The Happiest Guy on Netflix

by

09/09/2023

Neighborhood: Upper East Side

This is is Part I of a three part story by Nina Camp. Part II will run on Tuesday and Part III will appear on Thursday.

The aim was to repair our wounded relationship. Nothing overcomplicated, our plan had just three elements. The first involved a man we’d come to think of as The Happiest Guy on Netflix. The second was hope, a lot of it. The third was a synagogue on Fifth Avenue.

I’d never been before, but as soon as I arrived, I saw that we’d picked the right place. The Temple Emanu-El Streicker Cultural Center, on East 65th Street, just off Central Park, was full of cheer and comradery. Everyone was eager for the festivities to begin, and most of the audience was middle-aged, like me, or older. Alexander, my thirty-something Puerto Rican-German-Irish-American boyfriend, was running late. Alone, in a sea of happy Jews, I should have been content and relaxed. But I was so miserable, only tears would release the tension. I’d been living with Alex for five months. It had come, that quickly, to this.

Nothing was simple anymore. I’d gone from living alone — two decades of complete control over my space and leisurely conversations with myself in my own mind — to being properly coupled up. The result: here I was, in one of the world’s largest synagogues, unable to stop crying.

Tonight was supposed to be different. Why was this night different from all other nights, at least theoretically? Because tonight there was Phil.

Phil Rosenthal was the jovial host of a documentary travel series on Netflix, called Somebody Feed Phil, in which he traveled the world, sampling food and experiencing the local vibes. Tonight, at Temple Emanu-El, there was a screening of the episode called Somebody Feed Phil (Tel Aviv.) And Phil would be there for a Q and A afterwards.

Alex and I had jumped at the chance to see him. It was rare that we liked the same television show. Our tastes rarely matched up. But we both loved Phil. Whatever your fantasy — food, travel, or instant friendship around the world – he was your guide. Alex loved the togetherness and everyday celebration, and I loved the exotic markets and terraces overlooking deep blue oceans. We both appreciated his warmth and humor. We couldn’t wait to meet him.

But there were glitches. Before our night could begin, Alex had to teach a voice lesson in our living room. Then he had to cab it to Lincoln Square to take his own lesson, and then get another cab to the synagogue to catch as much of the event as he could. Since we lived in Yorkville, his taxi fares would erase half of what he’d earned by teaching that voice lesson, but he was determined to make everything work.

An hour before the screening, Alex’s student was mid warm-up, and I was returning to the apartment from running errands. All I had to do was drop off the groceries, go right back out the door, and walk to the synagogue. My apartment key didn’t turn in the lock. The door was already unlocked. I pushed open the door and stood in our hall. Alex stopped his student’s warm-up to yell down the hall to tell me that one of the cats — my cats, our cats now — had used the litter box.

“It’s really bad, can you deal with it?” he said.

I looked in the box but didn’t see anything. Who knows what he was smelling? Had the odor emanated from his student? Was it amorphous domestic discontent manifesting as an imaginary bad smell?
“Could you come here for just a second?” I said, politely. “I just wanna show you something.” He left his student and came down the hall to me.

“The door was unlocked,” I whispered. I’d cornered him. He couldn’t respond with emotion because his student was twenty feet away. But we couldn’t have a rational discussion about it either, because his student was twenty feet away. There was no reason to tell him just then, that the door was unlocked—except that it was the one of the things I’d gotten so used to telling him, week after week, that I couldn’t stop myself anymore.

Our entire relationship, since I’d moved in with him, had come down to the fact he couldn’t remember, or be bothered, to lock our door— and the fact that I was constantly freaking out about it.

“I can’t believe you pulled me away from a lesson to tell me that,” he said, quietly.

“It’s not my fault you keep forgetting to lock it,” I said.

But nothing I said ever made a difference. A few days earlier, a Sunday morning, he’d gone out to get coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts. I came out of the bedroom and found our apartment door ajar about five inches. I wasn’t worried about someone walking in. The mayor’s mansion was a few blocks away. But I was worried because anyone could have run out— my two cats or one of the dogs Alex was boarding. There were times, in our 700-square-foot apartment, when there was a voice student, two cats, up to five dogs, Alex, and me. But that was only part of what was making me crazy.

