When I say that I was visiting old friends, friends from whom my life and my sense of life had diverged, I am not trying to set myself apart. Marta and Eli had lived in Los Angeles for a number of years—long enough, I suppose, that whatever logic connected immediate impulse to long-term goal to life plan to identity had slipped below conscious awareness and become simply a part of them. I was by no means innocent, either, of the slow supplanting drift by which the means to our most cherished and noble ends become the ends themselves—so that, for instance, writing something to change the world becomes writing something that matters to you becomes publishing something halfway decent becomes writing something publishable; or, to give another arbitrary example, finding everlasting love becomes finding somewhat lasting love becomes finding a reasonable mix of tolerance and lust becomes finding a sensible social teammate. And, of course, with each recalibration you think not that you are trading down or betraying your values but that you are becoming more mature. And maybe you are.
In any case I was writing a book, one that I hoped would make my contemporaries see how petty and misguided their lives were, how worthwhile my sacrifices, how refreshing my repudiations, how heroic my stubbornness, etc.
Eli and Marta, for their part, were trying to have a baby. They would spend the ensuing year attempting to get pregnant, and eventually they would, and later this baby, and their second baby, would grant them some reprieve from the confusion we were all afflicted by in those years. But before they had their baby, during the week when this story takes place, they had decided to do every last thing that a baby precludes, every last irresponsible thing, so as, I guess, to be able to say, Yes, I have lived, I have done the things that mean you have lived, brushed shoulders with the lurid genie Dionysus, who counsels recklessness and abandon, decadence, self-destruction, and waste. The Baby Bucket List, they were calling it.
And I was game. Though I was not planning to have a child anytime soon, I thought we could all stand to chemically unfasten our fingers from their death grips on our careers and wardrobes and topiarian social lives and ne-plus-ultra __vacations in tropical Asia. The words “we” and “our” are somewhat figurative here; I remain unsure whether I rounded out our group’s eclecticism or stood in contrast to it. But we were, in any case, a particular sort of modern hustler: filmmakers and writers (screen, Web, magazine), who periodically worked as narrative consultants on ad campaigns, sustainability experts, P.R. lifers, designers or design consultants, social entrepreneurs, and that strange species of human being who has invented an app. We rubbed elbows with media moguls and Hollywood actors and the lesser-known but still powerful strata that include producers and directors, and C.F.O.s, and the half-famous relatives of the more famous. We listened to U2 and Morrissey and Kylie Minogue post-ironically, which is not to say, exactly, sincerely. We donated to charity, served on the boards of not-for-profits, and shepherded socially responsible enterprises for work. We thought we were not bad people. Not the best, a bit spoiled, maybe, but pleasant, insouciantly decent. We paid a tax on the lives we lived, in order to say in public, I have sacrificed, tithed, given back. A system of pre-Lutheran indulgences. Of carbon offsets. A green-washing of our sins. We were affiliated. We had access.
I was by far the poorest of our group, though I was not poor for principled reasons. I’m not sure why I was so poor. Laziness, perhaps. I didn’t have much energy or imagination when it came to monetizing my talents, and I think, to be honest, that I had a bad conscience about getting paid to do what I loved, what seemed, on the face of it, __self-indulgent, and what never met my expectations anyway. So in the Palm Springs house that week, where I stayed on need-blind sufferance, I had the dual consciousness of a Voltaire in the court of Frederick the Great or the Marxists who brood through high-society parties in Wyndham Lewis novels—which is to say I partook, mooched, sponged, and felt myself apart and non-implicated.
From the start I had been set up as the counterpart to Lily, a pretty and neurotic executive-in-training who was also not there as half of a couple. Lily had brought a tote bag for her cosmetics, which numbered in the dozens and included machines I was not familiar with. Like all the women in the house, she had exceptional hair. Her hair had the tattered elegance of a Rolling Stone cover model’s, and I decided early on that one of my goals for the week would be to sleep with Lily, though this was less a decision, really, than the final figure in some back-of-the-envelope biological math.
