“The Sirens were bird-women: grotesque creatures. However, their destructiveness lay not in any physical threat or power, but in loosening people’s own internal voices of temptation with their song,” said Phillip Mudke, the director and owner of Mud23 Gallery and Ben’s boss.
Phillip was introducing Mud23’s new show to a crowd of approximately forty-five people. The show, “Sci-rens,” was a series of colorful and detailed underground-comix-style ink drawings, each of an everyday person tied with rope to a wooden mast and trying desperately to escape his or her restraints to various contemporary temptations of sorts: the bounty of a Walmart-like discount store; a California sunset over a stretch of I-280 packed bumper-to-bumper with SUVs; a café full of customers with identical laptops sipping identical lattes out of identical mugs; a group of teenagers on a couch binging on junk food, beer, and marijuana, eyes entranced by the glowing TV in front of them; etc.
The drawings’ creator, Serene Johnson, was standing by Phillip, the white tips of her yellow Converse sneakers pointed together.
He continued: “The Sirens were destroyed when someone, Odysseus, heard their song and did not go to them. His crew plugged their ears with wax, but Odysseus, wanting to hear what the Sirens’ deadly song sounded like, asked his crew to leave his ears unplugged and tie him to the mast as his ship passed the Sirens’ island.”
Marin had come to the “Sci-rens” opening with Ben, Judith, and Jorge purely in a spectator capacity. “Sci-rens” had sold out completely a month ago, to a number of private collectors that Mud23 worked with regularly. Ben had assured Marin that the drawings were too “jokey” to have real long-term investment value. However, as soon as she’d seen the traffic jam drawing she’d felt a little cheated.
Phillip wrapped up his remarks, and people resumed their conversations.
“So is this super cathartic for you?” Jorge asked Ben. “You’ve been working really hard this past month.”
“A little bit,” he said. “I’m just amazed that it all came together—things are always by the seat of one’s pants at Mud23. Honestly, I’ve spent the past fifteen minutes thinking about all the things I can finally take care of tomorrow now that this is over.”
“Welcome to the world of work, babe,” Judith said. “It’s all one big process now. In school, you pull your all-nighter, take your final, and party, but in the real world the job is never done.”
“Which I’m kind of glad about,” said Ben. “Life would get pretty boring pretty quickly if it was any other way, don’t you think?”
“Benjamin,” said Phillip, standing at the edge of their group with a young man in his late twenties.
Dressed in a rigorously ordinary outfit of white T-shirt and mall-bought jeans, Phillip’s friend had wavy dark brown hair, a scratch of facial hair, and chapped sealskin lips. He seemed like the kind of person who ordinarily wouldn’t be caught dead in this scene.
“I want you to meet someone,” Phillip said to Ben. “This is Charlie Cohen. He’s a good friend of Marcus Holland. Charlie, this is Benjamin Blakeman. Ben writes for MBAD when he’s not at Mud23.”
“Hey man, good to meet you,” said Charlie.
The two young men shook hands.
“I’m going to see if Angela needs anything. Enjoy the show, everyone,” said Phillip.
“You work for MBAD, the design magazine?” Charlie asked Ben.
“Does this chick named Honor Lewis still work there?”
“Yes, she’s our editor of local news,” said Ben. “How do you know Honor?”
“We were the same year at MIT. We worked on the school paper together,” said Charlie. He smirked. “She hates me, though.”
“Really?” said Ben. “Why?”
“I’m sure she doesn’t give a shit about me anymore,” said Charlie, “but we were the top two candidates for editor-in-chief of The Tech at the end of junior year, and moi got the job. Hence the animosity.”
“That’s lame,” said Ben. “People really like her at MBAD, but I don’t know... I keep waiting for her to grow on me, but it hasn’t happened yet.”
“Hey babe,” Judith said to Ben, “I think Rocco’s here. She indicated with a turn of her head a skinny black-haired man in the corner wearing a worn navy blue hoodie and talking to Serene Johnson.
“Oh good,” said Ben. “Phillip said that Rocco wanted to talk to me about something tonight,” he explained to the non-Judith members of the group. He turned to Charlie and said, “I have to go take care of this work thing, but good to meet you, man. You’ll have to give me some good Honor Lewis blackmail stories sometime.”
“That I can do,” said Charlie.
