Byzantine Nights

22 May

This is part ten in a fictional series that started here.

Mark clambers up the stairwell to the fifth-floor Manhattan apartment. He loves his city, but this is still a sad substitute for what he grew up with. Here, there are no good trails to run, and he must settle for stairs, mindless stairs. He bolts to his floor’s landing before he decides this isn’t nearly enough. He plows onward, up to the fourteenth floor before he careens down to the lobby and then back up again. He’s had too much emotion over the course of one day, and Indira will only stir him up further. She’s always peevish on Thursdays, when her team at the U.N. meets and the Bangladeshi envoy will make a minimum of five passes at her over the course of their refugee resettlement talks. (To date, she’s declined Mark’s offers to meet him in a back alley with a cricket bat.) He knows this, and yet somehow he’d let her take dinner duty tonight, which will only mean she’s even more peevish. He should have just told her to forget it and picked up takeout on the way home, but that would have required a much more ordered state of mind than the one he now inhabits. Enough with this disorder garbage, he tells himself. Enough running up and down and anywhere but straight into his problems. He burst out of the stairwell, takes three deep breaths, and presses into his apartment.

“You look exhausted.”

“Took the stairs.” He pitches his shoulder bag on to a minimalist couch and offers his girlfriend a quick peck on the cheek.

“I assume the tears are just onion-related?” he asks.

Indira gazes down at a mangled array of vegetables on the cutting board. “Just mourning my life of domestic servitude.”

“If you wanna trade and be the kitchen wench tomorrow when we’re having everyone over instead…”

“Oh, forget it. How was your day?” she asks.

“Hard.”

“Do tell.”

“First off, I fought with my boss.”

“I thought you had a thing for Empress Theodora.”

Mark rolls his eyes, but this is as much a tactic to avoid making eye contact as it is an expression of angst. His managing director, Dora, is fond of him because he was the first underling she’d slept with who’d immediately recognized he wasn’t the sole object of her affection. She is exactly Mark’s sort of boss, jaded and casual in her use of her sweeping power. Indira, however, has posed an unexpected challenge in keeping up that rapport.

“They fired one of my analysts. I told them weeks ago he wasn’t getting much done. Didn’t hear a word, so I worked my ass off to get him up to speed. Coached him, took him out for drinks so we could talk outside of work…then boom, gone.”

“Did they tell you why?”

“Yeah, it was my complaint way back when. They’ve been monitoring him since.”

“But they didn’t say anything about it to you?”

“Not a thing.”

“That is crappy,” says Indira as she dumps olive oil into a pan on the stove.

“Yep. That’s what I told Dora.”

“So you went up and told her that they made the wrong choice? What, do you want to get fired?”

“No, that wasn’t it at all. I told her right away that I was fine with letting him go. He’s a mediocrity. I’m just pissed I worked my ass off for him and no one even thought to ask me about how he was coming along. I was stonewalled. Do you know how that feels?”

“I still think she should have fired your ass.” Indira realizes she is still pouring out oil and fails in her attempt to act as if she meant to pour out a full cup’s worth.

“Nah. She plays tough, but she knows right from wrong. I could see it in her. They know what I’m capable of. But they’re not gonna keep me if they don’t prove they trust me.” Mark frowns at the vat of oil but decides now is not the time to say anything about it.

“How much leverage do you actually have?”

“Hell if I know. Just mixed messages, all day long.”

“I thought you liked that sort of thing.”

“Not when my professional future’s in the balance.”

“Well, sorry your day sucked. I—”

“That was only half of it.”

“Oh?”

“I had lunch with my brother Matt.”

“Right, you told me about him,” says Indira, intently filling a garlic press. “This was the first time since, what, high school?”

“Middle school,” Mark replies. “He’s a good family guy, so he’s not an ass like John. He’s willing to listen. Not willing to forgive and forget like Lucy, though. Still bitter at Dad. Didn’t feel much sympathy when I told him how Dad died.”

In a way, Mark thinks, Matt’s reaction was the worst of his three half-siblings. He’d greeted Mark with a warm, burdened smile, chatted eagerly about Mark’s travels from Yale to Wall Street and around the globe with Evan for most of a lunch. Only when the talk turned to Pierpont Brennan did Matt clam up, and when Mark broached the possibility of meeting Matt’s wife and children, the lunch had come to an abrupt end. At least when John blew him off, he felt perfectly justified in blasting a string of epithets back at him. But this arm’s length respect, this refusal to accept reality despite an outwardly rational display: this is rank hypocrisy he cannot quite bring himself to call out.

