Friday, August 12, 2016

Tales From The Old New Land: Tale 2 - Carmen Chavez

On Wall Street, they have the four hour lunch, in Spain, they have the 10PM dinner, in Washington, we have Happy Hour. 4-7, five days a week, establishments that are otherwise only affordable to lobbyists and the congressmen they wine and dine with a leisurely New York style lunch or what should be a nightcap but usually signals that the real festivities are just beginning. How can it possibly be a bribe if it's in the form of a couple martinis and a steak at the Capital Grille, or a fillet of swordfish at Cafe Milano, or a burger at The Palm, or even just an Apple Pie at Blue Duck or those amazing jellied candies that come with the bill at Equinox?

But from four to seven PM, these places fit to feed masters of the universe keep their prices just barely low enough that the intern class of Washington DC can afford to feel like men of power and leisure, and then return home after a year or a summer in the Capital of the World without a cent to pay off their student loans.

In a capital city where everybody passes responsibility down, the interns are the people who really run the greatest country on Earth, and they know it. You see it the swagger of their every step - the security of youth allied to the feeling that they and they alone are getting away with making decisions that no twenty-two year old is supposed to make, but thanks to the enormity of their intellects, their toughness, their beastly competence, the halo of future eminence that shines upon them, they all know that they're being groomed for the higher things. Surely each one of them is the only person in DC of their age asked to submit a position paper, or take minutes for a half-hour meeting between a congressman and a cabinet secretary, or be the one to sit behind the congressman at a committee meeting because an aide is stuck in traffic. All of their friends are just lying to keep up, and sometimes they are too.

It is impossible for a young person of ambition and talent to not to be bowled over by Washington: a city of truly classical habitus - built to look like London, which was built to look like Berlin, which was built to look like Paris, which was built to look like Constantinople, which was built to look like Rome, which was built to look like Athens, which was built to look like Alexandria.

And as these would-be-Pharaohs look upon the central node of their future domain - the Washington Mall, with its seemingly endless walkways and lawns and ponds and order, order, order, it is absurd to fathom the chaos of the lands they've resolved to govern. It is inconceivable that the perfect kingdom of perfect harmony and perfect order which would exist with but a little nudge that they alone have the unique magnetism to angle with the exact right direction and pressure, might not happen from their unique ministrations.


All they have to do is prove themselves worthy of their divinely mandated dominion. Though they make starvation wages at best. Though they subsist on a combination of money from summer jobs in high school and parents' help - which they never tell their friends about. Though they operate on meals of caffeine every day to tighten themselves up and alcohol every night to loosen themselves down. Though their parents complain that they never call or write unless things are truly dire. Nevertheless, all they must do in DC is prove themselves worthy to be noticed, to be retained, to be promoted, to be feted, so as to achieve this most important goal, for this most important career, in this most important city, in this most important country, for its soon to be most important person.

So important must they be, will they be, are they, that they will drunkenly return to their offices at 10 or 11 PM while their non-profit roommates are getting ready for bed. They continue their work until 2 or 3 in the morning, drafting emails and writing handwritten letters to constituents, licking the envelopes and postage stamps (or other things), taking an hour-and-a-half break to stay up on the latest news and commentary in The Atlantic or The National Review or The Nation, falling asleep in the mid-article and awakening just long enough to finish and return to work by making sure that the statistics are exactly right in the morning briefing, that there are the exact right number ordered of balloons and lemonade gallons and wheels of cheese and boxes of crackers for next week's Town Hall back home, composing a list of fifty different slogans to sell the latest shipment of jobs overseas as being to the benefit to their constituents, and a dozen drafts of proposals for position papers they could write which might interest the big boss, or his boss, or even someone over on Pennsylvania Avenue.

After they're done all this, they hail one of the hundreds of cabs which just happen to be around Capital Hill in the middle of the night, so they can return to their Arlington apartments for their blissful two-and-a-half hours of sleep, procured at at an awesome expense no twenty-two year old should afford.

