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Floating Opposites

Daniel Browne

My working life began with a glimpse of retirement.

I was to meet the advance man at a senior center in Sunset Park. A heat wave was suffocating the city, and some of the centers were without air conditioning. City Hall had cut the funding, an unacceptable breach of faith with the old folks who’d spent a lifetime bettering the community. My job was to hand the press release to reporters and arrange one-on-one interviews with the principal—that’s what they all called her at the office—after her prepared remarks.

“You my guy?”

The advance man looked like he’d slept in his suit, maybe right there on the steps of the center. He was wearing black sunglasses, yet still seemed to be squinting. I told him I was in fact his guy and offered my hand.

“We’ve got problems,” he told me.

I had not come prepared for problems.

“See for yourself,” he said and led me into the center.

It hit me as soon as I stepped into the fluorescent-lit rec room. The place was a meat locker. The retirees poking at their fruit cups and talking back to Judge Joe Brown—half of them were wearing sweaters.

“What do we do?” I asked him.

The advance man tipped his sunglasses. The rims of his eyes were a pale purple.

“I found a box in the basement with all the controls,” he said. “By the time cameras start rolling, the place’ll be a sweat lodge.”

“Right.” I laughed, though he didn’t seem to be joking.

“If that new asshole took the BQE, this shindig’s going to be a half-hour late, easy,” he said. “Plenty of time.”

He wasn’t joking.

“When I was the driver, we were never late, but my parallel parking gives Her Highness the jumps.”

I told him I thought we should wait and see what happened. He shrugged and started talking into his cell, picking up, it seemed, mid-conversation.

As predicted, she blew in late, flanked by her stocky female bodyguard and my new boss, the press secretary, a wiry old Greek with pomaded hair, his bare ankles showing between cuff and loafer, index cards spilling from his ragged manila folder. The principal herself looked like a harried single mom, orange frizz escaping from a carelessly deployed clip. An icy rage glinted in her eyes as she scanned the room. No reporters had shown up.

“Watch this now,” the advance man whispered in my ear.

I could see the principal working a smile onto her face as she marched up to the card tables where the seniors were lounging.

“Hi there,” she said, leaning into a group of fluffy, lolling heads. “I’m your borough president.”

“Speak up!”

“I’m the borough president. The president of Brooklyn!”

“That’s nice, dear.”

The advance man grinned and checked his watch. He was off to the next stop.

“It gets funnier every time,” he said.


Back at the office, I was supposed to pitch the story to the community papers. The writer in me decided to skip the Canarsie Journal and start with the more poetic Coney Island Wave.

“Yeah?” the voice on the other end was rough and slurred. Recovering stroke victim? Midday drunk?

“Hi. I’m calling from the borough president’s office…”

“What you got?”

“We’ve learned that senior centers across the borough are going without air conditioning in this heat wave. It’s unacceptable …”

“Any deaths?”

“Uh, not that we’re aware of.”

“What about Coney Island?”

“Let me check.” I wedged the receiver under my chin and rifled through the list of centers.

“Get back to me if the center here is fucked or if someone dies.”

Dial tone.

I fled to the bathroom. In the mirror I saw the half-price suit, the flea market tie with the deck chairs, the razor nicks on either side of my Adam’s apple, and I was overcome by a feeling physical dread, like I was about to vomit tears.

Nicks aside, it was a good look on me; it looked right.

That was the worst part.

I couldn’t bring myself to make the other thirty calls. I just sat in my cubicle pretending to pour over the list. And at six exactly, I shut down my computer and ran to the Strand where my real life, I hoped, would still be waiting for me.


I met her in the Literary Lives aisle. We flung our arms around each other and kissed with open mouths, like this was Paris after the war, like we’d said goodbye a lifetime ago and not this morning.

“How was it?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“You look sharp,” she said. “Handsome.”

She was in a suit, too. On her, the effect was more severe. The way those no-nonsense lines suppressed her curves was scary and erotic. I wanted to grab the fist-like bun at the back of her head and squeeze.

“What’s happening to us?” I said.


We were writers fresh from grad school. I was in the middle of a novel about lovers who meet again and again in past lives throughout history. She was working on a collection of lyric essays about the time she’d spent on a cattle drive with real Wyoming cowboys. We were finally free of workshops, of professors who assigned their own remaindered debuts, of classmates who said things like, “I just don’t know what’s at stake for this protagonist,” who misplaced modifiers like they were check-in baggage and mixed metaphors like so much cement. We were free, but we needed money. Most of our friends were adjuncting, but they all seemed to have trust funds or at least rent control. We needed real jobs.

There was publishing, but neither of us could stomach the thought of cranking out jacket copy for acquaintances who beat us to a deal. Advertising? We couldn’t live with ourselves.