“So how do you guys know Ben?” Charlie asked.
“Marin, Ben, and I were all good friends in college,” said Jorge.
“And Ben is my fiancé,” Judith added. “How do you know Phillip, exactly?”
“My family friend Marcus is a big collector of the art, and I met Phillip at one of Marcus’s parties in Napa last year,” said Charlie. “Phillip’s a cool guy.”
“I think I’m going to peruse the show one more time, anyone else up for it?” said Jorge.
“I’ll peruse with you,” said Judith.
“Speaking of Napa, I think I should refill my wine cup first,” said Marin.
“Wine sounds good to me,” Charlie said.
Judith and Jorge linked arms and walked away towards a drawing in the corner, and Marin headed with Charlie towards the white reception counter on which sat ten bottles of 2004 California chardonnay. Charlie grabbed the neck of an open bottle and motioned for Marin to hand him her empty cup.
“It’s a pretty bloodless show, for a show about temptation,” he said, as he filled Marin’s cup to within a quarter-inch of the rim. “Don’t you think?”
“That’s because it’s difficult to universalize temptation,” said Marin. “One woman’s temptation is another’s soporific.”
“And yet one’s temptations seem to find you, no matter where you hide,” he said.
“Do you need to be tied to a mast?” asked Marin.
“That depends on who’s doing the tying,” Charlie said.
“That would be a shipful of Greek sailors,” she said.
“I think that’s more your friend Jorge’s cup of tea, not mine,” said Charlie.
“Well, I wouldn’t be immune to the opportunity to board that ship, either,” said Marin.
“I bet you wouldn’t,” he said.
“What are we even talking about again?” asked Marin.
“What do you want to be talking about?”
“Global warming; religion and the Russian consciousness; papier mâché: weird kiddie craft or under-tapped creative medium?”
“Okay, breathe,” said Charlie. “How about: what do you do for a living?”
“I’m a data/information specialist at the Pac Development Bank,” she said. “And you?”
He was a blogger. Marin wasn’t sure what that meant, except that it possibly involved posting too much information about one’s self on the internet. She had no idea how such a silly-sounding word had been created, overcome the objections of all civilized people with a say in such matters to become the accepted term of art for whatever it was that bloggers did, and become an actual profession that ostensibly sane people ascribed to themselves at parties—all while she was in Borneo.
“How do you feel about numbers?” asked Charlie.
“They’re nice,” said Marin, “I like big ones in my bank account. Why?”
“I have this theory that most people can be divided into two groups: people who trust numbers more than they should, and people who have an irrational distrust of numbers. The former, ironically, are generally the more cynical group. They distrust almost everything else in the world—politicians, corporations, food service workers—but they trust statistics, even ones they have no context for or don’t even understand the math behind.”
“And the latter?” asked Marin.
“Well, they’re just more self-aware about their own math skills. They trust what they can see and judge for themselves, which is a great way to live if you’re built that way and a little bit stupid. My blog, Bigsigma, is about statistics... written as if it was for the stupid trusty people, but it’s really for the cynical people who like numbers but don’t understand them.”
“That actually makes sense,” said Marin.
“Good,” said Charlie, somehow making the word sound like a new epithet. “I’m here because I wanted to pick Phillip’s brain about some things. I’m trying to come up with a model for predicting final sale prices of contemporary art at Christie’s and Sotheby’s.”
“Really?” said Marin.
“It’s actually turning out to be much more simple than I thought it would be,” he said. “I’m surprised that nobody’s ever done it before. The auction houses set their numbers down beforehand based on intuition, experience, and things like absentee bids, but nobody’s ever tried to simulate the stochastic system before.”
Marin nodded, interested but suspicious. It still spooked her when she met someone whose path seemed too fortuitously dovetailed with hers, although she was beginning to understand that the university that she had attended had been her orientation into a very specific class of contemporary society and that such fortuitous dovetailing was the logical outcome of being an active member of this class.
“So what’s up with Ben and Mrs. Robinson?” Charlie asked.
“They’re engaged,” said Marin. “It’s a thing.”
“Does Ben have unresolved mommy issues or something?”
“Oy,” said Marin. “No. There are no issues whatsoever involved here. They’re in love. The stochastic system of one plus one equals happily ever after.”