Lily was in the habit of always needing things she didn’t have: water, iced tea, Chablis, spray-on sunscreen, her phone, Kindle, iPad, a hand, advice. I remark on this because, given that my position in the group was as a secular boyfriend of sorts to Lily, it often fell to me to fetch her things or to hold things for her while she did stuff like pee. But I also think that her constant fidgeting neediness captured something we all felt: the ever-present urge to tweak or adjust the experience to make it a touch more perfect. “Can you just hold this?” Lily would say, or “Can you just do my back?” or “Can you just come look at something?,” and I slowly understood what it is to be a man for a certain type of high-strung, successful, and thin woman: you are an avatar of capability, like a living Swiss Army knife. So I fixed things and it felt good, and maybe anyone could have fixed them, and maybe Lily only asked to flatter me, to give me a sense of purpose in a modern economy that had creatively destroyed men, but it worked, it allowed me to feel masculine and useful, and I experienced an uneasy gratification that Lily and I could confirm for each other this two-dimensional idea of who we were, who our genders made us, even as we recognized how stupid and old-fashioned the idea was.
But this was a place to be old-fashioned, I guess. It was, after all, the town of Elvis and Charles Farrell, and the Rat Pack, of Jack Benny’s broadcasts from the desert, New Year’s at Sunnylands with the Reagans, and drives hooking off the fifth tee like the Laffer curve—a place in thrall to an era when the impulse was to leave the lush coastline for a desert town as seedy and plotted as an Elmore Leonard paperback, where pills were prescribed to be abused, drinks took their names from Dean Martin taglines, and the wedge salad never died.
On the afternoon of Day Three, Eli and I took his dog, Lyle, for a walk, and he confessed to me that a good chunk of the financing for his new film had fallen through. One of the backers had pulled out, and now the production company attached to his script and the director and whatever hamlet-sized retinue a more or less green-lit film accretes were all scrambling to gin up new money. Eli had it on good intelligence that a financier named Wagner was in Palm Springs that week, and so one of our running intrigues became Eli’s attempt to casually intersect with him. The movie sounded like a hard sell to me, a bio-pic about the economist Albert O. Hirschman focussed on his war years, but Eli assured me that Wagner was their man.
“This guy”—Eli brought his hands together as if in prayer. “You know Richard Branson? O.K. This guy is like the Richard Branson of nature and environment music. His wife’s cousin—or no, no, no. Here’s what it is. His wife’s mother’s sister, his aunt-in-law—Hirschman helped get her out in ’41.”
It was not quite evening. The sun had fallen below San Jacinto as it did every afternoon, leaving us in a long penumbral dusk the color of a pinkish bruise. For the second straight day, we had missed the canyon hike we had intended to take, arriving seven minutes after the cutoff, according to the park ranger, who took evident pleasure in disappointing us and had the air less of a park ranger than of an actor playing a park ranger—I doubted that he did much “ranging.” And so, to salvage the excursion we had driven around the tony western edge of the city, taking in the walled-off, single-story period homes, including Elvis’s strange bow-window of a house, and we would have explored longer if we hadn’t wandered into a postmortem garage sale and found, laid out like memento mori among old Steve Martin Betamaxes, an assortment of superannuated chemotherapy supplies, which so depressed us that we each immediately took a bump off the key to Lily’s Nissan Leaf.
Walking now with Eli, I was feeling a bristling love for my friend, who hadn’t said a word to me in five minutes, showing, in the understated way of competitive men, that our friendship transcended his need to sell other people on a garish idea of his life, that we could be quiet together and find peace in each other, for the simple reason that we had nothing else to offer each other, when I looked up to see a slight Hasidic man pacing a jogger down the middle of the street. The Hasid was in full getup, shuffle-walking to keep up with the jogging man and insistently pointing something out to him on a piece of paper. The jogger looked at us with a grin or a grimace that was perhaps self-excusing, but he needn’t have. It became clear to us in the days following: Chabad-Lubavitch was everywhere, South Williamsburg had emptied out into our corner of the California desert, bearded men in long black robes haunting our bacchanal, coy and twinkling with a great-avuncular look that seemed to say, You will understand in time, you will see—or maybe not.
