This fictional collection begins here.
Evan tosses his backpack on his bed and exhales, drained after a long day. “Can we spend a night in? Just me, you, and a bottle of wine?”
Mark stares at him with narrowed eyes. “But, bro. Roman girls.”
“Can’t you keep it in your pants for one night?”
“Fine. Know how hard this is for a married man.”
“Tied down or not, I don’t know why you’ve gotta go chase it every single place we go.”
“Because it’s my birthright?”
“God you’re awful sometimes.”
Mark grins, goading Evan into further critique, but Evan knows not to take the bait. He leads Mark up to the rooftop of the hostel, which gazes out down a narrow Roman street throbbing with nightlife. They exchange pleasantries with some festive Germans at the rooftop bar and settle in at a small plastic table in the corner where they have some space to themselves. Evan pulls out a Swiss army knife with a corkscrew and goes to work on the cork in a bottle of wine while Mark idly plays with the two plastic cups he’d gotten from the Canadian kid they’d been traveling with for the past three days. Their Quebecois companion schooled them in Tuscan wines and they’d schooled him on the top nightclubs in Rome, though he left his regrets that afternoon and set out on a pilgrimage of sorts to Monte Cassino, where some ancestor had served in a Canadian armored division in the Second World War.
“Think Jean-Claude managed to hike all the way to the top?” Mark asks as the cork crumbles amid Evan’s efforts.
“He’s got the energy to do it, that’s for sure.”
“For a fat kid, he sure knows how to keep moving.”
“Oh, come on. He’s just kinda bulky. A lot of that’s muscle.”
“Sure, sure. I just gotta say, we’ve met people from like 20 different countries on this trip, and his English is hands down the worst of anyone’s.”
Evan concedes, punches what remains of the cork down into the bottle, and doles out the drinks. “Maybe,” he says, “but he was still the most fun of any of them.”
“Damn right. He gets it. To Jean-Claude,” Mark toasts. “To the pursuit.”
“To tracking down history.” The boys both sip and share a synchronized frown as they down the cork-filled Chianti.
“Good thing I don’t have standards when it comes to booze,” Mark muses. “Chasing history, though? Never thought of you as someone who dwells on the past.”
“Me either really, till we came here…seeing a city like this, it’s just something I never got as an American.”
“Maybe they’re all about the past cuz they suck at the present. Can’t believe how much trash and shit there is all over this city.”
“Well, they did peak a couple thousand years ago. But, guess we Americans have something to learn from them.”
“Oh, here you go again.”
Evan beams at Mark and sets his cup down on the table. Since the start of this trip, Mark has endured several attempts by Evan to explain a series of convoluted theories on how human adolescence and the American Dream somehow coincide. Despite his high tolerance for pop intellectual debate, Mark finds this version of his friend grating: Evan, he thinks, is much more effective as a witness for a way of life than as a lecturer. Evan knows who he is and where he comes from, and no number of days in Paris or Barcelona can change that. Why are people compelled to be more than they are? But that, he supposes, is why he was drawn to Evan in the first place. He knows Evan’s humility is a convenient lie, and he plans to expose it.
The very same thought has troubled Evan since the previous morning, when he woke in a tangle of sheets in a Tuscan villa and basked in the birdsong and sun. This was what it meant to drink the milk of paradise. He wishes he’d spent a semester abroad in undergrad instead of chasing hockey pucks, wishes he could stay here and come to know it in a meaningful way, instead of breezing through and snapping pictures. Maybe he could talk Bridget into some sort of post-grad adventure before they settle into real jobs, though he knows as soon as he begins to ponder it that she’s far too staid to ever make that leap.
Perhaps she’d just need a taste to get sucked in. Evan is still marveling at how the Forum had drawn out Mark’s inner nerdy kid. Away went the blasé dismissals of his theories, and out came a buried knowledge of emperors and classical battles that bubbled up before each temple. For Evan’s part, the most moving part of Rome had been St. Peter’s, where he stood before the Pieta for a good ten minutes and lit an offertory candle, a wishful prayer to both his father and his Father. Nothing much had come to him then, but he knows the memory won’t fade, and who is he to deserve some immediate answer from above? Nothing should be easy, and his freedom to take this trip is just another reminder of what a blessed life he leads. What right does he have to ask for anything more?
“It’s funny, I almost feel sad, looking at all the ruins,” says Mark. His words jolt Evan to life.
“Yeah. I guess it’s good that something’s left for us to think about. But all the people who built that, the most powerful empire in the world…all that’s just, well, gone now.”
