By: Alan Swyer
What hurt Lenny Greene even more than his wife’s announcement that she was moving out less than six months after their twenty-fifth anniversary was the reason Betsy gave: “I finally found someone who makes me laugh.”
For Lenny, who prided himself on knowing virtually every joke worth repeating, many of which happened to be his own creations, that kind of dig hurt far worse than a trifecta of a kidney stone, a migraine, and dysentery.
Compounding Lenny’s pain was the irony that the guy in question was not a comedian, a comic actor, or a literary satirist. Betsy’s new paramour, for whom she was walking away from a marriage that encompassed a daughter named Lily who only recently relocated to New York for her first post-college job, a golden retriever named Lucy, plus hundreds – no, thousands – of memories, was of all things a periodontist. When, Lenny asked himself, did Marvin Schlachter make Betsy laugh? While poking her with Novocain?
Did Schlacter, Lenny went on to wonder, know and respect “The Rule of Three,” according to which a joke, to achieve maximum effectiveness, must be told three different times with minor variations – the first and second to build tension, the third to provide a release? Less than three, as those in the know understood, sells the joke short, while more than three backfires. And was the periodontist aware that certain words are intrinsically amusing, while others are not? Chicken, for example, invariably gets a laugh, whereas pigeon doesn’t. Lollygag succeeds, but not dawdle. Woebegone scores, while sad and miserable consistentlyflop.
And who – Marvin Schlacter or him – had a career selling gags to comics, crafting monologues for talk show hosts, winning Writers Guild Awards for sitcoms, and writing two feature films (one Lenny considered to be worthy of credit; the other, due to a tone deaf director and lousy casting, blame)?
Instead of easing up on Lenny, Betsy doubled down with another painful contrast. What also attracted her to her new beau was that at last she’d found someone who was impetuous, impulsive, and above all spontaneous.
Did that mean, Lenny asked himself, that the periodontist was impetuous, impulsive, and spontaneous while treating Betsy’s gingivitis?
Though aware that a slew of decisions lay ahead, not the least of which was whether the house he and Betsy owned would need to be sold, Lenny found himself searching for pluses in his new reality. First and foremost, with Betsy gone he could finally read the sports sections of both the LA Times and the New York Times over breakfast without having to make small talk or hear about the foibles and misadventures of her circle of friends. Also, he could at last watch ballgames in the living room instead of being consigned to the guest bedroom, which he used as a home office. Plus he could blast the vintage vinyl he loved to find at swap meets – Solomon Burke, Nina Simone, Thelonious Monk, Jacques Brel, and Cyndi Lauper – day or night with impunity. And, when dining with friends, he wouldn’t sense Betsy rolling her eyes as he told stories she’d heard before about the likes of Leno, Jennifer Aniston, Conan, or Ted Danson.
Other benefits also came to mind. No longer would Lenny have to go from room to room turning off lights Betsy left on. Nor would he discover teapots overflowing with water from faucets she’d forgotten about. Or be forced to come to the rescue when a pot whose contents had evaporated was on the verge of igniting after being left unattended on a red hot burner.
Though Lenny recognized that he himself was hardly the world’s foremost catch, nor in truth was he anywhere near the worst. He didn’t drool, he had a full set of teeth, and he still had most of the hair on his head. His snores, as best he knew, could not be heard as for away as Downey or Oxnard. Though opinionated, his opinions were well-informed. In contrast to many – or perhaps most – of the guys he knew, he had never been one for carousing or cheating. And unlike other comedy practitioners who became superannuated upon nearing the age of fifty, Lenny hadn’t succumbed to bitterness about getting only an occasional call to do punch-ups, or to supply quips for award shows and celebrity roasts.
Sadly, all of that thinking provided little solace or balm.
Nor did a much appreciated call from his daughter Lily, who, though reluctant to take sides, was willing to hop a flight to Los Angeles if being with him would help.