“Well, bully for them,” Charlie said.
“Do you know why I said that your blog strategy makes sense?” Marin said.
“I’m guessing that you’re not going to say: ‘because you’re really fucking brilliant?’” said Charlie.
“Because it allows you to speak condescendingly to people who otherwise would take offense,” said Marin.
Charlie laughed: a large, rippling laugh, like a bunch of parabolas stacked on top of each other. “You actually kind of get me,” he said. “I like you.” He took out his cellphone. “You wouldn’t want to give me your number, by any chance, would you?”
Ben had a lead. Someone had sent Rocco Morris a mysterious postcard, which Rocco (knowing that Ben was searching for new artists in Rocco’s mold) had brought with him to the “Sci-rens” opening to show Ben. Manually laminated with clear packing tape onto its front was a photograph of a painting: a brightly-colored, crudely-drawn, muralismo-style oil painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a spring of water gushing forth from her hands and displaying—of all things—a photorealist rendering of a plastic bottle of Vilreda, an antiretroviral drug. The painting wasn’t beautiful, but it was made from bigger things than beauty: glory, anonymous suffering, the clean and crass miracle of capitalism.
Handwritten on the back of the postcard in a narrow, impish scrawl was the following message:
The mother without a home paints on the streets. The son without a mother rents his time on earth with pharmaceutical love. FLINT shows us the way to our true selves.
No name, no address.
“Oh my god, I love it,” said Marin, holding the postcard out at arm’s length, image-side-up on her open palm. “I can’t believe how much I love it.”
“Marin...” said Ben. “Isn’t Vilreda a Fenniskrante drug?”
It was, but Marin didn’t answer him. She just stared at the postcard. In fact, Fenniskrante had acquired the world’s leading developer of HIV medications two years ago and, with it, Vilreda.
The “Sci-Rens” opening had ended a little while ago. Marin and Ben were alone in the gallery with a few of Ben’s coworkers, who were cleaning up. Charlie and Jorge had both left around nine, and Judith had left about twenty minutes after that.
Marin had given Charlie her number, but only because she didn’t expect him to call her.
She handed Ben back the postcard.
“Phillip hasn’t seen this yet,” Ben said. “Rocco thinks that it’ll be better if I check things out with him first. There’s no address, just a cryptic message signed with initials: obviously, this artist is very reclusive.”
“How are you going to find this guy—GXG?” asked Marin.
“Rocco remembers seeing an unusual tag in Bayview-Hunters Point a month ago. He thinks that it may have been signed GXG. It was a drawing of a pile of pills.”
Marin didn’t ask any more questions. Her role in all of this consisted of one thing only: writing a check at the exact right time.
The moon was almost full. Only its upper left edge was cast in shadow: a lily pad tipped an inch into the muddy water.
Marin was renting a one-bedroom in the Mission in a three-story building next door to an occult bookstore called Coven Press. During the day, black-lipped Wicca shopgirls and shopboys stood outside the bookstore smoking clove cigarettes. Once, a skinny shopboy had stopped Marin on her walk home from work and told her that he liked her tattoo. He’d had on a black leather choker with a silver pentagram pendant, and his fingernails had been painted black with white crosses. He couldn’t have been older than twenty.
“The crow is a scavenger,” he’d said, “a mediator between the worlds of life and death.”
“A scaviator,” Marin had said.
The kid had smiled and said, “Sic transit gloria mundi.”
Thus passes the glory of the world.
Now the bookstore was closed for the night. Dark and empty, a metal gate was drawn down over the front door.
Marin felt the muffled tug of a sulfite-induced headache coming on as she unlocked the front door to her building. She got her mail—her cable bill and a five-by-seven-inch postcard mailer about Proposition 71, a bill up for vote in November that explicitly made stem cell research a constitutional right and also allocated California municipal bond money for stem cell research.
Marin climbed the stairs to her floor and unlocked her apartment door. She switched on lights, kicked off shoes, grabbed the gigantic bottle of ibuprofen from her drug stash, and sat down on the edge of her living room couch. She twisted off the cap of the ibuprofen, rattled two burgundy-colored pills out onto her palm, worked up a teaspoon of saliva onto her tongue, popped the pills into her mouth, and swallowed. Sic transit gloria mundi, she thought. The Coven Press kid had either been making fun of her or he’d really thought that she was a badass: Marin didn’t know which was more sad.