“Why does that have to be sad? Things come, things go, time goes on.”
“That’s just how the world works, you mean?”
“Right. Empires rise and fall, people are born and die, the world keeps moving. We get used to it.”
“Or do we just get so beaten down that we get used by it?”
Evan pauses. “Sometimes you do just have to make peace with things.”
“I’ve never been very good at that.”
“Oh, I know.” The boys laugh, and Evan turns his gaze up toward the stars that manage to fight through Rome’s urban haze. He feels small, dwarfed both by the world around him and by his best friend’s ambition. Mark, meanwhile, senses an opening.
“I’m serious, though. If we wanna build things that last, build something real, we can’t just sit here making peace.”
“Fair enough,” Evan concedes. He registers Mark’s disappointment, and knows Mark wants him to argue back. Instead, his mind turns closer to home.
“You think America’s gonna look like this someday? The ruins and all? Are people gonna wander around our hockey rinks someday the same way we wandered around the Colosseum today?”
“Shoulda come to visit me in Detroit, bro. It’s already here.”
Mark had spent the first half of his summer working an internship for a hedge fund based in Detroit. It was strange venture for a Yalie; most of his classmates are down the road on Wall Street, but his dad’s old ties had led to connections in the Detroit office, and Mark, saddled with his unending fascination for dying lost causes, had gone along to the Motor City. He’d taken more than a little pride at being the primly dressed white boy with perfectly coiffed blonde hair who’d work later than anyone to prove his worth and then venture in to the all-black bar down the block. He did it more to unnerve his peers, and perhaps above all his father, than out of any commitment to bridging divides. But how he’d lived for those few months, slamming shots with the 40-year regulars and spitting some rap to the delight of the younger crowd. He’d won them all over.
Forget these travels through past ruin: that was what it meant to be alive. He’d never felt a rush like that, not even that one time he’d tried snorting a line. But it also isn’t a life he can sustain. By the end of the night he was always exhausted, too foreign-feeling to ever ask a girl back to his place, his debonair front hiding his terror that he might get jumped on his way home. He never was.
“True, I don’t have to go far even in Minneapolis or Duluth to find ruins,” says Evan. He stares off at the laughing Germans at the other end of the rooftop, oblivious to the weighty ruminations at this table in the corner. “It’s amazing just how shaky it all feels sometimes.”
“That’s because it is. Takes special talent to break through that.”
“I’m not saying it’s easy, even when you mostly get things right,” says Mark. “I mean, sometimes it even feels like that path I just took for granted for so long is just falling apart. Dominate in school, get into a great college, set yourself up for a great job, and it turns out over half the country actually thinks you’re an elitist asshole for achieving goals in life.”
“To be fair, you do sometimes sound like one, and if anything I think you’re proud of it.”
“Why shouldn’t I be proud of my life?”
“You should be. But that doesn’t entitle you to more than other people.”
Mark stews for a moment. “I didn’t say that.”
“Not in so many words.”
“But…dammit, Evs, if you’re scared of how shaky our world can be, if you want to do what you can to keep it all alive and out of the ruins, you need people who get that to take charge. Not many people do. Even at Yale, not many people get how it all fits together…we need grand strategy. We need to play the long game. We need to get how economics and politics and culture all work, and how you pull all the right strings to get to where we need to go.”
“I mean, yes. Of course. But history’s just a graveyard of people who thought they could do that. A lot of them couldn’t. Just because you know more than most people doesn’t mean you can make decisions about other people’s lives.”
“I thought you liberals liked making decisions about other people’s lives.”
Evan stares Mark down as he gathers himself. He’s surprising himself with his own honesty. He’d learned to just shake his head at Mark’s self-confidence long ago, but as life after college becomes less and less certain, he has less and less faith in any well-worn path through life.
“The more I see, the less faith I have in anything big, government or business. Too big to fail is too big to exist.”
“Alright, I’ll just give up on all my big plans now.” Mark downs a deep sip of wine, pushes back his chair, and climbs to his feet. His eyes follow a crowd of revelers down on the street, and the bar across the way cranks up its thumping dance music. There are no signs of ruin here. He doesn’t need to care about the moral case for his life, or aspire to any grand strategy beyond his own happiness. He could simply take the Wall Street job waiting for him, make heaps of money, enjoy the finer things in life, and build himself a world free from inquiring Evans. He has the power to cut that cord, and has the belief in his own righteousness to do it. And yet he doesn’t.
