The first thing Tristan did when she landed at O’Hare was order a gin-and-tonic. She marveled at its simple beauty: a rounded glass of clear, sparkling liquid pregnant with a little boulder of ice. The choice was hers to make: There was the way the G and T would bite her tongue with the pleasure-pain of scratching an itch before making its warm ripple down her body, or there was trying to unpack the reasons she’d kept her commitment to the convention so soon after Charlie.
A sip might only ignite her defenses; she would leave the drink unfinished and buy a ticket home. So her first drink was generous. It began to dissolve the question of why. Sipping the rest of the drink finished the task. She had a second.
In the cab ride to the convention hotel, she told herself that would be it. There was dinner tonight with the Kids’ Television Network gang, from which she could politely duck out early. Tomorrow she was putting in a few hours at the KTN booth on the convention floor, a geek’s paradise of comics and TV and movies—hardly a place for triggers. Saturday morning was the KTN panel; the only thing she’d be jonesing for then is coffee. Then it was back home. Simple.
The convention was already at full-tilt when Tristan reached check-in. She went unrecognized by the hordes of teenagers who’d descended on downtown Chicago to salivate over, what? Comic book artists and minor Star Wars actors? There existed a class of geek who would geek over her, or else why had she been asked to come? She tried to imagine them: men in their forties (it had been—my God!—thirty years!) who would blush and ask for a picture. And why not? She’d been the star of Kids’ Television Network during its five-year run, even written some jokes and sketches in the final season when she was only seventeen. She and her castmates had been beloved in the eighties. Like a lot of other flavors from that Rubik’s Cube-colored decade, KTN was in demand by the adults who’d lived their Izod-clad adolescence through it. She’d been sent a copy of the just-released Kids’ Television Network Volume I DVD; the Season One cast was featured on the box, and she alone—at fourteen, maybe fifteen—smiled back from an honored place on disc one. She would have a lot of smiling to do this weekend, something she hadn’t done since Charlie.
She asked the bellman for ice and drank the gin from the minibar. The bed welcomed her and she nodded off. Her phone’s buzzing disturbed her some time later. A voicemail from Mac. The only adult actor on KTN, he’d been a mentor to the young cast. A working actor on stage and screen, he’d put the same effort in the oafish principal in the school sketches as he had in King Lear. But King Lear never made him a star.
‘My darling Tristan! I do hope you’ll allow me the honor of escorting you to dinner this evening. I believe the reservations are for eight, so I’ll meet you in the lobby at seven-thirty. I’ll be the handsome gentleman in the brilliant blue scarf. Ta ta!’
Mac’s voice left a genuine smile on Tristan’s face; it surprised Tristan in the television’s reflection. There! Hold on to that!
But how could she hold that smile when her awful story was escaping the dark folds of her mind where she kept it hidden? Thought-stopping was failing. She was trapped with it until the suffocating elevator would open its doors and let her douse it at the lobby bar.
By the time Kids’ Television Network was cancelled in 1986, Tristan was drinking every day. It was easy. While the rest of KTN’s cast parlayed their fame into more acting gigs, Tristan wanted out from in front of the cameras, so she tried writing for a while. Pitch meetings were always good for a few drinks. Failing as a writer, she spent a few middling semesters at UCLA, where, at a party, she met the man she would marry a few years later. They were both high on cocaine. He helped her start the talent agency she still runs, but when she was expecting Charlie, left her for a younger woman. (Yes, Tristan was only twenty-four, but the blonde ingénue was eighteen!)
There were bright spots in her story, Charlie and the sobriety she’d achieved while carrying him first among them. They’d shared a lot of good years; Charlie was a wonderful boy, Tristan stayed sober in—of all places—Hollywood, and her agency flourished. But these bright spots were smoldering of late.
The elevator doors released her.
The lobby’s modern splendor was stained by geeks: clusters of young people in busy hoodies and sneakers talking too loudly and relaxing too familiarly. But across the room sat Mac, palms on the arms of his chair, wryly smiling, a king amused by a court of jesters. He wore a gray blazer and—as promised—a brilliant blue scarf that complimented Tristan’s dress. She smiled effortlessly back.
Before she could reach him, a man about her age, in a black t-shirt and cargo shorts, barred her way.
‘Wow! It’s really you. I’m a huge fan. Would it be okay if I got a picture?’
The man sidled up to Tristan and extended his arm for a selfie.
When Tristan reached Mac, he said, ‘Oh, Sweetheart—that was my smile you wasted on that awful man!’ He tossed his hands into his lap and collapsed his shoulders like a child.
‘I’m not sure I did smile,’ she said. ‘But I always have a smile for you.’
