Tag Archives: rome revisited

Ferocious Ambivalence

28 Nov

This story is a companion to the eleven-part series that began here and had an additional episode here.

Mark almost ignores the call from his mother. He’s not planning any human contact until Evan and family arrive tomorrow afternoon, and this is not the inspiration he needs as he heads into the wilderness. Her calls tend to be idle recollections of trivial episodes from his youth, or, if she’s had a few hard seltzers, unsolicited relationship advice drawn from her days as an escort. He could do without a seventh telling of the greatest hits. There was the saga of Ronald, the financier with a secret second life in a heavy metal band, and Pedro, who passed her off as his estranged wife to his blind mother; perhaps this time she’ll linger on Jack One, the effeminate mobster, or Jack Two, who had a fetish for socks. At least the sock story is mildly funny. Maybe he could use something mildly funny? He answers the phone.

A chorus of wails greet him on the other end.

“Mom? Mom, come on. What is it?” After three minutes of incoherence, she finally forces the words out.

Her breast cancer diagnosis should be a shock. She’s only 53, a generation younger than many of his friends’ parents, to say nothing of her late ex-husband. But for Mark, it seems like only the next logical signpost along this entropic highway. He knows the road well. He seeks out the off ramp, even as he knows her bleating will force a new route for what was supposed to be a meditative vacation.

Mark’s soothing tones do little to slow her tears, but he knows she just wants to hear his voice. His mere presence has always been enough. She’d never been entirely comfortable around him after her cute, pampered boy became a hard-edged teenager, complete with his father’s ruthless streak. But she’d never said anything about that, never dared question him to his face. In a rush, he realizes how much he loves her in spite of it all: she let him be a total shit in high school, imposed no curfews, bought him booze, trusted his ability to keep himself under control even as he spewed angst back at her every chance he got. She was unconditionally supportive of anything he did, and he knows how much pride she took in telling her backwoods boyfriends about her Yale grad Wall Street son. She omits any mention of his father in this story, an oversight that both makes her look like a superhuman mother and Mark a much more self-made than he actually is. It’s a convenient lie for both of them.

“Take good care of yourself. Sounds like they caught it early. You’re in good hands. If you’re ever not happy with what you’re getting, I’ll get you something better. And send me all the damn bills, of course.”

His mother sniffles. “You don’t need to do that.”

“Of course I do. Dad screwed you over, you know that. Least I can do is use some of his old money to keep you alive.”

Silence. He thought she’d like that dig. Mark casts about for the right words.

“I’ll swing through before I head back to New York.”

He can hear his mother warming on the other end of the line. “That would be great.”

Mark eases her worries to a halt so he can hang up. After a giant exhale, he tosses the car door open and surveys a trailhead deep in the worn-down open hills of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. The lot is empty aside from him, and a few coyotes call in the distance. Dusk already looms, and he has to hustle to find a backcountry spot to pitch his tent. He pulls the straps on his pack into place, cocks the cap on his head, and hefts a water jug out of the trunk and into his arms. This will do. He locks the car and trundles along the banks of a dry wash, his eyes fixed on a distant gully that will serve his purposes.

In her own way, Hope Salonen Brennan’s story is far more impressive than that of any girl Mark has ever dated. She’s worked her way up, put herself in elite circles in New York, somehow made an investment banker with a wife and three kids believe he’d be happier with this uncouth Finn from northern Minnesota. She’d even had the good sense to escape his clutches when she saw what he was. Sure, her climb had been an unsettling one as she sold her own body in higher and higher circles of Wall Street wealth, but how unique did that really make her? The Brennans’ ancestral fortune had probably been built on sold bodies in one way or another; hadn’t his dad said something about ties to the British East India Company? Mark’s own additions to that ledger are filtered through a few institutions of polite society, but he has no illusions about what goes on lower down on the food chain. She’d gamed the system and won, and he should be proud of her.

He thinks back to a time in high school when he’d had Evan over for a couple of beers. It was a tame night, just two friends escaping the drama to imagine a more worldly. His mother stumbled in from a girls’ night and thrust her protruding breasts in Evan’s direction, left him with some advice: you’re a cutie, Evan, but you roll over too fast. You need to make them beg. Make them show you they’ll give you what you want. Know that you’re the one in control. She reached in and fluffed up his hair, kissed him on the cheek, and strode away with a ravishing backward glance.

Mark has never forgotten that look in Evan’s eyes, both queasy and hungry, a first great temptation for the friend Mark had only ever known to exude sainthood. Evan’s wide eyes somehow captured everything Mark ever felt about his mother, and for the first time, he understood what his father had seen in her. He’d bumped his knee on the table in shock, but she was too drunk to notice his revelation. He and Evan turned away from each other in shame. They never spoke of that night again.

The sun wakes Mark as it pours up his valley the next morning. He lies in his tent and listens to stray bird calls, closes his eyes, and lingers in bed for the first time in months. Evan would describe this experience in metaphysical terms, a tale of being one with the land, his Minnesotan pagan rite. Mark has absorbed enough of his friend’s ritual that he subconsciously follows suit, filters it through a few related Brennan family instincts: that hunger for exploration, for conquest, or at least some place where he can get away from the short-selling leeches, the loveless sex. He’s always attributed those instincts to his father, but now he realizes they’re just as much his mother’s story, too. The three of them shared a quest for purity, for rebirth, and while they may not have found that in their many escapes, they’d at least stripped away the worst of what came before. Mark pours his coffee, gazes out at the badlands of the Little Missouri, says what the fuck to himself and tips in a splash of bourbon. He grins as he takes a deep sip.

He wonders if his mother ever expected to find real love when she went to New York. At turns she seems both naïve and ruthless, a believer in happily ever after and a fighter who knew to look out for herself. Has his own pursuit been all that different? He runs through the litany of his most serious prospects: Jackie, Victoria, Magda, Amelia, Indira, Amy. All these could-have-beens that never came to fruition, some reason or another they came up short: too caught up in the past, too boring, too cautious, too ruthless, too career-driven, too put off by that monster ego or that New York drive or that contrarian Midwestern rootedness.

They were all probably mistakes anyway. Not one of them was right. Is that belief an acknowledgment of a hard truth or a symptom of a perfectionism that plagues everything he does? He trails on through the failed endgames: a walk down a wooded trail, a stolen moment in a kitchen at a graduation party, a backward glance on a Nantucket beach, amid a downpour on the steps of St. John the Divine, at a drunken post-finals party. Now, the most recent addition to the saga, the most mundane, on his couch in his new place in Westchester, a palace far too large for a single man and yet she was not the one to help him fill it and he told her so and that was that.

Mark flew into Rapid City at the start of the trip to spend a night with an old high school friend named Jake. Back in their glory days, Jake had been a deeply earnest kid who nonetheless attached himself to athletes like Mark in a tentative search for a party. He’d written a fawning profile of Mark in the school paper their senior year, one that articulated Mark’s blueblooded panache in a way that had both tickled his ego and made him more conscious of the nobility that came with the Brennan name. Mark followed from a distance as Jake chased his dream in journalism, and for the past year his old friend has embedded himself on the Pine Ridge Reservation to send dispatches to the learned classes.