Lenny’s hope of hibernating alone was interrupted two days later when a friend dragged him to a local deli. “What’s the secret to a happy marriage?” Al Jacobson asked once their orders were taken.
“I give up,” responded a dispirited Lenny.
“A woman who can cook and clean – a woman who’s a freak in bed – a woman who’s got tons of bucks – as long as the three of ’em never meet.”
“Al –” groaned Lenny.
“And why is a blowjob like Eggs Benedict?”
“I give up.”
“They’re the two things no Jewish guy ever gets at home.”
“Is this supposed to make me feel better?” wondered Lenny as a waitress arrived with their bagels and lox.
“All humor’s about a man in trouble, right?” countered Jacobson. “It’s our way of fighting back.”
“And if I don’t feel like fighting?”
“Then know what?” replied Jacobson. “It’s time to get laid.”
“Forger it,” said Lenny. “In LA guys over forty might as well be invisible.”
Two mornings later, Lenny’s attempt at sequestering was again interrupted when Herman Callands, best known for writing Black sitcoms – and with whom Lenny spent many Saturday mornings shooting baskets at a nearby park – knocked on the door.. “There’s nothing like Sidecar donuts to change your way of seeing the world,” Callands announced, displaying a baker’s dozen. plus containers of coffee.
“I’m not in the mood,” responded Lenny.
“Tough shit!” stated Callands with a smile.”I’m not gonna let you sit around doing nothing but licking your wounds.”
“Isn’t this what you did for me when Darlene dumped me?”
“And when Kimberly did the same?”
Again Lenny nodded.
“And when Jennifer walked out?”
“I thought you got rid of her,” protested Lenny.
“Just what I need,” teased Callands, “a white guy with a memory.”
Lenny’s next intrusion came later that week when, amid the calls he was trying to duck or ignore, came one from a childhood friend who, like Lenny, had become a SoCal resident. “You going?” asked Jimmy Chesare.
“To our high school reunion.”
“Not a chance.”
“Our 30th“ urged Chesare. “How can you not go?”
“No way I’m flying to Jersey when I don’t even feel like driving for takeout.”
“I’m gonna keep bugging you,” promised Chesare.
“Lot’s of luck,” said Lenny, ending the conversation.
As days turned to weeks, then weeks to months, even while juggling legal and financial matters owing to the separation, Lenny fielded frequent suggestions by phone, email, and text about his love life, or the lack thereof. Friends, both male and female, offered to fix him up, or to include him in gatherings where there would be an abundance of unattached women. A couple of poker friends went so far as to suggest trips to message parlors, while a film editor named Jon Davies slipped him the number of an escort service. Then there was the cinematographer he’d worked with over the years – Mel Sloan – who proposed a jaunt to a brothel in Tijuana.
Each time, Lenny’s response was “I’m just not ready.”
Though others assumed that “not ready” owed to Lenny’s sadness, anger, or befuddlement stemming from the dissolution of his marriage, that was far from the entire truth. Not having been out with another woman since he started living with Betsy well before their marriage, Lenny’s awareness of contemporary mores – the how-to aspects – especially since his daughter went off to college, was based primarily on what he gleaned from movies and TV. When it came to dating, and even sex in the 21st Century, that led to an uneasiness that was compounded by the fact that, except for a couple of appointments with a female dermatologist, he hadn’t taken his pants off in front of another woman in what felt like an eternity.
In a business where, as Lenny occasionally joked, Perquisites are requisites, in addition to expensive meals, first-class travel, and an overabundance of swag during his heyday of writing and occasionally producing sitcoms, he’d had more than his share of come-ons, invitations, and even outright propositions from actresses and assistants, as well as an aspiring writer or two. Though tempted, never once did he yield to temptation, a fact he was beginning to rue.
As someone who tried not to live his life out loud, Lenny had no desire for forays into romance becoming fodder for his friends, no matter how well-meaning they might be. Having spent much of his writing career chronicling the awkwardness, clumsiness, and ridiculousness of relations between the sexes, it was out of the purview of those he knew that he wanted to proceed.