But for those three hours between four and seven, these secret Pharaohs rule their kingdom in the open. Blonde skinterns, the too smart Daddy's girls of underemployed Youngstown auto workers who look to bag themselves a future congressman with perfect hair and a dark suit with no dandruff on it - always on the lookout for the prize one who will make them into a reincarnated Jackie Kennedy, but willing to settle for a Dick Nixon in the ladies room on an ordinary Tuesday evening. Gangly boys with too much mousse in their hair from Pensacola who got piled on by the football team at home but in Washington are worshipped like Apollos, inhaled, imbibed, drank, drained, sipped and supped upon by girls with white blouses and skirts so tight that no man in Washington knows how to get them off.

Still ganglier boys with glasses from San Diego realize who they are after a few drinks with the square jawed interns from Jackson, whenupon the two decide to have a smoke behind the dumpster, but those healthy boys from Mississippi still don't know who they are, and probably never will. The Jewish girls from Westchester County are working at a non-profit and want to get to know themselves better, whereupon they meet those thirtyish women from the Pacific Northwest working on the other side of the office with short hair and broad shoulders who know all the good dive bars in Mt. Pleasant and Petworth, and are such good listeners. The conversation continues back at their apartments where the women from Seattle fix the girls' freezers. But the girls from New Rochelle didn't mean to make them fall in love, and they're sorry if they hurt you.

The bistro/bar where AC Charlap was waiting for his friend was Citroen Cafe, which literally skirts the very line where Washington meets Maryland. Ten feet from the door, and you were no longer in the Capital City but just another unprepossessing state among fifty, best known for its crabs and crime.

AC was supposed to meet Justin Maddox, that friend of his who was on his way to seminary back in 2001 and but by 2008 seemed determined to schtup his way through Washington. AC strongly suspected that Justin was on the prowl for skinterns, or at very least, in the bedroom of some bespectacled non-profit social justice warrior he looked up online.

Justin Maddox was a blonde English Catholic, the ultimate goy, from the one state in America where Catholics have always been state royalty. Justin was a fellow Baltimorean who apparently went to the same summer camp as AC when they were kids, but they had no memory of each other. Justin's mother's family was pure working-class Irish, in Pittsburgh from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th; but his father's family was over here by 1700, with plenty of names among his family line made illustrious by local history from their 1633 passage to Queen Henrietta Maria's Land aboard the Ark and the Dove with Leonard Calvert, younger brother to the 2nd Lord Baltimore and Firste Propiritarie Gov'r'nr of the N'rthe Am'ricaine Colounie of Marysland.

Within two days of moving into the dorms, Justin was already dating Samantha Muller, a German Catholic blonde from Ohio whose virginity was apparently taken when she took his the first night of their relationship. She was, of course, spending twenty hours a week on the Hill skinterning for her Republican congressman.

There is no intimacy quite like the pressure cooker intimacy of college freshmen; packed like sardines into close quarters with others about whose true personal nature they have no idea. It takes at least six months of college to cull the real friendships from the false ones that end with explosive feuds rife with accusations of betrayal and deception from people who've been your best friends for three weeks, only two days after both of you vomitted half a bottle of cheap vodka and held each other's heads over the toilet. From such humble beginnings can come the strongest lifelong friendships, but 80% of the time, the vomit is a symbol of the trouble that ensues.

Unlike Justin, AC clearly had ample time for socializing. And during those socializing hours, AC managed to alienate virtually everyone to whom he came into contact, to what was his tortured despondence at the time - he talked every day to his mother about dropping out of college, or at least transferring somewhere - but he was too depressed not to fail Freshman philosophy, so the only option he could yet transfer was a two-year community school. The drinking made him put on weight, he found himself binge eating with no father to tear the food away from him, desperate for acceptance, he picked up smoking in the hope that the camaraderie of smokers would take him in as one of their own. AC Charlap had always looked quite a bit older than his years, but by the time he was a college sophomore the double chin and the lines on his face marked him as being well over thirty.

There was something just too weird about that guy to make anything but a horrendous first, fifth, ninth, thirteenth impression. But on the eighteenth or so impression, his honest directness, his pedantry, his worldly and world-weary hyperarticulation, his cruel jokes at the expense of everyone - particularly himself, his bizarre mixture of high seriousness with the crudest vulgarities, became something of a comfort to these other kids: these earnest blonde midwesterners who think he doesn't care enough, these Tri-State guidos who think he cares too much, these non-Yiddish speaking slackers from Monmouth County who think he tries too hard, these Asian overachievers from the Bay Area who think he doesn't try hard enough, these cruelly entitled white kids from South Carolina who think he's a pushover, these dutiful kids from the White State of New Hampshire who think he's cruel, these black kids from Little Rock who think he's entitled, these Cuban kids from Miami who think he's always making fun of their privilege. In a city where everyone strives to be as generic as possible, here was someone memorable, and when all had acclimated to one another, he finally was admitted his place among the nations.

