Chapter 2

San Francisco : 2004


You don’t know what you don’t know.

Will used to say that, as an excuse for the stupidity of other people. Marin hadn’t really understood the saying yet—she preferred making fun of stupid people for the obvious things that they didn’t know.

She had arrived ten minutes early to the restaurant that her friend Ben had suggested, Vaudeville, the one-month-old tenant of the northeast corner of a quickly gentrifying intersection in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood. Vaudeville’s front room was crowded with cliques of young people dressed like they had come straight from M.F.A. crit. The air smelled a pleasing combination of caramel, butter, sage, fried potatoes, aftershave, wool fibers, and beer. The walls and ceiling were painted black; on the wall opposite the bar hung a large black-and-white photograph of a bowler hat, cane, and costume moustache suspended in mid-air on black ribbons. A rock song with a catchy vibraphone hook was playing. Marin didn’t know the song, and she had no idea that, on the Friday night of her first full week back on Pacific Standard Time, she was in possession of a precious commodity: an eight o’clock reservation at the hottest restaurant in the hippest neighborhood in a city that in the past year and a half had become the unsung but true capital of the most compulsory popular subculture since hip hop.

Marin had just assumed that everyone else had liked the name Vaudeville, too.

You don’t know what you don’t know. Marin knew the following fact about the rainforest: one acre of primary growth rainforest contains approximately nine hundred species of plants. She knew that because she had just spent sixteen months living in a bona fide rainforest, and one hears many such facts about the rainforest while living in a bona fide rainforest. Marin also knew that while hiking through a bona fide rainforest—underneath miles of mostly featureless canopy, bloodsucking insects pecking around one’s arms and neck for a shallow vein, sweating buckets in an interminable humidity and heat—even the most appreciative observer could be forgiven for not being impressed with the density of cellular data that surrounded her.

In this room, the species diversity of the living population was exactly singular. Homo sapiens had claimed these 2,500 square-feet in full. And yet, Marin could not give a Rattus norvegicus’s gluteas maximus. She may not have been aware of its cultural importance, but she knew that she really, really liked this room. How had she ever left these smells? These sounds? These clothes: salmon-pink and butter-yellow merino wool scarves, distressed gray denim miniskirts, patent leather ballet flats, cabled tangerine sweater vests, white pea coats accented with bright red buttons, beaded baby doll dresses, fuzzy cowl-neck sweaters, aubergine suede jackets, and on and on.

Marin knew the arguments: there was nothing in this room except consumer capitalism as usual, that cunning, invisible-handed behemoth that gorged itself on the authentic diversity of the natural world, produced an ersatz diversity of commodities in its stead, and reaped the profits. However, after sixteen months living in a bona fide rainforest, Marin had come to the conclusion that the authentic diversity of the natural world consisted mainly of vegetables and bugs.

Not knowing what she didn’t know, Marin had assumed that, since her friend Ben had started dating his girlfriend, Judith, a year and a half before, they had probably broken up by now. Marin had no idea about her complete ignorance of the fact that starting at around age twenty-four, Marin’s own age, when people have been dating for a year and a half and have met each other’s families and lived together and nothing disastrous has happened, they no longer break up—they get engaged.

Ben’s girlfriend was not twenty-four, but Ben himself was. In fact, he was the kind of twenty-four that was working two part-time jobs: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays as an assistant in an art gallery in downtown San Francisco and Mondays and Thursdays as a contributing writer for a small architecture and design magazine. He didn’t have health insurance and was barely scraping together a combined gross annual salary of $27,000 a year.

Marin had met the girlfriend, a Taiwanese-American woman named Judith, at a party in 2002, a few months before Marin had quit her job at the Pac Development Bank and moved to Borneo. Judith worked for a local public-interest lobbying group as the director of their health care reform activities. Marin had heard everything from thirty to forty-two in terms of Judith’s age—thirty-six from the most reliable source. Judith looked thirty. Of course, she was so gorgeous that her age both didn’t really matter and was the subject of much speculation in certain Bay Area circles.

Ben arrived, as always, somehow just seconds before the hostess called his and Marin’s table.

“You said Judith’s out of town?” Marin said as the hostess pulled two menus from her stash.

“Yes, she’s in Sacramento,” Ben said. Specifically, he explained, Judith was meeting with the governor’s office to discuss Proposition 66A, a bill up for vote by California voters in November that, if passed, would make illegal promotional gifts and other in-kind payments by pharmaceutical sales teams to physicians. Prop 66A would also eliminate the loophole that allowed drug companies unfettered access to doctors’ prescription-writing histories. Judith and the organization that she worked for, BAARC, the Bay Advocacy and Research Coalition, were pro-Prop 66A, and they hoped to convince the governor to endorse the bill.

Marin had to smile at the dead-serious nonsense inherent in the name “Prop 66A,” a nearly perfect self-parody of California politics, and felt reassured that certain fundamentals had not changed in her absence.