Mac rose from his chair and Tristan threw her arms around him. He’d been shaped like an egg standing on its small end: broad-chested, but dainty in the legs. Over time, his egg shape had been inverted: doughy in the seat, withering across the shoulders. They sat and Mac handed her a goblet.
‘Club soda with cherries, if I remember correctly,’ he said.
Mac held up a twin goblet to toast.
‘It’s so good to see you, Darling,’ he said. ‘Things have been rather dreadful lately. Off-Off-Broadway, you know.’
‘I’m just going to freshen this,’ Tristan said, holding up her glass.
‘My dear, we’ve barely sat down.’
‘I’ll be just a moment.’
When Tristan returned from the bar, Mac picked right back up.
‘I may be sixty-four, but I can still act circles around men thirty years younger. Forty!’
Tristan sipped gin, relaxed into her chair.
‘But how are you, Darling?’
After KTN, Mac had moved to New York, and Tristan lost touch with him for several years. Then, one night after she had put her infant son to bed, the phone rang and there was a warmly familiar, yet melancholy voice. Mac, she quickly realized, was Step-Nining her. She knew the steps from her own recovery, and though she knew it was the wrong thing to do, she interrupted him to tell her own story. Each felt a pleasant rush upon making this connection. Mac’s voice shed its blueness and he told her, in his you-would-not-believe-what-happened voice, about how he’d lost the love of his life to AIDS and fallen into depression and addiction and, after hitting bottom and breaking through it with his morose ass, gotten sober. You must come to New York and celebrate my one-year of sobriety, he’d demanded. I’m buying you a ticket right now. There’d been more visits, and in-between, regular phone calls (Mac steadfastly refused to use e-mail or Facebook). But they hadn’t talked in nearly a year. Not since—
‘He was getting into, God, I still don’t know what all he’d gotten into. Drinking. Pills. Probably more.’
Mac’s eyes wetted over. ‘Oh, that precious boy.’
‘I thought since I’d stayed sober his whole life, he’d be okay, you know?
‘Sweetheart, you cannot—’
Tristan leaned forward in her chair and placed a palm on Mac’s knee. Her own wet eyes looked into Mac’s.
‘I did a lot more at that age. And for even longer. I couldn’t do school, I could barely work, but I never—’ Tristan took a drink. ‘I never looked at death. I think I would’ve died had I not quit all that, but even during the worst of it, I never looked at death.’ Tristan took another drink.
‘I’m so sorry. Here I am going on about my career, when you’ve been dealing with this. You poor baby.’
‘I’m sorry. I’ve been through all this before with my therapist. And I should’ve called you.’
‘Never mind that. Look, if you’re not up for dinner, we don’t have to go.’
‘No—I’d like to.’
They got into a cab and rode quietly up Lakeshore Drive. Tristan stared across Mac’s soft body into the dark plane of the lake; Mac looked there, too.
‘I’ve been drinking gin since I got off the plane,’ Tristan admitted.
Mac confused his mouth and aired out his nostrils, as if confronting a difficult knot.
‘No one else knows about Charlie. Please keep my secret.’
‘I will. But you must stick with me this weekend, okay?’
The director and cast of Kids’ Television Network played catch-up and swapped plates of appetizers in a private room that barely contained them. Tristan and Mac’s entrance brought the room to their feet and set off a roar of applause, as if they were guests of honor. Tristan blushed. Mac, always the performer, hiked up his belt, Principal-style, and delivered his catchphrase: ‘All right you punks. You just earned detention!’ This gruff utterance was always met with a flurry of spitballs from off-camera. Tonight, Mike, the skinny wiseass, used his straw to send a wet wad of napkin into Mac’s cheek.
‘That’s it, Mr. Tippett,’ Mac said, his voice returning to its natural timbre, ‘I’m going to have to expel you!’
Mike stood and shook Mac’s hand.
‘You’re looking good, Old Man,’ he said.
‘And you haven’t aged a day.’
But Mike had indeed aged a few days; more it seemed, than the rest of the cast. He’d grown into a man of obscuring contradictions: He was bulbous and craggy, flushed and faded; to Tristan, he seemed not a day older, and a man with one foot in his grave.
As it were, there weren’t two empty seats side-by-side left. Tristan sat next to Mike; Mac was diagonal to her.
‘Oh my God, Tristan, you look amazing,’ Mike said.
‘Thank you.’ Tristan blushed, though she didn’t want to. She had seated herself right next to a huge trigger.