But it’s also possible that I was losing my mind. It was Day Three, as I said, and the wheels were beginning to come off. Lily and I had made out for a while in bed the night before, humping a bit halfheartedly before she sent me away to sleep by myself—and I had felt grateful, because this way I would actually sleep and wouldn’t have to wake up next to her, tired and noisome, with a single-minded erection, but I’d also felt spurned, or confused, because whereas Eli had the goal of finding and wooing Wagner, and Marta had the goal of treating her body like a chemistry set, and Lily had the goal of having a man around to hold her purse, and the others in the house had various faintly boring goals that involved their partners and spa treatments, my only goal up to that point had been to get laid in a state of near-primal cognitive disintegration. And so, when I awoke that morning and realized just how seriously in jeopardy this goal was, I promptly ate an entire rainbow Rice Krispies treat of marijuana and lost track of everything but a premonition that the world was going to end.
I was lying motionless on the couch, under a protective throw that had become important to me, when Lily came over and started talking. She played with my hair while she talked, and I tried to think up one grammatical sentence that would indicate that I was still a human being. The only recognizable thought among the debris in my mind, however, was the sudden overpowering desire to have sex, and this wasn’t even a thought as such. If I had been in any state to speak, let alone make an argument, I would have brought a Christian martyr’s passion to the task of getting Lily receptive, but all I managed to say, interrupting her arbitrarily to say it, was “I’m very stoned.”
Lily looked at me curiously. “Really?” she said. I was briefly furious at her—that she was so wrapped up in telling me whatever shit, none of which I could translate into meaningful ideation, anyway, that she had failed to notice that I was demonstrating the vital signs of a Pet Rock. Eli walked over to ask if I wanted lunch, or anything, or what did I want, and I said “no,” “maybe,” and “later,” in some order, and then I realized that there was something I wanted, though it wasn’t exactly a group activity, which was to lie on the bathroom floor and masturbate until I died.
“Excuse me,” I said, getting up. I was not terribly steady on my feet and had to brace myself on furniture all the way to the bathroom, but I was excited, let’s say ludicrously excited, by the prospect of masturbating, and, more than that, even amazed that I had forgotten the possibility of masturbation as a sort of compromise-formation in my ongoing sham-coupledom with Lily. And though I could barely breathe or stand, the sensitivity I felt to the world just then was a revelation. I seemed to feel the blood in my body running along the inner banks of its vessels, a trembling life force lighting up my meridians like neon, and, as I pushed off from the free-form couch by the fireplace, the lone thought surfacing within me was something like: I know what a chakra is.
In the bathroom, I locked the doors and stripped to nothing, put the cold-water tap on low, and lay down on the bathmat. Something like fevered joy clenched in my abdomen. If there is an end point to the confessional mode it is surely the things we think about while masturbating, but here goes: I thought of the breasts of a woman who had been at dinner the night before, big, heavy breasts. I thought of her telling me to fuck them, or maybe having multiple dicks, or a kind of “Matrix”-like displacement of dicks, and fucking her and her tits at the same time. I thought of ass-fucking. I thought of someone wanting it, maybe begging for it, maybe Lily. There were mirrors all over the bathroom, and I thought of fucking Lily standing up, of gazing at the mirror and our eyes meeting in a look that said, Wow, we are fucking and it feels awesome. I thought, Mental note: return to question of mirrors, why we like watching ourselves fuck in mirrors—then I forgot this immediately. I thought, This feels so good, and when it is over I will die, but there won’t be any reason to live anyway, so that’s fine. And I thought, What am I doing with my life? And I thought, Am I a good person or a bad person or just a person? And I thought, Am I powerful or weak? And I thought, Now’s maybe not the time. . . . And I thought, Let’s pretend powerful, just for now, let’s pretend I’m powerful and Lily’s powerful and I’m fucking her in the ass, and she’s asking for it, pleading probably, and our eyes meet in the mirror in a look of concern or coital oneness or existential hurt or gratitude that something could feel this good. Yes, that. Let’s pretend that.
I awoke on the morning of Day Four, New Year’s Eve, on a deflated air mattress, without any memory of having gone to sleep. It turned out that I was not licking Julie Delpy, after all, but holding Lyle in a kind of Pietà. When he saw that I was awake he began chewing on my hair, and I thought about going and getting into bed with Lily, then decided to conserve good will. I don’t mean to give the impression that sex is all I think about, but I am goal-oriented. I need goals. And I felt cheated out of something. Lily’s car kept breaking, and so did her toilet, and she needed water and grapes like several dozen times a day. I was getting all the bad boyfriend jobs, I felt, and none of the good.
