Funny thing, Kozak almost said no. A tribute band? Playing music from the Paleozoic—his Paleozoic? Run, said a voice, and no doubt had the invitation come from anyone but a client he would have refused. In the theater, however, standing in the lobby, Kozak realized he’d gotten something wrong. How else to explain his unsteady legs? Surging heartbeat? The fact that he was scared?
He remembered then younger days, when a rock concert was a kind of peak. Had about it an air of possibility, hazard, voluptuousness, more. Indeed, had oft catapulted Kozak into semi-mystic states, extended interludes wherein the presence of his fate—and Kozak’s inborn prayer that it be special—was made to feel more vivid, near. Kozak, now sipping a beer, let himself recall: Dylan at Red Rocks, under a crescent moon. Springsteen, back in college, the night it snowed. That mad and magical Built to Spill show in 1994.
Then, just a short while later, not long after the house lights went dark, Kozak found himself experiencing something of the same.
First noted was a sudden distance, warm and guiltless, between himself and his usual concerns—money and work, wife and infant daughter, a chronic beating pressure at the crook of his jaw. Then an odd feeling of his body limbering and lightening, followed by a sensation of lifting up into the air, and a suprasensory ability to see. Suddenly Kozak could see—this audience around him: slow and doughy and overfed…just like him! And yet still so hungry. Yes? Wasn’t that also somehow true? Kozak was certain, could see the crowd’s collective appetite rising up like so much steam.
Peering sideways then, Kozak saw the larger world outside, saw it stretching east and west: the parking lot, Taco Heaven, houses, highway and also the people there dwelling: jackasses and geniuses, saints, psychos, mediocrities, and also all that passed between: the evil, goodness, idiocy, love…. And Kozak thought, This world, what a thing of wonder, what a marvelous, beautiful, even divine thing, as long as one accepts a single simple truth: It, this, our world, gives not the teeniest shit about people. No one. No one.
Then, pulling up higher and peering down, Kozak saw himself. Ahoy matey! There he was: a guy he himself might not even notice. When, he wondered, when exactly, had he gotten so small?
But wait—could it be he was not alone?
Yes, crowding about were Kozaks of days gone by. A veritable convention, down by his seat. Makes and models dating back to his 20s, though most pressed up to his current age—a gray hair under 43. And all hunched over, murmuring, staring this way and that, each Kozak surprisingly distinct and unique. Yet in one way, he suspected, largely the same: that somewhere in their Kozakian hearts they felt unrequited. Unrequited still. Though for what—what feeling, sensation, experience—none would be able to quite say.
The concert went on, a soundtrack to Kozak’s reckoning. And though at first he did a good job pretending to be one of the crowd—mouthing choruses, fist-bumping his client on cue—there came an instant when he knew he must stand apart. And so he bolted to the men’s room, a locked stall, where he stood perfectly still, feeling surely any second he must cry. That he did not, could not, had seemingly lost the ability, did in no way, however, detract from the gravity of the moment. For it struck him just then that he must change.
How? Kozak discovered he already knew. First, he must stop pretending to be what he wasn’t: a businessman. And then he must simply be: that which he first declared his ambition at the age of 13, studied at NYU, worked at for 15 years, before he blundered, blew off course, ended up here. But not blundered! Because now he saw, saw at last with perfect clarity who and what he was, and now and forever what it is he must do.
By God, Kozak thought, a filmmaker—that’s me.
Changing your life, really doing it, is a bitch. And most who try fail.
Kozak, who’d long held this to be so, found himself rather rapidly considering why he himself, in this instance, would be no exception. That is, all the ways his own situation was, well, tricky. So swiftly in fact was this analysis undertaken that even as Kozak unlocked the bathroom stall, found and thanked his client, made his way to his car—the basic outline for a case against trying was all but complete.
Starting with: Changing his life might be a really bad idea.
Kozak grasped this straightaway. That yes, sure, he’d come to the notion honestly, at the zenith of a profound and dramatic inner experience. But then, in response, mightn’t he say, “So what?” That there comes a time in a person’s life when profound and dramatic inner experiences kind of lose their cachet?