Marin and Ben were seated at a small table at the center of Vaudeville’s dining room. A white ogee molding ran along the circumference of the windowless room at waist level. Below the molding, a pretty Old World red brick was exposed, and the smooth wall above it was painted a shade of hot pink that somehow was not obnoxious. Hanging on the pink wall, staggered between large oval art-nouveau giltwood mirrors, were eight four-foot by four-foot paintings on wood. The colorful paintings were collage-like compositions of pithy texts in ornate carnival fonts, beautiful caricatures of vaudeville dancers and tramps, and other nostalgic images of folk Americana: blue diner plates of pancakes and sausage links, vintage road signs, and saxophones.

“Are you admiring the Rocco Morrises?” Ben asked Marin. “He lives a couple blocks from here, you know. He did invent all this, ‘the Mission School’ or whatever. I doubt that he even knows his paintings are here. The guy who opened this place bought them directly from the collector in Japan that Phillip sold them to eight years ago. Phillip sold them for $900 a pop, and the Vaudeville guy—he comes from family money—bought them for $30,000 each.”

“Phillip’s the owner of your gallery?” asked Marin.

“Yes,” said Ben. “Rocco used to be at Mud23, but he got poached by this big gallery in New York a few years ago. Phillip’s still good friends with him though.”

“With Rocco Morris?”

“Yes,” said Ben.

Marin asked Ben for updates on some of their mutual friends from college, but Ben couldn’t tell her anything that she didn’t already know: Nazneen, Marin’s freshman-year roommate and Ben’s freshman-year girlfriend, had finished her co-term in management science and was working at a management consulting firm in San Francisco; Jorge, Ben’s best friend and former roommate/drawmate, was going to law school at Berkeley; Max, Marin’s ex-boyfriend and one of Ben and Jorge’s former drawmates, was a project manager in the City of Oakland’s housing department; and Becky, Marin’s former drawmate, had just quit her cushy marketing job to enroll in culinary school in upstate New York.

“Actually there is some gossip that you probably haven’t heard,” said Ben. “You’re the first non-relative that I’m telling this to. Even Jorge doesn’t know yet.”

“Gossip about you?” Marin said. “Isn’t that an oxymoron?”

Ben laughed.

What he had wasn’t exactly discretion. Ben had more than a few picaresque, self-parodying tales up his sleeve—and he knew exactly how to tell them. What he had was more like disciplined ease. He was in control of himself without being controlling, and that made other people defer instinctively to him. Everyone waited for Ben to tell them about himself on his own schedule and terms, a system that had resulted in few surprises until now.

“It was getting too ironic...” Ben said, “my girlfriend is a healthcare reform advocate, and I don’t have health insurance. So. I proposed to Judith. She said ‘yes.’ We’re engaged.”

“No, shut up,” said Marin.

She felt like she was in a botched comedy sketch: she was smiling too much and didn’t know what to say next.

Ben laughed again. “It just happened... Tuesday,” he said.

“Congratulations,” said Marin. “Nazneen is going to kill you.”

“I know,” he said, rolling his eyes. “I haven’t told her yet. Our parents know, and they’ve told a few other relatives, but we haven’t told anyone else yet. I know that it seems a little sudden, but we’ve really thought a lot about this. We did this intensive month of therapy together in November after we moved in together. We almost broke up. But at the end of it all we were more in love than ever before. And a few weeks ago I just knew what I wanted to do.”

“Propose,” Marin said.

“Yes,” said Ben, and in his best worst Italian accent: “Poppa ze quezchen!

They laughed. After a sip of her wine and a few moments to process Ben’s news, Marin could imagine him as a young married, early Sunday mornings starting the coffee pot and checking the egg count in the fridge before hauling out recycling bags bulging with empty wine bottles and olive jars, the detritus of another successful Blakeman-Lam dinner party the night before.

Marin and Ben had always been similar. Neither of them fell in love easily. Marin had re-read very few books in her adult life: she considered it a waste to re-read a book, even a really good one, instead of reading something new. Similarly, after Nazneen and Ben had broken up at the end of freshman year, Nazneen had refused to go see movies with him, even in a large group, because Ben’s measured reactions to them drove her crazy. One terrifically awful movie he dubbed an “unsuccessful execution of a unique idea.” Another film that had left Nazneen, Marin, three of their other female friends, and Max spellbound and sobbing, a dry-eyed Ben had complimented succinctly for its “nice themes.”

His professors had loved this about him: Ben’s attention to history and complete deficit of creative pretension. They got so few like him in art history. Indeed, Ben’s driving motivation was not an outsider’s bid for relevance—it was an insider’s desire for self-sufficiency. His parents were owner-managers of an inn in Martha’s Vineyard that was beloved in certain tony New England circles. Ben had grown up in a world of beautiful old things, and in this world there was no one more self-sufficient than the person who could walk into a room full of beautiful old things and instantly know their worth.

Marin knew of three pieces of art that Ben had truly fallen for: Guernica (he’d seen it live at the Museo Reina Sophía in Madrid when he was seventeen), Francis Bacon’s 1953 painting of a caged blue monkey Study of a Baboon (it was Ben’s dream to own a Bacon someday), and Walker Evans’ iconic FSA photograph of a steel mill from the back of an oversized cross headstone in a hillside cemetery, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. All three were mature, sophisticated works, with more than a hint of the political about them, much like Judith.

