A message from Compliance pops up on my screen, while I am drinking my third morning coffee. It’s an addition to our email policy:
Compliance Alert: Personal use of company email is forbidden and will result in disciplinary action and/or dismissal.
Dismissals make me think of Debbie’s pager, which makes me think of how unattainable she is, which makes me think Ánut , who is just as hot as Debbie and with whom I do have a chance if I want to pay, which makes me think of money, which makes me think of Marta and her beautiful niece Angelique, which makes further work impossible. I decide to check out the news. It turns out that trial lawyers are inflicting more damage on the Catholic Church than Martin Luther. Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake in Boston and Chicago and in several dioceses in Long Island. Texas does pedophilia in as big a way as it does everything else; a billion dollar settlement has already been paid out there.
While I shuffle through my clutter I realize that I have the cards of both Magdalene and Ska. I put them aside and then immediately think better of it – they are my only way of contacting these two women. I should send them both emails today. I vaguely wonder if I’m being unfaithful to my long distance girlfriend I’m pretending to go out with and decide I am unless she’s behaving the same way.
Achilles breaks my reverie. “Check out this email that I just received. It’s like a little morality play:” He clears his throat and begins to speak:
I don’t want you to feel sorry for me as you read this because I believe everyone will some day die. My name is Alan Bates. I am a merchant from Dubai who has been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. It has defied all forms of medical treatment and I have only a few months left to live.
Achilles pauses for effect. Lance mock-reverently crosses himself which is enough audience feedback for Achilles to continue.
I have not lived my life so well, as I never really cared for anyone, not even myself. Though I am very rich, I was never generous and was always hostile to people. My business was the only thing I cared for. But I regret all this as I now know that there is more to life than wanting to make all the money in the world.
Troy interrupts, laughing, “There’s more to life than wanting all the money in the world??!! I guess there is – spending all the money in the world!”
“What about sex” Rajesh contributes, though in an off-hand manner. He’s busy writing a shell script right now. I had no idea he had a sense of humor. Or was even listening.
Opia is genuinely scandalized by our banter. “You should be working, not reading stupid emails. Didn’t you see the Compliance Alert?! Besides, there is eleven ticket in the queue. Eleven.”
Though I am very impressed by her dedication I am incapable of working right now so I try to bring her in to our conversation. “Hey Opia, where are you from?”
“I mean what part of China?”
“What does your Dad do?”
“He’s a doctor”
“No, he’s a Major in the People’s Liberation Army.”
Far out. I wonder if her dad’s a Communist. Probably. Major? Certainly. I wonder what he thinks of her walking down the capitalist road. This makes me think of how awkward it is going to be for any American to propose to her, which prompts me to ask, “Are you married?”
She replies by raising her left hand towards me. No ring. She throws my question back at me. “You don’t have a wedding ring, either. Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Yeah. Uh maybe. No. I’m in a long distance relationship but it’s over. We never see each other and the last time we talked we had a fight.”
“When was that?”
“Hey, let me finish.” Achilles continues, reading his email:
I believe that God has given me a chance to live my life a different way from how I have lived it. I have given most of my property to my family, as well as a few close friends. As one of the last deeds I do on earth I have also decided to give alms to charitable organizations. So far, I have distributed money to charities in the United Arab Emirates, Algeria and Malaysia.
Now that my health has deteriorated so badly, I need assistance with my charitable work. I recently asked some close family members to distribute my remaining money to organizations in Bulgaria and Pakistan, but they kept the money because they were not contented with what I have already given to them.
“Never enough” Troy interjects, sub voce.
The last of my money – which no one knows of – is eighteen million dollars that I have deposited with an offshore bank. I want you to help me collect this deposit and give it away to those in need. I have set aside 10% for you and for your time. God be with you.
Achilles concludes with a wistful expression in his voice. “Imagine, robbed by your own family. What a sad testament to man’s selfishness and greed.”
I wonder whether this scam works better with the poor or the rich. My mind flashes back to a memory of Pablo hitting on his son’s daughter, hash joint in his left hand, a glass of scotch in his right. Perhaps he should be the target of this email because cravings are worse when you’re rich because you expect so much more. It occurs to me that its impossible to be satiated until you want nothing.