Never at ease in the bar scene, Lenny had no desire to start learning the ways and means of that world. Nor had he ever been comfortable chatting up women in bookstores, markets, or coffee houses. Virtually every one of his serious involvements, he came to understand, had evolved through friendship. As a basketball player in high school, that meant a cheerleader named Joanie. In college, the common ground was the film society, first with a blonde – Cheryl – then a redhead – Angie. After moving to LA, a yoga teacher who had changed her name from Jane to Ariel was his neighbor before becoming his steady. She was followed by effervescent Polly, who was a production assistant on the first show to give him a break. Finally came Betsy, who kept pulling her Honda, day after day, into Lenny’s underground parking space until he finally rang her doorbell to complain.
But all that was ancient history, which meant that unless Lenny wanted to remain lonely –and celibate – it was time to enter the modern world.
Lenny’s first explorations of internet dating sites left him stunned, bleary-eyed, and more depressed than before. It was Jimmy Chesare, calling to bug him again about the high school reunion, who inadvertently gave Lenny an education. “Ever go on Match.com or any of those other dating sites?”
“Never,” answered Lenny.
“It’s amazing. For age, you almost always have to add ten years. For weight, subtract ten of fifteen pounds. For photos, assume they’re minimum five – and sometimes ten – years old. For interests? They pull stuff out of a hat. Women who never go to the beach suddenly adore surfing and scuba diving. Those whose reading consists of posts on Facebook, or something at the supermarket, suddenly love Jennifer Egan or even Marcel Proust.”
“And the guys don’t lie?” asked Lenny.
“Who, me?” responded Chesare with a chortle. “Didn’t you and I just turn forty?”
“Now I’ll tell one. So if there’s so much lying, why do you go on ’em?”
“Because” explained Chesare, “everything we faced growing up has been reversed.”
“When we were eighteen or nineteen back in Jersey, who were the chasers? Us. But out here, especially today, with so many guys taken, or emotionally members of the walking wounded, or just plain lame, it’s the women in pursuit in ways we never would have dared.”
“Don’t exaggerate,” insisted Lenny.
“Exaggerate? There are smart, attractive women – I mean nice ones, not whack jobs – who haven’t had a date in months, or maybe even years. I’m telling you, for a guy who’s not a druggie or a drunk, and who’s maybe got a couple of bucks – and on top of that is straight – it’s like being given the keys to the candy store!”
Even after hearing his friend’s sales pitch, Lenny hesitated before entering what he apprehensively viewed as terra incognita. One day went by, then another, then a couple more, during which Lenny vacillated between curiosity and an uncharacteristic trepidation.
It was only after a Tuesday morning call from Chesare – one in which he called Lenny first a chicken, then a wuss, then went on to tease him about joining the priesthood or becoming a monk – that Lenny decided to see for himself how much his friend’s claims were either hyperbole or outright bullshit.
Instead of lying about his age or his weight – or posting a ten-year-old photo instead of a current one – Lenny signed up on a dating site without including a single fib or tweak, while limiting his desired geographic area to the minimum.
Eager to prove to Chesare that without understatements or overstatements there would be few results or none at all, Lenny left the house with the dog, and drove to the beach, where he proceeded to walk Lucy all the way from Santa Monica to the Venice pier and back.
Willfully avoiding his computer once he and the dog returned home, Lenny downed some iced tea and took a shower. Then he played ball in the backyard with Lucy before finally strolling into his home office.
Searching for ammunition with which to bust Chesare’s chops, Lenny went on the website and wound up stunned, flabbergasted, downright astounded. Instead of the at most two or three responses he assumed would be there if he was lucky, it seemed that virtually every unattached woman imaginable had responded, and not just within the narrow geographic range he requested. Astonishingly, there were even invitations for him to visit women as far away as Wyoming, Alaska, and even Paris.