Soon he was known as a corpulently merry sort whose Falstaffian jollity delighted all, even if this mirthful young man whose despondence had aged him could come down unpredictably on people with a rage whose vehemence was truly comic in its proportions, it was so over the top that how could it possibly be threatening? It seemed simply part of his gusto, his larger-than-lifeness, his ability to impress every moment in his presence as an event. They'd make fun of him for his rages, provoke him to them, give him reason to fight back, because never was he more eloquent than in the fever pitch of his wrath when he'd land brutal bullseyes on the object of his outrage with a film of truth around them so uncomfortable that the provocateur couldn't even admit to being mad, because everybody would quote the quip about them for months thereafter. Perhaps it was not because he was particularly clever, but because he had no compunctions about saying aloud the things people know to keep to themselves. The Jewish kid from Great Neck with gay shticklakh was known as Harvey Fierstein for the rest of college. When fighting about politics with a girl who interned for a Senator from Alaska, he told her she wouldn't know an historical date if she were going down on him. The girl from St. Louis County who had Disney bedsheets she needed a better cover if she wanted to keep slutting it up. The wiry ROTC kid from Norfolk with the military crewcut was asked if he ever found a six foot vagina on shore leave. The seventeen year old from Monterrey who's voice hadn't changed yet but made fun of AC's weight was told where to find a store in San Francisco that sells pubic rogaine. The Charleston boy who pledged a frat in his first semester was told that if he wanted to rape girls so badly he could get some chloroform from the janitorial closet. The modest girl studying international affairs from Beirut was told that there are cheaper ways to get a bomb underneath her chador. All these and many more were the insults which first made him an outcast, then a local celebrity, and then practically an institution during this interregnum between the dual university reigns of political correctness.

Though for none was the change in regard moreso dramatic than with Justin, whom at first not only shunned AC but poisoned everyone against him for his general slovenliness, his irritability, his unreliability, his insistence on confessing to the most personal demons. But Justin came around as everyone else did, the entertainment value of his roommate becoming like an old shoe, or a nightly Woody Allen routine before bed.

As we said, during those months when AC felt hatred for Justin's contempt, AC had ample time for socializing on their dorm floor's lounge with whomever was there, and every member of their floor went through the same cycle of resentment at his bizarreness, followed by reconciliation with his eccentricities, followed by enjoyment of his bonhomie. But even during those final few months of freshman year when AC was practically the social hub around which the entire dorm floor turned, Justin was a friendship apart, only spoken to for a few minutes in the morning and an hour before bed, which then became lunch, which AC and Justin and Sam made time for in the cafeteria with each other every weekday, while seemingly dozens of people would stop by their table to pay tribute to the court which AC held with such aplomb.

But during those evening hours when the conscientious should be studying, AC would be extemporizing in the lounge while Justin and Sam made themselves scarce for two hours at a time, inevitably leaving a dirty sock on their door when Justin required the room and promising to do the same for AC whenever he required it. Justin's hips inevitably returned to the lounge a half hour before the rest of him. Toward the end of the year, during a take home exam in a class they were both in, AC required some book from his room - perhaps it was a book to cheat slightly, or perhaps it was simply one of the pencils he consistently forgot to carry with him to class. Seeing no choice in the matter, Charlap obdurately knocked seven times on the door in the span of three minutes - knowing fully well what a breach of unspoken etiquette this was. Justin finally opened the door with bemused fury:

"WHAT!?"

In these dog days of May when colleges around America save money by waiting until the last excusable day to turn on the air conditioning, the dorm rooms were a healthy eighty-five degrees at least. The room smelled shamefully of body odor and the windows were fully steamed. Sam was clearly wearing nothing but a comforter, while Justin was wearing nothing on his exactly six-foot frame but a pair of skin-tight leopard print pants.

"Never mind, I'll get it from somewhere else." AC left without explanation, and found a reason to tell that story every day thereafter for the rest of college.