Opia is livid, “Stop this bullshit, guys! There are now thirteen ticket in the queue. Get to work. Tell them to work Achilles, you’re their boss. And you too Patrick. ”
“Its tickets, not ticket. Thirteen tickets in the queue.” Lance reply is to Opia alone. He’s not trying to draw attention to his correction.
Opia mouths the word tickets, but says nothing.
“Here’s how I replied”, laughs Achilles, winking at Opia.
Dear Mr. Bates,
Your sad story has touched my heart. I will help you give away your money. I want nothing for myself but would like to give away my 10% share to Ronald Reagan Junior’s charity.
Achilles’ eccentric humor really bugs Opia even though she doesn’t get the joke that Ronald Reagan Junior’s charity is for atheists. “That was stupid, Achilles. Why did you do that? Didn’t you read the Compliance Alert?”
Even considering my lax standards, I too am aghast. What an inappropriate message to send using company email. But Achilles seems to think he is protected, and to an extent he is given his connections and experience.
“Don’t worry. We must send out 200,000 emails a day. No one reads them all.” His manner is lax. My sense is he’s making an argument to make one, like a role play, not to convince anyone.
Lance pipes up, “Actually A, we’ve hired this Israeli company to do just that. Its pretty cool. They look for key-words based on this Bayesian learning system. You’ll get away with that email today. You won’t in a month.”
Opia is almost beside herself with frustration, “Guys, there’s fourteen tickets in the queue, aside from my two. Look at them before someone escalates.”
Achilles is chill. “The tickets will have to wait, Opia. We’ve got an all-hands meeting in 5 minutes.
As we take the elevator down to the auditorium I read a cheery banner printed in Christmas colors, which is posted above the floor selection buttons. It blithely declares that “In the CIE Cafeteria Every Thursday is Earth Day.” I reflexively wonder what the other six days of the week are? Trash day? Me day?
I look at Opia. There’s a point where conservative dress passes into the realm of the dominatrix for women and death camp Commandant for men. She’s not quite at that point, but if she does cross it she’d probably be breaking some law. She is wearing thigh high socks, which I earlier had mistake for tightens, until she sat down and her above-the-knee pleated navy skirt tugs up slightly to reveal the bare skin of her inner thigh in the one instant before she places her hands there and covers up the view. She is wearing a blouse that covers her neck in frilly lace, yet somehow opens up to reveal cleavage when she twists. She does that now, when she notices that no one on the elevator has bothered to push the mezzanine button, even though we’re all going there. Her breasts are fulsome, but seem almost cartoonishly large on her skinny frame. I look away, scanning the elevator to see if anyone notices my staring. Opia looks over at me, catches my eyes and briefly, secretly smiles.
The elevator whisks us down to the mezzanine, which – because it is public facing – is one of the more nicely appointed sections of Head Office. Two receptionists are busy directing streams of CIE employees toward the auditorium. The auditorium itself is tastefully decorated with panels of teak wood, done in a 1960s style. The stage is surrounded by concentric half-circles of red-cushioned chairs. People chose their seats according to a mixture of seniority and ambition. Achilles breaks for the front row, closely followed by Opia. Janus, Lance and I skulk to a poorly lit section in the back, with a partially obstructed view of the stage. Rajesh has remained in the fishbowl, because he’s a consultant and is not invited.
Looking at the array of old men and one woman on the stage – the CIO and his 6 direct reports – I am immediately reminded of a photograph I once saw of the first Central Committee meeting of the Russian Communist Party after the death of Joseph Stalin. What I found interesting about the picture is how no one stood out. Its just this cluster of bad-ass anonymous men who can fuck with you. Same for Ethiopia’s junta and the dudes in Myamar.
Sitting here I feel kind of like a communist apparatchik, an insider but at the bottom of this food chain. It is the people on the stage who are the truly powerful ones. They control the fate and fortune of the 2,000 people in this auditorium, and of their families, and tens of billions of dollars of assets.
