Table of Contents here.
June 16, 2022 – Hopper stared at the iconic marble lions guarding the entrance to the main branch of the New York Public Library. The lions were dull gray the last time he had visited the city. Following the political unrest of the last year, the lions now bore the stains of paint and acid poured on them in protest or statement. The city appeared to be losing the battle to maintain them.
The Black Lives Matter and Pro-Vaccination banners that framed the entrance were faded and ragged. So much else of the city was striving desperately to reclaim something like what its citizens believed to be normal, but the library had remained a singular focal point for unheeded rage. Admission to its famed and cavernous reading room had been restricted again following three separate incidents of arson targeting what the anonymous culprits maintained was “an institution corrupted with useless information, lies, and propaganda exploited by the over-educated, communist, atheistic, pampered elite.”
As a boy, Hopper had loved to ride his skateboard uptown on Saturday mornings and spend hours in this library. He loved the sight and smell of books. Every time he entered the reading room, he felt the weight of all the knowledge contained therein. He relished that feeling and yearned for it when he was away. He imagined adding to the weight and that — long after he had died — people would walk into this room and remember that Hopper Tilley-Blandin was a man who had walked on this planet through the weight of the books he had written.
Hopper prepared to call his sister Silver in Washington DC. She had sent him a cryptic message about her love life and asked him to call. Then he felt a tap on his shoulder; when he turned around, he was greeted by a smile and a hug from his high school classmate Dilly.
“I would recognize you anywhere,” she said, “even though you stopped cutting your hair and are hiding behind that cute face mask. You walk around in public like a man who is wearing only a large diaper, hoping no one notices that he is barefoot.” They had always talked to each other like that, even after Hopper’s emigration to Chicago. Dilly did not mention seeing him earlier in the day, when he had spotted her and three other women he knew in Abingdon Square Park watching children play. All four women had been invited to attend his wedding. Dilly was a mysterious no-show.
Hopper considered how to respond to this surprise from his past. “And you, Dilly, look like a woman who wants every day to last 48 hours,” he said. “By the way, I ran into Chasen earlier today.” Chasen Whitney, whom his sister Olympia had loved and who was now calling himself Blazes, had claimed to be dating Dilly.
Dilly took Hopper’s breath away just as she had when they were younger. His relationship with Dilly was the only one that Ingrid had resented while they were married.
“Hopper, face it,” Ingrid said. “Dilly is your only African-American friend and she’s a woman. I don’t need to spell out what that means, my dear husband.”
“I think you misinterpret my intentions, my dear wife,” he replied. “I think you are jealous of a woman I genuinely adore, who has known me much longer than you, and who knows some of my secrets that have not yet been revealed to you.”
Hopper and Dilly had their own language that Ingrid did not understand. Ingrid was sad that Dilly received something from Hopper that he did not share with her. For example, Hopper and Dilly became enthralled by the TV show “Mad Men,” which bored Ingrid. They watched the show on Sunday evenings and did not retire until they had exhausted topics of discussion from the episode in email threads to each other by the dozen. Between seasons, they emailed each other lengthy disquisitions speculating about the upcoming season. After the show ended in 2015, they picked up the habit of incorporating the show’s signature dialogue in their own conversations whenever possible. They had not seen each other in person in more than 10 years.
“Oh, you mean Blazes,” Dilly said nonchalantly. “Don’t worry, it’s not Romeo and Juliet.”
“I’m not in love with the tragedy of anyone dating Chasen Whitney,” he responded. “I hope that’s not the hill on which you plan to die.”
“Let’s change topics, Hopper. If there’s a hill on which I’m going to die, it’s going to be Sugar Hill.”
“Fair enough,” Hopper said. “Hello there, Dilly.”
“Hello, Hopper,” Dilly responded. “What’s your story?”
“I don’t know how to answer that question.” Hopper paused before saying, “I still like chocolate ice cream.”
“Hopper Tilley-Blandin! I’m glad that, upon setting eyes on you for the first time in years, I can tell you haven’t changed.”