Within a month of their relationship, Justin and Samantha were talking about marriage; but within six, Justin desperately wanted out. The relationship ambled on for another year thereafter as Samantha came to his parents' house for Easter, Justin went to her parents for Thanksgiving, and the two families went on a Christmas skiing vacation together in the Pennsylvania Appalachians. Their parents were already talking to them about the perils and advantages of home ownership and joint bank accounts.

In mid-March 2003, less than a week before he was due at Sam's parents for Easter, Justin dropped the bombshell, seemingly without warning. AC knew how badly Justin wanted to break up with Sam, and advised him against it in the most strenuous possible terms every day for the first six months of their sophomore year. Indeed, AC made sure all their mutual friends knew too and demanded they similarly admonish Justin for such a foolish action, but having more sense than AC, they knew better than to let such a noxious stinkbomb into public air.

Sam was blindsided, emotionally sucker-punched, kicked in the balls she wasn't aware she had, her entire future cast down without a moment's notice to a pit out of which she could not climb. Walking out of Justin's dormroom, AC was the first person Sam saw after Justin robbed her of her future, the tears practically staining her face. AC wrongly thought Justin had nothing like the temerity to go through with something so drastic, so even he was shocked when Sam told him. Of course, AC knew about it, and made no effort to conceal that he did, which made Sam still more angry, and made AC the center of her displaced rage for not having warned her.

Thereafter, AC and Samantha remained former friends from a distance who were cordial at best. Justin and Sam both pledged to Greek life (Justin to a fraternity which would reject AC a year later), and indulged engorgingly upon the newfound opportunities, advantages, and perks, which come from the status of acceptance in the company of cool. Justin did so with joyful abandon, the game quickly becoming his all-consuming passion beyond that of any studies or interests - 'Master of the B-List' Charlap called him in more affectionate moments, 'sorostitution client' in moments of less. But what Justin did with aplomb, Sam seemed to do with agony. At every party hosted by mutuals, Samantha seemed too drunk to walk, and on the nights she didn't vomit, or perhaps on the nights when she did, she would leave with fraternity brothers who seemed particularly knuckle dragging, perhaps even known for it; men not of her intelligence, not of her sophistication, not of her generosity. She deserved better, people were forgetting about that, and perhaps she forgot it herself.

But since Justin had nowhere he wanted to go for Easter, his parents being furious at him for throwing his future away with Samantha, AC invited him to spend a Passover Seder with the Charlaps.

There is no way to prepare the Über-Goy for the most Jewish of all Seders; the demanding insistence that you answer the most personal questions within sixty seconds of 'Hello' in the kitchen, the hour of bonhomie which turns on a dime into yelling recriminations while the youngest kid reads the Four Questions and back again to hilarity by when it's time to make a brokheh over the the Matzoh, the fanatical debates of about politics over dinner during which somebody's always evil or an idiot, while the Pesach-dikkeh food makes its dehydrating salt assault upon your system. All the while, AC bucks tradition so as not to make his friend feel regret for being there, and pours a full glass of wine for himself and Justin whenever the Seder mandates a cup be drunk, an action which does not escape comment by Abba-Khet, which causes Abba and Alef-Khet to have a ten minute shouting match in plain view of everyone at the table, who simply shrug as though this is part of the religious rite.

It was an experience unlike any other he'd ever have, and while Justin wouldn't willingly subject himself to another Seder ever again, it caused Justin no lack of yearning for his own family - nostalgia for a closeness to them that he knew had little bearing at best on the reality of their relationship, intermingled with appreciation for the consistently respectful distance which his parents always accorded him. Justin was his own man making his own decisions, a fully formed individual sent out into the world with few questions to perturb his spirit about whether or not he would competently make it through the day. Charlap, on the other hand, seemed at twenty nearly as haunted and hounded sometimes as Justin's alcoholic grandfather was at eighty-five. Was there ever a single normal day in Charlap's life when he could strike out on his own without an assault of ten thousand disturbed thoughts? Charlap will never be more than an appendage to a larger family unit for the rest of his life - and if he ever becomes a responsible individual, he'll still just be competent version of the stark raving lunatic that somehow became Justin Maddox's best friend - just like all those other Jewnatics in his family (a word Charlap taught him of course). And yet, this bumbling appendage to the larger Charlap unit could house a personality that scorches at a temperature a hundred times hotter than any Maddox ever would without the kind of substances that no Maddox has ever touched more than sparingly without beating the crap out of their wives or getting hooked up to dialysis machines for decades. Justin Maddox knew much better than to ever be like that. He was an archetypal nice guy, particularly because he so disliked that aspect of himself, he even disliked that he was too bland to even hate himself for being bland. He might be able to hook up with a hundred women in a month with a couple canned lines and a few nods and smiles to women whom you already know are good, giving, and game, but he could do all that because his name would be forgotten by every one of them in a year. Nobody who spoke to AC Charlap for ten minutes would forget him for as long as they live.