I am faced with a dilemma. My impulse, like that of Achilles, is to stand up and be noticed. Certainly all of the rhetoric that I had ever heard about America indicates that people here prefer you to speak plainly. But myths about go-getting Americans somehow never mention the corporate bosses who can fire you at will. Ashulm, one of the dudes on the stage, is my boss. I don’t want to publicly challenge him and I’m sickened at the thought of flattering him. Best to lay low.
The CIO looks like Bill Clinton, right down to his bulbous veiny red drunkard’s nose and bluff manner. I can’t see whether his eyes are bloodshot because he is wearing slightly tinted glasses. He is intently watching the main entrance, as if taking attendance. My assessment is that he is a high-functioning alcoholic.
The meeting begins at precisely 5 minutes past the hour.
The CIO begins the show with a question. “Why are you here?” No one answers. “If you were an artist you’d probably be working in a gallery or perhaps an advertising firm. If you were a writer you be working at a publishing company. You work in finance. People work in finance to make money.”
Much to my surprise this line not only gets laughter, it gets friendly catcalls and scattered applause.
He continues, pumped up by the positive audience response. “How are we doing this year? You all know the story. We’re riding on the crest of a wave.”
“What about our bonuses?” Some catcalls from my left. I don’t he’s who.
The CIO smoothly responds, “If you’re good, this is going to be a very good year.”
“But remember, this is Wall St. If you don’t deliver, you’re out of here. There are a lot of people who want your job and who are better at it.”
[It had never crossed my mind that there was anything special about my job. Other than the pay.]
For the next few minutes we’re given the metrics. The numbers are not very inspiring. Bear Stearns and Goldman Sachs continue to eat into our Fixed Income business. Chase is hovering in the background waiting to buy us or kill us and eat our assets.
After a bullshit summary of this quarter’s numbers, the Chief moves on to Y2K, the over-hyped problem some mainframe systems have with 4 digit years. I am dispirited to realize that the CIO only vaguely understands what Y2K is. He speaks like a politician covering his ass, not someone intelligently assessing a threat. I completely ignore him and instead day-dream about being touched by Ánut. [She’s skinny avaricious and pallid but so sexual … It must be conditioning on my part but … why her and not Magdalene or Ska. I realize in part my attraction is based on a badness scale. Anut is most bad, Magdalene fluctuates between good and bad – the bad girl attracts the good girl scares me. Ska its impossible – she’s too virtuous, things could never work with her. … But man she’s fun. ]
We move on to questions. Achilles, thanks to his enthusiastic waving, is acknowledged first. The moment an audio-visual tech hands him a cordless microphone he speaks decisively; this is rehearsed. “Markets are good right now. But word on the street is that we’re in a bubble. NASDAQ’s at 4,200. Some analysts think it should be at half that, or less. [For example, should a grocery delivery company that is burning through its reserves really be worth 80 times earnings just because it uses the Internet?] What do you think?”
The CIO beams at the question, and responds by asking a question of the entire audience, “Who here has been working for Cousins for less than 2 years.” About one third of the audience raises their hands. “Who here has been working in finance for less than 1 year?” Just a few people lower their hands.
“You rookies, and you veterans who haven’t been paying attention should know that Cousins doesn’t take positions on the market. We don’t bet on the market going up or down. How do we make our money?”
This seems like a rhetorical question, but about a half-dozen voices boom in reply, “Volatility.”
“That’s right. We make the most money when markets are volatile. NASDAQ up 5% today, down 7% tomorrow? No problem. Markets like this are great! The crazier the better.”
Another catcall question, “Are there any issues? Any clouds on the horizon?”
“Sure. Anyone know what year this is?”
“1999” someone catcalls from the front row. We all see where he’s headed. Eyes are already rolling.
”That’s right. Right now times are great, all we have to do is not fuck up. Y2K is one of those things that we really could fuck up. So stay focused.”
The bosses nod their heads sagely in unison. I realize then that bosses move in herds.
