When I heard the news, my fingers automatically dialed her number. I didn’t have time to think about it. If I had, I wouldn’t have called.
“Yeah,” she said. She sounded tired.
“Our Life Coach killed himself last night,” I said.
“Yes, Constantine. How many life coaches do you know?”
“A few actually. There’s Myron from Yoga class. Mathew from pottery. Gigi from book club—”
“Okay, I get it.” I had to cut her off. My ex-wife likes lists. She can recite a list for hours on any subject. When were married, she was especially fond of making lists about me: 1) You smell like feet in the morning; 2) You fell asleep twice this month during sex; 3) You flush the toilet too loudly. Yes, flush too loudly. These were her complaints. She’s irrational. And she’s fat. And she’s frigid. I have my own lists.
“How did he do it?” she asked.
“He hung himself.”
“Hung himself? Who hangs themselves? I thought only people in jail or prison camps did that.”
“I don’t know. He stood on a pile of self-help books and made a noose out of a necktie.”
“A necktie, huh? Was it the one I got him for Chanukah?”
“Yes,” I said. This was a lie. I wanted her to feel responsible. To feel the blame like I did.
“I have to go,” she said. “You shouldn’t be calling me. We had an agreement.”
* * *
Constantine Stanliskov was a Russian Jew with an inexhaustible work ethic. He would show up at our apartment at 6am, carrying a whistle and a basket of yarn. He had his own key.
“Okie-dokie, Mister Don and Misses Genevieve,” he’d say, blowing his whistle, “out of sheets and into life’s jeans.” He had a lot of sayings like this: out of sheets and into life’s jeans; marriage is a handful of mackerel; the silver star sings lonely songs. His sayings made little sense. I assumed it was a translation problem.
On any given morning, he’d have some craft for us to do – “A crafty couple eats the worms.” We would unravel yarn while saying ten things we loved about each other. We would build tiny houses out of Popsicle sticks. We would hold hands and pass an egg back and forth.
Genevieve would inevitably pipe in with her own smart commentary: “Oh, I get it. The egg is symbolic of Don’s fragile ego; I need to coddle him more.”
“Or maybe the egg is symbolic of your breakfast. You should eat one and not five.”
Constantine would smile throughout our bickering, even when it bordered on violent. He would nod his head. “Yes, this is good,” he’d say, blowing his whistle like a cold-war gymnastics coach, “keep egg moving!”
* * *
After a few weeks, it occurred to me that Constantine had no idea what he was doing. We did pull his name off of a bulletin board at the laundry matt. And it’s not like there’s licensing for a life coach: Just watch Dr. Phil and carry a shiny whistle, as far as I could tell. At the end of each session, we actually did watch Dr. Phil. Constantine would squeeze on the couch between us, eating handfuls of dry cereal out of the box. “There’s always two sides to a pancake,” he’d say, aping Dr. Phil’s aphorisms and pointing at us with his peasant-sized mitts, hands like a baked potato. I got the sense that Constantine thought marital bliss was found in coy idioms. Happiness, a collection of hollow phrases that, to Constantine’s ears, sounded as esoteric and full of unpacked meaning as the Talmud.
Still, I warmed up to the guy. I found his clumsy earnestness endearing, like watching a special Olympic’s kid run track. Genevieve, on the other hand, smelled a rat.
“I don’t think he’s worth the 35 dollars a month,” she decided.
“That’s less than minimum wage. You don’t think he’s worth the same amount the guy on the subway makes for yelling at everyone and handing out day-old sandwiches?”
“Do you care at all about our marriage?”
“Do you care at all about Constantine? I’m starting to think our cereal is his only means of sustenance.”
* * *
After four months of this Genevieve moved out. I didn’t have the energy to stop her. I found myself preoccupied with Constantine and I decided to keep him on as my personal life coach. We would go to Russian strip-joints in Brighton Beach. He would bring his whistle and I would bring Ziploc bags of dry cereal; Captain Crunch was his favorite.
“Captain of your own wessel,” he’d say, and I’d nod. Yes, Captain of my own wessel. No more Genevieve. No more lists.
These were lonely nights. Constantine crunching cereal. Stripper’s small talk. We would buy each other lap dances. Constantine would get overly excited and blow his whistle and they’d kick us out. Sometimes we’d take the F train home, not talking, and other times we’d stroll along the beaches of Brighton, stepping over hypodermic needles and crushed cans of Moosehead.
* * *
The last night I saw him, we walked by a young couple groping each other on a bench. Her skirt was hiked up. Tongues lunging. It was all for show. The kind of groping that invited an audience.
We sat on a bench across from them and stared. It was late. I could hear the ocean making its noise in the background. The kind of sound that means something.
“You know, Coach,” I said. He liked it when I called him coach. “I miss her a little bit.”
Constantine nodded knowingly. He pointed at the sky. “The silver star sings lonely songs,” he said, and I followed the line of his finger and stared at the star he seemed to be pointing at and for a second it all kind of made sense to me.
He put his arm around my shoulder. Hugging me pretty close. The ocean nagged at the back of my neck. I had a sudden urge to hold his hand, to pass an egg back and forth.