Ray Marcos’s office was never quiet. Even when he wasn’t in it—there was always some device beeping or computer drive processing or two-hundred-page document printing.
Ray’s office had the same effect on people that it did on inanimate objects. In his office, people became more amplified versions of themselves—unless they were direct subordinates of Ray and ordinarily very extroverted, in which case Ray’s office had a subduing effect.
That day, Friday, at six o’clock p.m., Ray, Jen Olyphant, and Marin were scheduled to meet in Ray’s office with their country heads, who were all in town for Pac’s conference the following week, “Back to Basics: a Return to Infrastructure Development in the Developing East.”
The Thailand country director, Mark Greene, had been quietly working all day in the empty cubicle across from Marin’s. Marin had (through the cubicle wall) asked him a question about his Thailand presentation, to complete and total silence. It had turned out that he had gone to lunch. Now, at five till six, he was pacing back and forth in Ray’s office talking theatrically on his cell phone: “No! You’re kidding me... And you thought I was going crazy... I know! ... At least I had the balls to tell him that to his face!”
Finnegan Le, Pac’s youngest country director at twenty-nine (in charge of Vietnam), had been running around the San Francisco office all day like an eight-year-old on Christmas morning. He would come over to Marin and, apropos of nothing, ask her some inane question like, “Do you like living in such a hilly city?” and then leave to do something else equally random before she had finished answering. Finnegan was now standing in the back corner of Ray’s office silently reading the spines of journal back issues through the glass doors of his bookcase.
The director of Cambodia and Laos was Larissa Booker, a Yalie whose shrub of short brown curls was kept up and away from her face with a series of colorful scarves. Marin liked Larissa’s quiet, assuasive schoolteacher’s voice and manner. Larissa had spent the afternoon rehearsing her conference presentation in the small conference room next door to Ray’s office. She had spread out her index cards in a large grid on the table and whispered quietly to herself, stopping every so often only to underline a word or phrase on one of the cards or carefully rearrange their order. She was now sitting with Jen Olyphant in the cabernet-colored armchairs in front of Ray’s desk, exchanging patently exaggerated Asia travel horror stories and laughing loudly.
Marin put her computer to sleep and hurried up the stairs to the eleventh floor to retrieve, from a meeting about Islamic microfinance, the Indonesia country director, Wayan Wijaya. Dr. Wijaya was a petite Balinese woman with short gray-black-white hair and a sweet, heart-shaped face. However, this appearance was allegedly deceiving.
Ray had told Marin once that Dr. Wijaya had a reputation for taking it upon herself to psychoanalyze people that she’d just met and give them unsolicited appraisals of their characters. “I’ve seen her own bank presidents in ten words or less,” Ray had said.
Marin got to the conference room just as Dr. Wijaya’s meeting was letting out. The room smelled like pomegranate seeds and cigarette ash. Marin smiled at the Indonesia director, and Dr. Wijaya picked up her notes and her emptied paper coffee cup and walked over.
“Hello, Mareen,” Dr. Wijaya said—she pronounced Marin’s name like the first two syllables of “marina.” “Where are we going to now?”
“Another meeting, of course,” said Marin. “With all of the Southeast Asia directors.”
“Oh, has Dr. Abdullah arrived?” asked Dr. Wijaya.
Dr. Azim Abdullah was the Malaysia/Singapore/Brunei country director.
“No, his flight doesn’t arrive until eleven this evening,” said Marin. She decided not to mention that no one had any idea where Francis Kiplinger, the Philippines country director, was.
They made more small talk as they walked to the elevator bank. Marin pressed the down button and gauged the elevators by the numbered round lights above each: one was stalled on the sixteenth floor; the other was on the ground floor and coming up slowly.
“I read the report that your office put together on agricultural development in Indonesia,” Marin said to Dr. Wijaya.
The country director nodded.
“I found it extremely fascinating,” Marin continued. “Does your team generally find any tradeoffs involved in technology transfers like the importation of new crop hybrids and varieties from Malaysia, or, say, GMO cotton from Monsanto?”
“Mareen,” she replied, “I was like you—mature for my age... confident... special. But you are still young. You could not possibly understand this question you asked me, nor my answer, until you learn that you, too, are not immune to opportunity.”
“Of course I’m not,” said Marin. “I know that.”
“You don’t,” said Dr. Wijaya. “Not really. I can tell.”
An elevator dinged open. They got in and rode the elevator to the tenth floor in silence. Ray had given Marin fair warning, but she was still irritated. All the same, she knew that she wouldn’t be getting the phrase “immune to opportunity” out of her head any time soon. Marin wouldn’t have been bothered by it so much—she hadn’t grown up under the roof of one Walter Choo only to succumb so easily to Grade B crypto-fascist mind games—except that this was the second time within a week that a near stranger had decided to oh-so-kindly inform Marin about herself.
On Monday, that weird primatologist guy, Will, had called Marin’s semi-secret direct line at work, out of the blue, offering her some kind of job. In Borneo. In the middle of the jungle.