Despite his shallowness, I like the CIO. To clarify, I find him smarmy but I like his plain-spoken manner, something vanishingly rare in senior managers. It makes it easy to not mind his thin knowledge of technology. I don’t mind having that left to us. His ignorance is our opportunity. As far as I am concerned Y2K is a joke. Sure there are some mainframe programs that can’t cope with centuries in dates, but for my systems it’s a total non-issue that has been hyped beyond the point of embarrassment by managers who just want more money. But who is to be the whistle blower and stop the madness. No one in IT, that’s for certain, at least no one sensible. I could see Janus complaining and not being listened to. Who in their right mind would say no to $10,000,000 to solve a non-existent problem, particularly when there are real problems they need that money to solve.
Our other strategic initiative for this year is THE INTERNET. Despite the fever pitch of the CIO on the topic, however, I find that I am not caught up in the hype. Sure it’s cool that Cousins floated a two billion dollar bond for a car factory in Thailand totally on-line but I don’t see the magic. It’s not like computers haven’t been doing stuff like this for 30 years. What’s so different now? How exactly has the world changed? This is where the CIO and I differ. For him THE INTERNET is the new paradigm, for me it is a new interface to the same old data; an awkward, difficult to manage interface that I’ll have to work on after hours for the promise of a bonus.
The final part of the meeting is about strategy. The discussion turns to Cousins’ plans to change housing finance by creating a lot of shell corporations. I briefly think about Seth in Toronto, but I’m so certain that the relationship is dead that I can’t even muster the energy to mull much less regret. Then my daydreams turn to Angelique, and the vicious lesbian Countess who stands between us. I give up on that thought because I know is a partial-truth. A whole class stands between me and Angelique, not just one nasty aristocrat. My fantasy tries to skirt the obvious issues of class and money and life experience, then gives up and turns its full attention to the drunken, grasping, sexy, bad-girl Ánut.
The Town Hall ends with a barrage of money questions that I miss entirely, and then concludes exactly 55 minutes after it started, exactly on time.
As I exit the auditorium, I find myself walking beside Ashulm who says to me, “Patrick, can you meet at my office for 10 minutes.” It’s a statement, even though its phrased as a question. His stern manner reminds me of my Vice Principal in High School. This triggers flashbacks to the tawdry events of my adolescence. Am I in trouble? Reason tells me not, but that’s how I’ve been conditioned to respond to authority.
We exit the elevators then walk along the east side of the North Tower toward Ashulm’s office on the north-east corner. The view is rarefied. We are above most of the skyline, except for the thin black line of the Millenium Hotel, the Woolworth building and the black box Deutsche Bank calls headquarters. I idly remark on the view; Ashulm shrugs and gets to the point. “How are the Y2K projects going?”
My private school background makes it easy for me to fall into a military mode with this man. “Well to be frank sir, Y2K seems like more of a problem for mainframes than for us. Our databases have been compliant since at least 1986 and none of my front-end systems have any issues at all.”
“You have no Y2K tasks left? Nothing?”
I pause for a moment to think. I’ve never had Y2K issues so it’s difficult to know how to proceed. I decide it’s best to throw him a bone, and invent a small one, “Well the Trade Blotter app needs a bit of work because some rocket scientist used character strings for trade dates so it can’t filter date ranges properly.”
That is enough. His stern Dad manner kicks in and he replies in a lecturing tone. “All date problems are Y2K problems. As is anything that could break our system in the New Year. We’ve got a chance to do a real cleanup here.”
“I understand.” This is a lesson in good management. Ashulm is covering his ass while simultaneously using the Y2K issue to working on necessary bug fixes. “When you’ve fixed all problems in New York, I want you to review our London and Tokyo systems. And meet an important new hire, Jennifer Shawndansey.”
And so I am sent off on a trip around the world to kill the Y2K bug in all of its forms, both real and imagined.
“I understand that this year passports have taken up to six months to be sorted. Something to do with years ending in three noughts.” I am in London and my sensible driver is going at exactly the speed limit and keeping his eyes on the road as we exit from the M25 interchange onto the M4, near Heathrow Airport. Given the state of traffic it is amazing that he can speak at all, much less inform me of his understanding of Y2K.
“I have a hunch its all nonsense. Don’t tell me that bankers and computer programmers don’t know how to count.”
Although his words hearten me, they are cutting a bit too close to the chase, so I make an open ended statement, “Next year is going to be crazy.”
