August 2009

The Prize

Sometimes, Being Won Can Feel Like a Complete Loss

Alan
Zweibel

Alan Zweibel, illustration by Lou Beach Illustration by Lou Beach

A woman won me in an auction. Allow me to explain.

Last summer, I did a workshop for a play I’d written at a rather presti­- gious drama school on the East Coast. It was a wonderful experience for which I showed my appreciation by agreeing to be a prize in a silent auction at their annual fundraiser. I’d heard of this kind of thing from some of my very famous friends for whom starstruck donors generously bid tens of thousands to share a meal, play a round of golf or spend an afternoon on a movie set with them.

But me? A writer of modest renown who regards lunch as nothing more than a great time to figure out what I want to have for dinner? I found the thought of anyone voluntarily (as opposed to having lost a bet) writing a check so they could spend time with me intriguing. So after a mutually convenient time was determined, I left my Ojai home, got into my car and drove to Sunset Plaza to have a delicious lunch, compliments of the charity that sponsored the whole thing.

I arrived at the restaurant, where I met Enid Borden, a 23-year-old woman who wants to be a writer. Pale, slight, short, with parted hair that frames her face like Alfalfa from The Little Rascals. She was sweet and shy and had paid good money to be there, so I was flattered. “How much did this cost you?” I asked.

“Twenty-two,” she answered.

Twenty-two hundred dollars! Hey, not too shabby. Not even close to what my celebrity pals bring in but respectable nonetheless.

“Well, thank you. And by the end of this lunch, I sure hope you still feel I was worth that $2,200,” I joked.

“No, it wasn’t $2,200. It was $22.”

“Twenty-two dollars?”

“Twenty-two dollars.”

“Oh. Just so I know, not that it matters, but what did the bidding start at?”

“Twenty dollars.”

“Twenty dollars?”

“Yes. And then it went up in 50-cent increments.”

“I see. So it started at $20, and then four people each raised it 50 cents?”

“No, just one other person. A real jerk who had no intention of winning—he’s just pissed that I don’t want to sleep with him anymore and wanted me to spend more money.”

“I see...”

“But when he stopped at $21.50, I upped him, and here we are.”

“Indeed.”

And while I couldn’t hold this humbling pittance against her— after all, it wasn’t her fault the amount wasn’t higher—I also couldn’t help but do some quick calculations of my own. It had cost me $30 for gas, at least another $15 for parking, including the tip I gave the valet guy so my car wouldn’t be shuttled back to Ojai. So I’d already spent $23 more than this young woman had to eat with me—something I could’ve done for free by myself and for which I wouldn’t have had to use my best table manners. But she cared enough to pay to be with me, so we ordered a couple of seafood salads and got to talking.

“What kind of writing do you want to do?” I asked.

“Drama.”

“Really?”

“Yes. David Mamet is my idol.”

“Right...”

“I also like John Guare.”

“He’s really good.”

“John Patrick Shanley.”

“Uh-huh.”

Awkward pause.

“How about comedy?”

“No, I’m really not a big fan of comedy.”

“You’re not?”

“No, I’ve always considered it a lower form of art when it comes to reflecting the human condition.”

“Right. You know, that’s what I write—comedy.”

“You do?”

“Have you ever read any of my books? Seen my plays? Television shows?”

“Yes, I’m familiar with just about everything you’ve done...”

“Thank you.”

“But I never found any of it that funny.”

“Oh.”

If memory serves, this was the precise moment when I started to dislike Enid Borden more than anyone I’d ever met. More, even, than people I had never met. Like Hitler and Osama. She was no longer cute. In fact, as I looked at what I’d originally regarded as a semi-adorable face, it now seemed overblown with contorted features—eyelids hanging downward like awnings and a nose barely visible behind lips now swelled to the size of pizza platters. Without warning, I was suddenly having lunch with Diane Arbus.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“I’m allergic to shellfish, and I think I’m having a reaction,” she slurred in a language that sort of resembled English.

Why she ordered a seafood salad when she already knew she was allergic to shrimp, clams and their fellow crustaceans was my next question.

“Jheytc whfgrll egcssc hospital tygrfd,” she said.

And since the only word in her garbled sentence that didn’t sound like it was ripped from an eye chart was hospital, I couldn’t help but think that’s where she wanted to go. Not a bad idea. But was this my responsibility? For the life of me, I had no idea when this lunch was to be considered over.

Outside the restaurant, I looked at the long line of people already waiting for their cars, then over at Enid Borden, who, at her current rate of expansion, stood an excellent chance of inflating to the size of the Beverly Center if I didn’t act quickly. So I grabbed a cab that then slalomed its way down La Cienega to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Including tip, the taxi cost me another $26. Add $15 the dry cleaner would charge to take out the mussel-laced drool that issued from the moaning Enid’s lips after she placed her head, also involuntarily, on my shoulder, and my personal contribution to this lunch was now up to $84. Enid had spent $22.

“Are you the patient’s husband?” asked the ER nurse.

“No.”

“Father?”

“No.”

“Then may I ask exactly what your relation is to Miss Borden?”

“She won me in a silent auction.”

The woman either didn’t hear me or was too frightened to respond. Instead, she gave me a clipboard with pages of personal questions that needed to be completed by someone who wasn’t me. Just as I thought the credit card she requested should have been handed over by someone other than me.

“You need a credit card? What for?”

“Miss Borden has a $100 emergency room copayment. We’re not able to treat her until we’re paid.”

“And if you don’t treat her?”

“Her tongue could swell, and she could die. Did you hear me? Mr. Zweibel?”

“Okay, okay,” I said, as I took out an American Express card that she almost had to surgically detach from my grip. But it wasn’t over. Then came the prescription for the Epi-Pen. “That will be $104,” said the pharmacist, who was beautiful save for the mole above her lip that looked strikingly like Maryland.

“Why can’t she just have Benadryl? Isn’t that sold over the counter and a lot cheaper?” I asked.

“You a pharmacist?” asked the pharmacist, pleasant save for a tone strikingly reminiscent of George C. Scott’s Academy Award–winning portrayal of General Patton.

“No, I’m not a pharmacist.”

“Then please don’t tell me my business. Obviously her doctor wanted her to have these injections because they’re stronger and enter the bloodstream faster.”

“Injections?”

Enid Borden has a tattoo of a butterfly on her ass—a multi­colored monarch that looked as unhappy to be there as I was when I injected her with the EpiPen. This was after another $26 ride back to the restaurant to retrieve my car and another $23.74 for groceries, which I picked up for her on the way to dropping her at her apartment because the drug should not be taken on an empty stomach.

My “lunch” with Enid Borden ended at 6:30 that evening after her swelling had markedly diminished. I bade her goodbye and told her to call if I could be of any help to her in the future.

As I look back on this experience, there are two Hebrew words that immediately come to mind. One is mitzvah, which means good deed. The other is schmuck, which often refers to a person who unwittingly performs a mitzvah because he is too weak to extricate himself from a situation that drains him of time and money.

In this case, I can’t help but think I earned a place in the latter category, as my out-of-pocket total for being a prize was $359.74—a bill I plan to pass on to David Mamet, John Guare or John Patrick Shanley, depending on whose address I get my hands on first.