Jake shows up in mismatched flannels and with a scruff all over his face, a disheveled look with no resemblance to the pretty boy Mark remembers from high school. They still get along amiably, but every time Mark tries to turn the conversation to a mundane concern, some question about his writing method or his girlfriend back in Minneapolis, Jake always finds some way to turn his life into some stilted microcosm of their cultural zeitgeist. Maggie’s apartment in Minneapolis may have flooded last month, but it has nothing on the trailer he now occupies near Wounded Knee; their last trip together, to New Orleans, underscored the ongoing legacy of slavery and Jim Crow; reflections on his career path and college life lead to expositions on college debt and the decline of traditional media. Mark can hold court on all of these subjects if he so desires, but he looks at this man in front of him and can’t see any trace of the kid who used to sketch out classification systems of their high school’s girls in the lunchroom. The absence of the old Jake jars him. In a last-ditch effort he asks after Jake’s parents, but this too just brings out grumbles about how they sit glued to their TV every night and don’t read his work.

“They at least still reading the paper? I bought a stake in it, it you know.”

“I don’t think—wait, what? No way. Are you working on that a lot?”

“Not really. Just trying to give it some life and editorial direction. Let the reporters do their jobs.”

“I knew you had money. But not that kind of money.”

“My dad died a few years back. I came into some. I invested a lot in pet projects like this. Not big returns. Happy to break even.”

“Wow. Why not just coast and live off of that?”

“My dad did a lot in his life that I’m not proud of. Trying to make up for that, as much as I can, and put that money to use.”

“But you still work for…”

“Yeah, I do.”

“How’s that any better?”

“I never said it was. Anyway, if you wanna move home, I can probably get you a reporting job.”

“I…” Jake breaks off, perplexed. “I—thanks. Really. Hadn’t even considered something like that. And Maggie’s a city girl. But—I’ll consider it.”

“Consider it a standing invite. Duluth could use you.”

Jake seems unsettled, but Mark isn’t sure what else he could have done. Pretended he isn’t who he is? Perhaps just sat and listened, a fly on the wall? Jake is full of gut-wrenching tales of reservation life, and before bed that night, Mark slides some funds he’d earmarked for a New York charter school into a scholarship fund for Pine Ridge kids. But that raw empathy has never been his specialty, his power-as-birthright certainty once again colliding with his desire to dismiss opinions as the province of the unwashed masses. Give him either a chance to solve the problem or accept that he won’t burden himself with things beyond his control.

Mark leaves his encounter with Jake puzzled. In every way he admires his friend for his work, meant everything he said about becoming his patron. But Jake has made Pine Ridge his cause célèbre, while Mark knows that, as much as he may now contribute, he can always walk away from it, or anything else. He has no Pine Ridge in his life.

A storm brews on the horizon, a looming tempest that threatens to cut down Mark’s planned hike. He battens down the hatches on his tent, nervously tests the slack on the stake lines in the crumbling dirt, and tuck his gear in beneath the leeward side of the rain fly. He considers a run for his car, but is a veteran enough hiker to know not to tempt a storm. He stands atop a nearby rock to watch its advance, retreats only when the first drops start to fall, and zips himself in. The wind rips at the tent, does everything in its power to tear it up from the ground. He splays out his body to hold in all in place, his breaths coming sharply as he tests the corners for incoming water. When he’s confident it will hold in place her curls up into a ball, a fetal coil here in this lonely wet womb.

Solitude does not suit Mark. It never has, even if he’s lived alone most of his adult life. That image of his father fading toward death in his clifftop fortress is too visceral, far too close to home, and that nightmare looms up before him again now. He can never be that. But he can’t stay on the run, either, out into more distant wilds and lonely prairies. Evan will make sure of that. His old friend can’t arrive soon enough.

The drive north from Rapid City had been bleak, as he’d expected. The open plains and endless road he can do; the shock comes when he stops for dinner in Belfield, North Dakota. He finds himself at the end of a bar opposite a drunk clump of oil field boys at least five years younger than him, decked out in Carhartts and trucker hats and Confederate flag belt buckles, constantly reaching for their tins of dip. At some point in his life, Mark thinks, he would have seen them as a potential conquest, a proving ground for a slick city boy to slide in and go drink for drink with these people from a different world. He’s done it in Detroit and Nepal and half of Europe; these boys bear some resemblance to some relatives on his mom’s side of the family. But after Jake’s tales of Pine Ridge, he cannot in good conscience put on that blithe bravado. Indira had called Mark the poster child for the privileged patriarchy, but his ever-probing, hungry style has nothing in common with these misogynistic tools. Or is that only wishful on his part? Either way, he has never felt as foreign in his own country as he does on that bar stool in that moment.

Mark has started hanging out with politicians. His dad always told him not to, but then, one of his first contacts was the son of his dad’s ex-associate, a New York Republican Party functionary. What better way to honor Preston Brennan than through hypocrisy? Mark enjoyed toying with the kid, a pudgy hothead two years younger than himself who’d simply assumed Mark was red meat. Mark can speak the language well enough, and saw a much faster road to prominence here than on the left, but he walked away repulsed by this profit-hungry devotee to a losing cause.

A meet-and-greet with Manhattan Democratic activists left him with the opposite impression: the attendees were legion, eager to spread their gospel, and company he struggled to keep. One had recoiled when he gave his employer, though they was all too happy to let Mark pick up their tab. Another, who assumed he was gay, lectured him on how his career destroyed Black bodies, and it took all of Mark’s self-control to avoid telling him that he’d seeded an urban farming microfinance operation in Detroit and a vaccination drive in Senegal. Who in this group could claim to have done so much, he stewed as he donated another ten thousand dollars to the vaccine drive with a few casual flicks at his phone’s screen. Score one for his reserve.

Mark was born in the wrong era. In the past he’d have been the ideal inheritor of the Kennedy or the Roosevelt mantel, a traitor to his class; for that matter, he could have at least worked with a Bush. Now, though, noblesse oblige seems a lost cause. The masses have the power but none of the wealth, and what’s a good, old-fashioned aristocrat to do?

“You could renounce it all and become a radical,” says Lezlie, his work life confidante. “If the Democratic Socialists are a step too far to you, you could at least go all Gandhi on us.”

Mark snorts. “Yeah, I’m definitely gonna start fasting and swear off sex.”

“It’s more you than you think, Mr. Wilderness Hiker.”

“My hikes aren’t exactly leisurely strolls in the woods.”

“Fine, I guess. It’s a reach,” she concedes. “And maybe that’s okay. You might be able to do more where you are anyway.”

“Should use some of the inheritance to buy myself a politician or two.”

“I think they come pretty cheap these days, especially if you’ve got some co-investors.”

“Let’s go in on one,” Mark laughs, shaking his head.

“Why do you even want to do this?” Lezlie asks, boring her eyes through Mark’s veneer. “What are you in it for? Guilt over your career, or your dad’s career? That doesn’t seem like your style.”

Mark shrugs. “Guess I just always gotta be that man in the arena.”

“Ever the hockey player, aren’t you?”

“Something like that.” Mark chooses not to share his next thought: ‘Or, at least, I like myself better when I am.’ That’s it, he thinks, ever the self-improvement machine. This was the distinction with Amy, the reason that one too fell short: she loved him for who he was, not who he wanted to be. That current self was fun, but always a step behind the goal.

The rain moves on around noon, and Mark sets out on his planned trek. He marches up a plateau and marvels at the openness, this vast expanse of waving grass without a soul to be seen. He ignores the trail and plunges out across the meadow in no direction in particular, his hyper-awareness just enough to keep him alert but bury his anxieties beneath his immersion of the whole scene. He gets to this point more often than he gives himself credit.

The DeBleekers will arrive later this afternoon. Evan, Brendan, pregnant Bridget in tow, their three-year-old son’s first real road trip and the first time Mark has seen Bridget in over a year. He and Bridget had squabbled a bit after his breakup with Indira—they’d always squabbled a bit, really—and Mark will forever wonder just how different Evan would be if he hadn’t committed so young. Getting Evan alone was always a challenge, and now with Brendan added to the equation, it’s borderline impossible. Even his New York friends, though, are pairing off now, throwing up the same barriers. Has he even aged a day?