She looked at the front of the Prop 71 postcard: it was a dark, rich blue. A blue of law enforcement uniforms, truth, and the sea. Prop 71 was everywhere now, but easy to ignore, because Marin knew where she stood (pro). Judith’s bill, on the other hand, 66A, was also ubiquitous, but much more annoyingly so.
BAARC’s “YES on 66A” campaign had, to date, consisted primarily of recounting anecdotes primed to generate a reaction of kneejerk disgust towards Marin’s father’s profession. BAARC had recalled such gems as: the Big Pharma sales manager who’d given his reps reading glasses to wear to boost their credibility with doctors (while his company’s recruiters had ignored entry-level sales applicants with 4.0 GPAs because they weren’t attractive enough); the oral contraceptive rep who’d started a fictitious rumor that a Modesto gynecologist had been sued for malpractice by his pregnant fourteen-year-old patient’s parents for not initiating a discussion with their daughter about birth control; and the 2000 study that showed that the more time that doctors spend with pharmaceutical sales reps, the more frequently they prescribe drugs against their patients’ best interests.
In response, the drug companies had banded together to roll out an expensive “NO on 66A” campaign that made the bill sound like the second coming of Adolf Hitler. One “NO on 66A” television spot showed beakers being filled with viscous liquid by latex-covered hands in a clean and modern laboratory as upbeat music played and a gravitas-laden earth mother voice began to narrate: “America’s top scientists are hard at work: on a cure for breast cancer, on groundbreaking treatments for multiple sclerosis and fibromyalgia, on ways to extend the lives of children born with cystic fibrosis. A group of San Francisco radicals—” The video cut to a grainy black-and-white clip of some activists protesting the Iraq War as the soundtrack switched to a series of spare and foreboding music cues. “—wants California doctors to be left out of the loop. If Proposition 66A passes in November, information about new medications will have to go through an elaborate bureaucracy—” The video cut to a mail cart filled with files being rolled through an endless aisle flanked with shelves filled floor to ceiling with more files. “—before your doctor can get you and your children the treatments you need. Vote ‘no’ on 66A in November, and vote ‘yes’ on the future.”
Putting aside the very real danger that a successful Prop 66A in California could lead to a similar state law being passed in Illinois, which could put her father out of work, Marin thought that Judith and BAARC had missed an opportunity to initiate an authentic discussion about medications and money, the commodification of the health industry, and the paradoxes underlying pharmaceutical advertising in general. Probably because this was a discussion that not even BAARC was ready to have.
GXG, on the other hand, was a proposition that all parties could get behind. Even Walter “museums are capitalism’s rounding error” Choo could love an artist whose inadvertent message was “Big Pharma is the new God,” and Judith was not in this lifetime going to question the subversive credentials of an HIV-positive street punk with a homeless mother.
Marin changed into her sleep sweats and brushed her teeth. Her electric toothbrush’s tiny buzzing motor was a fly caught in a window screen.
Marin was aware of how quickly the heretofore unwanted decision-making wild cards of love and gut feeling had been shuffled into the deck. However, maybe she’d had it wrong all along. Like in Serene Johnson’s drawings, maybe the true face of temptation in this day and age wasn’t falling in love with a new project or taking a leap of faith on the unknown, maybe it was the seductive pull of security and status quo. Maybe this—helping GXG get his start—was what the money had been for all along.
Marin washed her face and patted it dry with a towel. Her bathroom mirror reflected back the face of a pretty woman with pink lips, crabapple cheekbones, and pooling almond eyes. No wonder she’d been such an obnoxious know-it-all, looking like that. She hadn’t known anything yet at all.
Marin turned off the bathroom and living room lights, and went into her bedroom and shut the door behind herself. She lifted the corner of her comforter and slipped herself under it and into bed. She closed her eyes.
Marin’s father was always trying to manipulate his sleep schedule: coffee in the morning, tea or energy drinks in the afternoon, beer at dinner, and melatonin, antihistamines, or sleeping pills around ten. Walter spent ten dollars or more a day to make his body exhibit the diurnal circadian rhythms that all human beings are biologically predisposed to. It was rare to find such redundancy in her father’s daily life, but if Walter Choo stopped pumping chemicals into his body for five minutes he might see how profoundly depressed he was, and the world couldn’t have that.