“You mean crazier. As if things weren’t crazy enough already. The FOOTSIE was up 2% yesterday alone.”
“There’s been some profit taking today”, I add. Up and down. Volatility.
He laughs a charming though cynical laugh. “I’m sure there was profit taking. There always is until there can’t be any more, and then you rich people profit from the crash. Did you ever hear about the South Sea Bubble?” The driver shrugs emphatically as he says this, though his cautious hands never leave the steering wheel, nor his cautious eyes the road. He becomes silent as the traffic on the M4 consumes all of his attention.
After spending 90 minutes in traffic that manages to make the West Side Highway look efficient, I arrive at the Cousin’s office in the City, just opposite Liverpool station. Though exhausted from my trip, I am given no break but must go straight to work.
Though I have read so much about London I have never been here and am uncertain what to expect. I anticipate that the office will look like a drawing room, which some ornaments reminiscent of St. James Palace, perhaps a few Greek busts and an Elgin marble or two. My preconceptions are wrong on so many counts. The Office is a perfectly utilitarian building like the thousands that dot America’s suburbs and fly-over cities.
My first meeting is with an important player in London IT, a woman named Jennifer Shawndansey. I wonder what she will be like. My expectation is that she will look like Indira Gandhi, complete with a Sarang and bindi. I hope that she is thoroughly covered because I am certain that her mottled skin will hang like flaps of cottage cheese from her arms and thighs.
My preconceptions turn out to be different from correct. Ms. Jennifer Shawndansey’s has blunt cut, bobbed red hair and beady blue eyes. Her figure is more of a transnational – or archetypical – cast, along the lines of movie starlet. Her disproportionately large breasts make me amend that to Indian love goddess. She is wearing a form fitting blue pinstriped suit, blue French stockings with inseams, and stiletto shoes. Everything that can be coiffed about her is: her fingernails, her toes, and her somewhat long, bobbed hair.
Despite her pretty face, toned body and fashionable dress, I’m not attracted to her – or perhaps because wariness keeps my instincts in check. I suspect there is a reason that her nickname among the London lads is Shiva, after the Destroyer, and not Aphrodite or Ishtar.
My not yet even lingering eyes are noticed and punctured by one sharp look.
Jennifer Shawndansey flashes her million dollar smile around the room. Two million given the market. I expect her to begin her PowerPoint opus, but she returns her gaze to her laptop. The smile was a dress rehearsal.
The moment Ashulm arrives she flashes the smile again, accompanied by her cheeriest “Let’s get started.”
She primly clears her throat, shuffles some papers, which I realize are a prop, and speaks, “Before I begin I’d like to announce some big news. The Fixed Income Document Management Team is going global. As of right now, we are the Global Fixed Income Document Management Team!” We means London, which is a very sinister development for my New York based team.
Her stock is rising so my guess her smile is worth close to three million dollars when she closes, accompanied by a couple of enthusiastic sounding “Woots”, a “Huzzah”, and desultory applause from those of us not on her team. We are all forced to engage, given that the penalty for not being a team player is career death.
I catch my peer Andrew’s eyes and give him a ‘what the fuck?’ shrug, clearly not impressed.
Ashulm is impressed, however. “Excellent introduction, Jen. Please continue.” Ashulm is smiling. Not lecherously. He is smiling approvingly, as if Shiva is his daughter and he is proud of her. I wonder if he has children and whether their incisor teeth are as sharp as his.
“Thank you, sir.” Shiva nods deferentially to her boss.
One nanosecond before her deferential pause turns into a lull, Shiva revs up. “Everyone knows everyone. Let’s start.” As she says this, her right arm sweeps over the conference room. It’s an odd gesture and it disturbs me. Then I know why: she’s lording over us. But her arrogance isn’t proactive. She’s not trying to assert her dominance or make us submit. She is as certain that she is better than us as she is certain that Cambridge is a better university than Toronto.
I thought she was my peer. She does not think that she is mine.
After such a strong start, she doesn’t even flinch when saying, “Of course you know that the Fixed Income Document Management team is always broadly available for adding value. Well, not surprisingly, this year we have an awesome project plan.”