We lived on the second floor of a walk-up, just one flight down to the street, and the building’s two front doors were often left propped open by tenants. But even when those front doors were closed, the lock on the outer door didn’t catch. No matter how many times the super fixed it, it unfixed itself. And our own apartment door required conscious effort. If you didn’t throw the deadbolt, it drifted open, too. Alex kept tightening something on the doorknob with a screwdriver, but it always loosened again within days.

“Do you know what would happen if one of my cats ran out?” I yelled that Sunday when Alex got back with our coffee. “I would never recover,” I said. “We would never recover. Do you get that?” 

He got it. Losing either of them would have killed him as much as me. And yet, here we were, again, going over the same issue, this time with Alex’s student a witness.

With nothing resolved, I left to commence our bonding night alone. It was February and slushy, but not too cold to walk the 40 minutes to the synagogue. I made my way south and west, from York Ave to Park Ave, not so much looking at the city around me as letting it drift and blur in the fading light.

With only enough awareness to avoid stepping into puddles or slipping on ice, I called my non-judgmental friends, the ones who wouldn’t say, “This is insane. Move out of that apartment now.”

I wanted to move out. But I didn’t want to destroy this relationship, the first I’d committed to in over a decade.

Nick, my oldest friend in the city, picked up. We’d met fifteen years earlier, dated and sort of messed around for a few years.

“For now, solve the problem with a technical solution,” he said. “Go to Home Depot and tell them your boyfriend is a stoner and can’t remember to lock the door. They have something. Some nesting thing.”

“He doesn’t do drugs. Nesting?”

“Yes, I can’t remember what it’s called. If I have time I’ll send you a link, but you should just go to Home Depot.”

Nick was a few years older than I was and had his own anxieties and, apparently, an anger issue. When he’d told me he was working on it in therapy, I was surprised. I’d never seen that side of him. But Nick reserved the dark stuff for his wife, and he was the first to admit that. But from the moment he and Raina became serious, he was conscious that things were different with her. They had a stability and compatibility that made him want to change. He went from being an alcoholic, with dysfunctional relationships, to a homeowner with a loving spouse and two gorgeous children.

I’d changed too. I was living with someone for the first time in my life.

Someone who couldn’t afford a locksmith. Alex wouldn’t even consider splitting the cost with me. The lock was relatively new. He’d bought it a year earlier after his previous roommates left. I don’t know who installed the lock or why there were two holes in the door where the old lock had been, or why the super never told Alex he couldn’t leave the door that way.

There was a stillness on Park Ave, a deep-frozen secrecy and exclusivity. I was always struck by the facades of the Avenue’s apartment buildings. If you lived in one of those fortresses, you didn’t have to encounter everyday life if you weren’t so inclined. The mid-rises facing each other across the Avenue, with its landscaped median strip, created a canyon of privileged “fuck you.” Even the sky was different. It was bluer, more vivid, than it was above, say, First Ave. At night, the Park Ave sky was jewel toned.

“And I should pay for the lock?” I asked Nick, awaiting the rest of the instruction.

“Because you have money and he doesn’t.”

“Ok.”

“There are issues,” he said. “But it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to break up.”

“Why do you say there are issues?”

“Because you talk about his anxiety, and that you’re depressed a lot, and he has no career and can’t get himself on track. You’re smart. You know what’s going on.”

I thanked him and got off the phone.

I considered the security of the Park Ave apartments and imagined a labyrinth of well-lit interior hallways that a cat would have to run through before getting outside. I didn’t assume people were happier in those brick behemoths. But at least they didn’t have to worry about locks that didn’t work and unattended open doors. 

And neither did I. I called Alex.

“Listen,” I said, radiating peace, compassion. “I’ll pay for a new lock.”

My offer was a dud. He was furious that I’d interrupted his lesson to bitch at him. He yelled, I half listened. Eventually, I heard him say, “And I didn’t do anything wrong! I was in the apartment! The door was closed! The cats were secure!”

I was at the synagogue by now, still on the phone. I didn’t feel like going inside, which made Alex even more crazy.

“I’m hanging up,” I said. “I need the phone to show my ticket to the guy.”

But what was the point? What could possibly distract us from what we were going through? There were limits to even what Phil Rosenthal could do.

[End, Part 1 of 3]

Nina Camp‘s humor and personal essays have been featured at HuffPost, GoodhousekeepingCosmo, Introvert, Dear, and Mogul. She’s currently putting the finishing touches on a novel with the working title, How to Break a Romantic Curse in Seventeen Years or Less.

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