All of the San Francisco night noises that Marin usually found quaint next to the din of cicadas that had flooded the jungle each night at the O/URC—the J-train rattling down its track a block away, cars powering up the hill outside Marin’s building, a homeless man rattling a bag of aluminum cans behind him—seemed unbearably loud tonight.
Marin got out of bed, went into the living room, switched on a small lamp on her desk, and booted up the laptop next to it. The laptop switched on with a rectangle-shaped flash of white, which disappeared onto a photo of the orangutan Gia eating a piece of yellow-green durian fruit. The photo was a rare souvenir from Marin’s months at the O/URC.
Marin clicked on the web browser icon and, in the address bar at the top of the window that opened, typed in the address of her preferred search website. She did an internet search for “HIV positive artist.”
The opposite of insomnia in 2004 was not sleep but the internet search. Ancient Rome, the British empire circa 1830, Stalinist Russia—none of the juiced-up leaders of these mega-states had tasted power like the algorithm-enabled internet search in their lifetimes.
Marin clicked on a few of the links that her search had brought up, and her consciousness swallowed the information that she found there in huge chunks. After clicking on the fifth most-promising link and scanning the website that opened for something that would make her feel what GXG’s postcard had made her feel—to no avail—the exposed surfaces of her eyeballs felt gluey and loamed.
Marin typed “bigsigma.com” into the browser address bar and hit the return key. A scab-red background filled the window, with the sideways M’s of oversized capital sigma letters placed at staggered intervals in a slightly brighter, whiter shade of red. The header was a rollover image: “BIG SIGMA” spelled in stylish violet-red letters outlined in black. The tag line “fuzzy math for the rest of us” was written just underneath the blog’s name in black in a smaller font.
This wasn’t an online diary. This was a magazine.
The most recent post was Charlie’s final sale predictions for a high-profile contemporary art auction to be held in London in a week. Marin skimmed it and clicked on the link “About Charlie” on the sidebar. An enormous red capital sigma letter appeared and washed the screen from right to left, and a short bio of Charlie appeared in its wake:
Charlie Kramer Cohen studied economics at MIT, where he was also Editor-in-Chief of The Tech from 1997 to 1998. In his last issue as Editor-in-Chief, Charlie was unmasked by his own staff as Op R. Tunnitykost, the anonymous gossip columnist who exposed some of the Class of 1998’s steamiest personal scandals through a weekly column composed entirely of economics equations.
Charlie worked as a “quant” for a hedge fund in New York from 1998 to 2003, and can officially report that there is nothing sexier than good risk management strategy. Charlie moved back to his hometown of San Francisco in 2003 to found and write this blog.
Marin opened the search page again and searched for “Op R. Tunnitykost.” One-hundred and eighty-nine hits. Marin clicked on one of the highest-ranked MIT ones. One of Charlie’s columns in The Tech pulled up:
By: Op R. Tunnitykost, Senior Relationomics Columnist
Marin cleared her internet history and shut down her computer.
She knew too many things, too many weird things. You did all you could in order to try to feel something special, something extraordinary, and then once you did all you wanted to do was feel normal again.
Two days later, Rocco found him. “GXG” was Gilbert Xavier Garcia, a high school dropout living in Bayview-Hunters Point and working as a bike messenger. He was gay and HIV-positive. He had no idea who his father was, and his mother had gone insane and disappeared into the dissociated ranks of the Bay Area homeless community when Garcia was nineteen.
Rocco had found the tag signed “GXG” where he’d remembered seeing it. Rocco had identified by sight the color and brand of spray paint that had been used and knew the owner of a nearby shop that sold that kind of paint. The shop owner remembered selling this kind of paint to a new, older kid with three initials (quite possibly GXG) tattooed on the back of his hand and advised Rocco to ask at the skate shop next door. The skate shop had a Gil Garcia on their email mailing list and gave Rocco this Gil Garcia’s email address.