“I’m not saying you’re not qualified,” Evan says in measured tones. “I’m just saying…maybe you’re not as special as you think you are. I don’t mean that in a mean way, but…intelligence shouldn’t necessarily mean power over other people. You know there’s a lot about life you don’t know, and never will. And for everything your path did right—I mean, I agree with you about education and I admire your chase, agree you need that ambition—at some point, you gotta ground it in something, or somewhere, or someone.”
“Like what?” Mark asks, though he keeps his back to Evan.
“Like a place, like a family, like a faith in power beyond you…because the second you think you’re in control, the second you set aside the things closest to you because you believe in some ridiculous destiny…that’s the moment you lose. You can’t let that happen.”
“So that would be what you’re doing, I suppose?”
“Well, yeah,” says Evan, warming to Mark’s interpretation after a moment’s thought. “I do kinda like my life choices.”
“I dunno, Evan. You’re a smart kid, and you’ve got some restlessness deep in there. We wouldn’t be here if you didn’t. And you’re trying to tell me that you just wanna go settle down and pump out some kids with Bridget back in Duluth? You’ll be happy with some social services job that pays you tens of thousands less than what you’d get somewhere else, just cuz you think that’s the right thing to do instead of using all your potential? I know you too well. You’ll go insane.”
“When have you ever seen me crack like that?”
“So what are these trips we take, then? Your little freaking rumspringa?”
Once again, Evan is left marveling at how deftly Mark diagnoses his worries. He grabs on to his defensive reflex lest he show any signs of fading. “My personality’s allowed to have more than one side. I’ve got my outlets. Maybe that’s enough?”
Mark snorts in derision.
“Well, you got things figured out any better?”
“I think you know I’m still working on that. But you can’t cut that side of yourself off. You’ve got the disease, man. Can’t separate the angels from the demons.” Mark swings around and paces up and down the roof while Evan swirls his glass and averts his eyes.
“Maybe you’re right. It’s hurt me sometimes, though, so I’m trying to pull it in. But as much as I love living it up with you…what’s the endgame here? Honestly. Best you can say right now, what’s your goal in life?” Evan turns his gaze back to Mark, who stops in his tracks.
“For someone as smart as you, man, that just sounds so fucking crude.”
“Maybe it is. But, what else do I got? I spent just as long staring at that ceiling in the Sistine Chapel as you did, but it’s not gonna make me believe. Respect for other people, all that decent shit, going through the motions? That really gonna give your life meaning?”
“I don’t know if it’s meaning, but it’s grounding. Seeing what other people did, motivated by faith…”
“That’s just so…weak. Where’s the power in that? You’re denying yourself, and you know it. You gotta go get it. Like I did in Paris.” Mark folds his arms and smirks as he recalls the look on Evan’s face when he’d asked him for an hour in their room so he could enjoy his ménage a tois in proper Parisian style. It wasn’t a look of annoyance. Evan is a loyal friend, and wanted some time to himself for journaling anyway. It was a look of regret, an admission he couldn’t join in on the fun himself. He stares Evan down and waits for the chance to drop the hammer he’s held since he started them on this debate.
“So what are you even saying? This world is so wrecked that all you can do is just chase after…what?”
“Panache amid the ruins.”
Evan stops short.
“You always could turn a phrase.”
“I am kind of proud of that one.”
Mark drains his cup. He’s in his element in this intellectual battle with Evan, and pours himself a second helping to keep the neurons firing. He picks out the largest chunks of cork and smiles to himself. He’s found a healthy number of sparring partners in his travels; those capable of debating the merits of late-stage capitalism or the most effective ways to influence government or the virtues of the neutral zone trap straight through the night until dawn. And yet good old Evan still does more to help him make sense of all this mess than anyone he knows. Struggles like this, probing toward a truth they cannot see yet seek out anyway: yes, this is how to live, and the answer to Evan’s question lies somewhere in here.
Evan, meanwhile, stares at Mark, and feels a sudden surge of fear. It strikes him how eerily it sounds like Mark is tempting him into a life of delightful sin, of brash self-love that ignores any higher calling. Could his best friend on earth be the one who derails him?
“God, I love this,” Mark says with a grin. He throws his arms wide open and drinks in the full sweep of Rome at night.
Evan gazes upward at his friend. The fault, dear Evan, is not in the stars, but in our hearts, he muses. He cracks a grin in spite of himself.
“There you go, using his name in vain again. Maybe Rome’s gonna make a believer out of you.”