[Note that all of her presentation is actual quotation from presentations]
I begin to get very uncomfortable. My world, information systems, no matter how broken and cobbled together it can be, is ultimately rational. This isn’t. I am vexed. I can’t process what she is saying.
Shiva inhales and then dives deeply. “We did lots of lateral thinking for this plan. McLennan, for example” – she nods toward a tall, stooped man with an untucked shirt and fiery red hair – “created a super decision tree for a Quality Form which is entirely logical. You can retrieve it from the Corporate Advisory intranet using the keyword info-hub with a hyphen!”
McLennan does not nod and accept her praise for his decision tree. He squanders his moment of glory because he is hiding the fact that he and an Indian consultant are playing Palm Pilot Pong with each other on their seats on the window ledge.
I look at Ashulm, Jennifer and my London peers. Much to my fatigued surprise I experience a moment of panic. I’m totally out of context here. None of what Jennifer is saying makes any sense to me. There’s a subtext that I’m not getting. I also expect that under the bullshit sales pitch there’s also content, but I don’t know how to recognize it. In a bid to learn more, I recklessly ask. “How is the Info-hub project going, anyway?”
“Well, Patrick. I want us to be able to put our hands on our hearts and say that we have confidence in our information systems. That’s the FANTASTIC thing about the Info-hub. It lets us do that!”
Despite a feeling in my stomach that is a cross between queasiness and foreboding I continue, “I’m not certain that I understand you, Ms Shawndansey. Can you please elaborate on what the Info-hub does?”
Siva takes a silent moment before responding to my question. “I guess you didn’t read the meeting notes very carefully.” I look up and notice that everyone in the room is looking at me, waiting for a response.
I think Yes I did read your meeting notes carefully and they were utter nonsense, but instead say, “Let’s address my questions off-line, shall we?” Though my voice is hesitant my monkey mind is raging, What a fuck up! I didn’t come here to make enemies. Damn!
Siva doesn’t brook opposition lightly, preferring to crush it immediately, and so is not quite done with me. “Patrick, I can answer your question in one breath: Transparent interfaces, dashboards and leveraged outputs…and of course, the INTERNET. That’s the underlying philosophy behind the Info-hub. But we don’t have time for basics right now.”
I indicate agreement with my most polite, “huh.” What bullshit! I think. I scan the room again. No one is looking at me. They want this special moment of public humiliation to pass almost as much as I do. It does with the next slide. I am not the only one of us to sigh when it does.
Suddenly fatigue overwhelms me and it is all I can do to stay awake. 50 million minutes later, Shiva pauses, and then dramatically lords over the room one last time.
“To summarize, follow my project plan and our business users should realize some serious return on investment!” Pause. “Do you have any questions?” Pause. “No. Have a productive day!” Ms. Shawndansey’s Power Point presentation dissolves into a line drawing of Earth surrounded by slogans from the Firm’s Triangle of Value branding initiative.
We all quickly gather our notes and prepare to leave but Ashulm stops us. “I have an announcement.” The ensuing scramble for seats looks like musical chairs. “You may wonder why we went to the effort to bring you all here. The reason is that Jennifer’s responsibilities have been broadened. At this she flashes her smile, which I now value at north of $3 million, “She is now responsible for London, New York and Tokyo Fixed Income Technology Legal Document Management. She will be moving to New York next month to begin implementing a re-org.”
I leave the meeting feeling exhausted, desultory and concerned.
[McLellan notices and sidles up beside me. His red hair is wiry, and his freckles are iridescent against his pale skin. Noticing my dejection he puts his arm around my shoulder in an act of genuine camaraderie. “One piece of advice, buddy, next time I’d read her meeting notes more carefully.”
Though I like Angus, at this moment I’m a little sensitive about my recent mistake. I blurt, “I always read her emails and they don’t make any sense to me. What the fuck do transparent interfaces and leveraged outputs have to do with one database table being used to produce one webpage. One fucking table. One fucking webpage.”