But in retrospect it wasn’t really about Lily, this sense of being cheated. I needed something to happen. Something new and totalizing to push forward a dithering life. I needed to remember what it felt like to live. And drugs were not just handmaiden or enabler but part and parcel of the same impossible quest, which you could say was the search for the mythical point of most vivid existence, the El Dorado of aliveness, which I did not believe in but which tantalized me nonetheless, a point of mastering the moment in some perfect way, seeing all the power inside you rise up and coincide with itself, suspending life’s give-and-take until you are only taking, claiming every last thing you’ve ever needed or wanted—love, fear, kinship, respect—and experiencing it all at the very instant that every appetite within you is satisfied.
It’s a stupid dream, but there it is. And not a bad agenda for a day as far as agendas go, as far as days go.
It was a perfect afternoon—each one was—and we mobilized early for our hike, nearly two hours before the closing time, which by that point had been embossed forever on our psyches. The sun hung in the southern sky at the height of a double off the left-field wall, hot and pleasant and a whitish color, slipping at its edges into a pale powdered blue that had the particulate quality of noise in a photograph. I was glad that we were going for the hike. It felt almost moral in the context, and even if it was a relatively level hike and only about an hour round trip, and there was a waterfall at the end, hidden among the sere folds of rock, I thought at least we would have to put something in, something of ourselves, some effort, to get whatever out.
Our friend the ranger was waiting for us at the gate, and this time we approached him with an air of triumph, as though he had doubted our resolve but we had persevered and now things would be different.
The ranger actually had his hands on his hips, as if posing for a catalogue photo. The olive-green uniform hung on him so perfectly that I wondered whether he wasn’t perhaps the fit model for the entire clothing line.
The ranger’s gaze, emerging from his tan and handsomely creased face, cast out to the distant escarpments on the far side of the valley.
“You can always hike the sagebrush trail,” he said, pointing vaguely to a boulder-strewn slope in the distance that seemed to rise, precipitously, toward nothing.
We did hike the sagebrush trail. We hiked until boredom overtook us. At the top of the ridge, where we stopped, a Hasid in black robes stared out across the Coachella Valley, past the lush plot of Palm Springs, which sat in the dun funnel of mountains like a piece of sod on a field of dirt. I wondered what it would take to imagine my way into his mind. I tried to look out at the scene through his eyes and couldn’t. I could see it only through my eyes: the grid of roads, the golf courses twined around their fancy houses, the brassy glow of the sun catching on the mountain faces to the south, the lights of convenience stores blinking on in the dusk. Another mellow California evening, where the velour air seemed a kind of permission—to be cosmically insignificant, maybe—an evening exactly as lovely and forgiving as it was unsacred.
Our steaks—the steaks we ate that night—had been cows that had eaten Lord knows how much grain, grain farmed using heavy machinery and fertilizer and then shipped on trucks; cows that had produced Lord knows how much waste and methane before they were slaughtered, before they were butchered and shipped to us on different trucks. It was a very special dinner, courtesy of the Maldives, Bangladesh, Venice. We were each supposed to say something, something meaningful or thankful, I suppose, that would begin to repay our debt to the cows and the people of Sumatra. I wanted to read a poem that had recently moved me. I’d been trying to read it every night, as a prelude to dinner or a coda to dinner, but things kept getting in the way. The mood, for instance. It wasn’t a very poem-y poem, but it was a poem, and I guess it had that against it. Still, it was funny and affecting, and I saw it as a sort of moral Trojan horse, a coy and subtle rebuke to everything that was going on, which would, in the manner of all great art, make its case through no more than the appeal and persuasiveness of its sensibility. The others would hear it and sit there dumbfounded, I imagined, amazed at the shallowness of their lives, their capacity nonetheless to apprehend the sublime, and the fact that I had chosen a life in which I regularly made contact with this mood. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t expect this state to last for more than forty-five seconds, but the poem had become meaningful to me, and I was about to read it when dinner was very suddenly ready, and then when dinner was over dessert appeared, and then there were post-dinner cigarettes, and then we got a call that our cabs were on the way and we had to hurry to clear the table so that we could all do a few lines before the next party. We crushed the coke into still finer powder and spread it, thin and beautiful, on the glass coffee table, and by the time we were all packed into two cabs any memory that I had been about to read a poem or that poetry was a thing that existed had vanished.