Rocco quickly struck up an email relationship with Garcia, established that Garcia was the creator and sender of the Vilreda postcard, thanked him for it, and found out a little bit more about him. On his fourth or fifth email Rocco mentioned that someone at Mud23 was interested in seeing Garcia’s art. Three days went by with no response from GXG. Then, finally, Rocco received the following, which he forwarded to Ben and which Ben forwarded to Marin:
From: Gil Garcia <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: Rocco Morris <email@example.com>
Sent: Monday, June 14, 2004 03:22:19 P.M.
Re: RE: Re: Re: postcard
i am happy to hear that some Gallery people are interested in my paintinG. however, i am very cautious because all of my paintinG is very personal to me and i’m not sure that someone workinG in a Gallery will really understand where it comes from and what it means.
i have decided that i can meet with up to two people from this Gallery under the followinG terms:
i) no photoGraphs or video of me or my work
ii) we will meet at zeliG bar in the mission and then, if the meetinG Goes well, we will taXi to my house to look at my paintinGs
iii) no questions about my family, my childhood, or my medical condition
iv) they must address me as “mr. Garcia”
v) there will be no interaction with any of my neiGhbors on that day or any other
peace, love, rock salt,
After forwarding her the email, Ben called Marin at work.
“So,” he said, “what do you think?”
Joon and Kendra were out to lunch so Marin was alone in the lab with the boys. Sergey had brought a homemade lunch—roast chicken and green beans with rice in a square plastic tupperware—and eaten it at his desk, and now the lab smelled like a cart of airplane meals: the once separate salt, meat, grain, and greens smells steamed together to form an all-purpose food smell that made Marin want to skip her own lunch entirely.
“I guess this kind of quirkiness comes with the territory, right?” she said to Ben.
“Sanity is usually not a quality that artists maintain in bulk supply, no,” said Ben.
“Okay,” she said. “Let’s do this. I’m free this Saturday.”
“I’ll email him back and ‘bcc’ you,” he said. “What time, like, two, three?”
“Works for me.”
“You know, this could end up being really disappointing,” said Ben.
“I know,” said Marin.
Ben emailed “Mr. Garcia,” copying Rocco, blind-copying Marin, agreeing to the artist’s terms, and suggesting Saturday, June 19, at two p.m. to meet. Garcia emailed back a few minutes later, saying that he couldn’t make it until six p.m. Ben forwarded Marin the email and asked if six worked for her (it did). He replied to Garcia confirming the same. Marin signed out and closed her Whatmail window just as Joon and Kendra came back from lunch.
“You know what I mean, right?” Kendra said to Joon as they sat down at their desks.
“Of course, my dear,” said Joon. “You know, and I know.”
“That’s why I love you,” said Kendra.
Marin had known hermetic sororities of two like Kendra and Joon since grade school, but she had been surprised to find one at Pac. Alliances of a non-Machiavellian variety were rare at Pac, and the Kendra-Joon friendship, although holding some utility within the five-person world of their lab, was predicated on neither girl outperforming the other by any substantial measure. At the same time, perhaps Marin was underestimating the net value of having someone to have lunch with every day.
On Friday night, Marin thought several times about calling Charlie and canceling (at the last minute) their first date. She had forgotten that she had already agreed (via text message) to meet Charlie for dinner after work on Friday when she’d told Ben that Saturday was a good time to meet GXG. The two appointments weren’t, in the strictest sense, in conflict with each other, but Marin felt as if they were.
Charlie had picked an Indian restaurant in Pacific Heights called East India Company; Marin took the 22-Fillmore bus there. At the post-work hour of seven-fifteen, Marin’s neighborhood had been full of people her age starting their weekends with drink specials and feisty group dinners. Absolutely none of them were headed to Pacific Heights, not on the 22-Fillmore anyway.
Marin saw an unmarked Irish pub and a closed flower shop where the restaurant should have been and for a moment Marin thought that she had misread Charlie’s text. On second glance, the “pub” had a small, unpainted wooden sign hanging over the entryway with the initials “E.I.C.” carved into one side. The exes and cross of the Union Jack were carved into the other side.
Framed reproductions of pages from the original charter of the East India Company lined the front hallway, along with white votive candles on tiny mahogany ledges. Marin smelled spices, freshly-toasted papadum crackers, and peanut oil. There was no one manning the host’s station in front, but Marin spotted Charlie at a table for two at the long be-pillowed booth along the far wall and made her way to him.