“Old habits die hard. And you saying it every other sentence doesn’t help the cause, either,” Mark sniffs.
“I know, I know. It’s just never far from my mind…even if I forget it in the moment all the time.”
“You know you can’t escape my world.”
“Just like you can’t escape mine.”
“Aw, fuck off.”
“Screw you, too!”
“All good? May I help?” an Italian asks them in broken English from across the rooftop. The dance music thumps on, but the hostel’s other guests have all stopped to stare at the loud Americans in the corner. Evan blinks at the surreal scene for a moment, then doubles over in laughter.
“Todo bien,” Mark replies with perfect poise. “Simplemente dos amigos, llenos del amor mundi.”
“Wasn’t that Spanish?” Evan asks as the other rooftop revelers roll their eyes at them and return to their previous pursuits.
Mark shrugs. “With a dash of Latin. Close enough that she got the picture. It’s all in the act, Evvy.”
“You’ve never had any trouble with that act.”
“Maybe too little.”
Evan nods and gives Mark a wry smile. Mark certainly knows how to diagnose his own ills without ever letting his self-criticism rise to a level that requires action. Evan laughs to himself, knowing he is much the same way. But his willingness to ask these questions shows the possibility of something, and that, for Evan, is enough.
“What?” Mark demands, trying to parse Evan’s serene smile.
“Ah well. Let’s toast.”
“Damn right. To my bro for life, wherever I wander.”
“To the smartest damn kid I know.”
“To life well lived.”
“To God and country.”
“To panache amid the ruins!”
“To the freedom to live out our dreams.”
“To death!” They finish their cups.
“To death? There’s a downer.” Mark doles out the last of the bottle and narrows his eyes at Evan.
“Only if you make it be that way. Death, well, it’s an old friend of mine,” Evan says.
“You creep me out when you talk that way.”
“I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it. What more can I do?”
“You telling me you’re not scared of it? That you know about what’s gonna happen when you go?”
“Not exactly. That’s not what I mean. It’s more…we don’t think about death. Not really. We talk around it, talk about people who have died, sometimes. But when it comes to leaving a legacy, figuring out how you’ll be remembered yourself…”
Mark frowns and pushes his hair off his forehead. “I dunno. I’d like to think my life’s kind of been a middle finger to death, no? You know it’s there, but you go and live life to the fullest anyway. You know you don’t have much time, so you might as well go for it.”
“Sure. But that just seems like such a, I don’t know, juvenile response. It’s what you say when you think you know what death is, but you really don’t. It’s what you say when you don’t respect it. That’s what I mean when I say I know death. I’ve met him in battle and I know what he can do. I wouldn’t say he scares me, but he does make me stop and think about what he means, how he touches us all.”
Evan takes another cork-filled sip and swells with a strange pride at the authority he conveys. For once, he sounds like the learned one. Mark has no words, so he settles for gazing into Evan’s eyes, searching his soul for some of that wisdom in the face of unreason that remains so foreign to him. The music and revelry all fade away into oblivion.
“All these statues, all these memorials…sometimes I think all we build is a monument to resist death,” says Evan. “To keep it off, to remember it, to build things that make us forget it. Fly in the face of it.”
“I guess it’s like you say. Gotta find the beauty in what we’ve got. I know I do.”
“You are a beauty, Marky. You’re already there.”
“Hah, preciate it. And, know what? I’m starting to feel it, even when it’s in ruins. It’s everywhere. I am surrounded by beauty. Especially on that beach in Barcelona.”
“Leave it to you to reduce beauty to girls…”
“I mean, what’s beauty if not that?”
“There has to be something more to it. Something more…transcendent. Something—”
“Please don’t tell me you’re going to be a pedant about this.”
“Oh, just keep going.”
“Seriously, though. Beauty in the service of a higher power. Beauty that makes you believe that all of the muck we slog through is all worth it. Beauty that kills any doubt that there’s a purpose here.”
“Yep, you’re a pedant.”
“God, shut up.”
“Fine, fine. But I finally buy in and you just give me…this?”
It’s not that easy. You’ve got to build something strong that can last.” Evan flashes back to his waking thoughts in the villa the previous morning. “A fortress, you know? Those monasteries we saw in Tuscany, they’ve stood the test of time. They’ve endured, even as everything else rose and fell around them…some things can guide us through all the ruins and death.”
“Unless it’s Monte Cassino, cuz we blew that to hell in World War Two.”
“They rebuilt it, didn’t they?”
Mark stops short, and smiles at Evan. “Did they?”
This story continues here.