Ulysses: The Hard Work of Friendship

Table of Contents here.

June 16, 2022 – After Hopper had unexpectedly ended the call with Charlize, he understood that Ingrid and Olympia had been wrong. He did not know what to say to her. However, after meeting his late father’s lover Gerty, he felt fortified enough to call Charlize again.

“Yes, dear?” she answered as if he had not just hung up on her.

“I’m thinking about an old friend named Rudy,” he said. He thought this might be a promising opener.

“Continue,” she said, sounding intrigued.

Hopper was thinking about his Stuyvesant classmate Rudy because he was walking by Lenox Hill Hospital.

Rudy was the closest thing Hopper had to a best friend when he was a teenager. After high school, Rudy had gone to college on the West Coast, but he and Hopper reunited during academic breaks in New York. The summer that Hopper worked for his mother’s agents Leo and Molly, he and Rudy were playing one-on-one basketball on a Saturday afternoon in St. Catherine’s Park at East 68th Street and First Avenue. Rudy crossed over his dribble, gaining a half-step advantage on Hopper as he drove to the basket for a layup. In attempting to recover on defense, Hopper inadvertently stepped on Rudy’s foot, tripping him and sending Rudy to the pavement. A gash opened up above his left eye that immediately began to bleed profusely.

“Fucker!” Rudy shouted. “Give me your shirt.”

“What?”

“I need it to stanch the bleeding.”

“But it’s my favorite shirt,” Hopper whined. It was an old Ramones t-shirt that he had purloined from his father.

Rudy looked at Hopper, then stated an opinion as a fact, “You fouled me, dude.”

Hopper decided against arguing, removed his t-shirt, and handed it to Rudy.

“We’ll go over the ER at Lenox Hill to stitch this up,” Rudy said. “You can keep your shirt with my dried blood as a souvenir of your crime.”

Hopper smiled at the memory of his only visit to Lenox Hill Hospital. In the emergency room, no one seemed to notice or mind him, a sweaty, skinny man-boy in shorts, Pumas, and no shirt. Whenever he saw or read the hospital mentioned in the news, he thought of Rudy.

Rudy and his family lived in that huge condominium complex in the 200 block of East 65th Street. Like Hopper, Rudy had two younger sisters, and like Hopper, Rudy liked to observe, record, and evaluate. On Saturday mornings when they were teenagers, when he didn’t go to the New York Public Library, Hopper often skateboarded from Westbeth uptown to Central Park and met Rudy behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They would spread out on the lawn next to The Obelisk for hours and watch and comment on the rich pageant on East Drive of expensive outfits on joggers, lumpy tourists, churlish and ungentlemanly cyclists, hipster dog walkers, and fashionistas as they paraded past them. Afterwards, they skateboarded to Rudy’s apartment, ate lunch, and played basketball or watched recordings of the “Dick Cavett Show.” Rudy’s father owned a collection of Cavett’s shows in VHS format. It was the boys’ form of vacation from overweening parents and undermining siblings.

“I’ve heard some stories about your friend Rudy,” Charlize said.

“How do you know about Rudy?” Hopper asked. “I’m sure I never mentioned him to you.”

“Ingrid told me. She and Rudy still talk.”

“And you talk to my ex-wife because?”

“She’s nice, Hopper,” Charlize said. “I like her, and we have you in common.”

Hopper had not talked to Rudy since he married Ingrid. Rudy had flown from Swaziland on special dispensation from the Peace Corps to be Hopper’s best man. At the insistence of Ingrid and her sisters, they were wed in a traditional service at one of the Presbyterian churches in Manhattan. “I can only stay one night,” Rudy explained, “and then back to the farm.” At the reception, Rudy refused to talk about his experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer. “Let’s just keep it light and focused on you and Ingrid today, OK?” he told Hopper.

Rudy returned to the States after his tour in southern Africa. He stayed in New York with his parents for a few weeks, then moved to Seattle to take a job with Amazon. Hopper knew none of this at the time. Occasionally, Ingrid would share news with her husband about Rudy. She was the one who told Hopper about Rudy’s job at Amazon. She was the person who broke the news to Hopper that Rudy had come out as gay. She told Hopper when Rudy had gotten married in a small, family-only ceremony on an island in Puget Sound. She told him when Rudy and his spouse had adopted a baby girl from Guatemala.

Hopper was not surprised to learn that Ingrid still talked to Rudy. When they were married, Ingrid kept a schedule of who she was going to call, email, or post on the refrigerator calendar. Her friends and family. His family. She called Rudy once a month. “If you want to have a relationship with someone, you have to work at it,” Ingrid said. “Your trouble is that having friends is just not that important to you.”

Hopper liked Rudy even though Ingrid would say things like, “you like the idea of Rudy more than the actual Rudy.” He did not blame himself for letting go of Rudy because Rudy had also let go of Hopper. He was confident that Rudy believed that trying to be friends with someone you couldn’t see, touch, or smell just did not make sense. Hopper believed that, had Rudy moved to Chicago or Hopper to Seattle, they most likely would have picked up the conversation where they left off.

“Why would Ingrid tell you about Rudy?” Hopper asked Charlize.

