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Authors: Greg Jackson

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BOOK: Prodigals
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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 think
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. “Is your friend retarded?” he said. “What I
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
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 each insanely hard on the ass with the riding crop.

“The reason you're here,” Wagner said, “is that you already have the nice cars”—I didn't, but I went along with the spirit of his admonition—“and girlfriends with that taut skin, and decent rentals in the hills. Or maybe you own?” He looked at us doubtfully. “But you don't have the good stuff, do you, the
hard-to-come-by shit? You know what I'm talking about:
. Grade-A, un-stepped-on, Augusta-green … Serious, irrefutable reasons for people to envy you. And not just any sort of people of course. You need people well enough informed 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
, see? And right now you
courtiers, that's why we pay you shit to hang around us. But if you play your cards right, one day you'll have your own. Oh, they're better and worse than friends. They don't care about you, sure, but they understand the
of your success far better than a friend ever could. And so at last, when you forget why you did the shit you did, all you have to do is look at their greedy, envious, unlined faces and say, Ah, yes.

He 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
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
. And that's where Sonia comes in. Sure, I
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 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.”

“Wait,” I said. “Hold on. You're the

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. Sonia was bending Wagner over the Louis XV when we left. The change of year, we discovered, had come and gone; we had missed the countdown and the kisses. Marta put a silly hat on Eli, and Lily kissed me pretty chastely. I won't bore you with the rest: the long unaccountable conversation I had about Gaelic football in which I confused Michael Collins with Charles Parnell, 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 patio furniture, cuddling a metal vase full of flowers, or a strange interaction with someone who seemed to say “Lick my nipple” and “Hey, what are you doing?” in quick succession, though that may have been a dream, or the ghost of Bing Crosby saying something in my ear like, “You're a real prince of a guy, always were, always will be,” and me saying something back like, “Bing, you always knew what time of day it was,” and then I tried to pet a cactus, which—
bad idea
, and finally 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
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.”

“We could get married,” I said.

“Don't be cute,” Lily said. “I like you better when you're not cute.”

I may have looked a little hurt because she said, “Hey, but don't feel bad. I really 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
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, him 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 fucking her from behind 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 considering the night's program, but it's the truth. The coke had somehow burned off whatever residue encrusts on you throughout the year—free radicals, shame? We felt unashamed. We were done auditioning for one another and could now be friends, or not-friends, but ourselves. I speak for everyone. That's what you get to do when you're telling the story.

And here's a model for a modern story:
A prince met a princess but they both agreed they were too busy to explore a meaningful relationship.

Everyone lived not unhappily after.

The end.

But this story doesn't end quite yet.

*   *   *

We left for Joshua Tree that morning. It was the same day it always was, but that day was beautiful, and the wind farms spun and the mountains gave up their passes and although the park was busy by the time we got there we didn't care. We climbed a rock pile, 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 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 as 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 ocher valley below recalled a time when humans and dinosaurs shared the earth—not a real time, I'm not stupid, 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.

The tightrope walkers had their lines stretched at the top of a bluff, we saw, thirty or forty yards across an open chasm. They were a group of Gen-Y hippies, most of them shirtless in rolled-up canvas pants, making coffee in AeroPresses and practicing qigong while an Alaskan Klee Kai ran from one cliff edge to the next. I sat because my balance was shot and watched in rapt dread as the bohemian boys and girls scooted out onto the ropes on their butts, stared at the horizon to find their point of balance or stability or Zen, and raised themselves, waving their hands back and forth above them in a sort of willed precession. I kept expecting them to fall, but they never did.

Half an hour later we were eating lunch on the low wall of a lookout. From where we were sitting 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. I was mostly focused on my sandwich, though, the way the Gala apple and 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 thought I had never been happier than eating this cheese-and-arugula sandwich.

I was tripping very deeply and beautifully, and I strolled to the top of a 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
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, except Lyle, who is purebred and not a person, and whatever confluent strands produced me or anyone had their own chapters of persecution and oppression—or, to be less polite-society about it, of rape and forced labor and murder—and what we seemed always to forget is that our sense of what a person is rests on our latent sense of what a slave is, even today.

I felt a sort of sigh pass through me, and although I knew it would make up for exactly nothing, historically speaking, what seemed important to me just then was that everyone got his or her own cheese-and-arugula sandwich. “Pretty amazing,” I said to my fellow gazer, and I was briefly proud of myself for coming up with something so appropriate to say, when the gazer turned and I saw he was not a Hasid after all, just a teenager 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, okay. 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 traveling back to my own birth along a sequence of encounters with boys of diminishing ages. But no, I wasn't. And in the end it turned out I didn't even have to shit, I just had a stomachache.

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, the play of shadows on the far slopes giving them the cast of spalted wood. We stood together, smiling in goofy acquiescence at all 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 began to overlap, to share an easement that in days past might have been called spirituality, so that we could see ourselves as dull integers before the mantissas of history and take refuge in a moment's togetherness, a kindness done in secret, in patient listening and unrequited oral sex. We were not heroes. We were trying to find ways not to be villains.

BOOK: Prodigals
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