Eli had done a line or two himself, and I could feel him growing tense in the way he did, which I had come to know years before, when we were roommates in college. It was the tenseness of someone who gets almost everything he wants very easily actually wanting something he’s not sure he can get. The thing Eli wanted, most proximately, was Wagner, who we’d heard was at the party to which we were en route, and, yes, Eli wanted Wagner’s money, wanted the financing so that his film about Albert O. Hirschman could be made and play the festival circuit and make a bid to be picked up by Focus or Searchlight or whatever, but more than that, I think, Eli wanted to know that he could bag a fish as big as Wagner. To try to get his mind off things, I asked him who he liked in the Cotton Bowl, but he must not have heard me because he said, “It’s all the fucking drugs, drink some water when we get there,” and then I realized that we were shouting across six people from opposite ends of a taxi minivan.
At the party, we were greeted by a contingent of bashful children in party hats who blew party horns and kazoos at us. I went directly to the kitchen and poured half a bottle of Aperol into a Solo Cup because—well, let’s assume I had a reason at the time. I didn’t know anyone, but I was feeling pretty great, when Eli came over to me and whispered in my ear.
I followed him to a recessed living room—there were several—where we settled into the deep embrace of leather armchairs, draping our ankles over our knees, and had the following conversation while the seven or twelve other versions of us that appeared in the intricately mirrored wall had it, too.
ELI (pausing for effect): I am so happy. It’s Marta, though. I mean, is this it? If we have kids, it’s going to change everything in our lives, hers more than mine. I want her to feel like she’s done all the things she wanted to do.
ME: Jesus, don’t be insane. And, look, it’s not like there’s some perfect moment of some perfect evening when you go: That. That was it. That was living, and it doesn’t get any better, and now I can die. Or have kids.
I was pretty out of it, but still it wasn’t lost on me that what I had just denied the truth of was exactly the fantasy I had let myself entertain throughout the trip. And I felt, realizing this, neither wise nor duplicitous but tired—tired of all the things that were equally true and not true, which seemed to be just about everything right then.
“C’mon, let’s go find Marta and Lily,” Eli said, because we hadn’t seen them in a while and that could mean only one thing. And, sure enough, in the third bathroom we checked there was Lily speaking without punctuation, lining up lacy filaments of blow on the porcelain tank of the toilet while Marta did smoothing or plumping things to her eyelashes that only girls understand. And somehow the four of us squeezed into that bathroom, which was the size of a telephone booth, and did our lines and got most of the excess into our teeth, and Eli scraped what was left very carefully over the bevelled edge and into a bag the size of one Cheez-It.
Lily and I looked at each other, or our eyes met in the wall of mirror before us, and we both made a motion to speak before realizing that there was nothing we meant to say. And, realizing this, we smiled, because maybe we were not in love, and maybe love is a chemical sickness, anyway, one that blinds us to who the person we love really is, but we were committed to each other, committed somehow to forgiving each other every stupid, careless, needy, and unpleasant thing we did or said that week.
It didn’t take us all that long to find Wagner, though time had grown a bit fishy at this point. We scrabbled through doors and rooms, and when we got to the library a voice said, “Come in, come in,” as if it had been expecting us. The voice belonged to a man of perhaps seventy-one, who was sitting low behind a desk, sipping from a snifter of what looked like corrupted urine and talking on a phone that for an instant I took to be a large kitten. It was such a striking sight that I almost missed the Amazonian woman standing to the side in a studded black leather bra and garters. I did a double take, but she didn’t seem to register my gaze, just looked off glassily with impassive disgust and worked the tassels of her riding crop like a rosary.
“Satellite,” Wagner told us, covering the mouthpiece with his hand. Then: “Yeah, yeah, go fuck yourself, Fred. Ten A.M.”
“Frank,” Eli said, and took a few larger-than-normal steps toward Wagner and held out his hand, smiling as if they were old war buddies whom a comedy of errors had kept apart for years.