There was one thing we cared about almost as much as our art. Eight years of idiocracy was finally staggering to an end, and we were following the election like it was March Madness. Edwards was the best on domestic issues, but how would his hair play in Iowa? Obama was the most literary, but what’s so audacious about hope anyway? Nationalizing health care, legalizing pot—now that would be audacious. While our friends were busy making numbers at each other’s dive bar readings, we stayed home to watch the debates and scream abuse at Blitzer. When C-SPAN got too boring, we switched to The West Wing on DVD.

So that was it—we would be speechwriters. It seemed doable. Her uncle was a big-time fundraiser who was still holding out for Gore but knew all the major candidates. Major, minor, even the nut from Alaska—it didn’t matter to us. We just wanted to get out of my studio, where the stove was so close to the bed, smoke from a salmon dinner would waft into our dreams, and the shut-in next door pounded the wall with her shoe when we fucked.

The problem was we were late in the game. Staffs were already set for most of the campaigns, and even if they weren’t, you don’t just waltz into a job writing speeches or even press releases for a presidential wannabe—not even the nut from Alaska, not without a serious resume, uncle or no uncle. Did we want to answer phones in Manchester, stuff envelopes in Tampa? That was doable.

But, of course we didn’t. So we adjusted our expectations. We’d do what the bumper stickers said: act local. That’s what you do if you really want to make a difference. Did we want to make a difference? The more we talked about it, the more it seemed we did.

Her uncle got her into the press office at the Economic Development Corporation, a quasi-governmental outfit in a sleek glass skyscraper near Wall Street. Its mission wasn’t clear to us. The principal there was an investment guru turned professor, but the communications director told her their real objective was to make the mayor look good. I thought that would bother her, but instead it seemed to excite her in a way I couldn’t grasp. She showed me the shiny new Blackberry they’d issued her. I held it like it was the only one in the world. I didn’t even own a cell.

It took me another couple of months to find a job of my own. Every day, she came home to find me at her beat-up desk, still in my sweats. She clenched her jaw and sighed through her nose when she saw the pile of newly minted pages on the floor by my feet. By the time I got the interview with the borough president, I would’ve taken anything. They asked me why I was interested in the position, what I thought were the most important issues facing Brooklynites, why I hadn’t considered a career in journalism. I tried to sound idealistic and informed, though I didn’t understand why any of it mattered. This was a writing job, and I’d taken a writing test. Wasn’t that enough? Maybe, in the end, it was.

She wrote a press release announcing I’d got the job and sent it to our friends and families. It said Rob Lowe had asked permission to trail me so he could “learn a thing or two” for his West Wing role. For the rest of the day, I felt like I was full of light.


I came home at the end of my first week to find her curled up on our bed, a fat book pinned under her elbow. We were always reading, always researching. I had my world histories, she had her university press studies of saddle-making and steer-roping. On weekends, when it was nice enough for the park, I’d switch to magical realism and she’d dip into Cormac McCarthy. But after a year of living together, of letting our collections mingle and merge, I could tell this was a book I’d never seen before. I leaned over her, and she showed me the spine: Greatest Speeches of the 20th Century. My shoulders slumped.

“I went shopping,” she said and pulled a long cardboard box from under the bed.

My throat tightened as I opened it. Inside were two silk ties, one a deep indigo with small white stars, the other gold with white sunbursts.

“Wow,” I said.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. I’m just tired.”

She took the box from me and laid her hand on the back of my neck. I thought for a second she was going to pick me up by the scruff.

“This is real life now,” she said. “Don’t be scared of success.”

In bed that night, I slid my hand into her thong, but I was half-hoping she wouldn’t feel like it. She didn’t.


The Blackberry wouldn’t stop buzzing, pushing itself across the desk like a legless crab, clinging to life.


We were sitting at opposite ends of her desk, trying to work. I’d given up on my reincarnation love story. After a month in the real world, I was having trouble relating to it. I wasn’t short on material, though. Every day offered a new gem: the principal giving an interview on gang violence from under a helmet at the hair salon; the press secretary throwing a chair at a rival during a council hearing. That night, I was getting started on a noir tale called “The Advance Man.” She was still working on her cowboy stuff, but only in listless fits and false starts. The fucking Blackberry wouldn’t give us a break.

“Just leave it,” I said.

“I can’t. We’re announcing a major deal in Brooklyn next week. I’m doing the PowerPoint.”

“Do it at work.”

“This is going to be great for the city. New development, new investment, new jobs.”

“Sounds like the PowerPoint writes itself.”

“Some small businesses are getting screwed. Just a few auto body shops, this one storage place. But the community activist types are going to freak. So we have to get our shit together.”