Mark orients himself by the sun and starts to pick his way back toward the spot where he parked his car. He’d committed too at that age, he figures, just in a different way. Evan chose a woman; Mark chose a road, one with no real end, a hurtling cycle of ambition and achievement and revelation and subsequent exhaustion or irritability or just plain old annoyance. It seems so small. He reads books of great men, towering midcentury Wasps who shared his pedigree, and occasionally some of his flaws. But even that doesn’t seem to get there. His troubles seem pettier, less attuned to an era when sheer force of reputation and power of will alone can’t do it. Could it ever? Or was that just hagiography, or having an army behind one’s back? Mark can’t be sure, and he sure wouldn’t mind a bit of either. But there it is, a question that needs an answer, and he has summoned the one person he knows who can provide one.

An hour before the DeBleekers are slated to arrive, Mark heads into town and checks into a motel room so he can shower. He decides not to shave, figures he needs to leave some scruff to show he’s been roughing it out here, but otherwise perfects the look. When the call comes, he heads back into the park and meets them in the campground.

“Marky!”

“Evs. Bridge. Bren-Bren.” Mark strides into the campsite and throws an embrace around each of them.

“Ya look good, bro. How’s the stay out in the wilderness?”

“Damn good time. Saw some buffalo. Got to think. Slept like a log. Almost got blown into Saskatchewan in the storm this morning. How was the drive?”

“Smooth enough. Brendan was big into the giant cow.”

“Uncle Marky, it was the biggest cow ever!” Brendan informs him.

“Legit. You get to milk it?”

Brendan scoffs. “Naw. It was so big!”

“Hm. Just remember, dude, you gotta milk things for all they’re worth. I got a present for you.”

“Yeah?”

Mark pulls a stuffed bison out of a bag and tosses it to him. “Named him Teddy. Take good care of him, okay?”

“But he’s not a teddy bear. He’s a buffalo!”

“When you go to bed tonight, tell your dad to tell you about Teddy Roosevelt. And about his buddy John Muir, too.” His eyes flit toward Evan to catch the grin from their inside joke.

“Aw, it’s actually cute,” says Bridget as she rescues the bison before it descends into a mud pit.

“I got some taste sometimes,” Mark shrugs.

“In buffalo, if not in women,” Bridget laughs as she holds the stuffed animal just out of the reach of her jumping son. “Honestly, you’d make a good dad. I’m just thinking of how you’d pour yourself into it.”

Mark hides his shock and channels his best Evan shrug. “Thanks. Someday.”

“Any closer lately?”

Mark mulls his response. “Just let another one go, so I’m gonna go with a ‘no’ there.”

“Why this time?”

“Exactly what you said. She’s not the mom.”

“What’s it gonna take?”

“I’m looking for answers. The bison didn’t have many. But this kid might.”

Bridget beams at Evan, who’s been watching this exchange silently, transfixed. “You two go do your thing. I’ll see if Brendan’s any good at setting up a tent.”

“Sweet. Let’s go.” Mark guides Evan down the roads through the campground and down toward the cottonwoods along the Little Missouri, his usual resolve lost behind a simple smile.

“Bridge was in a good mood.”

“Much as she gets on you sometimes, she really does like you.”

“Prolly knows you bring out the best in me. Even if I lead you into sin and evil sometimes. Guess that’s harder when your kid’s along.”

“Right on all fronts there.” Evan pauses and lets Mark lead him down toward a sandbank along the brown, fast-flowing river. “So what were you saying about me having answers?”

“I need you to level with me. Is the reason I’m like this because I’m…me?”

Evan laughs. “Slow down and rewind, bro. Tell me what’s really on your mind.”

“Nothing you haven’t heard before. Tryna live my life to the max, getting there in most people’s eyes, but still feeling empty. My own giant ego, wanting to run everything, make it all perfect. And because I stay caught up in that shit, I never get to what I really want.”

“And you recognize that.”

“Yep. Every fucking day.”

“Then why don’t you do something? You, of all people…”

“It’s like…when I get to a place where I want to, I’m out of gas. Or I don’t remember till too late.”

“Marky…you taking enough time for yourself?”

“I take plenty. Got my runs, my hikes, my—”

“No, not like that. I mean quiet time. You and yourself. You and—”

“Bro, I’m an extrovert. That’s not how I process.”

“It’s not that simple. We all need other people time and we all need ourselves time. No matter where we are on that spectrum. And you do need to pause. To lose yourself. Remember that Marky you want to be.”

“Problem is, I’m less sure than ever what that means.”

“You really? I think you’re getting there, mostly. Look at what you’ve done with your money, with your career, with your new place…you are getting somewhere, I think. And you’re mostly good with all that, right?”

“I am. But let’s not pretend this picture ain’t missing things.”

“Course not. That’s why you have to ground yourself. Remember that.”

“I mean, what do you think this trip is?”

“Just make sure it’s not some manic chase across the prairie. I know you too well.”

“Aw, fuck off.” Mark grins in spite of himself. “Here’s another way to put it. I want to be free. I’ve never felt free. Not really. I had so much pressure of expectation.”

Evan bends over and skips a stone across the Little Missouri. “Funny. In a way I don’t disagree. It’s been heavy on you. But you also love standards. That, let’s be honest, that kinda snobby end goal. Even when you lived with your mom, who let you do whatever. And I don’t think you should disown that.”

“Do you see a tension between that and freedom? Or do I just have daddy issues?”

“It’s not totally smooth, I don’t think. But I can’t see supercool Mark on the beach just chillin, ruling his world, and not think of you as free.”

Mark grins again. “Yeah. Yeah, I like that.” He brushes his hair into place and wanders on ahead of Evan, savoring the idea of that beach life freedom.

Mark’s mind flits back to the Nantucket house. (Is he wandering more than ever before now?) Last year he’d bought one of three shares in it along with two of his half-siblings when his dad’s first wife finally sold it. ‘I’m not him,’ he’d been careful to tell the original Mrs. Brennan in her retirement lodge along the Hudson. He showed her pictures of him with his mom, of his wanderings with Evan, of him with whichever love interest he’d had at the time. She didn’t need to know that part, and since there was no other potential partner to keep the house in the family, no one tried too hard to correct the record.

Yes, he feels free there, though sometimes thanks only to alcoholic oblivion. He thought Amelia would show him true freedom on the beach, but since that failure, he’s been loath to burden his funhouse with anything serious. He’s never been one to allow a failed relationship to tarnish his memory of a place; maybe he’s just reached a point where he’s too cynical to even bother setting the stage for anything serious.

He’d run into Amelia again recently at a wedding reception for a mutual friend in the Hamptons. She was with a bearded hipster who did content curation, whatever that was; she caught Mark’s otherwise imperceptible eye roll and smirked at him, gave a little head-nod that said, ‘I’ll see you later.’ He’d failed to hide his grin, and they found each other later along the pier at the far end of the lawn.

“How long have you had Blackbeard the Pirate there?” he’d said by way of greeting.

“We met maybe two months after you and I moved on. Hooked up and the rest was history.”

“Hitched yet?”

“It’s a matter of time. I’ll invite you if you want. I’ve got the balls for that and he won’t give a shit.”

“Depends on the venue, you know I’ve got standards there. I’m flattered, though. I’m the last finance bro you dated? Figured you needed some nice boytoy as your real soulmate after all that shit?”

“You know, I’d never thought of it that way, but you might be right.”

“Hurts me to admit it, but I had you pegged wrong. Thought you wanted power as much as I did.”

“Think I don’t have it in this relationship?”