“Fancy meeting you here,” said Charlie. He stood up and reached over the table to kiss Marin on the cheek. “You look great. I really like your tattoo, by the way.”
“Thanks,” said Marin. They sat down. “You don’t have any tattoos, do you?”
“I’m an MIT math nerd,” said Charlie. “The only body art I’ve ever sported is newsprint stains and the occasional paper cut.”
Marin laughed, but sensed posturing, not self-effacement, behind his joke. They both looked down and opened their menus. There was the standard mix of curries and accompaniments, wine, beer, and the now-requisite list of $9 specialty cocktails on the last page.
“The saag paneer is really good here,” Charlie said. “Their garlic naan is like crack. I’m not crazy about their tandoori.”
They decided to get the vegetable pakoras, saag paneer, chicken korma, garlic naan, and rice. Marin ordered a chili-mango-vodka concoction called The Monsoon, and Charlie ordered a beer.
“When did you graduate from MIT?” asked Marin.
“‘98, but I skipped first grade, so I’m twenty-seven if you’re trying to figure out the age difference. What about you?”
“I graduated in 2002, no skipping. I could have skipped third grade, but I decided not to. I didn’t want to leave my friends.”
“Skipping first grade didn’t damage any essential social relationships that I developed during my nine months in kindergarten,” said Charlie, “but it did kind of suck later when I was the last one in my class to drive or buy alcohol.”
“I guess people do it so that their kids can become financially independent one year earlier down the road,” said Marin, “but I’ve never thought that it made much sense for the child being skipped, even academically.”
“I think it’s fallen out of fashion,” said Charlie. He shrugged. “My life would have turned out the same either way.”
“So you would still be sitting here with me even if you had been Mr. Average Joe Completer of First Grade?” she asked.
“Unless they teach you in first grade that cute data/information specialists are the devil,” he said.
Marin laughed. “Oh, please,” she said. “Being pure evil can not be as boring as what I do all day. If only I had the option of skipping a year of data/information specializing.”
“You do have that option,” Charlie said. “It’s called unemployment.”
Their waiter brought them their drinks. Marin’s cocktail was in a highball glass: concave cubes of ice in a mango yellow suspension streaked with ribbons of red chili juice and green flecks of muddled mint.
“Well, cheers,” Charlie said, raising his beer bottle.
“To skipping the right parts,” said Marin, picking up her cocktail glass and clinking his bottle with it.
Charlie smiled his already-familiar smile and drank.
Ben was sitting at Zelig Bar’s bar with a pint of wheat beer when Marin came in, wearing jeans and a dark orange blouse that showed off her tattoo. This was her first time in Zelig, and its low ceilings and Grinch-green light disoriented her. She was also a little bit hung over.
She had drunk two Monsoons at dinner the night before, followed by half a bottle of wine at a hookah bar (whose nearness to the dinner place Marin was certain had not been a coincidence). The inside of her mouth was still chalky and bitter with tobacco smoke.
Charlie’s mouth had tasted like the sweet fake fruit flavoring of the shisha. The sex that they’d had in his Alamo Square apartment that night had been greedy and chaotic, an unapologetic race to the finish line that somehow had resulted in a thrilling photo finish. Only afterward, lying together naked and loopy on Charlie’s grubby second-hand futon, did Charlie inform Marin that his mother owned the building and lived downstairs.
Marin tried to do Nazneen’s close-and-open-eyes refresh thing and walked over to Ben.
“Hey,” she said. “No sign of ‘Mr. Garcia?’”
“Nope,” said Ben. “How’d your date go last night?”
“I think he’s a little bit too much my type,” said Marin.
“Too much of a sarcastic flameout?”
“That’s not my type, is it?” Marin asked. “Max wasn’t a flameout.”
“He’s got some self-destructive tendencies,” said Ben. “He keeps saying he wants to quit his job and become a contractor.”
“Do people really think that I’m that girl?” said Marin. “That girl who likes bad boys?”
“I dated Nazneen for more than a year. I judge no one,” Ben said.
The door to the bar opened and a man whose thinness bordered on emaciation entered carrying a black leather doctor’s bag. He had stringy chin-length bottle-red hair with a longer stripe of bright purple that hung over his right eye.
Ben got up and approached him. “Mr. Garcia?” he said.
The man nodded.