After all, this life he was suddenly so keen to recycle, wasn’t it pretty much okay? And, more importantly, lest he lose sight, wasn’t it—this life—that which he’d actively pursued? His point of departure being the very existence he was now, suddenly, determined to resume?
“More life” was how he’d phrased it back then—“More life actually lived.” This a goal Kozak had come to over the course of several years. Informed on one hand by what felt like a wholly organic, gradual shift in his attitude and values, and on the other hand, a massive conspicuous fact. Namely, that his time in the independent film scene, 15 years of writing scripts and making low- or no-budget films while eking out a living with any industry-related freelance gig he could grab, had naturally run its course. That, odd victory notwithstanding—an early short that rode the festival circuit, a run of reality-show assistant director jobs—Kozak had failed in what he’d set out to do. Set out to be.
Also though, something else. A suspicion Kozak harbored at his very core: that perhaps his pursuit of filmmaking had been a mistake all along. That actually, in his heart of hearts, his true desire had never been to capture, critique or frame life on a screen, but instead simply, merely, to play a part. Family, community, steady work for steady pay—Kozak came to consider these anew. Concluding that their millennia-spanning prestige must undoubtedly be based in reason. And that the good life—if it was something he truly wanted—in this direction he must go.
And by and large Kozak had succeeded.
He had joined an online dating site and within six weeks met a woman he liked, respected and enjoyed going to bed with; and to his everlasting amazement felt the same about him. Penelope was her name, and she admired in particular how utterly precise Kozak was on the topic of his future. Which goes a long way to explain how after stiff initial resistance Kozak had been able to prevail upon her to uproot and move with him to the outer reaches of Dutchess County, thus enabling Kozak to capitalize on the best of the career opportunities he could drum up—a sales position with one of the country’s most formidable wholesale gravel distribution firms.
They went all-in: rented an apartment, joined a food co-op, bought a house, befriended neighbors, sponsored a book group, planted a garden, had a child. While at the same time launching a conversation, which over the years had countless iterations yet whose essence remained the same: Regrets for city lives once led? Or past city selves, with all their concomitant highs and lows? Uh-uh—no regrets at all. Yet, however, make no mistake—what they had now, what they were presently building, was without doubt infinitely better. That is infinitely more satisfying and grown-up. Infinitely more real.
So then, perhaps unsurprisingly, following his epiphany at the tribute-band concert, Kozak exercised caution. Willed himself in every waking hour to think through the pros and cons of blowing up the life at hand. To weigh the implications—ethical, practical, financial—from the perspective of all who would be impacted.
And actually, it felt to Kozak that this analysis went exceptionally well. With the effort alone lending a sense that he was near or at the top of the Ferris wheel he often considered his person to be. Instilling in Kozak a sense that whatever faculty he possessed for relating to another human being, to do so honestly and in good faith, at present that faculty was particularly adroit, particularly awake.
And really, it was from this place, on a Sunday night, in their yard, after Melody had finally fallen asleep, that Kozak shared with Penelope what by this time had occurred six days prior. “Something else,” he explained, that happened at his recent client outing, “this kind of quasi-out-of-body, semi-magical thing, no, not thing, experience,” and, as a consequence, what it is he now must do.
Penelope listened calmly, carefully, without revealing even a hint as to how she felt. After, though, she raised a cheek and looked up to the sky, as if something had dropped out of it and landed in her eye.
Then she stepped away, and walked a perfect circle along the perimeter of their small plot, pausing to stare into various plant beds. Kozak taking mental notes—the fitfulness to her movement, and also the way her shoulders lifted higher and higher with each inhalation, yet never seemed to settle down. Then, finally, how Penelope slowly ambled back, stared up into his eyes and whispered, “Out of the blue?”
“And the money,” Penelope said, while jabbing her chin in the direction of a newly dangling rain gutter.
“Yes, I know,” Kozak said. “Of course. Things could get…hard.”
“Hard?” Penelope mouthed the word, then said she hoped he had something better than this to say.