Unfortunately, as Marin had learned the hard way, the instincts of the practical person are not the most reliable: maybe because they don’t get much practice. A year and a half ago Marin had fallen in love too; not with a man—with two men and their beautiful idea of what the world should be. She had used her instincts, and was, at best, deeply ambivalent about the results.

Which was why Marin was taking her time with the money. She was going to be careful and give herself time to go through a process. That’s why Ben had been the first person that she had called when she had come back: process.

The appetizers arrived: a trio of bison sliders topped with roquefort cheese and garlic butter and a spicy pickled watermelon and pancetta salad. Humidity and heat.

As Marin spooned some of the salad onto her plate, she saw a Filipino man in his forties coming down the aisle toward her: her former boss, Ray Marcos.

“Marin?” Ray said. “Marin Choo? Is that really you?”

He had a date with him, a woman with very short, curly blonde hair, at least ten years younger than him.

“In the flesh,” said Marin.

“How was Borneo?” asked Ray.

“It was an incredible learning experience,” Marin said, “but I got a little homesick.”

“I saw some of your friends on the news a few months ago,” said Ray. “I guess they don’t very much need my help now.” To his date, he explained: “Marin used to work for me, but then she quit to go work with the orangutans in Borneo.”

Ray’s date smiled brightly, but without any spark of recognition.

“Why is it always ‘the orangutans?’” Marin asked. “We never say, my vet specializes in treating ‘the dogs’ and ‘the cats,’ but it’s always, ‘so what did you do with the orangutans?’ or ‘are the orangutans okay now?’”

Ray nodded, either acknowledging her point or simply trying to appease the crazy ranting lady.

Ben laughed. “I missed you, Marin,” he said.

“What are you doing back in San Francisco?” asked Ray. “Are you back for good?”

“For a few years, at least,” said Marin.

“Where are you working?” asked Ray. “Or are you back for school?”

“I’m looking for a job,” said Marin.

“Thank jeebus for that. Grad schools are run by dingbats and perverts,” said Ray. “Sorry,” he said to Ben. “But I mean, it’s true.”

“Oh, I agree,” said Ben.

“Well, Marin Choo’s back, and she’s looking for a job!” Ray said. “You should have called me. We just hired a new regional associate for South Asia. But email me—we might have something else for you. I can’t guarantee that it’ll be as interesting as what you were doing in Borneo, but you’ll get to see this ugly old face sometimes, and Jen Olyphant is still there, the whole motley crew... Shoot me an email. What did you guys get, the sliders? Those are amazing. The watermelon salad’s okay. I’m not really a watermelon guy. Okay, welcome back, Marin. Nice meeting you, Marin’s friend.”

Ray and his date left for their table, at the back of the room with two other couples.

“Wow,” said Ben. “I always thought that you were exaggerating about him, but he really is just the way that you described.”

“I don’t know if I ‘described’ so much as ranted,” said Marin.

“Are you going to email him?” asked Ben.

“He does know everyone...” said Marin.

“Do you think that he would help you find a job somewhere besides Pac?”

“Probably not,” said Marin. “Ray Marcos! That was so surreal. I honestly thought that I would never see that man again. But I should have known. He’s like the mob—the only way to escape him is a bullet in the back of your head.”

“He’s kind of right about the salad,” said Ben.

“Yeah, well,” Marin said, starting to feel a creepy ambivalence about their entire dinner now that was all too familiar to her. “So how are your boss people?” she asked.

“Things at the magazine are fine,” Ben said. “And I have a good relationship with Phillip. He really knows what he’s doing. He started Mud23 in an unheated Alabama Street storefront fourteen years ago when he was a twenty-year-old college dropout, and he’s one of the best-known dealers in San Francisco now. I learn a lot from just being in the same room with him every week, even though most of my actual work sucks. It’s just mindless paperwork and grunt work... To move up though—it doesn’t matter if I’ve worked there two years or twenty—I have to bring a major new artist to the gallery.”

“How do you go about doing that?” asked Marin.

“Either find an established artist who’s unhappy with their current dealer and convince them to come to us,” Ben said, “or take a talented unknown and turn them into the next Damien Hirst.”

“How do you turn a talented unknown into a famous hack?” said Marin. “Just kidding. I like Damien.”

“Sorry, it’s my fault. I was being glib,” Ben said. “I’m sure Phillip would be more than happy with the next Rocco Morris.”

“What if you brought a new collector in?” asked Marin.

“It depends on how much and what they buy,” said Ben.

“How about a new collector ready to spend $200,000 on the next Rocco Morris?” said Marin. “Would that help?”

Ben’s eyes narrowed, and the envy that Marin saw flap quickly over his face mortified her with its hunger. Money had that kind of power over them now. They had thought that it never would, but it already did.

“Marin,” Ben said. “How the heck did you get $200,000?”