“Hey, calm down. And remember what they say, ‘Brahma creates, Vishnu preserves and Shiva destroys.’ I would tread very very softly if I were you.” Angus laughs as he says this. Let’s hope she transfers you to London and doesn’t fire you. We’d love to have you. Even if you’re not fluent in corporate bullshit. He pats me on the back and lumbers away. I realize that he’s just like Lance is to our team – one of the indispensable ones. None of the rest of us have job security. Not even Ashulm.
Y2K checks take one day to complete, and then London is behind me and I am back on a plane, flying over Ireland at sunset. Looking down on the planet and up to the heavens I experience what a tremendous thing creation is. The spiritual moment is made that much more unreal by our speed, which closely matches the speed of the setting sun. Sunset takes two hours.
Earth turns slowly on its axis and I experience a moment of peace that lasts for hours.
For the first time in months, I am not racing toward the millennium.
I even have time to reflect.
My plane chases the sun across a sky that is divided into hemispheres of retreating light and advancing darkness. Looking forward I cannot see my destination and my origins are dim. I am suspended between day and night. Not quite suspended, because the shadow over my shoulder does grow longer as darkness creeps toward the light and overtakes it:
Glow, afterglow, gone.
I land and am assigned to an immigration queue. My officer is a thin, distracted old man who looks 100 years old. He has brittle white hair and skin the color of the terminal wall. Perhaps he’s like the famed London moths, which took on a soot color during the 1890s. Did his parents work here as well, and did they breed here? Was there an evolutionary advantage to blending in?
“What were you doing in England?”
“Where do you live?”
I nod. He waits. I say “yes” and he continues.
“Who do you work for?”
“Cousins Investment Finance. It’s an investment bank.”
“I know it. What do you do?”
“I’m a computer systems analyst.”
“Why do you have a work visa?”
I think, This question must be a trick? Then out loud, I say “Huh?”
“You’re a Canadian aren’t you?”
“Canadian’s don’t need visas.
My god. This guy has been working here for a really long time and has missed some of the rule changes. Sure my Grandpa could roam from Boston to Toronto to Detroit to Winnipeg with no visas, but I sure as hell can’t.
“I will inform the lawyers at Cousins about this and sort it out, sir.”
“You do that sonny. We’re really busy here at New York International Airport, so anything you can do to smooth the process is appreciated.” Sonny? New York International Airport?
A perverse imp makes me salute him. I get most of the way there, then the imp allows me to put down my arm. The guard smiles, and sharply salutes back.
It is raining and the cab line at JFK is long. People are jostling but surprisingly polite for New York. A few misplaced elbows, some sincere apologies, a couple of friendly conversations about pleasant vacations ending too soon, and I find myself in a cab driven by a Yemeni Mario Andretti racing to the Midtown Tunnel. The driver initiates conversation.
“Excuse my speed sir, but if we don’t make the tunnel by 9:30 then it will be closed for repairs and we’ll be stuck in a traffic jam for hours at the 59th Street Bridge.”
I laconically give consent to his request to drive recklessly fast. I think, Get home quickly. Good idea. The increased risk of death seems quite acceptable at this juncture.
I phone Seth, feeling like now is as good a time as any to stop pretending we’re in a relationship.
When she answers, I say, “Hi sweetie, it’s me, Patrick.” I add my name because I don’t want to find out she’s already forgotten me.
“Heyyyy. How was your trip?”
“Pretty good. I’m a bit bagged, but it was fun to see London First Class …”
“Business class”, she corrects.
I ignore her correction, “How are you?”
“I just went in for some tests.”
Woah, I can’t believe we didn’t hit that car in front of us.
The cabbie says over his shoulder, “Excuse me, sir. I am amazed by the people they allow to drive on these roads!”
Seth pulls me back into our conversation, “Patrick, are you listening to me?”
Fortunately I haven’t lost the conversational thread, though it was close, “What tests? You didn’t tell me about any tests. What’s up?”
“I think I may be really sick.”
The taxis ducks between a truck and an SUV.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“I’ve been getting dizzy spells, head aches. Last week I went in for tests and it looks like I might be very sick. It’s not certain, just a possibility. Maybe a 30% chance.”
The taxi blasts through a wall of water thrown up by the truck in front of us then ducks right just as the red brake lights threaten to smash our windshield.