Eli laughed his public laugh. “Eli. Eli Geller-Frucht,” he said. “I’m the writer on the Hirschman film. ‘Philosopher’s Whetstone’? Actually that title sucks, but Marley Jones at Buzzard told me her people talked to your people, she said you had a personal connection to the story—tell me if I’m making this up? Your wife’s family? So we’re thinking sort of a John Nash in ‘The Good Shepherd’ thing, but without all the schizophrenia, of course, and David’s got this big fucking man-crush on Louis Malle, so we’re doing kind of an ‘Au Revoir les Enfants’ __open, very faithful to the spirit of Hirschman’s story, you know, but—”
Wagner held up a hand as though in some vague pain. “Yeah, yeah, I get it. I talked to David. Look, I’m on board. I don’t give a fuck about Hirschman, but my wife, Lydia, she won’t shut up about ‘Nana would have wanted to see her Albie as Zac Efron’ or whatever. It’s fucking ridiculous, but you get to the point of certain understandings”—Wagner inclined his head toward the half-dressed woman in the corner—“and, well, you get the picture.” He put his hands on the desk and raised himself, and he must have been sitting in a comically small chair, because when he stood, far from being the wizened troll I had come to imagine, he loomed over both of us, six-four easy, with an elegant and gawky grace.
“Here,” he said, “give me some of that blow you’re on and I’ll let you in on a secret.” Eli reached into his pocket without taking his eyes off Wagner and passed him the bag.
The man looked at us like we had to be joking but then produced a two-inch piece of straw from the breast pocket of his jacket and snorted everything that was left, right from the plastic. He thumbed his nose and sniffed a few times, then gave a small shrug of disdain and settled, half sitting, on the front of the desk. “That coke sucks, but I’ll tell you, anyway,” he said. “Here’s what I was going to say: Stop giving so much of a shit.”
We blinked at him. “What do you mean?” I said. I love that you can ask people what they mean right after they’ve said the most obvious things and almost invariably they’ll assume that they are the ones who’ve failed to be clear and go to elaborate lengths to make themselves understood.
Wagner looked at me, then turned to Eli. “Your friend’s retarded,” he said. “What I mean is—look, if you care about something, like horses, go raise horses. Go ride them and fuck them or whatever people do with horses. Sell them to Arabs, I’d guess. But if you’re going to stay in this crappy business, and they’re all crappy, stop giving a shit. Because you’re here for one reason and you should know what that reason is. Do you?”
He looked from one of us to the other, then barked “Sonia!,” and we jumped, but Sonia didn’t. She just walked over and spanked us both insanely hard on the ass with her riding crop.
“The reason you’re here,” Wagner said, “is that you already have nice cars”—I didn’t, but I went along with the spirit of his admonition—“and girlfriends with that taut skin, and nice rentals in the hills—or maybe you own?” He looked at us doubtfully. “But you don’t have the good stuff, do you, the really hard-to-come-by shit. You know what I’m talking about: Envy. Serious, irrefutable reasons for people to envy you. And not just any sort of people, of course. You need people well informed enough to understand just how enviable you are. And people clever enough to know how to show their envy without being sycophants, and worldly enough to be charming company while they’re envying you. . . . You need courtiers, see? Oh, they’re better and worse than friends. They don’t care about you, sure, but they understand the terms of your success far better than a friend ever could. And so when you forget why you did all the shit you did, all you have to do is look at their greedy, glowing, envious faces and say, ‘Ah, yes. That’s why.’ ”
Wagner stared out the sliding glass doors for a minute, while Sonia cracked walnuts on a teak coffee table with the blunt end of a bowie knife, then he continued more softly. “And here’s the really fucked-up thing,” he said. “When you’ve bloated yourself on all the envy a person can take and you’re still not satisfied, you’ll see there’s only one place left to go. You have everything that can be bought, all the blow jobs the people who covet your power can give, but what you don’t have, you’ll see, is pain. And that’s where Sonia comes in. Sure, I pay her. But she would hate me just as much if I didn’t. And that’s real.” He sipped his drink contemplatively. “It’s the realest thing in the world.”
He shook his head, as though to clear away the cobwebs of this sentimentality, and it must have worked, because he started again in a livelier tone. “It reminds me of when Nietzsche and I had our falling-out,” he said.