Charlap of course had no idea of any of this. How could someone so smart be such an idiot? Justin always figured that Charlap hung around him because he thought Justin could teach him how to be more like Justin. But who wants lessons in being boring? And even if that's what Charlap wanted, how do you help someone like Charlap to blend in? 

Charlap always had a way of summing it up, I don't know where he got it. He would tell me that I'm so sane that I try hard to be crazy, but the crazier I try to be, the more sane I seem. He said it's the best possible curse to have. He, though, is crazy, so he tries to be sane, and every time he tries to be sane he just looks crazier. I ask him why he doesn't just accept how crazy he is, but he says that there's no point in living if you're too crazy to live well, so he has to try to be saner. I ask him how a crazy person can try to be sane if he's too crazy to know what sanity is. So Charlap tells me there's degrees of crazy, he called it a spectrum, and he's lower on the spectrum of crazy but he's still crazy. I told him that probably means he's not crazy, he's just kind of strange and neurotic like everybody else. So he told me to shut the fuck up because what the hell I do I know? Wow, I really sound like Charlap now... I don't think Charlap was ever crazy, he was just a little off. We're all a little off. Maybe he's a little more but not so much that it matters, he just doesn't like being himself and wants to be more like somebody else, but once he accepts a little more of what he is, he'll be fine. He's already starting. 

As ragefully in denial as Charlap was about it, Justin could see the metamorphosis happening faster than Charlap could ever account for, so quickly that by the time Charlap was done being in denial about it he might have a skullcap and earlocks. When Justin and AC met, it was established within a few minutes that Charlap was an agitatingly firebrand socialist, wasting no opportunity to inveigh against capitalism, against religion, against America, against the exploitation of the Third World for the First World's benefit - which he called Wage Slavery, against the exploitation of Blacks by Whites - which he said at the top of his voice within earshot of their black neighbor was still no different from slavery, and reserving a particularly virulent helping of agitated sermon for how Israelis exploited the suffering of the Holocaust to inflict their suffering back upon the Palestinians.

In late August 2001, Justin was freshly talked out of the idea that he would be a Priest - serving up good works to underprivileged blacks on the streets of West Baltimore where the most desperate people were hungriest to hear the Word. Justin believed in the Almighty Might of God and His chosen country, he believed that everything, everyone, every action, every thought, was present for a reason. Charlap mercilessly interrogated these vague beliefs as though Justin was personally responsible for their not being true. But within three weeks of moving into the dorms, both AC and Justin could see the billows of smoke arise from the Pentagon on the eleventh of September - all the way from Alexandria, they had a clear view of the smoke from the Northwest of the city in their sixth floor dormroom at American University, and when they opened the windows, they could even catch a whiff the burnt cheese odor of wrecked marble and charred flesh.

After the first six months when they finally realized they could stand each other, they found that their cherished beliefs in their first few weeks of interaction had gone halfway to zigzaging perpendicular to one another like the outline of a crucifix. At a community action meeting with the New Black Panthers of the University's Social Justice network made AC reluctantly conclude that anti-Zionism was indeed crossed with antisemitism, just as his parents always told him with increasing agitation for his approbation. Half-dozen American Che Guevaras - tall, handsome, muscular, each of them like a bronze statue of Achilles - stood perfectly still in a line at the front of the room as a room full of underwashed and overpheromoned white people sat across from them upon their every word. The whole room exploded in applause when the designated spokesman among the six Panthers said that they worry no President would ever have the courage to pardon Mumia Abu-Jamal. AC hadn't the first idea whom Mumia Abu-Jamal was, but he was sure that the justice system had railroaded the case from beginning to end, and as he sat in the fourth row of seven, was already strategizing on how he would bluff his way through an argument with his parents about it. The designated spokesman among the half-dozen then said that for Mumia's pardon to happen, either the Clintons or the Bushes must rise above the ignominy of their cracker background. The applause after this line was a bit more tepid. The spokesman then said that both the Republicans and Democrats would not act ethically until they rebelled against the shackles of their Zionist masters.