Mike had joined the cast in Season Two, a year older than Tristan and many years more worldly. He was detached from the whole KTN thing and never really made friends with anyone except Tristan. But when it came time to rehearse and shoot, he was a professional. He sought Mac’s instruction, was always asking him questions. And Mac praised him to Tristan. Watch out, he’d said, Or that young man will take your place as the star. He was half-kidding, but it drove Tristan to her own detachment: This show wasn’t everything. And what better place to make real her new self than with Mike?
She was in equal parts repulsed and turned on by his black eyes, his anti-prep look, the imprint of tobacco and alcohol on his lips. She bought a new wardrobe from the thrift stores he took her to. She wore thick eye-liner and -shadow when he took her to punk shows. Her new world was unabashed in all its qualities: the fashions, the sounds, the violence—all of it was in black overdrive. It was not something you dabbled in. She now understood Mike’s determination on set: He lived on eleven. She wanted that, too. She would put anything in her body Mike gave her. Beer, whiskey, pot, pills, coke. They kept this life from the squares at KTN. When Mike left after Season Three, Tristan retreated from their scene and back into the Technicolor world of her preppy castmates, but she ached for life on eleven, and found it in what remained: getting high.
Mike raised a cloudy glass—probably whiskey—to his gnarled lips. His black eyes shined too much. Tristan put his life at idling on about five these days.
‘So how are you?’ Mike asked. ‘I feel like I’ve missed so much.’
‘Let’s see…. I was married, but that was a very long time ago. A lovely son.’
When Tristan didn’t go on, Mike said, ‘I have a couple daughters. I don’t think they care much for me.’
What Tristan would give to be living on five! Where was she? On one? When a waitress came around, Tristan asked for whatever Mike was drinking.
‘Are you acting? Writing?’ Mike asked.
‘Talent agency. What about you?’
‘You were always good at reading people.’
‘Could read you, anyway.’
Tristan smiled. Her drink came, and she brought it to her lips. From the corner of her eye she caught Mac catching her. He kept the smile he was wearing for his conversation partner, but his eyes drooped in poor-baby anxiety.
‘I’m kind of surprised to see you here,’ Tristan said. ‘You were kind of above it all.’
‘Are you kidding? This was the best time of my life.’
‘Yeah. We were stars. I never had a better job than being ‘Mike’ on that silly show. And we had a lot of good times. We’d go out looking so fucked up no one recognized us.’
Tristan ordered another drink. She and Mike talked awhile to the others. As the night settled, they returned to each other.
‘You can’t still listen to that dreadful music?’ Tristan asked.
‘I’m a pretty simple guy. The same things still get me off.’ He finished his glass and might’ve winked at her. ‘It is what it is.’
‘Are you going to be okay tonight, Darling?’
Tristan was leaning sleepily against Mac in the cab.
‘Yes. I’m going to sleep as soon as I hit the bed.’
‘Promise you’ll stick with me tomorrow. We’ll have brunch, sign some autographs, then how about dinner, just the two of us?’
‘That sounds nice.’
Versions of Charlie filled the convention floor: prepubescent, hair shagging over ears and neck, drawing mom or dad along; teenage, deflated, slouching through corridors in loud packs.
Tristan hadn’t anticipated these ghost-Charlies. She had, upon waking with a brain-sickening hangover, drunk the gin from her minibar and promised that was it. At brunch, she and Mac had made plans for dinner and talked about everything except her relapse, though Mac had assured her that she could call or text him any time she needed. She promised she would. But she hadn’t known that not five minutes after arriving at the KTN table, the first ghost would announce himself with an echo of her son’s laugh, a warm sound that rose, crested, and settled like the opening of a bottle of something carbonated. She wanted to reach out and grab the boy by the bicep, tell him she would do whatever it took to help him get clean.
The ghosts were uninterested in her. While older geeks and some parents who remembered the show shared their memories, the Charlies processed by, their swag bags divining rods to the next must-see booth.
‘How’re you doing, Kid?’
Mac had arrived to take a spot at the table.
Mac turned it on when the first convention-goer, a mother who wanted to hear him do the Principal, recognized him. He was, Tristan realized, showing the way for the other half-dozen cast members present. You’re on, he seemed to be saying. Tristan found that it worked: Giving their geeks friendly thanks, writing personal notes rather than just slashing out autographs, posing for multiple pictures—it all helped blot out the ghosts.
‘I’m glad you’re here,’ Tristan told Mac during a lull.
Then one of the ghosts approached the table.
‘What’s this? Who are you?’
Tristan’s face stiffened. The kid read the banner, but it failed to return any results.
‘Is this an old show? I’ve never heard of it.’
‘Beat it, you little shit.’ Mike had arrived.
‘Thank you,’ Tristan said. ‘I need something to drink.’