Shaking his head, Lenny promptly called Jimmy Chesare. “Tell me the truth,” he demanded. “Did you have a hand in this?”
“The responses on a dating site.”
“You finally did it?” Chesare asked. “Told you, didn’t I? Now comes the fun part, picking and choosing.”
Feeling overwhelmed, Lenny made no immediate effort to pick or choose, waiting a day-and-a-half, during which the number of responses increased exponentially.
Dismayed not merely by the volume, but also by what was clearly his obliviousness to the world outside of his own little bubble, Lenny finally decided it was time to determine if this process was for him or not. The initial winnowing and narrowing, based on geography, age, and (though it struck him as shallow) looks, was relatively easy. That still, however, left him with what looked like six or seven months minimum of potential dates.
Given what Chesare told him about the absence of truthfulness, Lenny realized that trying to be scientific about the selection process would likely be no better than playing Eeny, meeny, miny, moe. So he arbitrarily selected six possibilities, each of whom responded in record time.
In what he later termed “speed dating,” Lenny scheduled six dinners on six consecutive evenings. Despite his attempt to make notes so as to distinguish each woman from the others, quickly the dates became such a blur that after a point what he remembered most were the meals that he ate: Italian, French, Japanese, Chinese, Persian, and Thai.
Amanda, as best Lenny could remember, loved movies (“Wonder Woman,” “Titanic,” “Bohemian Rhapsody”), but not those that mattered to Lenny (“Casablanca,” “Breathless,” “The Lady Eve”), meaning that she was a moviegoer, whereas he was a film buff.
Stephanie, who immediately got Lenny’s attention with a nearly see-through blouse, downed almost a full bottle of Saint-Emilion herself before asking aloud if he’d like to make plans for a dirty weekend together.
Michelle, who initially seemed reserved, wound up charming Lenny as the meal progressed, then lost him, as they waited for dessert, by announcing that she considered Donald Trump sexy.
Jennifer, who announced that she was thinking of changing her name to Gypsy, insisted upon sitting next to him at the restaurant, then shocked him by putting her hand on his crotch during the main course.
Brenda, who reported that it was almost nine months since her last fling, struck Lenny as being remarkably grounded and down to earth until she mentioned multiple UFO sightings.
Then there was Marisa, who caught Lenny off-guard while he was about to swallow some Thai soup by pointing a finger at him. “I hope you know,” she said.
“Know what?” Lenny replied.
“That I’m the best blowjob on the Westside.”
Lenny spewed his Tom Kha Gai!
“So it was great?” asked Chesare as he began to debrief Lenny over dim sum that weekend.
“Great? I don’t know. Interesting? Different? Weird? For sure.”
“So what’s next?”
“A prescription for Viagra?”
“I mean other than that,” stated Chesare.
“Some time to recover and contemplate.”
“Contemplate why?” wondered Chesare.
“Because they all keep pushing to get serious.”
“Isn’t it nice to be wanted?”
“From one extreme to the other,” lamented Lenny. “What I probably ought to do is go out of town for a bit to get my head together.”
“So come with me to the reunion.”
“That’s all I need,” moaned Lenny.
“What’s that mean?”
“If I haven’t seen people in a million years,” Lenny said, “maybe there’s a reason.”
Hot and sweaty, Lenny returned home from shooting hoops that afternoon to find Betsy waiting for him at the front door. “Can we talk?” she asked.
“You. Me. Climate change. Immigration –“
“Truthfully,” said Lenny, “I’d rather take a shower.”
“Lenny, I fucked up.”
“You mean the periodontist no longer has you laughing? Or startling you with his spontaneity?”
“You’re being cruel,” stated Betsy.
“I’m cruel? Which one of us moved out?”
“Can we please talk civilly?”
“Sure, but not now.”
“When?” insisted Betsy.
“When I get back.”
“Back from where?”
“The East Coast,” said Lenny.
“Am I allowed to ask why you’re headed there?”
“For a high school reunion, and hopefully to have dinner with Lily.”