“Because, Hopper, you are an interesting character study,” she said. “Ingrid was more than willing to fill in the blanks you left strewn across our relationship.”

Hopper let the non-compliment compliment soak in. Like the non-friendship friendship with Rudy. Like the non-romance romance with Charlize. Like the non-marriage marriage with Ingrid.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Sorry for what?” Charlize asked. “You’re an adult, Hopper, not a five-year-old boy. If you are going to apologize, you have to identify the source of your remorse.”

“I’m sorry,” Hopper began, then paused. “I’m sorry that I didn’t take the hint and just let you go.”

“Continue.”

“I’m sorry that I didn’t believe you when you told me who you were and what you wanted from me. I didn’t learn anything in my marriage to Ingrid and you got the worst of me as a result.”

“Interesting,” she murmured. “I’m sorry, too.”

“Why are you sorry?”

“Haven’t you ever liked someone, liked them a lot, but you realized that they want something from you that you can’t give?” she asked.

Yes,” he answered.

“Sometimes even two people who think they know each other so well have no idea what’s going on between them,” she said.

“How so?”

“Because, Hopper, you get confused by sex,” she answered.

They did not have sex the night his mother introduced them. They had dinner in Soho the next night. She laughed at his stories and flirted with him, but they did not have sex. Instead, Hopper caught the red-eye to Chicago so that he could meet with his dean the next morning. Her parting words to Hopper as he got into his Uber were, “I like you, Hopper Tilley-Blandin, but don’t wait on me. I’m not reliable to anyone except my kids.”

Hopper did not see Charlize for two months, but in that time, he emailed her every day. Lengthy disquisitions on parenting, the progress on writing his second book, the time his mother flew to South Africa to meet Nelson Mandela for 15 minutes, the failure of his marriage, the differences between New York and Chicago, and why he rooted for the Chicago Cubs instead of the New York Mets.

Charlize never indicated having read his emails. She texted him exactly five times, in order:

  1. “You’re exhausting me.”
  2. “Are you a starfucker?”
  3. “Don’t fall in love with the idea of me.”
  4. “I want to talk to your ex-wife.”
  5. “I will be laying over at O’Hare tomorrow and have a hotel room at the Hilton. Come by for dinner and bring your toothbrush.”

The morning after they had sex for the first time, Charlize told Hopper to sit down after he brushed his teeth.

“You are very good at sex,” she said. “I like your gaze and would like to have more sex with you, but I want to be clear about one thing. I am not looking to fall in love and get married. I do not need a partner to live with me. I don’t believe in soulmates. Maybe, just maybe, I could handle a boyfriend who has his own life independent of mine. Don’t confuse sex with feelings. Don’t raise your expectations with me.”

Up until the onset of the pandemic, Hopper considered himself to be a good boyfriend. He worked with his students, did his research, and made progress with several scholarly articles and his second book. He parented his children. He lived his life. Charlize would text her availability.

Looking back, Hopper could see that she revealed little of herself to him, too. She appeared to live very much in the present and the future. She deflected his questions about her past, while she learned everything about him from Ingrid. He saw her only at her best and most seductive. She seemed to glide through her existence, never revealing how hard she had to grind. And, she insisted, their relationship must remain a secret.

“You aren’t going to walk any red carpets with me in the foreseeable future.”

They had dinner and sex in San Francisco, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Washington DC, London, Atlanta, and the O’Hare Airport Hilton (many times). Weekend retreats involved hiking, meals, and sex in wilderness retreats removed from other people. They talked mostly about their children, their work, politics, religion, and the absurdities in life. Good, meaty, serious discussions. He observed, recorded, and evaluated his relationship with Charlize, but he confused sex with feelings. At the outset of the pandemic, Charlize informed him that he should not expect her to be in contact with him or share her location with him.

“If I told you where I was,” she said, “you would just try to find me.”

“What’s wrong with trying to ride this thing out with me?”

“It has nothing to do with you, Hopper,” she said. “You need to do your thing. I need to do my thing, and we both need to be with our kids.”

Charlize disappeared from Hopper’s life, reappeared, and then disappeared again. And now, unexpectedly, she had reappeared again.

“Hopper, I’m on my way to New York to have dinner with you tonight.”

“Dinner?” he asked. “Tonight?”

“That’s right, just dinner,” she answered evenly. “The movie’s back on.“

“I heard.”

“Don’t confuse dinner with sex.”

“I’m here on family business,” he said. “I am returning to Chicago tomorrow to meet with a group of my graduate students.”

“I know. Ingrid told me about the favor you are doing for her,” she said. “Spending the night alone in her late sister’s apartment? How ghoulish, sleeping in a dead woman’s home. I liked Birgit. I’m sorry about her passing. I will arrive in Manhattan in about two hours. There’s a restaurant with South African food called Kaia. I think we can dine there and talk without any fuss.”

“I don’t know,” Hopper said.

“Hopper, do you want Olympia to take your calls?”

“Whoa, is this blackmail?” he asked. “If I agree to have dinner with you, then my sister will talk to me?”

“Blackmail? That’s such an ugly word,” Charlize said. “Let’s just go with the old-fashioned quid pro quo.”

Continue to Chapter 17 here.

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