He looked at me with what I think was hatred. “There is really something wrong with your friend,” he said to Eli. “Of course I’m not the real Wagner. How much fucking blow did you do? I’m talking about David Nietzsche. The exec over at Iscariot?”
Well, I’m not going to dwell on this chapter of the night any longer. We got out as soon as we could. The change of year, we discovered, had come and gone. We’d missed the countdown and the kisses. Marta put a silly hat on Eli, and Lily kissed me chastely. I won’t bore you with the rest: the long unaccountable conversation I had about Gaelic football, or buying more coke in a bathroom at the Ace, or skinny-dipping at the Ace and getting kicked out, or sneaking back in and waking up among the patio furniture cuddling a metal vase full of flowers. I found Lily asleep in the faux ship-rigging of a window arrangement, and after a while, when I got her untangled, we walked home, her tripping in high heels, me carrying a bag that turned out not to be hers (or a bag), then later carrying her, then climbing a wall to fetch her shoes after she threw them, in either joy or rage, into the koi pond of a meditation center.
At home we each peed while the other showered. Lily removed her contacts while I kissed her shoulders, then she applied three different lotions to her face.
When we finally lay down, I said, “Look, we’re here, we’re happy, it’s a new year, let’s just . . .”
Lily sat up partway and looked at me. Her blemish-free face looked tired and sober all of a sudden, a bit how I picture the Greek Fates when I picture them—handsome, pristine, sadly knowing. “The thing is,” Lily said, “we could and I’m sure it would feel good. And it’s not like sex is any big deal. But we’re old enough now to know some things, to know what happens next, to know that we have sex and then we text and e-mail for a bit, and then you come visit me, or I come visit you, and we start to get a little excited and talk about the thing to our friends, and then we get a little bored because our friends don’t really care, and we remember that we live in different places and think, Who the fuck are we kidding?, and then we realize that we were always just a little bored, and the e-mails and text messages taper off, and the one of us who’s a bit more invested feels hurt and starts giving the whole thing more weight than it deserves—because these things become referendums on our lives, right?—and so we drift apart and the thought of the other person arouses a slight bitterness or guilt, depending on who’s who at this point, and when the topic of the other person comes up we grit our teeth and say, ‘Yeah, I know him,’ or, ‘Yeah, I know her’—and all that for a few fucks that aren’t even very good, because we’re drunk and hardly know each other and aren’t all that into it anyway.”
I may have looked a little hurt, because she said, “Hey, but don’t feel bad. I really do like you. I don’t want you to feel rejected. That’s not what this is.”
Really? It wasn’t? Well, yes and no. She didn’t want me to feel rejected but she did want to reject me. Still, Lily’s reasoning was very sensible, and she was right that I was bored, I am often bored, and I felt a strange relief and, behind the relief, a faint sadness. It was sadness about a lot of things, but perhaps, most simply stated, it was regret that we had grown self-knowing enough to avoid our mistakes.
I left Lily’s room and walked right into Eli and Marta’s, because I thought I should tell Eli what I had just understood, he being a screenwriter and all—that our lives had become scripts, that love had become a three-act formula worthy of Robert McKee—but then I saw that he and Marta were going at it, Eli behind her, while they watched themselves in the mirrored doors of the wall closet. When they saw me, they paused mid-thrust, and I said, “Oh, God, sorry,” and Marta blinked and said, “It’s fine, sweetie,” and Eli kind of surreptitiously finished the suspended thrust and said, “Yeah, no biggie. What’s up?”
We all felt amazingly good the next day. This seemed remarkable, but it was the truth. The coke had somehow burned off whatever residue encrusts on you throughout the year: free radicals, shame, whatever. We felt unashamed. We were done auditioning for one another and could now be friends, or not-friends, but ourselves.
We left for Joshua Tree that morning. It was the same day it always was, but that day was beautiful, and although the park was busy by the time we got there we didn’t care. We climbed a rock pile and ate a sandwich bag of mushrooms and lay contented in the sun. There were families around, white families and Latino families and Asian families, and everyone said, “Happy New Year,” all of us very pleased, it seemed, that we had something to say to one another. There were people rock-climbing and tightrope-walking on a distant butte, and we hiked over to them, while distances took on a subtle fun-house deception and the rocks grew more interesting and our bodies less reliable. The sun tore through the tissue of the sky. The stone-littered ochre valley below recalled a time when humans and dinosaurs had shared the earth—not a real time, of course, but the time in our collective imagination when we were the scrappy dreamers, and they were the powerful monsters, and we all had a lot more business with volcanoes.
