York style. The trip would take about 45 minutes and Paul complained the entire way.
“David, someone-someone just doesn’t like me. She’s malicious. See, David, malicious people, they actually act charming most of the time. They have to. Or people wouldn’t have anything to do with them. But in the background they work to undermine you.”
“She’s not working to undermine you. You’re paranoid.”
He turned his eyes from the road. “You think?”
Our relationship centered around expressing our cynicism about the world. He thought everyone was insincere, looking for an angle, and I thought the world conspired to leave me to die alone and unloved. The truth was that Paul looked for any angle to beat “the system,” and I did whatever I could to isolate myself. We had known each other for 12 years; we’d had adventures together. We played poker together. But our tolerance for each other was winding down. The neuroses that we had found hilarious in the other had, over the years, grown like boils into grotesque protuberances that were no longer hilarious. Paul finally admitted that he’d been diagnosed as bipolar. But he hated the meds. “I don’t feel anything, David. They just make me numb.”
Within three weeks of coming to Vermont, Paul finally broke down and began to drink. Since there are only two places in town — a pizza pub and a wings joint — Paul’s decline quickly became news.
“I think I roofied myself,” he had said to some group of visitors that he’d been charged to attend. “Let’s do cocaine!” This had provoked an angry warning from Roger when he heard about this.
So it went that over the course of a week, Paul spent more and more time at the wings joint, drinking each beer with a shot. A friend worriedly reported the details. “He was sitting at bar, his head down. When he saw us, he came over and gorged on half my cheeseburger and all our chicken nuggets as though he hadn’t eaten anything in days.”
And he hadn’t. Nor had he slept. I saw him one morning, a week into his bender, shuffling down Main Street like an old man.
“Hi, my friend,” said Paul, when I ran into him. He put out his hand. This was a terrible sign. Friends don’t shake hands. Friends only shake hands when something has changed.
“I’m just drinking so I can sleep. I can’t sleep. That’s all it is.”
Paul once told me that I couldn’t run away from my unhappiness. He said that it was stupid to think I could move to a new apartment, to a new state, and think that it would make me happy. That’s what I had tried to do, actually. I sold my apartment. I fled to Vermont. I’d shaken up my life. But nothing had changed. And even though Paul had understood this truth, he still fell victim to the possibilities of change. It turns out that being aware of how things work just isn’t enough.
Paul would get fired from his job, of course. But they’d keep him on in a reduced capacity, in line with his condition. Maintenance. Janitorial.
I berated him on Main Street. I told him that he’d made me worry about him all the time. The whole town had worried about him. He’d become the center of the village. He admitted then that he drank to modulate his mood, to give him a mood, any mood, that the pharmaceuticals had taken from him.
“I just want you to start writing again,” I said.
“You know what the difference is between us, David?”
“You love your mother.”
I laughed and Paul instantly looked hurt.
“Oh. You were serious?”
Paul shook my hand, and worked his way back to the wings joint, where he could tilt his head to the bar’s counter and order his next shot and beer.