Hopper was not a man to dwell on regrets, but Dilly was a regret. Back when, he admitted to anyone who would listen, “I was barely human, barely recognizable as an earlier iteration of myself.” As an illustration, he mentioned experimenting with showering twice a day and not using deodorant. He also tried vegetarianism that would allow for tuna fish sandwiches, and he attended Stuyvesant parties, but sat in the corner by himself reading Alexis de Tocqueville. Dilly was a supernova, a combination of his younger sisters: Olympia, so beautiful and popular that it hurt to be around her, and his sister Silver, so intellectual and artistic that even grown men were intimidated by her. She refused to have a boyfriend.
Olympia mentioned to him that their paths crossed more than statistically probable for a boy and a girl who were not romantically connected.
“I don’t know what to do with that observation,” he said.
“No, of course you don’t,” Olympia replied.
The most significant conversation Hopper and Dilly had back then took place under the comforter in Hopper’s bed, fully clothed, with no one else at home. Dilly said, “Hopper, I have always liked you. Don’t do anything to ruin it. Just keep talking.”
He had regretted not ruining it.
“OK, I don’t want to mislead you. I think I just broke up with Blazes,” she blurted out. “Over lunch at Odeon.”
“A lot has happened,” she sighed.
“That sounds awfully existential,” he said, suddenly feeling like a priest in a confession box. “What are you talking about?”
“It was going great until it wasn’t,” she said. “Men don’t take the time to end things. They ignore you until you insist on a declaration of hate.”
“I’m sure everything will turn out just fine.”
“People love to say that,” Dilly spat out. “I just wanted a fresh start after my marriage failed. I’m entitled to that.”
“There is no fresh start,” Hopper said. “Lives carry on.”
“You may be right, but I’d like to gain a modicum of control over the way I feel.”
The two old friends stood motionless, just listening to each other breathe.
When Dilly failed to show at Hopper and Ingrid’s wedding, a rumor circulated that she was heartbroken over losing Hopper. Months later, she confessed to Hopper that she could not afford to attend and was too embarrassed to ask for the money.
“Things were not good between my parents and me,” she told him. “I told them that I was pregnant. It was a one-night stand. A very famous man. The condom broke. My parents had worked so, so hard to make my life a success that would reflect blindingly on them. You don’t know what it’s like, wrapped up in your cocoon of white boy privilege and entitlement, Hopper. You could never know. My parents were furious that I put their dream at risk and disowned me. I had just quit my job. My identity was stolen, and I had no access to my bank account. I felt like I was caught in a vortex of awfulness. I had the abortion and needed to be in a quiet, dark place by myself for a while. I just emerged and had to call to apologize to you and Ingrid.”
Her second call had been to her parents, who were distraught about their daughter’s disappearance from their lives. She reconciled with her parents, went to law school, and got back on the track they had paved for her, but she vowed to never again tell them the truth about herself.
“So, how’s the law treating you?” Hopper asked.
“I’m no legal scholar,” she said. “I just solve problems. Arcane problems are my specialty.” Nodding towards the lions, she continued, “My next problem is in that library. A church and state issue that needs to disappear from the archives.”
“Whose problems are you solving?”
“The Archdiocese of New York,” she answered.
“The Catholic hierarchy built on the backs of your slave ancestors? Nice work for a girl with a rap sheet of mortal sins.”
“We all have to serve somebody, Hopper.”
“Don’t feel bad about being good at your job,” Hopper said. “There’s no money in virginity.”
“You sure know how to talk.”
“Talk, like the truth, is overrated,” Hopper replied.
“You know, Hopper, Cardinal Dolan and his boys don’t care what the truth is,” Dilly said, “as long as people do what they say.”
Hopper laughed. It was the laugh that endangered his soul, the one that erupted out of him when he came perilously close to the belief that life is absurd.
“Why does everybody need to talk about everything?” he asked.
“I don’t know but they do,” Dilly said. “And no matter what happens while they’re talking, when they’re done they feel better.”
“Do you feel better?”
“You know me,” she said. “My thirtysomething dream is to spend every waking second right here in New York. And I do.”
“New York City is a marvelous machine filled with a mesh of levers and gears and springs, like a fine watch wound tight.”
“That sounds an awful lot like a bomb, Hopper. How do you feel about being back in New York?” Dilly asked.
“I keep telling myself that I love coming to New York, but every time I get on a plane at LaGuardia or Newark, I don’t care where I’m going. I just want to see New York disappearing behind me.”
Continue to Chapter 12 here.
Thanks to Mad Men Quotes on Instagram