“I…sorry, I wish I could say I get your family dynamic. I just don’t.”

“I can’t either. That’s why I’m trying.”

“I don’t know why you waste your time.”

“Listen, I might come from a fucking disaster of a family, but I’m gonna do what I can to make things right. I did with Lucy, and I’m gonna with Matt. There’s enough there that I can’t let this go.” Indira nods and turns her attention to her drowning fajita fixings.

“What I really want to do,” he adds, “is set up a date with my dad’s ex-wife.”

“Really? Why?” Mark senses her interest waning.

“She knew him better than anyone, and from what I hear, she’s still real sharp…way easier to talk to about my dad than my mom. I want to know all about him. About what he was like before he met my mom, about how it all went downhill. And beyond that, just a little more about who he was and what little things he did. He had to be more than what I saw.”

“You could just let the dead rest.”

Mark starts to head toward the bedroom to change clothes, but stops in his tracks and wheels back into the kitchen. “No. If there’s one thing about me, one thing that defines me more than anything else, it’s that I want to know. I want to fucking know,” he snarls. “Look at the analyst thing, look at my family, look and my entire freaking life. I’ve always been searching, always want answers. I’ve run to every corner of the planet trying to find them. And if anyone tries to hide anything from me…”

It is Indira’s turn to roll her eyes at Mark. “You take yourself so damn seriously.”

Mark lets his scowl block out his hurt. “Sorry my family matters to me.”

Indira sighs in consternation, but wrestles up a response. “Sometimes you just need to cut the bait. My Uncle Rajiv is a Hindu nationalist nut, it was drunken conspiracy theories every Thanksgiving, and sometimes he talked about grabbing his gun and blasting away all the Muslims who didn’t get it. So we just cut him off, and don’t even bother thinking about him anymore. It was liberating.”

“Maybe there’s a point where you have to do that. But losing a family, that’s a terrible thing. I’ve seen it so many times. This is why this country is freaking failing, cuz there’s all these broken families, and if someone doesn’t figure out how to pick up the pieces, it’s all going to hell.”

“You don’t need to put the burden of America’s future on your own family’s shoulders, you know.”

“Hah. Thanks for that.” Mark laughs and cuts himself off, but plays out the response in his head. No, whether or not he makes peace with his half-siblings will not change the fate of his country. But it is the final proving ground for himself. He’s done what he’s set out to do in hockey and in school, is getting there in his career, and even finally has something resembling a stable girlfriend now. But this is the last battle he has to fight to close the book on his childhood dreams and demons, the last war to prove he really does have the power he believes he does. He must win over the people whose lives were jolted irreparably by his own existence. If he can do this, he can conquer the world.

“You’re making my grandma’s korma for your writer friends tomorrow?”

“Yeah, I’ll be home at a reasonable time for once,” says Mark. “Sugar daddy’s gotta make sure he gets the details right.” And uses responsible amounts of oil, he thinks as Indira concedes and siphons some of it off into an empty can.

Mark has taken to hosting his salon at the apartment once a month, his effort to inject some culture into a life otherwise spent in the dreary, cutthroat world of finance. It probably says something about him that he has zero friends without benefits in his own business, and instead prefers the company of struggling writers and artists. He may earn six times their salaries, but at least they can carry on a conversation, and Mark takes more than a little pleasure in starting to dole out a little largesse. My patrons, he muses before starting to wonder if there will ever be any relationship in his life not defined by imbalances of wealth, or the pursuit of it.

“I’m going to tell the super feminist one you called yourself that,” Indira chides him.

“You make fun of Grace, yet you do more to call me out when I’m an asshole than anyone I’ve ever met.”

“And you’re the one who wants me.”

“I’m a masochist like that.”

“You’re ever the romantic, Mark Brennan.”

“Oh, I’ll make it up to you when we fuck later.”

Mark narrowly dodges the zucchini that flies over his head.

“Still got my goalie reflexes. There’s a green mark on the wall now, though.”

“If your landlord knows anything about you, she’ll know it’s justified.” She nails him in the face with the leftover onion.