Kozak thought he did. But, before getting to it, he ineptly swallowed his own saliva, causing him to cough then croak his words out in guttural jabs. “Hey, Pen, I know, I do, really——”
Kozak halted, closed his mouth, but not his effort to communicate. Indeed, tried even harder now—first with flailing arms and hands and pleading eyes, then bits of sentences too, about the deep, essential, ineffable needs within himself he was trying to satisfy, and how he hoped, hoped against hope she could see things as he did, and please be onboard.
Afterward both stood stiff-necked and still. And around them all seemed quiet, despite the constant thrum of their subdivision, and also a faint staccato saw coming from a plastic monitor, made of airwave static and their baby daughter, snoring. Until Kozak said, “So.…”
“Maybe say something.”
“Okay,” Penelope replied, “give me a moment. And in the meantime——”
“If you would——”
“Go and get me some cherries.”
Kozak went, as such a request was not that unusual, was really no more than a vestige of Penelope’s pregnancy, when he was perpetually on call. Still, though, Kozak did not like his wife’s tone. Heard in it gathering will and justification. And while in the kitchen fulfilling the order—washing each cherry with soap and water and paper towel——
Kozak careened between steeling himself for going it alone, divorce if necessary, and unconditional capitulation.
Yet when he returned Penelope was altogether different. Was sitting on the grass, legs reaching and toes pointing, looking up at him with a grin.
“What gives?” said Kozak.
“I was just thinking to myself,” said Penelope, “you and me, since we met—never a dull moment.”
Kozak requested clarification.
“It’s fine what you want to do,” she said. “No, wait, I take that back. It is, I’m sure, the right thing.”
Penelope then rushed on. Explaining that it was all about honesty. To wit, how could she try to stop her husband from doing something he had to do? Because honestly, how sad, especially for Melody, the day she discovered her father failed to follow his heart, and honestly, wasn’t there something here for her too? Didn’t it, if nothing else, put her in mind with her favorite thinker, the late Joseph Campbell, and his wonderful decree—that the best a person might do in this life was to really and truly know themselves and then venture forth into the world to follow their bliss?
Kozak took this in, astonished, dumb, terrified, but also feeling like a jerk for forgetting that Penelope contained such ideas—or never knowing, or perhaps some combination.
Tendering an open hand, Kozak helped Penelope back on her feet. The two of them now loose-limbed, tentative, pinching their lips, then slowly, playfully circling to the right. This until at almost the exact instant both shrugged and said, “Uh, now what?”
Kiss was the answer, eat more cherries, then grab a carton of white wine and come back outside. Each now causing the other delight, and also floating silent queries as to how much further they might like to take this evening, how much further they could. And each sending back the same response: without limit. And this really because each had now arrived at the same need: to test their togetherness. Push out against its most basic, most mysterious seams. Then, if it still held, try something more. That is, with equal parts love and rage and imagination, turn it into pleasure, and release.
The next day Kozak woke at dawn, ran two miles, then got to the office early to wait for Bob.
Bob, Bob, Bob—Kozak liked to say the name and liked the man himself. Held Bob to be no small part of his good luck these past years, insofar as Bob was not only a top-notch mentor—deftly guiding Kozak through the ins and outs of the international markets for sand- and stone-related products—but also something of a walking refutation to stereotypes to which Kozak himself had once subscribed. Bob, it turned out, knew film. Really knew it, as much as anyone Kozak had ever met, especially European film, in particular the French New Wave, Italian neorealism, the Berlin School.
This morning Kozak intercepted him by his office door, then, after sharing his news, complied with Bob’s request to step inside.
“Back to it?” Bob confirmed.
“I know,” said Kozak, “it’s…surprising.”
“Didn’t see it coming.”
“Neither did I.”
“The fire still burns then?” Bob challenged.
“Yes, absolutely,” Kozak assured.
“Well, guess that’s that.”
And really, mostly, that was it. Kozak out the door by noon, strolling the company parking lot, shot through with a euphoria that seemed somehow to have its own center of gravity, and will. Felt capable, too, of doing something crazy—like launching Kozak high up off the blacktop or causing him to speak in tongues. And as it were, Kozak let it ride. Stoked it even, reminiscent of how he might have back in the days he was still regularly getting high.