Too close! Too close! I am thrown violently to the left then the right as the driver dodges a car doing a bad merge.
I desperately try to uphold my end of the discussion. “What’s not certain?”
Inhale. “I told you already. I may be really sick.”
“So what does this mean? In the short term? Like tomorrow, or now?”
A terrible choice of words, or at very least an opening. Seth blasts, “You don’t care about how this affects me. Long term. You only care about you.”
“Sweetie, of course I’m wondering how this will impact me but I really care about …”
“You only care about you. Not me. Talk to you later. Like after never.”
My mobile phone goes silent, but my monkey mind is busy.
Shit. How did I mishandle this? Was there something that I could have said better? Could I have been more sensitive? Do I even care?
I don’t know that I care.
I do know.
I don’t care.
Not because of nihilism, but rather adrenal fatigue, or something like it. I’m too tired to care. I would care if I could.
And besides, I’m where I want to be. It is past time to let go of this pretend relationship.
I am also beyond tired. I try to morph my anger into energy. Fuck … I think. Too much effort. I don’t even add a noun. My anger has been burned away by my adrenaline. I collapse into the hard folds of the taxi seat.
We pull off of the BQE into the midtown tunnel. Traffic workers with shiny, reflective vests line the entrance. I look up at the LCD clock on the taxi’s dashboard. 9:27. We made it. Another example of the power of insane intentions over matter. Until now the phrase “speeding through the midtown tunnel” was a conundrum, but this one time the tunnel is empty. We’re the last one’s in before the construction begins. The bright yellow-white work lights make me feel like I’m in a video game, which is a good place for my brain to be right now. Murray Hill is one car away from gridlock but even at glacial speeds we get to my apartment in minutes. Thank god. The taxi is one of a dozen skins I need to crawl out of right now.
There are two surprise visitors at home: Ánut is in my room, wearing black jeans and a camisole. She is speaking Hebrew on my phone. A small dark-haired Latina is sitting on my bed smoking a blunt. As I enter the Latina rises, looks me over once then silently gets up and leaves.
I interrupt Ánut, “Hi, remember me, Patrick, from Angelique’s bag store.”
“Sacre Bleu.” She kisses me once on each cheek. “You promised to buy me an emerald purse.”
The purse that costs as much as a house down payment in Whitby, my father reminds me from beyond the grave. “Its great to see you again”, I reply. Curiosity forces me to ask, “Are calling Israel on my phone?”
“Yes. Tel Aviv. My girlfriend. EJ said it was OK. Thanks!” She looks away, having more important things to say to the soprano voice on the other end. Her call eventually ends with something between a fight and a passionate goodbye. She leaves my room without saying a word, though our side long glances intersect for an instant. She crosses the kitchen to Earl’s room and carefully closes the door, but leaves the blinds on the door half open. I can’t help but watch her undress and straddle Earl.
While I stare, Ánut looks my way. She probably can’t catch my eyes through the slats on the door, but I pretend she can. She has a neutral expression on her face, then for one instant, tersely smiles and returns to her work. As I avert my eyes I notice that the handle to Troy’s room has a sign with a silhouette of two naked men with laurel crowns on their heads copulating. It says, “Do not disturb.”
I’m alone, tonight, which is just as well because I do not feel at all social. I try to sleep but can’t. Even though I am exhausted I am twitchy and claustrophobic, and need to get outside. I rush down the stairs and go for walk in the rain. Park Avenue is beautiful, crowned by the jewel of Grand Central station. My head hurts and I hear a buzzing sound, probably an air pressure issue from flying. When I return from my walk I find Crazy Dewey is sitting on my stoop. He asks me for some money for food. I sift through my wallet looking for small bills, don’t find any, so give him a couple of quarters. Small change. I know I’m being cheap but I don’t do anything about it. Next time. I’ll take care of you, next time. Good lyrics for one of his songs, I think to myself as I return to my apartment, grab a beer from the fridge and lay down on my bed. Though my nightcap is large and has high alcohol content it is poor medicine. Two whiskey shots later the buzzing in my head dissolves into fretful dreams.