Mark does his penance and collects the onion from the floor. Yes, he deserved that. His task complete, he leans in to dole out another kiss, massages Indira’s shoulders, and lets his arms wander downward. She reaches up and musses his perfect hair out of place before pushing him back so she can toss the vegetables on the stove.

“You’re a mess. Go wash that onion off of you and take off that sweaty suit. Put on some decent clothes.”

“Do I really have to do the decent clothes part?”

Indira allows her glare to answer for her. Mark makes a show of stripping his suit off and throws on a pair of pants and a shirt that he buttons halfway up.

“You’re such a child,” Indira says without lifting her eyes from her quickly blackening fixings.

“And you’re the one who wants me.”

“I’m running out of vegetables to throw at you.”

“You and me, we’re the King of Wall Street and the Queen of 42nd. This world is ours.” Mark dances out of the kitchen, chooses one of the two wine bottles left on the rack, and rummages through a drawer for a corkscrew. He’ll need another case or two for tomorrow night.

“Flattery has never been your specialty.”

“I must be doing something right to be a VP at 25.”

“Or maybe you’re just the best asshole in a world of assholes?” Indira says as she decides to solve her simmering vegetable crisis by dumping on a load of meat.

“Glad I’ve got you in my life to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world,” says Mark as he fights with the cork.

“Aristotle?”

“RFK.”

“I didn’t know you could quote anyone born after 1654.”

“I try to stay relevant, you know?” Mark hands her a glass, and she takes an immediate sip.

“Carménère?” she asks.

“You’re learning.”

“There you go, civilizing the world and making me refined.”

“See, you’re such a good influence on me.”

“God knows I try.” Indira pushes her glass away and refocuses her efforts on the meat.

“The power of love, or something like that.”

“You sound so sincere.”

“You really think a little love can change the world?”

“It sure wouldn’t hurt. Back it up with some sane laws and you’ve got a start.”

“Nah, that gets it all backwards,” Mark pontificates. “Don’t get me wrong, there are a few sincere people out there trying to do some good cuz they believe it all the way through—missionaries in Africa or whatever. But I’m not sure what pisses me off more. All the people who talk about love and caring and then spend their nights at home watching movies and living out sad little lives? Or the love and hope libs who treat anyone who disagrees with their methods like shit? Spare me. You want to change the world, you need power. Real power. Be the one who writes history. Maybe then you can build a safe little world where you can pass on some love.”

Indira narrows her eyes at him, but seems to pull back with her response. “You’re worse than those walking disaster Texans in Disaster Assistance. Just another ugly American cowboy.”

Mark swallows his retort and brushes his hair back into place. “I sure look the part, don’t I?”

“I suppose not. You with your perfect suits and baby face cheeks. I’d think you were gay if weren’t such a relentless womanizer. Unless that’s just your cover?”

“Way to stereotype. But I do think Evan and I would make pretty good lovers, don’t you?”

“Now there’s a real man on the frontier,” says Indira. “In his happy little cabin the woods with his happy little pregnant wife, working his happy little job. Living the dream, I guess.”

An unexpected defensiveness arises within Mark. “Just cuz Evvy decided to live somewhere other than the five acceptable cities for talented people doesn’t mean he’s not doing important work.”

“But—” Indira catches herself, and backs off: this is the rare battle she can tell Mark will not fight willingly. “Oh, never mind. Sorry. You know how Thursdays make me.”

“No worries. Need me to fuck up that Bangladeshi for you?”

“No, he wasn’t bad today. But the whole meeting was just painful. Five hours of talking in circles, and I’m just surrounded by grandstanding and bureaucrat-speak. I get why other people think we’re wasting our time.”

“I get what you mean. Sometimes I just want to blow shit up and watch it burn.”

“And I don’t doubt that you could. But you don’t.”

“No, not really.”

“For all your talk, sometimes you’re…just that. Talk.”

“Ouch. Thanks.”

“I wasn’t kidding.”

Indira levels a knowing stare at him. Mark loves this about Indira, her brutal honesty with him, but it still stings in the moment. He tries to muster up an expression that conveys all these thoughts at once, fails, and mumbles something about checking up on the markets in Asia. He retreats to the bedroom in defeat.

He shouldn’t force all of his shit on her, though he never thinks to apologize when he’s in the same room as her. He didn’t even follow up on her sudden and unexpected burst of career doubt. He just blathered self-righteously about his own problems, and ignored her as the dinner she didn’t care to cook descended into culinary chaos. Failure again.