“I’m Ben Blakeman from Mud23 Gallery,” Ben said. He held out his hand.
Garcia shook it and followed Ben to the bar.
Marin introduced herself and asked Garcia if he wanted anything to drink.
“Ginger ale, please,” he said.
Ben ordered Garcia a ginger ale and asked him what was in the bag.
“‘I don’t think there’s anything in that black bag for me,’” Garcia said.
“The Wizard of Oz,” said Ben. “That’s what Dorothy says to the Wizard after he gives the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion what they’ve wished for.”
Garcia looked pleased that Ben had gotten his reference. “What do people wish for nowadays?” he asked. “Courage? Brains? Heart? Home?”
“People want the thing itself now,” said Marin, “happiness.”
“Very interesting answer,” said Garcia. “There are many people who believe that happiness can be found in a black doctor’s bag, and there are many people who need their psychological and spiritual life to be a sacred space that science and medicine do not touch.”
“So what kind of person are you?” asked Ben.
“I’m the kind of person who carries around this in a black doctor’s bag,” Garcia said, opening his bag and taking out four tall glass jar candles, the kind sold in Mexican grocery stores, with images of Jesus and the Virgin of Guadalupe painted onto the sides. GXG had carefully bleached the religious images off his candles’ jars and on each of them had skillfully tagged a word in graffiti bubble letters:
He reached into his bag again and, using both hands, lifted from it a white resin casting in the shape of a 28-day pill caddy, with the Spanish initials for the days of the week (L, Ma, Mi, J, V, S, D) written on top of the compartments in red glitter glue.
“Which is the fairy tale and which is the science?” Garcia asked.
“One could argue that wisdom, fearlessness, generosity, and community are all qualities built systematically through a rich spiritual life,” said Ben. He picked up the H’ART candle and studied Garcia’s handiwork. “Your work has a strong undercurrent of sadness that’s very moving. There is a dialectical yet constellatory relationship of the outsider with the popular pop art mainstream that parallels the subtextural dialectical yet constellatory relationship of death and life.”
Garcia took a sip of his ginger ale. “How old are you two?” he asked.
“We’re both twenty-four,” said Ben.
“You seem younger,” said Garcia, “but that’s probably because all of the other twenty-four-year-olds I know are hoboes and alcoholics. Would you like to see my studio?”
They said “yes,” and Garcia put his things back into his bag.
Marin and Ben went outside to find a cab while Garcia went to the bathroom. A bratty night wind blew about and threw the door shut behind them.
“There’s something off about him,” Marin said.
“Considering everything he’s been through, I thought he seemed pretty normal,” said Ben.
“That’s true,” she said. “It’s just...”
The door opened, and a man came out, cigarette in mouth, flicking a lighter on behind cupped hands.
Marin continued in a low voice: “He’s not exactly what I expected from the postcard. There’s something calculating about him.”
“He’s probably thinking the exact same thing about us,” said Ben. He stepped off the curb to flag an approaching taxi, but it didn’t stop.
Marin, not wanting to risk being overheard by Garcia and lose his trust, changed the subject. “I sent my RSVP in,” she said. “It’ll be just me.”
“Oh, okay, cool,” said Ben. “I just got Max’s too. He’s bringing his sister. She’s a freshman at Berkeley, you know?”
“I heard that she was starting there. That’s cool that she’s coming,” said Marin. “I can’t believe that Max actually committed to a social event two months in advance.”
“People change,” Ben said absently.
He looked back at the door to the bar. “Can you wait here for Garcia? I’m going to see if I can snag a cab on 16th Street.”
Five minutes later, Ben pulled up in a cab just as Garcia emerged from Zelig. Marin got in the backseat with Ben, and Garcia rode shotgun.
Marin’s suspicious feeling toward Garcia subsided as they rode through the city in silence. He seemed nervous, repeatedly wiping his hair back from his face with the bottom of his palm.
Garcia’s neighborhood—it was Marin’s first time in Hunter’s Point—was residential and quiet. Garcia told the cab driver to slow down in front of a brown two-story construction with a one-car garage on the first floor.
“My garage is my studio,” Garcia said, “which is much, much more than some people have.”
Ben paid for the taxi, and as he waited for his change Garcia unlocked the garage door and pushed it open with both arms, rattling the old metal tracks.