Mark snorts with laughter. “I guess if you’re happy with a one-way street…”

“I appreciate not doubling down on the neuroticism.”

“An instinct I’ll never quite understand.”

“I guess we just weren’t meant to be.”

“We weren’t. Though I’m still proud of Nantucket.”

“Never had anyone roll it out for me quite like that.”

“The things I do for love.”

“Doesn’t seem to be working, unless you’re hiding someone.”

“Am I wrong, to be as demanding as I am?”

“I’ll let you be the judge of that.”

“I do sometimes get second opinions.”

“Yeah. You always had that side. And I admire that in you.”

“But only so much.”

“But only so much.”

“What are you thinking?” Evan asks. They’ve come to the end of the sandbar and have no choice but to turn back.

“Off on some girl that got away, as usual.” If there’s one thing he can’t share with Evan, it’s his tortured love life. For all his friend’s empathy, this is a world Evan does not know. He wants to ask Evan what he thinks of the Jake episode, of his dabbling in politics, if he can picture Mark firing up a crowd or playing out his cutthroat game in the public eye. But he already knows Evan will be supportive of anything he suggests, will find ways to work past any blocks he faces, and he’s not sure he’s worthy of that confidence. Better to say nothing at all than drive up false hope. He kicks at the ground, scuffles his feet. When did he become this weakling afraid of his own potential glory?

“It’s more than that. I can tell,” says Evan after a while.

“Meh.”

“Goddamn, spill it, Marks. I come chase you all the way down in North Dakota…”

“Hey, I chased you down in Nepal once. You owed me!”

Evan grins. “What a trip that was. I mean, I loved every moment of it, the mountains, the monasteries…but my favorite part was probably seeing you come rolling in to Tengboche and holding court liked you’d been there a thousand times before…”

“I was thinking about that the other night. How awesome it was to cut completely loose from the outside world for that long. And then, of course, I got back to civilization and found out my dad was in hospice.” He pauses. “My mom just got diagnosed with cancer.”

“Aw, shit.” Evan wraps an arm around Mark’s shoulder and shakes him gently. “No wonder…”

“No wonder what?”

“It explains a lot. About why you’re here. Why you’re back in Nepal in your mind. Why you feel the way you do.”

“I don’t exactly hide it when I brood, do I?”

“Gotta ride the waves, Marky.”

“That’s what I do every day. I mean, my life is all perpetual motion. Isn’t that what your red friends would tell me? The late-stage capitalist in his element…”

“I think you have more socialist friends than I do when you have those artists over.”

“Yeah, you Minnesotans at heart are too boring to be revolutionaries.” Mark laughs and shakes himself out from under Evan’s arms. He fishes at his pockets and grimaces. He’s left the flask behind.

“You keep trying to build this image of yourself as the hard-ass rich fuck, but at the end of the day, I’m not sure that’s you at all. Maybe just…let it go.”

“So what should I do? Quit my job? Give it all away tomorrow?”

“No. None of that. Maybe just start by acknowledging that you are who you are.”

“I’ve never believed I can just throw away part of who I am. We’ve talked about this.”

Evan shrugs. “You said you wanted to find freedom.”

“I’m…” Mark trails off. “Problem is, I don’t know what that means.”

“Maybe, as you ride the wave, you need to seize it.”

“I’m sure you’re a master surfer, Mr. Metaphors.”

Evan turns away to hide his blush.

“What?” Mark demands.

“Nothing.”

“Your turn to spill it.”

Evan turns away from Mark and walks off the dirt path and into the tall grass, still damp from the morning’s storm. He toys with a few of the nearest blades and turns around.

“You remember those people who used to surf off Stoney Point in big storms on the lake?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m…a low-grade celebrity in that group.”

“Shit. No fucking way. You? Really?”

“Learned a little as a kid on those California trips. That’s why I went back there a few years back. Dabble when I can on the shore.”

“I don’t believe it. What does Bridget think?”

“She has no idea. My old board just lives in the garage. Easy enough for me to sneak it out and come up with excuses.”

“I’m…fuck. Who else knows?”

“I’ve been doing it for fifteen years and you’re the first person I’ve told. I don’t ever talk to anyone when I’m out there. Don’t go if there’s a crowd. I’m just the mystery dude.”

Mark splutters. “Bro, that’s fucking awesome. So much makes sense now. Why the hell did you have to hide it?”

“It was…just my thing, you know?” Evan gives a very Evan shrug, folds his arms, and wanders back to Mark’s side. He scrutinizes him closely and sees something he’s missed for too long in those eyes, that unburdened delight he’d chased halfway around the globe. Mark drops his head into Evan’s shoulder and throws his arms around him, and Evan stands in stock-still shock as Mark chokes up. He returns the embrace, pats Mark on the back, looks out at his taller friend, his eyes drawn tight in a tearless sorrow.

“I’ve got you. You’ll get through this,” Evan murmurs.

Mark closes his eyes, exhales, and pulls back so he can look Evan in the eye. “Getting through is fine. I got that down. But I want to do so much more than that.”

Evan opens his mouth to counter Mark’s demand for achievement. He wants to calm him, remind him yet again that there’s another way. But this, he knows, is not Mark’s wave.

“And you will,” he says. “Look at what you’ve got behind you. Look at everything you know. You got all the tools you need. You will.”

“I just need the will.”

They head back to the campsite, where Bridget has wrestled the tent into place in spite of Brendan’s help. They cook a dinner over the fire and let the child divert them from any heavy thoughts, and the DeBleekers, drained from a long day on the road, crash after a brief, non-alcoholic nightcap. Mark gives himself a second splash of bourbon and wanders down to the river again, but chooses to go no further. This is enough, he thinks, and for the first time all week he stems the tide of nonstop drifts into the past. The past provides wisdom, but wisdom alone is no agent of change, of new beginnings, of instinct on Evan’s waves.

No: he needs to be free again. Not free like Brendan, untroubled by the weight of his home in the world, but freed by belief his capacity for change, to twin dream and reality, to make good on some promise that lurks beneath all these visions he pulls from the past. He turns his eyes up to the stars and digs for the charts he’d been careful to memorize before his last hike with Evan, that flair of brilliance he’d stashed away strictly to show off but now, as he gazes upward, allows him to recover his awe. His pursuit has freed him yet again.

Beach Boys

9 Jan

This story is a companion to the eleven-part series that began here.

I.

The San Onofre crew is accustomed to week-long interlopers every now and then. Some appear on their little slice of beach every year, others just drift in and out. Some are memorable, but even those are never more than a stray story, a remember when so-and-so and such-and-such that provides a background bass line to the chatter at the Ex-Con-Tiki bar every weekend.

He shows up with a beginner’s surfboard and a wetsuit, and little else. He doesn’t wear any surf shop gear, makes no effort convey any talent or experience. They all agree he is attractive and looks the part of a beach poser: long scraggly hair pulled back beneath a backwards hat, muted tone tank tops and generic board shorts, well-sculpted shoulders and legs that show he’s more than a casual athlete. His wide, brown eyes bear an eternal look of someone peering off into the horizon, someone who gazes toward the light to see what it can reveal. After watching him for four days, Casey decides that this interloper, intentional or not, has become the platonic ideal of the beach. He makes it seem effortless without deploying any effort, a shockingly rare achievement along the California coast.

He has no great talent as a surfer. Not once does he attempt anything bold or inventive, his movements always deliberate and precise. But his form is on point, no wasted effort on his board, and he’s clearly done his homework, knows the nuances of the wave in a way few rookies do. Nor is he one to repeat mistakes, each lesson stored away in a trove of knowledge that Adrian suspects must border on the encyclopedic. Surely he’s been to San Onofre before, Casey asks him, and he shrugs and says yes, years ago, when he was just a kid. Neera suspects this is a lie to enhance his intrigue, but when pressed, the kid pulls up a picture of his preteen self on this very beach, grinning between two parents as he clutches this very surfboard. The memory means something to him, clearly, but what they cannot be sure.