“Wait a second,” said Betsy. “Aren’t you the one who always said if you haven’t seen people in ages, maybe there’s a reason? When did you start planning this?”
“Guess who decided to be impetuous,” answered Lenny, not letting on that it was only because of Betsy’s questioning that he made the decision.
Standing in a lonely corner of the hotel banquet hall in New Jersey where the high school reunion was underway, Lenny was wondering if he was out of his mind for flying 3,000 miles when a striking woman with spiky hair approached. “I’m still waiting,” she surprised him by saying.
“Waiting for what?”
“For you to ask me out.”
“Lizzie?” Lenny asked after eyeing her more closely. “Lizzie Fielding?”
“These days it’s Liz,” she replied. “I never figured out why you never asked.”
“All these years later? Sure.”
“I was intimidated,” Lenny admitted.
“You were the prettiest girl in the school… the city… the county… and maybe the whole country.”
“You kidding? If guys on the moon – or even Mars – had telescopes, they’d probably say so, too. But anyway, what would you have seen in me?”
“You were smart, nice, and unbelievably funny. And know what? You’re still funny.”
“Not smart and nice?” Lenny joked.
“TBD. But funny, for sure.”
“How would you know?”
“I’ve been following your career since the beginning,” Liz explained. “And thanks to you being here, I can even justify stealing the time to come to this oh-so-exciting event.”
Lenny was momentarily puzzled. “Steal in what way?”
“I leave for Paris tomorrow night.”
“Better than Afghanistan or the Sahara,” quipped Lenny. “Because?”
“I’m in fashion, and there’s an important show there.” Liz grew thoughtful for a moment, then spoke. “Feel like doing something nuts?”
Lenny smiled. “The best ravioli and chicken parm anywhere.”
“How about we bolt?” asked Liz.
Entering what long ago was their stomping grounds, Liz and Lenny glanced around at the restaurant’s unchanged décor before led to a table and presented with menus.
“No need,” Liz remarked to the hostess. “We know what we want.”
Once their orders were given, Liz turned to Lenny. “Married?”
“Not exactly,” Lenny answered.
“That’s a new equivocation.”
“My wife left because I wasn’t funny or spontaneous,” Lenny explained.
“That’s nuts. But why ‘not exactly’?”
“Suddenly she wants back.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, how do you feel?”
“Mr. Lack Of Spontaneity got on an airplane the moment she hit me with it.”
“Surprised her, huh?”
Lenny nodded. “How about you?”
“Moral of the story,” said Liz with a shrug, “never marry your boss. End of marriage, job, etc. Kids?”
“A twenty-three-year-old named Lily who recently moved to Brooklyn. You?”
“A twenty-five-year-old named Greg who’s also living there.”
“And a significant other? Partner? Roommate? Great-and-good friend?”
“My son or me?” asked Liz.
“He’s got a girlfriend from Thailand. I’ve got a Labradoodle. It’s really nice to see you.”
“Even if I was too shy to ask you out?”
“Depends,” said Liz.
“Whether you’re still too shy.”
When Lenny and Liz returned to the hotel where the reunion was held, the two of them looked around to see if the coast was clear, spotting none of their erstwhile classmates.
Silence reigned until suddenly Lenny started to laugh.
“What’s so funny?” Liz asked.
“In screenwriting terms,” replied Lenny, “this is what I would call the Now What? Moment.”
“Okay, so now what?”
“Well, you can go to your room and me to mine.”
“We can let our imaginations run wild.”
“Only our imaginations?” teased Liz. “Please tell me you’re not about to be intimidated again.”
“Well,” said Lenny. “I’ll happily come to your room – or have you come to mine – on one condition.”
“That tomorrow I can fly with you to Paris.”
“The guy whose wife left him because he’s never spontaneous –”
“Or funny –”
“Wants to get on a plane with me to Paris?”
“Is that a no?” asked Lenny.
“Hell, no!” gushed Liz, throwing her arms around him.