‘Hair of the dog?’ Mike laughed.
Tristan playfully slapped his arm. She wandered the basement room, dodging geeks of every stripe, until she found a concession stand. She bought a large Diet Coke, then found her way to the elevators. When a door opened, she jumped inside and pushed the close-doors button before any ghosts could board. From the minibar in her room, she grabbed rum and poured it into her soda. She stirred the drink with her straw, then fixed the plastic lid back. There.
The ghosts were still on the convention floor. There were cast members she’d not had the chance to speak to last night whom she’d have to deceive today. At opposite ends of the table, telling stories while signing 5×5 postcards of the Season Two cast, were Mac and Mike. She took a seat in the middle of the table, set her cup between her feet, and drew a short line of postcard holders seeking her autograph and a handshake. She could handle it; the sweaty cup between her ankles was a talisman against everything acting upon her, an obfuscating elixir.
Tristan’s commitment at the table ended, but she lingered there with some other cast members, Mac and Mike bookending them. The afternoon produced a stream of smiling forty-somethings, sincerely pleased to share a moment with the men and women who had broadcast their teenage anxieties weekly in a burst of jokes and sketches. It reminded her of the times she was recognized by nervously gushing teenagers during KTN’s run—which happened a lot, unless she was disguised with Mike. The gratitude worked on her like the rum she’d been sipping, obscuring the pain she’d left home with and the facts of having to return and manage life without Charlie. But eventually, she drew on her straw and got only the rattle of air bubbles, and the flow of fans slowed, their susurrations reduced to occasional clunky outbursts.
Tristan looked to one side and saw that Mac was busy with a fan. His enthusiasm hadn’t waned, but he looked worn out. She looked to her other side and as soon as she caught Mike’s eye, he got up and approached her. He put his hands on her shoulders and leaned over to whisper.
‘Let’s go get a drink.’
‘I shouldn’t. I really should take care of some things. My clients don’t like me to take time off.’
‘Don’t they know you’re the star today? One drink.’
At the hotel bar, Tristan drank a G and T; Mike ordered the same. For stretches, they didn’t talk, only drank and allowed themselves to settle in their chairs. Something was sloughing off them. They quipped a little about the geeks. Drank another round. Gossiped about the other cast members. Mike asked the waiter for a plate of fries and two beers.
‘Come on. You’re figure hasn’t changed in thirty years. I think you can share some fries with me. We used to do this all the time.’
‘You’re a bad influence,’ Tristan said, but smiled.
When the fries and their beers came, the transformation was nearly complete: They could be in a club, fresh riots of noise and smoke, people pogoing.
When they were finished, Mike walked Tristan back to her room.
‘I’m going to take a nap. I have a date with Mac in a couple hours. But that was nice.’
Mike kissed her on the temple. ‘Yeah.’
Tristan wasn’t in her room for five minutes before she found herself knocking on Mike’s door. On the other side were the rhythms of a phone call winding down. Mike opened the door, met Tristan with a surprised flush.
Tristan closed the narrow distance between them and kissed his salty lips. The old yin-and-yang of repulsion and attraction bloomed all over her. But, as it had nearly thirty years ago, a need to find—or was it lose?—something within herself tipped the balance.
Tristan woke up cocooned in the bed’s thick comforter, the white noise of the AC, and the evening light glowing behind the translucent shades. She was alone. Her mouth was parched.
Mike called out from the bathroom, where he was brushing his teeth.
‘What time is it?’
‘Quarter till eight. Mac came by looking for you a while ago.’
‘Oh, no. He can’t see me here.’
‘I told him we’d had a drink and then you went back to your room to take a nap. Lie of omission, I guess.’
There was a voicemail on Tristan’s phone. She didn’t listen to it.
Mike finally came out of the bathroom. He was in an undershirt and jeans.
‘Sleep well?’ he asked.
‘Yes. I don’t know. May I take a shower?’
When Tristan came out of the shower, Mike was sitting on the bed, absentmindedly looking at the USA Weekend. There were two full tumblers on the nightstand, little beacons in the darkening room.
Tristan took one and sat on the bed next to Mike. This was clearly Mike’s fault, she thought as she nuzzled his great shoulder.
Mike put his hand on Tristan’s knee, made tender circles with his thumb.
‘Are you and Mac going to paint the town red all night, or can I see you later?’
‘Oh, I can’t.’
‘I’m starting to feel a bit used,’ Mike laughed.
‘No—I mean I can’t see Mac in this state. He’ll understand.’
‘Then I was thinking of going out to a club. Blues bar? Or maybe find some noisy shit like the old days?’
‘Let me go change. You decide.’