"NAZI MOTHERFUCKING FELLOW TRAVELLERS!"

And with those four words, the shouting of which he could not possibly realize how close that got him to getting fucked up for what he said, AC got up and pushed his way through the crowd, making sure to hostilely push down on every person without excusing himself as he got out of his isle. He never thereafter returned to a social justice meeting, and resolved never to protest again, never to be lured in by their siren song of belonging, never to compromise his anti-totalitarian principles on the altar of anti-imperialism. By May 2002, AC was accusing Justin of antisemitism for implying that Israel was not justified for its incursions into Gaza as retaliation for suicide bombings. By the fall of 2002 when the Iraq War began to be a possibility, Justin was going to campus protests while Charlap was practically leading the counter-demonstrations in support of it.

Charlap insisted up and down that he wasn't a neoconservative, that he was a good liberal who did more for causes more often than Justin Maddox ever did in his life. He started a group on campus called 'Liberals for the Iraq War.' It was him and two other kids on their floor. They wrote op-eds, they spoke on campus radio, they palled around with the Young Republicans, they, or rather Charlap, made sure they were seen screaming at the Social Justice protestors' every demonstration. 'Not All Liberals' was the title of an op-ed that earned him infamous campus notoriety when he accused every liberal at the college of being no different than collaborators to Hitler and Stalin. He seemed to be lightly harassed on this most political of all campuses wherever he went, but the more he was harassed, the more admiring acquaintances he seemed to pick up. Soon he was offered a column in the campus newspaper for which the editor told him he had free reign and encouragement to pick off every campus organization one by one with maximum bruising for whatever grotesque malformations of virtue he believes them to possess and that's exactly what he did - comparing a College Democrats meeting to a meeting in Mao's China of the Revolutionary Guards who'd whip each other into an ideological frenzy before killing all the men women and children in a village, likening the Residents Hall Association's proposals for raising school spirit to Stalin's May Day Parades where everybody had to act happy in spite of being miserable, calling the Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity a place for kids to and behave badly with one other while keeping a squeaky clean veneer and replete with details of which members did what with whom (the title of the article was 'Community Service Frat Jobs Blow Their Virtue', Justin really didn't like that column...), and saying that the stench of Milosevic's henchmen wreak on the banned Epsilon Iota and Sami frats, known by every student for their proclivities toward date rape. After that column was released, Justin warned him that he risking getting jumped and possibly putting his roommate and neighbors at risk, "Relax," Charlap assured him correctly, "none of them reads the campus paper and even if they did they have no idea who Slobodan Milosevic is." He increasingly smoked cigarettes, Yellow American Spirits, with Christopher Hitchens-like regularity, while his girth continued to grow to the point that he seemed two neoconservatives rather than one. He always looked older than his age, but nothing aged him as quickly as happiness.

But Justin, on the other hand, seemed to grow into youth itself. His pubescent altar boy years at Loyola High School gave him a clearly noticeable pack of dough flab on his midriff, even through his shirts. But the physical activity of being in a fraternity not only kept the pounds off from his drinking, but let him actively lose the extraneous baggage adolescence gave him - ultimate frisby, intramural basketball, fraternity-wide football competitions, or whatever other stupid excuses for sports frat boys play, left him fit enough to look as though he was realizing his best self while AC was merely an enormous shadow on the wall.

By the time Justin was a senior, a different girlfriend every three months became three different girls a month. Perhaps it would be uncharitable to call something an addiction that was so joyfully partook of and so willingly indulged by its fellow participants, but there was undeniably something of the compulsion about it. To not only AC, but everyone not sleeping under Justin's rarely washed bedsheets, it was an endless source of comedy. Not least because AC made it so, but also because, as AC never failed to point out, Justin was such a dribbling nerd.