No, he doesn’t fail. He needs answers. He’s searched for long enough now, and surely he’s stashed away something, somewhere that can be of some use. He pulls a desk drawer open and fishes out the notebook he has filled with details on all the couples he’s ever bothered to know in any detail. It’s his attempt to make sure he never becomes his own parents. He does what he can to analyze each of them to understand why the successful couples work and the failures fall apart. He stops on the longest entry, the one on Evan and Bridget, and reads it for the hundredth time. As much as he admires them, they just aren’t the comparison he needs. Their lives are too stable, their ambitions too different, and the vagaries of love are too fluid for his relentless analysis to bear. He slams the notebook shut and throws it back on the desk.

Mark glances up to his photo-covered walls, here in this one part of the apartment that he and Indira deign to decorate in pictures of real people instead of reproductions of great works of art or trinkets brought back from their travels. His eyes alight on a photo of himself and Evan at the Villa Adriana outside Rome. He sees two brash kids, one who’d just articulated a conquest of death, another who strove for panache in any situation of life. If Evan aspired to be St. Benedict, living his monastic life in a safe haven away from the forces of history, he aimed to be Constantine: the savior of civilization from debauched paganism, builder of the renewed empire.

Why this need to shepherd nations, to think of himself in such grandiose terms? Some of it just stems from his faith in his own ability to do it, faith tempered by knowledge of his own shortcomings. If he were made partner at his investment bank or put in charge of a government agency, he has no doubt he could mold it into whatever image he chooses. He’s been trained for this, an achievement machine, the perfect cog in a ruthless economy to plug in and achieve extraordinary productivity. He knows how to tailor his approach to every person who crosses his path, knows how to manage them, playing off their strengths and weaknesses to either get the most out of them or shunt them aside when they no longer serve him any purpose. Mastery is within his grasp.

He knows how arrogant it all sounds, knows that only with Evan and his most meatheaded finance bros can he crack jokes about how he was born to rule. Indira teases that she isn’t sure how she fell in for the poster child for the privileged patriarchy, and his tales of childhood woe only go so deep now that those sufferings are long in the past. He could easily just cut the cord. But what else could he do? He knows he’s been given many gifts, and whether through luck or fate or hard work, he’s now in a position to put them to some use. Or, he will be: he can do some things now, but imagine what he could do if he climbed into a c-suite, or perhaps made the jump over to the Fed or Treasury when he has the credentials to do so.

No one has ever pushed him to the brink, at least outside the confines of a hockey rink—how he misses that rush—and he feels somehow inadequate, not because he hasn’t performed up to expectations but because no one has ever tested his full potential. He almost wishes for crises so he can prove his worth.

There is no flaw that Mark cannot correct. He spends long nights stewing over his seeming shortcomings, his inability to reach the heights that only grow higher with each passing achievement. He records all these minutiae in his daily life, always in search of solutions. When he steps back to look at the sweep of the past few weeks, he sees it’s not all for naught. His careful cultivation of Dora, his interactions with his siblings, his dates with Indira, his dinners with his salon: he’s starting to get some things right here and there. He really has come some distance.

Just how far? Well, it’s all on the walls before him. He traces his full progression into manhood, from grinning high school kid with a boy band model look to a college jock with an explosion of dirty flow pouring out from beneath his cap to clean, professional Mark with his impeccable wardrobe and a glint of steel in his eye. He says he disdains the act and lives for himself, yet in every single one of these pictures he sees an act, some attempt to uphold some dual standard of class and conquest. He could scold himself for hypocrisy, but no, he should be proud of himself. He has set a standard, and time and again he meets it. The ruthless climber has, unwittingly, built a mission-driven life.

Mark’s eyes settle on the picture at the far end of the row of framed photos on his windowsill. It’s an old, candid shot by Bridget. Evan is a senior and he is a junior in high school. Evan runs a hand through his flow, and Mark looks on in a ridiculous all-white ensemble, head thrown back in laughter. Maybe he’s laughing at Evan’s vanity, maybe he’s laughing at Bridget’s insistence upon documenting everything; he can’t quite be sure now. But in this instance, he wants something that no amount of money or power or civilization will ever be able to get him. He wants it back.

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