When they break into his cabana to see what else he has, they find no more than a bottle of bourbon, sipped at in moderation; a pile of cheap microwave meals, though of the semi-healthy variety; and a few little notebooks half-filled with unintelligible scrawl. Adrian sees a picture of a girl on his phone background, but Jack, who holes up in the cabin next door, reports only one late night phone conversation, and it with a guy at some East Coast college. He is agreeable enough, shares a few beers with the Samoan proprietor of the Ex-Con-Tiki, can talk about the wave and downplay his own skill with the best of them. But even Neera, the most skilled prosecutor on these sunny shores, fails to fish out any details when she sidles up to him with a drink and her voluminous eyelashes.

Over the boy’s first four days at San Onofre he is tentative, avoids others unless they address him, willingly accepts his position as the rookie on the fringes of the lineup. He simply goes about his wave work within his limits, creates as small of a swell as he can. Neera invites him to a club in San Clemente, but he demurs and spends his night reading some cliched travelogue outside his cabin. His heart isn’t in it.

The interloper is a source of mild interest at the club that night; if Neera weren’t newly single, they wouldn’t have given him much mind. But Alexandra, eager to quash Neera’s intrigue, convenes a meeting of the minds before the boys inevitably disappear to the back alley to toke a bowl. The last thing she needs is to babysit yet another brokenhearted roommate.

“What was the name again?”

“Evan. His bag says Gopher hockey on it.” Frantic googling ensues.

“Sure enough, that’s him. Walk-on. Guess he’s got some talent.” Alexandra shows them his roster profile on his phone.

“He’s got good form for a kid from the middle of bumfuck nowhere,” says Jack, already half out of his seat for his trip to the alley.

“And he’s a cutie,” Neera muses. “Probably real nice. Minnesotans always are.”

“Some midwestern bro living out his fantasy,” says Casey.

“I’ll tell you what he is,” Alexandra says. “He’s a climber. He doesn’t want you to think he’s after anything…but he’s after something.”

“He’ll fit right in in this town,” Casey says, trying to give her a significant look. Alexandra ignores his puppy eyes and instead checks Neera’s reaction: concern, fear that her Minnesota Nice diagnosis may be awry. Yes, that’s exactly what she’d hoped for.

“There’s no fitting in in this town,” she replies. “Either you grab the wave or you end up washed up on the beach.”

II.

“Alright, kids, welcome to Solomon’s Temple,” Mark announces as the procession of cabs pulls up to the beach house.

“Did they add on a new wing since I was here?” asks Matt.

“Yup. New sun room on the side, and another bedroom below it where we can stuff a few more bodies.”

“You’ve been here before?” asks Dante, a newcomer to the group.

“Marky and I go all the way back,” says Matt. “Been dealing with this snob since I was ten, even when he went off to Minnesota and New Haven. Been in the family since way before you, right?”

“That it has. And Matty was one of the few Dirty Jersey friends my parents let me have out here on the island,” Mark says. “No freaking clue what they saw in him.”

“I just remember us out on that beach when we were like twelve, thinking we were hot shit and going after high school girls.”

“Better luck this time, Matty,” Mark teases.

“Why Solomon’s Temple?” Amelia asks from the back seat.

“Parents went through a religious phase. Plus my dad’s gone through almost 700 wives, so it’s fitting.” To Mark’s mild annoyance, the allusion goes over the heads of everyone in the car.

Lost references aside, Mark is proud of his plans for a long Nantucket weekend. He’s made his invites carefully, fifteen in total, six men and nine women, the ratio off-kilter to get the group to the front of bar lines and provide more options for his enjoyment. There are three couples, already paired off, and Leslie, his lesbian work life confidante; to the mix he adds Dante, a Camden-based writer who went to Princeton with Matt, proof this week is more than his own sandbox. No, he’s collected his interesting people, all with some purpose unknown to them. Dante the poet, Leslie the life coach, the couples to provide stability, and Matt, his foil, both a competitor and a partner in the pursuit of the four eligible ladies. They know the unspoken rules of the game they both relish.

The first night goes according to plan. They are all drunk by eight and pile into two cabs Mark has contracted for the week for a venture to a strip of bars in town. Nora, the most attractive and least stable of the four singles, trips on a loose sidewalk brick and goes down in a heap. They are a bit on the drunk side for the finer bars in this outpost, but Mark has curated his guests well enough that he knows no one will go full Jersey Shore on him. They plow through a few fine cocktails before beginning the inevitable push back to the one dive bar on the island, where Mark suspects all their nights will end. The first one has enough novelty that he can ride it through, play his part, head home happily drunk at the end of the night and settle for a few sloppy kisses with Nora. Matt goes to bed empty-handed, and Mark claims pyrrhic sort of victory on night one.

He’s paced himself well. He wakes the next morning with no hint of a hangover and heads out for a ten-mile run along the coastal roads out to Siasconset and back. A handful of his housemates have stirred to life by the time he returns, all in awe of his early morning feat of athleticism. He shrugs off their praise with practiced nonchalance, the borderline arrogance of a man whose achievements require no acknowledgment. He is who he is.

Even so, Mark senses a distance growing between him and the rest of the house as it stirs to life. He has classified himself as a breed apart, and now it is his duty to reclaim his charm. He takes orders for mimosas and coaches Leslie and Dante on the Markian approach to beach life, to dive immediately back in. His disciples laugh and follow his lead. The god has come down from the clouds.

They pass most of the day on the beach. Mark drifts in and out of a few games of volleyball, works his tan, settles under an umbrella to keep his steady buzz and samples the edibles brought by Patrick and Erica, two underlings of his who have managed to hide their romance from everyone else in the office save Mark’s prying eyes. He caught their subtle winks, their well-timed bathroom trips, their aligned vacation schedules. Erica buries herself in the sand and gazes out at the waves in peace, and Patrick nuzzles up against her. Mark nestles near them on his towel, close enough for idle observation but far enough to give them space. They’re a fascinating specimen, this couple that has found love in a desolate office. He’s in a good enough place that he can stave off the wistful thoughts they inspire in him.

Night two involves less pretense, a quick pregame that moves on to a unified beach party with several other homes. This night, Mark expects, will be the most debauched of the week, and he steals a thirty-minute nap beforehand to steel himself for it.

“Game on,” he whispers to Matt as he settles in to bed.

“Remind me how many extra points I get per college girl?”

“Careful, Matty. Can’t talk like that anymore these days. You trying to tell me you aren’t here to find undying love?”

“C’mon, it’s not wrong if they’re in on the game, too.”

By the end of the night they are back in the room they share with two girls who claim they’re headed into their senior years at Dartmouth. In time it comes out that they’re merely Brooklyn baristas, but by this point Mark and Matt are in too deep. Mark thinks Matt wrapped up the proceedings with the slightly cuter one, but his finds just the right level of pleasure to sustain him through the longest finish he can ever remember. He is content to call the night a draw.

Mark wakes to find his new acquaintance wrapped in sheets at his side. Matt’s bedmate, he sees, has slipped off in the night. He deserves extra credit for that. He stays in bed until the girl wakes and politely sees her on her way, though he does not invite her to stay for the brunch Dante has promised to whip up to start day three. She was lovely, but he doesn’t want to give anyone the wrong impression. His prize will be no barista, no random encounter on the beach. He’s already culled his herd.