You can take the boy out of the altar, but you can't take the altar out of the boy. No matter how tattooed or hirsute the girls were that he increasingly now spent time with, Justin himself still looked like a boyscout - wearing glasses around his Duck's Ass haircut so old-fashioned that the lenses were pure glass on the lower half while being dark along the upper rims. He wore buttoned-down shirts and khakis every day of the year, reserving his two khaki shorts for particularly hot days and hoping they wouldn't get dirty too often in July.

This was DC after all, and most people come to DC with some sort of political fascination drawing them there. In Justin's case, the fascination grew directly out of his teenage church work. Knowing that he excelled in his Spanish classes, his parish priest asked a group of committed teens from their church to drive down to Wheaton every week to volunteer at a shelter. Wheaton is a 40% Mexican suburb of DC that's only grown poorer as the white population around it grows more opulent. Not only did his Saturdays in Wheaton make Justin a fluent Spanish speaker, they endowed him with a yen to learn more about Latin America, and by the time he got to college, he had a knowledge of Latin American history and politics and culture that struck even AC as encyclopedic sometimes. And he was nearly as knowledgeable about science fiction books as AC was about literary fiction - able to list details from the worlds in Douglas Adams and Frank Herbert the way AC quoted Shakespeare and the Bible. He had weird passions for board games and documentaries that AC only encouraged in him, and in the walk-in closet in the master bedroom of the apartment they rented and Justin called on the first day, he kept a collection of action figures from his childhood that he always did his best to hide from his women until AC would bring them out in a way meant to humiliate Justin, but which only made him more appealing to the girls who felt like they unwittingly discovered a secret.

Starting in the summer of 2004, Justin and AC had their own apartment a mile from campus near the Chevy Chase border with rooms which were mercifully separate from each other; but there was an unfortunately placed air vent on the wall between the rooms that made sound travel much better than before. No matter what night or whom the girl was, AC would be up before them in the morning with a catalogue of the noises he'd been woken up with at night. He would catalogue the moans, the breaths, the dirty talk, the idle conversation, the encouragement, the apologies after failures... The criteria for a girl being asked back was if the girl found AC's catalogue as funny as they both did.

But the price of the beta male who worships at the feet of the alpha is envy, an envy that cannot be quenched so long as the beta cannot become an alpha male himself. The alpha gets a sidekick who tells him how wonderful he is, the beta gets protection from other alphas and the feeling that he is but one step away from becoming an alpha himself, but the beta cannot become alpha without defeating the alpha.

And so both of them should have seen the conflict ahead that arose over Clarissa Johansen, the quarter-Jewish proto-hipster and comically sexy Angeleno upon which everything was three sizes too large for her frame - eyes, hair, smile, brain, and every other quality prized by the superficial male.

As a cellist from a highly cultured family of musicians from Pasadena with more enthusiasm than ability, she had become a good friend to AC through their years in the college orchestra together, but as a girl of not much self confidence or emotional reserve, she was perpetually overlooked when it came to anything but high-voltage affairs she had with other high voltage students that were over very quickly.

When Cleo was a kid, her family lived in one of the more middle class homes of the Valley. As a bookish girl who demanded a cello at six so she could play piano trios with her parents and finished Wuthering Heights at eight because it was her mother's favorite book, this freckled, fire-engine redhead was utterly displaced among the richer, blonder proto-Valley Girls whose parents let them drop their vowels and expose their thighs in the winter of second grade - they were thinner too, Cleo was a full hundred pounds when she was six years old and treated accordingly by her peers, which caused her to burrow ever further into her own world of library books and music and the old studio movies her father took out for her from Blockbuster Video.

Her father was a businessman of marginal abilities who ached to become a filmmaker. In high school, he would film his friends in the kind of Western shootouts and battle scenes and car chases that Variety always said Steven Spielberg made as a kid. He even enrolled in USC with the express intention of becoming a film studies major and parlaying the contacts his degree would accord him to a career that followed in the footsteps of such illustrious alumni of the ur-film school as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, John Milius, Walter Murch... but his mother of course demanded he study something much more practical and told his father not to help pay for college unless he did. So instead, Steve Johansen promised to become a business major, which he hoped to parlay into a job as a film producer, and his mother hoped would parlay into a job as an accountant or investment banker.

