He had a breath spritzer, and we called him Alex P. Keaton behind his back.
J., the guy who came up with the nickname, dated E., my best friend and college roommate, and in high school, we’d set the periodic table to pop tunes in three-part harmony. We were ambitious—honors students with scholarships and goals—but we liked to include others in the joke, so there was nothing mean in the nickname. Still, there was something funny—as in laugh at, not with—about this kid, H.K.
Short. Dark hair, side part. Tinted glasses. Khakis. And that spritzer. Chicka Chick. He pulled it out mid-conversation the first time we met, and I couldn’t tell if he was clueless or brave. Act with confidence, and the confidence will make your actions right.
In the recent photo I’ve seen of H.K., the one that comes up on movie sites reviewing his “groundbreaking” effort, he’s ditched the glasses, lost the spritzer. He must have other tactics now for his breath, which was stale and heavy. Listerine strips implanted on the inside of his cheeks. Slide fresh ones in when morning comes, and you’ll coo directions into Kate Winslet’s ear for another twenty-four hours. Because that’s who he directed in his sophomore effort. Kate fucking Winslet. I spent two hours reading Google results after I heard the news.
I met H.K. in Honors Accounting 101, fluorescent lights bearing down on our go-go late-eighties optimism.
Still, he kept popping up like he didn’t know me.
“Not to sound like a bad pickup line, but has anyone ever told you that you look like Jennifer Gray from Dirty Dancing?” It was a week later, and we were the first students to show for a history study group. The library study room, although open, had no lights on yet.
I’d heard that line a lot my high school senior year, once from an old man on an airplane.
“A real homely girl,” he closed the compliment with his wife right by his side. “But she’s got a spark in her.”
Like most of the people I knew—including H.K., who makes a big deal about this in every profile I’ve read about him—my family had religion, not movies. So I hadn’t even understood the kid who first said it to me.
“She’s a movie star,” he’d explained, and that’s all I’d needed. The idea that someone out there, my double, was living a charmed life. Every time I heard it, I liked how it sounded like the start of a blind date.
I started taking late-night walks with H.K. He spent most of his time with E., J., and me—meals in the cafeteria, study sessions in the college library. Still, things had picked up between E. and J. So when they took off together each night after our evening accounting class, my path with H.K. seemed clear. Our college—small, parochial, protected—filled the center of a New England town where the biggest crime news hailed from over three hundred years earlier: Mary Rowlandson’s capture by “Indians” during King Philip’s War. Ten o’clock ambles were safe.
One favorite route cut through a neighborhood, right by what E. and I had dubbed “The Dream House.” A small cape cod on a hill, lights on in the front windows. E. and I reconciled through it our dreams of high-flying ad exec career plans and domestic bliss—ran down the hill in our minds to embrace ideal husbands. We’d give up our lucrative jobs for a few years to raise their perfect little babies. H.K. was never that man.
Still, it didn’t hurt to walk with him. And argue.
“You mean you like everyone that you love? Distant grandparents? Awkward cousins?” I fell too often to questions for my defense.
“I mean I’d look long and hard at what I meant by that word ‘love.’”
He won, but I knew who was out of step. He was formal. We all were heading for casual.
“If we were dating,” he said two nights later, “I wouldn’t let you walk next to the street. A man should never let the lady that he’s with walk unprotected.”
“It’s a neighborhood road, idiot.” But I didn’t push the point. He’d let me take the street side without a fight.
“Listen,” he stopped on the third night. “We should watch ourselves.” His breath filled the autumn night, but he didn’t look so bad anymore. “I’m concerned about us hanging out all the time with E. and J.”
I just let him talk.
“You know. Since the four of us spend a lot of time together, and since E. and J. are dating. I just don’t want people to think . . . .”
He transferred to Harvard after our first semester.
But first. Manipulated class officer elections. Won “President” for his Harvard application; bumped J. down to his Vice. Tried recruiting E. and me as their photocopy-making “assistants.” Fell in love—as everyone did back then—with E.
All three of us kept our distance from H.K. after that.
Still, when he left, we had to hand it to him. We were ambitious, smart, but nobody we knew ever had tried to make that dream come true. He was our success story. Think The Secret of My Success. Starring Michael J. Fox.
Or what E. reminds me of now, when I call to dish about the New Yorker piece I saw about H.K.’s movie.
“Don’t you remember how he saw himself as Charlie Sheen’s character? In Wall Street?”
It makes me remember how J. came across a story—right after H.K. left, right before E. broke up with him, right before it ended up being E.—just E.—and me.
“H.K. ran into problems in high school,” he told us. “Sold the band’s instruments, or some scam like that. Told them he was helping them, but pocketed the money for himself.” We had gone up to New Hampshire that Sunday for pancakes, but the wait was 20 minutes. So we were sitting outside on a bench in the cold. E. had my head on her lap, but she’d been pushing J. away, who was hanging all over her. Then J. told us that story, I sat up, and E. pulled him close. Our breath sent out plumes as we laughed.
Still, I never knew if I could believe him. J. got desperate when E. started losing interest in him. But who’d blame him? He never quite got E., never quite got what she was trying to become. But really. Who’d blame him? Not even me.
Last month, when H.K. popped up on my computer screen, I looked up E.’s number.
We’d fallen out of touch a long time ago—even before E. got married during the middle of our senior year. Different paths, different interests. E. dating the guy she later would marry. Me working to bring up my G.P.A.—I’d messed up some classes at the end of my freshman year.
But then H.K. showed up—the name, the announcements, then the face. We’ve talked almost every day since.
We’ve got time. E.’s been at home with her kids for six years. I’m between jobs, and my husband works late every night. So I’ve been thinking I might visit her up in Saugus for a while.
I still haven’t told her my plan.
“Technically innovative,” she reads from the New Yorker. “Masterful directing.”
“He lives with his wife in L.A.” I’ve reached the end. “They’ve got a dog. They walk it every night.” Then, “Hey, E. Remember that house?” She doesn’t say anything. But I know we’re still connected.
I don’t even mean how we decorated the whole thing. Every room, one by one. Night after night walking past there, together, that year after she and J. broke up. Once, after the house had been put up for sale, we found a door unlocked in the back. E. wouldn’t follow me in, so I came back to her in the entry, and then we’d stayed there, just sat there, for almost an hour. Later, the women’s dean called us into her office. She knew it was the week before finals, but it was the third time--she’d been counting--that we’d come back so late. She had prayer with us because “Girls can feel temptation for each other too.” Then assigned us to different rooms.
All I mean is —. “There’s a picture. Hey, E. Check it out. Would you check out H.K.?”
One page over: side profile, chin on his hand. Not like he’s resting. Like he’s got somewhere to go. And he needs, more than anything, for you to believe that.