The group applauds Mark and Matt for their conquests, though Leslie groans as they settle in on the beach with Nora’s foul anti-hangover concoction.

“This isn’t the Mark I like. The one I like is the one who was grilling Amelia on what AI is going to mean for humanity.”

“That Mark does get a little tired of always having to be the know-it-all cynic.”

“Okay then. How about the one who kicked all our asses at volleyball then had some pot brownies with me on the beach yesterday?”

“You know I’d go freaking crazy if I tried to live like that.”

“You don’t make this easy, do you?”

“The world is a complicated place. Just…being one with its waves, you know?”

“Hah. Clever turn, I’ll give you that.”

“I’m good for that, if nothing else.”

“You’re in Sad Mark mode again, aren’t you?”

“Me? Sad? I fucking rule my world.”

“Doesn’t seem to do much for you.”

“Does plenty for me. Just hungry enough to want even more. There you go. There’s a thirst no AI can ever have.” He pours himself another mimosa.

III.

On day five, it all changes. The boy barges in to Adrian’s turf on the wave, commands the inside of the tube, pulls a series of hard turns in succession. The conditions aren’t particularly good, and he still has an erratic streak that nearly creates a few collisions. Yet he surfs with reckless abandon, just hanging on to an edge of control. Even Alexandra rises up from her droll position on the beach to eyeball this display of reckless bravado. Later, when he washes up immediately in front of her, just as composed as when he’d emerged from the waves the two days before, she can’t help but flash him a quick smile.  

Evan ignores her. When Adrian snarls at him over his lack of decorum, he rolls his eyes and doesn’t reply. When Casey asks if he wants the video he’s shot of him, he’s downright scornful: he’s not here to be found, to time it just right for the perfect conditions, to pull off any particular move. He’s here to surf.

That night the interloper shows up at the bar for the first time since the second night. After a survey of the room, he gives the boys an awkward nod of respect. They reciprocate, an invitation to become one of them for the night. Evan accepts, but Casey can tell he’s not after their approval. Instead, his eyes flit toward Alexandra at every opportunity.

Alexandra is the queen bee of the San Onofre crew, a daughter of New Yorker socialites who fled west to try show business, found it vapid, and now lives off a trust fund with some beach bums. She’s convinced her parents she’s still seeking out modeling opportunities, and she staved off her mother’s inquiries at the latest visit with a carefully concocted story of her pursuit of some surf magazine. Her housemates are all complicit, bought off with the promise of Alexandra’s influence, and her willingness to pay the freight for the booze and drugs at the parties they host. The girls of the Ex-Con-Tiki have a reputation to keep.

Over the first few drinks of the evening, Evan pulls this story out of his fellow lustful males. Adrian has no interest in her uppity style, though this doesn’t stop him from telling Evan what he’d like to do to her in lurid detail. Evan pointedly turns to Casey and Jack, where he finds contradictory takes: Casey finds the addition of her tight mini-skirts and bottomless purse an unquestioned perk, while Jack tells anyone around him that she’s attracting the wrong type to San Onofre.

“Super high-maintenance.”

“Bunch of valley girls,” Casey admits.

“Exactly. None of the chill natives who actually know their way around a board.” Casey concedes the point, and Evan nods gravely.

That settles it, Casey thinks: the interloper stands for nothing if not purity, so he’s the last person he would expect to seek out Alexandra. He’s free to set up his own play. But it’s too late: Evan buys them all another round, slams his immediately, and marches across the bar to greet her. The boys watch, enthralled: will she eat this new kid for dinner as she has so many times before, or do those searching eyes know something she doesn’t?

Alexandra isn’t even sure why she’s here tonight. She’s cut back her drinking to a light trickle, and the charm of this beach dive wore off months ago. Her tablemates are all shrill harpies, and the crowd is otherwise sparse, a few aging wannabes in the corner and the tiresome Casey there in the middle with his unremarkable friends, headed for yet another stupor. And now up walks this boy who tries so hard to project some air of confidence.

“Slow night here,” Evan muses. It’s a comment for Alexandra alone, not the other four girls at her table.

“We don’t do much speed here,” she answers. “Unless you mean meth. Ask the bartender and he can hook you up for a decent price.” Evan’s eyes flit to the Samoan, who’d told him a tear-jerking tale of his turn to clean living after his release from prison the night before. They make eye contact, and he seems to know exactly what Alexandra just told him. He closes his eyes and musters up his cool.

“Appreciate the reference. Got a trailer we can take it back to?”

“Not much peace and quiet at my place. I hear you’ve got a little hermit cabin down toward the old nuke plant?”

“Out in the wilderness, just like Saint Onofre himself.”

“You’re a smart little fuck.”

“I try to be versatile. A renaissance man. A soldier-scholar. A philosopher king.”

“A drunk college jock who needs a haircut and wants it bad.”

“All of the above. Can I get you something?”

“You can get me out of here, that’s for sure.”

“Now you’re talking.” Evan steps aside to let her out of her booth and leads the way toward the exit. He doesn’t bother looking to see what sort of reaction he’s inspired, but Alexandra makes sure to give Casey a triumphant leer before she slips out behind him.

They don’t head straight for a bedroom. Freed from the need to perform, Evan sets a contemplative pace up the beach, and Alexandra regales him with the inner dynamics of her house. After five minutes of blather, she gets the sneaking suspicion he isn’t paying attention. Casey would have kept fawning after her the entire time, but no, this kid is subtly showing her he’s bored, that he doesn’t need her, that she should be the one seeking him out, not vice versa.

“Let’s head to my place,” she snaps, and he returns his attention to her.

“Not my wilderness hut?”

“Not sure I should trust men who think that sort of thing is fun. Trust me, a night in my bed will be an upgrade.”

Evan shrugs, nonplussed. Only later does Alexandra realize he already knows where she lives, her backstory, her reputation. She’s not sure if his homework should flatter or disturb her.

She drives him the five miles in to a San Clemente neighborhood near the pier. The house is compact but carries a veneer of refinement, laden with the latest IKEA furniture and a mélange of perfumes that trip Evan’s allergies, an upgrade only when compared to the piggish squalor of Casey’s apartment or the eternal pot smell of Adrian’s. He pours them both lemonades to distract himself from her waterfall of apologies.

“Want to watch something?”

“Not particularly.”

“So who are you, really?”

“Some kid who likes to surf.”

“No shit.”

For the first time since he’d swaggered over to her table, Alexandra suspects some uncertainty in Evan. He blows his nose in a tissue and lets his eyes dart about the apartment, not processing anything they didn’t see the first time. He doesn’t seem like a person eager to get on with easy sex.

“You’re such a loner,” she chances.

“I try to surround myself with the right kind of people.”

“What are those?”

“The people who fuel my fire.”

“And who does that?” she asks as she unbuttons her shirt to reveal a pink polka-dotted bra.

“Not many people.” He tugs off his shirt and lets Alexandra run her hands around his chest in gentle massage circles.

“You’re sunburned.”

“Never can escape that, yeah. I’m not a beach kid.”

“You could play one on TV.”

“I’ll remember that if my business career doesn’t work out.”

“Why are you even here?”

“To surf.”

“No, shit. But out of all the beaches…”

“I could ask you the same question.”

“Quit being smart.”

“Fine, fine.” He gazes at their reflection in a window across the room. “My family used to come here when I was young. My aunt lived out this way for a bit and my parents fell for the place. It’s been ten years now, though. Was curious if it had changed.”

“Huh. Has it?”

“Hard to tell whether I’ve changed or it’s changed.”

“For the better?”

“Well, puberty did enhance one aspect of it. But mostly, no. Everything that seemed big back then seems small now. And people are just as petty here as they are anywhere.”