Only today, now, the result in Kozak’s head a bouillabaisse of self-confidence, self-congratulation, goodwill toward everything, and also fantasies, including one he can’t help but let freely unspool: a rapt audience, Kozak at a lectern, a shiny object, and also a few things.… If you’ll indulge me.… I’d really like to say.… First, people, it’s possible to be alive, fully alive! Truly, alive. And I recommend it. Because Beauty is real.… And Beauty can be ours.… But only if we fight.… Fight, fight, fight.… Especially as we get older.… People, I love you.… Love, love, love——
With Kozak then slamming on the brakes, halting not only this fantasy in progress but also declaring an indefinite moratorium on fantasies writ large. And, further, gripped suddenly by a web of related notions he’d long held about fantasy—in a nutshell, that the universe looks afoul at the activity, punishes those who overindulge—Kozak resolved on the spot that a kind of penance must be made. Something bold and specific, that at least in some way furthered the cause of his reborn career.
Hence Kozak’s next decision: to drive to the nearest Metro-North station, board the next city-bound train, then walk downtown for an impromptu meeting with his friend and ex-collaborator, Ivan.
Ivan glad he did, Kozak sure from the hint of a grin and also enthusiasm of Ivan’s “Hey” as his apartment door slowly came open. Still, though, after their greeting, Ivan did not budge from the vestibule.
“Busy?” said Kozak.
“Nice to hear,” said Kozak, scanning over Ivan’s shoulder, at his various workstations, including a tottering futon, upon which was a stack of postcards and posters. Materials, Kozak guessed, related to Ivan’s occasional occupation as a freelance publicist.
“So what’s good,” Kozak asked, “in this year’s Kazakhstan Film Festival?”
“I don’t know,” Ivan replied. “I lost that account.”
Kozak pointed to the futon.
“That’s for Turkmenistan.”
“Oh, so what’s good there?”
Ivan took several moments to ponder, then answered impassively. “Nothing. It’s all total shit.”
Kozak bobbed sympathetically, then got to the point: how, for the purpose of informing that he, Kozak, was really back and should from now on be officially considered an able and super-hungry member of Ivan’s professional network, only showing up in person would do. As after all, rigorous personal rapport—back in the day, wasn’t that what all their best creative experiences had at their core?
“Absolutely,” said Ivan.
“Great, thank you,” said Kozak, before conveying something else, the other reason he’d come all this way: footage from their last project, an uncompleted documentary. Did Ivan happen to have a copy on disc, that Kozak could take back with him upstate?
“No need,” said Ivan, explaining that it was uploaded online, and that he’d e-mail Kozak the account information.
“Ah, of course, thank you,” said Kozak, at the same time twisting toward the door. But Ivan bade him to wait, adding, “If you have a second I’ll show you what I’m working on.”
He then ushered Kozak in, all the way, to sit with him in front of a cul-de-sac of desktop monitors and view sections of an industrial film he’d been hired to edit, and also a short experimental art film he was making by himself, on spec, “something, perhaps, for the art gallery scene.”
And Kozak, for his part, jumped right in. Played the role he knew expected: that of colleague, offering fresh perspective and constructive criticism. Indeed, did so with relish, as this was a part of filmmaking Kozak had always enjoyed. Yet now it was a struggle. The effort coinciding with the oddest sensation in Kozak’s torso—a kind of slow and achy petrifaction, as if his veins, even chest, were somehow filling up with bits of twigs and maple syrup.
Afterward, on the sidewalk, in a soft summer rain, Kozak took a few minutes to attend these ill feelings. Hunted down some antacid, did a few basic stretching exercises, with this regime quickly garnering results. Indeed, combined with the city itself, and the soft thrill he derived by merely again moving through it, Kozak felt his spirit stirring, stirring then rising gradually higher, as if in concert with the increasing numbered streets on his route to Grand Central. This right up to the very instant Kozak’s phone lit up and rang out the theme song to Mission: Impossible, a ring tone he’d been meaning to change for close to three years.
It was Bob, and though at first their spotty connection prevented Kozak from getting more than every third syllable, he quickly adduced what the call was about: money, in the form of sales commission, $8,750 worth, owed to Kozak, which as a matter of standard company policy Kozak fully expected to collect.