But as a business major, classes in the film school were far too in demand for him to enroll. Instead, he had to enroll in literature classes and hope that he would find some overlap among the film majors. But in the late 1970s, the film brats were as much the big men on the USC campus as NCAA athletes and couldn't be bothered with what some business major had to say about their subject. Over cigarettes after class, the film brats would buzz with invective and ego and occasional enthusiasm for releases that are now classics, and Steve would crowd their circle, barely given enough room to put one foot in while standing sideways, and would try to add the wood of his zealous ardor to their flames, only to find they would inevitably micturate on his fire by talking over him as though he was not there and occasionally flash side-eye looks to one another of irritation and contempt.

But it was in a Modernist Literature class that Steve met Carmen Chavez, the pneumatically petite half-Colombian, half-Filipino girl from West Adams who switched between two, maybe three, languages like a native when he picked her up for their first official date on the boardwalk along Santa Monica State Beach on Valentine's Day, 1979. Ray Charles's studio was right down the street from her parents' house, and her Dad was Ray's personal electrician whom over the years would occasionally be invited to smoke grass with Ray himself, and given the frequency with which Ray called the house in the daytime, Carmen always had a lingering suspicion that her Mama was occasionally invited to do still more than that with Ray.

Carmen didn't live on campus, she was simply the exotic whom guys whispered about whenever she was around. "Jeez. Who is that girl?" because she was female plumage itself. That swarthy girl whose giant sunglasses were sometimes lowered to reveal a set of almond brown eyes whose whites beamed like a reflection of Laguna's sunlight. In spite of the elliptical eyes, everybody would have thought her Latin if she didn't to have freckles everywhere and an enormous shock of frizzy auburn hair that went a foot down, six inches up, and eighteen inches out; who wore Charlie's Angels short shorts beneath her button down shirts that began well into her voluminous cleft and stopped well above her navel, shirts on which every conceivable color and shape fought with one another for dominion in an ocular battle so lethal that if what was inside the clothes didn't make men dizzy, what was on the clothes certainly did. When even the film brats tried to strike up a conversation after class, she'd nod her head disinterestedly and responded to any question with polite three word answers centered around the phrase "No, thank you."

It was only by coincidence most fortuitous that they paired off together as study buddies when the TA had students count off to partner with each other. While the study partners were required to meet outside of class for any question about the books, many simply didn't and said they did, but Steve - no small bookworm himself - would feign ignorance about Kafka and Borges and Proust and ask Carmen to explain them to him over breakfast in the cafeteria, to which she surprisingly always obliged with breathtakingly detailed but quite matter of fact explanations the morning before class in a manner to which he never really paid attention. Rather, he would try to interrupt her with comments to make her laugh, and she would chuckle politely and then resume her explanation. Attempts to steer the conversation in any direction but the book at hand would come to small talk too generic to be too worth developing. After twenty minutes, she would inevitably tell him she had ten minutes left, and never allowed herself to stay a second more than a half-hour. Such was the way he allowed her to explain the death of the narrator's grandmother in The Guermantes Way, the ambiguities of the relationship between Dewey Dell and Daryl in As I Lay Dying, the contours and finality of Hell as rendered in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, how the eliptical sentences and syntactical ambiguities in Winesburg, Ohio help us better to process Elizabeth Winthrop's loneliness, that Gregor Samsa was actually a dung beetle, the parallels between A Man Without Qualities's Arheim and the German foreign secretary Walther Rathenau, how The Aeneid informed the text of The Death of Virgil, and how the music described in Doctor Faustus so resembled the music of Arnold Schoenberg.

But when it came time near the end of the term to get an explanation from her of Mrs. Dalloway, Steve found that she could not explain it to him. She called him to beg off, saying that she didn't have time to do the reading. In a moment that only destiny can prepare, Steve truthfully announced that he had to do a presentation for his high school senior class on Mrs. Dalloway, so he told her that this time he could explain it to her. He was expecting Carmen to say 'no, thank you,' but to his surprise, she agreed immediately but asked to meet at an overpriced coffeeshop near campus.

When he got to the part about Septimus Smith's suicide, he looked up to find delightful tears streaming down that exquisite face. And without warning, she took off her glasses to reveal a set of black eyes. The freckles had disappeared lately, but but upon wiping away the tears, the removal of the foundation revealed what looked like half a dozen bruises along her jaw line. She then explained her life into his, and his alone.

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