Alexandra isn’t sure if this is directed at her or not. She casts about for a response that will be on his level.

“You see places better when you don’t see them as a kid. You can see what they actually are. Not what you wish they still were.”

Her would-be lover smiles. “You’d be perfect for my buddy at Yale, saying things like that.”

“I went to high school just up the road from there. Choate. Bunch of self-righteous dicks.”

“My point exactly.”

Alexandra cackles and slides a few fingers in beneath his boxers. He reaches down and clasps his hands over hers, a caress that nonetheless stops her progress.

“You never answered my question,” she says.

“It’s not an interesting story.”

“I’m curious, though!”

“Living out some childhood fantasy, I guess you could say.”

“Oh, forget it, you’re impossible. Let’s fuck.”

He turns back toward her, and Alexandra is once again drawn in to those wide eyes.

“Nah.”

“Seriously? You put in that much effort and then you run away?”

“Got a girl back home. I’m loyal.”

“Loyal. Then what the hell are we even doing here? Loyal. Holy fucking shit. Loyal.”

“You make it sound like a foreign concept.”

“You sound like the clingiest kid ever.”

“When you know what loss is, you become that.” He pulls his shirt back on, cocks his cap back in place, and heads out the door.

IV.

Night three is Mark’s night for excess. After an early win, he can let Matt take the lead in the pursuit and just follow along, let instincts do the rest. He makes a few overtures to Carmina, the shapeliest of the four single girls, but her speech is slurring before they even finish dinner, and after three bars, Mark is little better. Matt paces himself better and takes home an androgynous gender studies major from Barnard. Under normal circumstances Mark would find intrigue in his friend choosing an interesting chat over the easiest lay, but is thankful he is so drunk that he can just pass out, his only lasting memory of the night formed through Dante’s reenactments of the girl’s relentless moaning.

Day four is drizzly and grey. Nora stumbles in with a ballet dancer she’d hooked up with the night before just as the group wraps up brunch, and he has the nerve to whine about the temperature of the leftover eggs. Leslie overhears Patrick criticizing the waitstaff at the dive bar and lectures him on his lack of empathy, leading Mark to edge out of the room in annoyance. He gives Matt a nod, which Dante catches as well, and they both follow him into the kitchen.

“Gotta love the white girl from Westchester lecturing us on privilege,” says Matt.

“You said it, not me,” says Mark, relieved that the two people of color in the party can be his confidantes.

“I give her points for trying,” says Dante. “But doesn’t she work at the same firm as you?”

“That she does,” Mark replies as he contemplates the empty Bloody Mary pitcher with a frown. “We’re all sinners here. Cept you, maybe, Dante.”

“Bro, his parents run a hedge fund,” says Matt. Mark cackles with glee while Dante blushes.

“Not where you come from, but what you do with it, right?”

“Sure. Something like that,” says Matt. “Ugh, the fridge is out of beer. I’ll get more.”

Dante shakes his head as Matt goes. “You and Matt together are a hell of a pair.”

“We’ve been playing the same game our whole lives, Delbarton all the way back.”

“I had you pegged as more of an Exeter kid.”

“Dad was a sleazebag. He fit in better in Jersey.” Mark grabs a tennis ball off a nearby counter and bounces it off the floor.

“Hey now, you know I’m in Camden.”

“Gotta get some good material there.”

“Like nothing you’ve ever seen.”

“I spent a summer in Detroit. Went to an all-black bar most nights. I’ve seen a thing or two.” Mark idly bounces the ball.

“What were you after?”

“Probably the same thing you’re after.”

“Sure, but you ain’t black, dude. Those are my people there.”

“Right. I realize there are things I’ll never understand about that. Why can’t I try as much as I can to make them mine, too?”

Dante looks at him quizzically. “What the hell you doing here, then, getting trashed on this beach?”

“Playing the game, like I told you.”

Dante shakes his head. “Leslie says you should leave Wall Street. Says you need more than an intellectual dead zone.”

“Everywhere seems that way after Yale, really.”

“Let me show you Camden. See if you still think that after. You can get so much more than this.”

Mark’s eyes flit out at the waves through the rain-spackled window. The tempo of the tennis ball accelerates.

“Roots are complicated things. And mine are here.”

Mark’s heart isn’t in night four. He skips most of the day drinking games and plays cribbage in the lounge with Leslie, who knows him well enough to give him space. He halfheartedly coaches Dante as they size up a group of townies at a less popular beach, the best he can do to escape the motions of a tiresome routine, but Dante has no real interest in his game. Matt is back with the Barnard girl, who makes it clear she has no interest in Mark’s droll act; what exactly she sees in Matt, other than perhaps a brown kid with a lower outward privilege score, is unclear. After staying tight for three nights, their group spreads out across three bars in downtown: the couples choose a quieter locale for date night, Dante and Leslie join an edgier crowd at the dive bar, and Mark trails after the single girls intent upon a party, taking no joy in his role as the playboy.

To his relief, Matt slips away from his hook-up from the night before and employs a full court press on Eva. Mark takes his cue that he’s free to do as he pleases and turns his attention to his target for the whole week: Amelia, the prettiest of the bunch in his eyes, less busty than Eva or Nora but eternally poised and prim, an early employee at a start-up who has drifted into its inner ring. This conquest requires no great art, nor any drunken oblivion: merely the two best-credentialed people in the house taking their natural place at each other’s side.

Mark and Amelia cab back to Solomon’s Temple and wander along the dunes. She’s had more than him but is still in control, content to let him drape and arm around her shoulder and let it sneak downward. He can feel the tension draining out of her as they go and lets himself follow suit, a pair of neurotics twinned in escape.

“Isn’t this absurd, getting trashed out here every night?” he asks her.

“It is. How fucked up do we have to be to want this?”

“If this is fucked up, do we want to know normal?”

“Damn. And we’re the successful ones.”

“Just know how to keep up appearances as we play the game.”

“It’s all a game to you, isn’t it?”

“You got a better way to treat this thing we do?”

“Just make sure we don’t always play the game the same way.”

“Oh, I try. Matty and I are in competition all week.”

“I picked up on that. What’s tonight’s challenge?”

“We’re gonna see who can bring a girl home for a night on the beach.”

Amelia stops and glares at him. “I see you’ve won.”

“Always do.”

“Well, tell Matt to get his junk and whatever pussy he’s found to go with it down here with us.”

“The four of us, under the stars?”

“Why not?”

This seems too easy. Mark wants to ask her what exactly it is she’s looking for, but some instinct tells him it isn’t a prudent question. He calls Matt and orders him to the beach, hypes up an impending orgy even though he knows it will be nothing of the sort. He and Amelia pick their way back to Solomon’s Temple and arrive just as Matt and Eva climb out of their cab. The foursome is quiet, and Mark tries to diagnose the mood in the house, some mix of exhaustion and hope for something new; unspoken dreams for transcendence, or merely a release of pent-up drives?

Amelia and Eva collect a few wine bottles from the cellar while Mark and Matt and scope out the dunes for a leeward pocket where they can settle in beneath a few blankets. After the girls arrive, they chug the wine to warm themselves. Amelia is shuddering in the cool night air, and Mark nuzzles up against her. He wants to tell her that he’s been scheming for this moment since he met her two months ago; down the slope, he catches snatches of Matt and Eva’s debate over the most comfortable position with the added variables of sand and dune grass, and is tempted to test their advice.

But he says nothing. Amelia nests her body into his and settles into the rhythmic pulse of sleep, and he can only lie there, wide awake, loath to call it a night but even more reluctant to disturb her peace. He runs his hand gently up and down her side, content drain his plastic cup and meld his body into hers. Something about this feels different, less a conquest and instead a comfortable place to lay his head. He’s not sure he trusts it.