It was noisy shit. She’d hoped for blues and a boozy descent into obscurity: the slow blacking out of everything except her body humming like struck piano wires under Mike’s fingertips. Instead, in a club where it was too loud to talk, Tristan let Mike ply her with draft beer and a pill she swallowed without question. She didn’t know what drew forth Mike’s smile: the way his hand lay low on the small of her back, the fuzz of sound splitting their heads, or the drugs he’d taken. She’d hoped for an orgasmic eleven; she’d gotten the black overdrive of eleven instead.
At the last, before she’d resigned herself to reliving her teenage nights among the male histrionics of Hardcore and sleeping with Mike again before he returned to his wife or girlfriend or pathetic bachelorhood, a question returned to Tristan: Why did Charlie get high? Was there a wound—as he was now her wound—for which getting high was a salve? Or was he seeking something? Was there really any difference? It was all deadly reaching. But in the next moment, whatever was oozing through her veins and the pounding and fuzzing noise and Mike’s thick hands obliterated her thoughts.
Later, in Mike’s room, Tristan felt the dawning of clarity, the ghost of a question she’d been trying to resolve. But exhaustion forced it to go unsettled; Tristan slept.
When Tristan woke up, Mike was showering. Her phone lay pregnantly on the nightstand. There were now two voicemails from Mac. The first expressed, in Mac’s excited blushing, that he was waiting for her to meet him for dinner—’But you’ll probably be here any second, and I’m getting in a tizzy over nothing!’ The second had come much later: ‘Please call me. I don’t care what you’re doing or who you’re with; I just want to know that you’re all right. Love you.’
Mike came out of the bathroom wrapped in a towel.
‘Good morning,’ he said softly. ‘There’s coffee for you.’
Tristan didn’t move. How could she face Mac today? Maybe she could switch to an earlier flight.
‘I’d like,’ Mike began, half dressed, ‘to see you again. I don’t know why we haven’t stayed in touch over the years.’
‘What? My marriage is over, if that’s what you’re thinking. Long over.’
‘No. That’s not it.’
‘There a man waiting for you at home?’
‘There was only Charlie.’
At this, Mike turned away from her, finished dressing.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said.
‘For asking you to see me again. I’d really like to see you again, but the timing’s all wrong. That’s not what this weekend was supposed to be about. You just surprised me when you came into my room yesterday.’ Mike smiled. ‘Why didn’t you do that back in the day?’
‘What do you mean, ‘the timing’s all wrong’?’
Mike’s smile shrunk to a confused ball of lips.
‘I know about Charlie. Everyone knows.’
‘Since it happened. The whole cast heard. When you didn’t cancel, we decided to not bring it up unless you did. We just wanted to give you a nice weekend.’
‘Of course. He’s the one who told me about it. He knew you were never that close with the others, that you’d seek us out. We just wanted to take you back, you know? Make you smile. Is that so bad?’
‘I don’t know whether to be furious or grateful.’
‘I’ve enjoyed the time with you, if that counts for anything.’
‘I have, too.’
‘I hope Mac doesn’t hate me too much for taking up so much of it. Look, I’m going to get out of here, let you get ready. I’ll see you at the panel? Make some people laugh?’
As Mike opened the door, Tristan stopped him.
‘Did Mac also tell you I’m an addict?’
‘He didn’t mention it. But we can spot our own, can’t we?’
Tristan found the hall where the KTN panel was about to begin. She found Mike and followed him into the room and up the steps to the dais, where the rest of the KTNers were seated. She walked over to Mac.
‘I’m sorry about last night.’
‘Don’t even think about it. Are you okay?’
‘Yeah.’ Tristan nodded at the crowd. ‘It’s standing room only. The organizers didn’t appreciate what great actors they were dealing with.’ Tristan kissed Mac on the cheek. ‘Especially you and Mike.’
Over the next hour, the room warmed with laughter as Mac and Mike and all the rest—even Tristan—told the old stories that they hadn’t remembered were tucked in their memory banks waiting to be told. The best of them, upon their release into the room, stroked something in Tristan: What she felt couldn’t be reduced to a number on a scale or expressions of idleness or overdrive. She felt relief from having to resolve it all, right now. Or ever. What had Mike said? It is what it is. She had not had a drink today. She held pictures in her head of being chased around KTN sets by Mike, both of them laughing in fits, and hiding behind Mac, who shook his head and smiled at their flirty joy; of baby Charlie nursing, his blue eyes searching her face, his pink mouth separating from her nipple in a gummy smile; of the young man Charlie had grown into, whose flushing smile was treasured more as it became rarer; of her own smile, breaking now for those images and what was still to come.