We ate lunch on the low wall of a lookout. You could see down into the Coachella Valley to the south, see the Salton Sea and the San Andreas Fault, which ran like a post-Impressionist margin in the landscape, but I was mostly focussed on my sandwich, the way the Gala apple and the country-style mustard interacted with the sharp white Cheddar and the arugula, how the tastes all came together and produced nuances in their interaction that I had never encountered before. I was tripping very deeply and beautifully at this point, and I strolled to the top of a nearby sightseeing hillock. It must have been the presence of another Hasid there that accounted for the turn my thoughts took, because I remember thinking, You and I are not so different. We are desert people, sons of a Trimalchio race. We come to places like this, where there is nothing, and don’t see nothing. We see a long, trailing history of wandering and persecution and the melancholic fruits of so much lineal sharpening. But then I remembered the truth, which was that I didn’t really have a “people” or a “race,” not as such. I was a mutt, like everyone, and whatever confluent strands had produced me had their own chapters of persecution and oppression, or, to be less polite-society about it, of rape and forced labor and murder.
“Pretty amazing,” I said to my fellow-gazer, and I was briefly proud of myself for coming up with something so appropriate, when the gazer turned and I saw that he was not a Hasid, after all, but just a teen-ager in a black hoodie, and he looked at me and his eyes said, unmistakably, “You can do one of two things right now, and both of them are to go fuck yourself.” And I thought, Well, O.K. You’re sixteen. I’d probably feel the same way. And then I thought I had to shit very badly, so I went to the single-occupancy bathroom and waited with a twelve-year-old boy while his mother shat inside. And that seemed poignant to me, too, his waiting for his mother, our uneasy and yet companionable waiting, and for a second it occurred to me that perhaps I was travelling back to my own birth along a sequence of encounters with boys of diminishing ages. But I wasn’t. I just had a stomachache, it turned out.
The early evening was upon us, a dwindling and rapturous light invigorating the mountains as we debouched from the hills, descending to the Cholla Cactus Garden and the smoldering twilit valley below. The cactuses themselves appeared to glow, as round and chartreuse as tennis balls, the air wholesome with a hovering feculence, and we stood together, smiling with goofy acquiescence at all that we felt and lacked the words to speak. We ate the last caps and stems of the mushrooms. We were high, but we weren’t courting death. We were just some nobody hustlers in the desert, trying to make a film about the economist Albert O. Hirschman, trying to read a poem and be present together and save the shards of hearts splintered many times in incautious romance from further comminution, trying to keep up with our Instagram and Twitter feeds and all the autodocumentary imperatives of the age, trying to keep checking items off our private bucket lists, because pretty soon we would have babies and devote our lives to giving them the right prods and cushioning so that they could grow up to be about as bad and as careful as we were, and avoid stepping with too big a carbon footprint on our African and Asian brothers and sisters and the Dutch. We were looking for a moment, not a perfect moment but a moment in which the boundaries of ourselves and the world grew indistinct and overlapped.
The sun was setting and we were rising—me, Marta, Eli, and Lily—the four of us in a Prius, experiencing a transcendental glee as we rode back through Twentynine Palms and the towns of Joshua Tree and Yucca Valley, the whole thing one unbroken span of luminous development, or so it seemed, more beautiful than you can imagine. We were listening to a late Beatles album very loud, finding folds within the music that seemed never to have been there before and unlikely to be there again. Lily, every few minutes, burst out laughing wildly, I don’t know why. We petted each other a little, sensually, asexually, then we passed into the Coachella Valley, swept down, down into the vast grid of lights, so many __colors, all communicating with one another in a lattice of shifting and persistent harmony. And as we returned to the valley floor, where the windmills blinked red and the stars through our open windows were small rounded jewels in the great velvet scrim of night, Lily spoke.
“It’s like . . . it was all choreographed for me,” she said, her voice hushed and marvelling. “Like everything was arranged for me. To experience just like this.”
It took me a second to realize what she was saying and what it meant, to gather my thoughts and say the only thing there was to say.
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