Mark wakes with a start when the first rays of sun creep over the beach, and his shudder stirs Amelia to life. He feels somehow wronged as she peels herself from him, but he musters up a bemused grin that she returns. She lets him kiss her gently.

“I do need to get back to the city today,” she says as she pulls away and climbs to her feet.

“Gotta get outta here before you start feeling something. I get it.”

“You almost sound sad about it, you soulless leech.”

“I can have an emotion every now and then.”

“Cute, kid.”

“Drinks sometime next week?”

“If I’m in the mood.” She swings a blanket over her shoulder and stalks her way back toward the house. Eva yells after her and hurries to follow, sick from how much she drank the night before. Matt sits up on his blanket, rubs his eyes, and looks up at Mark as if he were some heavenly apparition.

“You get all the points. Damn, Marky. She’s such a boss.”

“I guess,” Mark shrugs. “If she were as in control as she pretends she is, she’d say eff the boss and take more of this for herself.”

“She’s got the balls to leave this behind. I give her real credit for that.”

Mark cocks his head. “Dude, you just slept with a Vanity Fair model on a Nantucket beach. You really gonna question all this?”

Matt frowns as he massages his temples with one hand and adjusts his package with the other. “I am. Just too much of the same, day after day.”

“You the last person I thought I’d hear that from.”

“I’m serious, bro. I think you need to start seeing someone.”

“Nah. Not how I operate.”

“You’re allowed to win with help from other people sometimes.”

“You givin up on my game, Matty?”

“Shit, dude, you’re a one-track machine.”

Mark blinks at Matt, shocked to hear his closest comrade abandon the cause. Is he that neurotic, that driven to excess? For all his claims to the contrary, he has to concede the point. His life has taken on a manic pace, its successes more sustained but punctuated by these sporadic crashes when he just loses all self-control and lapses into days of sputtering misery.

Matt is too loyal to leave him alone and march off up the beach after the girls, but even as they collect themselves and their blankets and their empty bottles and begin to walk back toward the house together, he senses a new divide between them. Everyone else has found their stops off this train, but he just plows on toward the end of the line, wherever that might be.

V.

The next day, Evan is back to a life of complete isolation. At first Alexandra just diagnoses cold feet, a retreat from intimacy for a kid who only has a few days left on the beach. She’s seen it before, this fear of commitment. But Jack suspects something different: he looks at all of them the same way, some mixture of intrigue and pity, as if he dreads some great tragedy that he knows will befall them as they party on in their ignorance. Weeks later, when Alexandra looks back on this most bizarre of her summer forays, she will agree: he was a breed apart.

Evan has no knowledge of Jack and Alexandra’s blowout argument at the Ex-Con-Tiki. He is back in his cabin, alone, though alert enough to flash Casey a middle finger when he tries to peek in his window after bar close. As far as Casey can tell, he is only brooding, his notebooks untended, his phone forgotten on the bedside table; those eyes, unable to squint out toward the light, just fixed on the dark void where the nuclear power plant used to be.

Once Evan is sure Casey is gone, he dons all his surf gear again and takes his board down to the beach. He laughs at himself, this necessity of looking the part, even in the wilderness. He’s an actor playing a role, but aren’t they all actors on some great stage?

The waves aren’t right. It’s too calm, too still. He won’t have the final triumph he dreamed of to round out this trip. He turns to leave the ocean; might as well get a full night’s sleep. But he doesn’t get far before another instinct forces him to turn back.

Evan saunters over to where he’d washed up in front of Alexandra the day before. He drives his board into the sand and takes a seat next to it. He holds his knees in his arms and closes his eyes, his sole focus the inward crashes and outward pulls of the surf.

Every step on this beach has stirred up some memory, some past dream. It’s a home of sorts, and it’s tempting to remain in this world, to never leave behind the San Onofre of his youth. Evan could settle into a life here, set up in a little shack and drop his pretense and befriend someone like Jack. He could be happy here. He can just surf.

But this trip has never been about that. He’s passed his test, rode into the jaws of death and tempted himself as he’s never been tempted before. He’s come out triumphant. Back in the cabana a half hour later, Evan jots down a notes for a few calls he’ll make the next day. He’ll go back to Minnesota with no need to linger any further on what this beach means to him, no need to play out a dozen different futures in his mind any longer. He knows how the next chapter in his story will read. Now he just needs to write it.

VI.

Scandal is under way when Matt and Mark return to Solomon’s Temple. Erica, high on cocaine, made drunken passes at Dante in the kitchen the night before. The poet pleads his innocence, but Patrick demands culpability, and the house has separated into Team Patrick and Team Dante. Mark’s natural instinct is to sequester the two of them and order them to find a resolution, but today he feels drained, and for the first time all week, he has no Amelia to perform for. Does he still have time to catch her ferry back to Hyannis?

Mark tells Matt to sort it all out and heads to his room. His hangover, lurking in the backdrop since he woke, roars into full force by late morning, as his worst ones always do. He wants to crawl back into bed, but there is no time, he convinces himself; time, perhaps, is running out. His feelings are too complicated, too cluttered even for a mind attuned to life among shades of grey. He needs to purge any conflicting feelings. He needs to run. Matt can only watch in incredulity as Mark changes into his Yale shorts and a tight athletic top and begins his easy jog out to the beach.

The first mile goes easily enough, but by the time Mark swings inland toward Milestone Road, he knows he’s made a mistake. His stomach churns with the unprocessed concoction of six different types of alcohol, all intent upon making its way out into the world; whether upward or downward he cannot tell. Lightheaded, he slows to a stumble and waits for a slow-moving truck to pass him before he dips into a convenient shrubbery. He squats, wills his digestive tract to act, forces out what he can and wipes his anus with some inadequate sandplain grasses. He is revolted, but he must go on. Perhaps he can cut this short and make a loop down the airport road, though there’s too much traffic there. Maybe this little side lane will do the job?

For a moment he resumes his brisk early pace, seemingly cleansed. But it’s a false reassurance. A quarter mile later, he’s seizing up more than before. He drops his rate to a slow walk, unable to keep a straight line, the world starting to swim before him. A middle-aged woman driving her Prius the other direction gives him a look of concern, but pushes on. Freed from any prying eyes, he returns again to the hedges, this time intent to stay for as long as he needs. He pushes across a grassy plain to another clump of scrub oak, tries to force more out but nothing will come; he fears he’ll vomit, but that too stays down. He breaks out in an intense sweat, feels the color drain from his face, wonders if he’s on the verge of a collapse into the bushes. There’s a house maybe five hundred feet away. Should he call for help? Ask someone to summon an ambulance? Spell out his will and testament in the sand before him?

He’s not quite sure how long his agony lasts, whether it is five minutes or half an hour, but it doesn’t matter. This is more than some stray hangover. He is a piece of trash, a useless scum, a kid with promise who’s pissing it away in a silly performative world of endless nothing. This will be the end of the line, the wake-up call he needs and the liberation of a sickened soul. No more descents into hedonism without purpose, no more sad nights alone in his room. And then there, squatting in a bush, clothing caked in sweat, hands buried deep in his disheveled hair, he turns his gaze upward and his closed eyes perceive the world through those of a child, future or past he cannot be sure, and suddenly he feels the pain easing away, drained out into this sandy Nantucket soil where it can remain.

Mark rises and begins a steady trot back to the beach house, ready to guide his charges out on a tour of the island’s lighthouses and feed them a fresh seafood dinner. His stomach rumbles softly. The wind tugs his hair in and out of his eyes. He smiles a manic smile. He’s found his pace.