Yet now Bob seemed to be informing otherwise. To be claiming the owner of the company was not inclined to pay.
“But it’s a policy,” said Kozak.
“Discretionary,” Bob quipped. “A discretionary policy.”
Kozak was now pressed up against a Starbucks window, straining for calm and trying to conjure, conjure with all his might, a reply that Bob himself might make.
“So, uh, Bob, can we talk off the record for a second—just you and me?”
“Awesome, because I’m wondering: Considering the great feeling we’ve built up these past years, what’s the very most you think the company would be willing to pay me?”
“Nothing,” said Bob.
“Like nothing-nothing, Bob? Or nothing-maybe-something?”
“Okay, then you mean nothing-nothing-really-nothing.”
Kozak was stumped; waited for Bob to end the call, but Bob didn’t, instead said, “Hey, sorry about this.…”
“And believe it or not, I’m still wishing you lots of luck.…”
Kozak silent still.
“And something else too—updates. Keep ’em coming. About the film stuff.”
“Uh…Bob,” said Kozak. “Really?”
“Yes! Of course,” said Bob, cheerily, then adding, “hey, don’t misunderstand me! This call is not meant to punish. Go, I say. Live your dream. Please, I’m begging, try to make the next Jules and Jim or Les Quatre Cents Coups or Ladri di Biciclette. All, really, this call means, is don’t try to do it on my fucking dime.”
It took upward of five minutes but Kozak laughed at this last remark. Then laughed at the entire call. Loudly. Even as the sharp points of what was said sank in.
And nor was laughter it seemed the only positive reverberation. Resuming his walk Kozak noted how this episode with Bob had somehow, improbably, leapfrogged him over what he sensed was an otherwise impending interlude of introspection, even self-doubt. Leaving him instead feeling oddly energized and, psychically speaking, crisp, nimble, poised, wholly at ease in the unfolding present.
This served well when Kozak got home, as Penelope was clearly not having a great day. Had certain needs that required urgent attending. For example, reassurance that despite the perfection of the night prior they were doing the right thing. But not only. Also help getting Melody to sleep, preparing dinner, restoring the internet signal, weeding and watering the garden, washing diapers, taking out the recyclables.
Services all that Kozak swiftly and deftly rendered, and in the rendering found himself becoming steadier still. Steadier and serene and a true believer in the words he’d spoken to Penelope earlier, soon after he’d walked through the door: “Hey, sweetheart, look at me—decisions are what suck. But the decision here is over. Now it’s just life. Just boring old life.”
Later, after Penelope went to bed, Kozak went down to the basement and located a pyramid of cardboard boxes. He brushed off some soot, slit their seals, reached inside, and out came an entire life: screenplays, treatments, notebooks, textbooks, treatises, a frayed and fading photo of a young Orson Welles. Then much more: hundreds of VHS tapes and DVDs; a dozen keepsake eight-millimeter film canisters; computer monitors, hard drives, software discs, tripods, shoulder straps, battery packs, camera bags, a half dozen actual cameras, including Kozak’s last, which he dusted and buffed before plugging into a recharger.
Kozak then got onto the website to which Ivan had referred, and screened their old footage. There was much, and though he at first watched gladly—convinced the project still had unrealized potential, merited their going back—this conviction gradually dissolved, to where he could see only flaws: poor camera and sound work, inane subject matter, unoriginality. And that actually, he and Ivan had shown sound judgment in shelving the endeavor and moving on.
So Kozak logged off and began to organize his desk area, and also compile multiple to-do lists headed respectively “Creative,” “Making a Living,” “Home Improvements.” All this he did concurrently for upward of 40 minutes, until, for what felt like no reason at all, he paused, put his pen down, stared out aimlessly toward a gray rusted water meter. Kozak then staring more and more deeply, with greater and greater fixity, until, though looking straight at it, what he saw was not a water meter at all.