She pressed the Blackberry to her ear; I imagined it slurping the warmth out of her to charge its battery. I grabbed the remote, my device of choice. No use trying to be creative if she was going to turn our home into a satellite office. We had paused an episode of The West Wing the night before so she could appease the Blackberry. I picked up in mid-scene. For reasons I couldn’t recall, sad sack Toby was expounding on free trade.

“Food is cheaper. Clothes are cheaper. Steel is cheaper. Cars are cheaper. Phone service is cheaper. You feel me building a rhythm here? That’s because I’m a speechwriter, I know how to make a point. It lowers prices and raises income. Do you see what I did with ‘lowers’ and ‘raises’ there? It’s called the science of listener attention. We did repetition, we did floating opposites, and here comes the one that’s not like the others. Ready? Free trade stops wars … and we figure out how to fix the rest.”

I thought, this must be how I got the idea writers belong in government. I wanted to tell her what I was thinking, but she was talking with her free hand pressed against her free ear. I turned off the DVD and the screen filled with clips of candidates on the stump. Iowa was days away, and they were making their “closing arguments.” I listened for the rhythm, the repetition, the floating opposites. All I heard was noise, country lawyers and B-list actors tripping over “Ahmadinejad,” choking on “Ethanol.”

These were the principals.


On our walk to the subway the next morning, I tried to hold her hand, but she yanked it away, said I was going to make us late. It ate at me all day. I knew I had to do something to stop what was happening. By the time she got home, I thought I’d figured it out.

“We should go away this weekend,” I said.


“Anywhere. We’ll just rent a car and drive.”

She rolled her eyes like I was telling a joke she’d heard a thousand times.

“And stay at the Motel Six?”

“We had fun last time.”

Her look made me doubt my memory.

“That was last time,” she said. “Don’t you want more?”

“Tell me what to do,” I said. “Is it weekends in Paris now?”

“I’m dying to go to Paris.”

“When I sell my novel.”

I heard my own voice; it didn’t sound convincing.

She said, “There’s a good government conference in Florence this spring. My boss wants to take me.”

“That’s work,” I said.

She turned away, chin-first.

We never raised our voices for fear of the crazy neighbor. I didn’t want to be the first, but I could feel a seam ripping open, a sharp note.

“Isn’t it?”

When she looked at me again, her face had changed, the anger in her eyes burning off tears.

“What are you asking? Am I thinking of fucking my boss?”

Too late now. The neighbor was in for a show.

“Well?” I asked.

“Okay, yeah, I’m thinking of fucking my boss.”

“You’re thinking of having fucked him or you’re thinking of fucking him in the future?”

She snorted.

“Such a writer,” she said.

“I need to know.”

“We haven’t done it yet, but he wants to.”

“Do you want to?”

“I don’t know.”

I let her answer weigh on the silence. The rattle of a garbage truck upset the balance.

“We had fun,” she said after a while. “We were a good grad school couple. Maybe we’re not a good real life couple.”

“Just give me time to get used to it,” I said.

“Do you even want to get used to it?”

I didn’t answer. She pressed her fingers to her eyelids.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything,” she said. “I’m tired. I don’t want to talk about it anymore tonight.”

So we stopped talking, and like a real adult couple, we turned off the light and went our separate ways, settling into thoughts of what we had to do tomorrow, our lives apart.


The press secretary eyed me as he bobbed up and down, scratching his back against the doorframe of his office.

“You’ve got the killer instinct,” he said. “You’re going to be good at this.”

I waited.

“I’ll make some calls,” he said. “You get me draft remarks for the presser.”

The remarks came more easily than any story I’d ever written. I’d been thinking about it all night.

“We’re here today because small businesses have always found a home in Brooklyn. We embrace their independent spirit.

“But the Economic Development Corporation doesn’t care about that spirit. To them, small businesses are just numbers on a screen to be moved around or wiped out as they see fit. Now it’s our small businesses that are in their way.

“They’re going to come here talking about investment and jobs. But we’re going to stay true to our independent spirit. When they talk about luxury condos, we’re going to stand up for our brownstones. When they talk about office towers and mega malls, we’re going to protect our churches and shop fronts.

“When they come in their suits and ties, we’re going to stand up as one and say, ‘Fuggedaboutit!’”


I expected her to see it in the AP Daybook—tomorrow, the borough president would lead a protest outside her precious development site. I was looking forward to her reaction, seeing her rage, the two of us emptying ourselves out.

But if she knew, she didn’t let on. And that was fine with me. She’d find out tomorrow when her office went into panic mode. In the meantime, I felt stronger, looser. For the first time in months, life wasn’t just happening to me.

“You’re in a good mood,” she said. She sounded almost disappointed.

“I had a good day at work,” I said. “I’m enjoying my success.”

That night we fucked like animals, her Blackberry trembling somewhere beneath us.