It was raining when Kozak left the house, raining with ferocity, with drops cratering the grass and bouncing off parked cars. Yet Kozak upon contact barely went tight. Instead he just kept going, initially at a near sprint, through his subdivision, along new and gently curving streets with names that he’d only ever disdained (Happy Trail, Candy Place, Celebrity Road), until he reached the area’s main drag, a four-, sometimes six-, sometimes eight-lane commercial thoroughfare that Kozak read or maybe dreamed followed pretty much bend for bend a 500-year-old Indian trail.
Kozak walked alongside. He moved over patchy grass and parking lots, past the public and Catholic high schools, driving range, outlet stores, car wash, dialysis center, four-story office buildings, right into the next town over, which differed from his only in name.
And mostly Kozak didn’t slow down, only at intersections, to avoid the occasional car or truck, or to raise his camera up to eye level, so as to see his surroundings through the finder and judge if any of it were worthwhile for him to shoot.
The answer was never yes, and Kozak trudged on, step after step, hour after hour, hardly noticing as the night sky brightened, rain tapered, or even that at some point he changed course, aimed himself by increments back toward his town, subdivision, street, house. Stopping at this last, looking up at the facade, regarding it with detachment, seeing it very clearly. Then lowering down, so as to seat himself on the curb.
Sometime later there was movement. At the end of his street. A man with a shopping cart, distributing something to all the houses, inserting things, no, circulars, into mailboxes, or leaving them at the door.
For an instant, Kozak froze.
What he saw: morning half-light, lustrous and broken-beamed. A desolate street, puddle-checkered, beneath a thin ribbon of fog. And a man, moving about, moving easily, engaged in a simple task. It was, in short, a wondrous tableau. The kind that all his life had made Kozak feel special. And even, somehow, sometimes, more than special. Somehow, sometimes, more.
And sitting there Kozak thought, What’s important is not to read too much into it, this tableau. To not see answers. To remember that nothing about what my life should be, or what I should do, or whether or not I’ve perhaps recently steered my life off a cliff is therein contained.
Still, Kozak stole glances. This until the man got near enough that their eyes might meet, at which point Kozak looked away, before placing his head into his hands.
Then, soon, Kozak heard the shopping cart, its piercing rattle, getting nearer. Followed by squeaking sneakers, denim rubbing, but more, breath, labored and from the mouth.
“Hey, mister, you okay?”
“Your clothes are wet.”
Kozak looked up and saw then he’d been mistaken. It was not a man but a teenager. A teenager with maybe the homeliest face he’d ever seen. Large and round with pale skin, nearly translucent. Did he have some kind of thing, Kozak wondered, a condition or whatnot? Kozak could not discern, knew only that this other human being was presently smiling at him through tiny and gap-riddled teeth, doing so in a way really that was utterly ingenuous, even sweet. “Yes, I know,” said Kozak. “Thank you very much.”
“What’s that?” the teenager said, pointing at Kozak’s lap.
“A movie camera?”
Kozak considered. “Well, no, not necessarily.”
“Not necessarily a movie camera?”
“But maybe one.”
“Yes,” Kozak granted, “maybe one.”
The teenager took a step forward, to within arm’s reach, then craned down and began to examine Kozak, examine Kozak as if Kozak were something very strange and rare.
“Can I help you with something?” said Kozak.
The teenager shrugged.
“Do you want to give me that?”
“Yes,” said the teenager.
Kozak took the circular while holding the teenager’s gaze, this to see if there was anything more for either of them to convey. Then, seeing there was not, Kozak thanked him and again put his head down into his hands.
The teenager, however, did not budge. Kozak aware not only of his physical bulk but very soon too the sound of his breathing, as it gathered in volume, rhythm, the odd staccato accent of whistling phlegm.
“Something else?” said Kozak.
The teenager gave no reply.
“What can I do for you?”
“Who, me?” said the teenager.
“Yes, you,” said Kozak, gently. “Why have you stopped here?”
Kozak looked up.
“Yes?” said Kozak. “Please, you can say anything to me.”
“It’s just your camera, mister,” he said. “You left it on.”
Kozak looked down. Saw it was so.
“You made a mistake, right?” said the teenager.
“Well, it’s possible,” said Kozak, nodding his head, then slowly getting to his feet. “But maybe, perhaps, I could ask you something. I mean, what I’m wondering myself, is there a way for a person to ever really know?”