“We want you to know that this is a very serious offer,” Will had said. “We know that you wouldn’t come without a genuine need for your specific services and skill set here.” He then, at length, had detailed that need:
The U.S. FDA had just announced that it would soon require food companies to disclose on product labels the amount of trans fat contained per serving. What did this have to do with orangutans in the Borneo jungle?
In response to a trendy new obsession with trans fat by Western news media, according to Will, multinational food companies were not switching to truly healthy oils like canola and sunflower oils, but rather to cheap, zero-trans-fat, high-saturated-fat palm oil. This put the O/URC’s mortal enemies, the oil palm companies, firmly in bed with some of the biggest names in world consumer goods.
This had sounded evil and Orwellian to Marin, but a lot of things sounded evil and Orwellian to Marin.
“The 20,000 hectares that we came to Pac about is just the beginning,” Will had continued. “There is so much momentum behind the palm oil industry, and Wan and I are scientists, not politicians. We don’t have time, and, as you’ve witnessed firsthand, we don’t really know how to make the best case for the orangutans to the powers-that-be. However, we can’t just hire some random consultant somewhere to throw statistics at someone like a Nestlé or a Cargill. The difficult work of changing someone else’s mind has a chance of succeeding only if it comes from a real understanding of what makes the rainforest and all of its native residents so special.”
“I was the most sympathetic person from Pac at your presentation last month,” Marin had said, “but I think you got the wrong impression. I don’t have any environmental experience to speak of.”
“That’s what makes you such a perfect person for this job. You’re not the converted.”
“But isn’t that a catch-22? If I’m not even converted, how do you think you’re going to convince me to become a converter?”
“Because you’re working for a bureaucracy right now,” Will had said. “It’s going to take years for you to advance to a position where you can make a real impact on things. And by the time that happens, it would be a miracle if you haven’t already turned cynical, bitter, and unrecognizable to yourself, so that you no longer have the will to make the changes that you can. You will know far more about the internal politics of an international development organization than you will about any of the countries or people that you are trying to help. I’m offering you a chance to skip all of that and start changing the world now, while you still have a soul. And I’ll be honest with you—we could fail—but a failure for you, at twenty-three, is not going to make much of a difference to your career either way. And the flipside is that we succeed: and you will have the reputation and experience of having successfully lobbied several multinational companies to recognize the environmental impact of palm oil, shaped the growth of a major agricultural industry in Asia, and helped preserve the sole remaining wild population of a species of major scientific and anthropological interest worldwide. Plus, I can promise you one thing that I know Pac can’t: as long as you’re here with us, win or lose, you’re going to have fun.”
“I don’t know if I can trust someone who talks in Disney movie clichés,” Marin had said.
“See?” Will had replied. “It’s already begun.”
Marin and Dr. Wijaya shut the door of Ray’s office behind them, and the meeting commenced.
Ray pouted at the draft conference itinerary that his secretary had printed for him.
“Where’s the financial crisis panel?” he demanded.
“Monday, eleven a.m.,” said Mark. “Wayan and I met with the South Korea director earlier today. And Azim has been ready for this for a year.”
Everyone laughed—the Malaysia country director was known to have strong feelings about the IMF’s heavy-handed handling of the 1997 Asian economic crisis.
“Larissa and Finnegan,” said Ray. “How does Indochina look?”
“I’m scheduled to speak Tuesday at three,” said Larissa. “And Finnegan is following me in the same room. We’re going to do a combined Q and A after the Vietnam presentation. Then we have that NGO panel about rural infrastructure. And Wednesday...”
At office meetings lately, Marin had gotten into the bad habit of thinking about meetings—not specific meetings, and certainly not the ones that she was in—meetings, in general. To begin with, it was such a funny, almost avant garde, word: a gerund bullied by use and abuse into an actual noun, requiring the use of articles or adjectives to clarify its definiteness. I have a meeting at ten. Yesterday’s meeting went well.
With the conference coming up, there were at least six other meetings happening at Pac right now. Additionally, elsewhere around San Francisco and Silicon Valley, in Hollywood and L.A., in Sacramento, Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver, there must have been thousands of meetings going on even at this late-ish hour of six o’clock: extra-industrious lawyers and architects and financial analysts and engineers and management consultants and entertainment executives and journalists and marketing directors getting one last item off the agenda before leaving for the night.
Marin wondered if the temperature of the earth in each longitude changed from the hours of nine to six each day due to so many bodies hunched around conference tables and desks, so many of their powerful and multiplying species reduced for extended periods of time to a ritual act of limited utility. Four months into her first real job, how many hours of Marin’s own life had already been lost listening to somebody get lost in a preamble, hover near a point, retreat into the comfort of familiar phrases (“our latest projections,” “the maturation of these economies,” “the international development community”), contradict themselves vaguely, make a joke, generalize, backtrack, lather, rinse, repeat?
It wasn’t that she had meetings with people who weren’t intelligent—the people she had meetings with were almost always incredibly intelligent. Intelligence, Marin had come to realize, was a quality not best uncovered through meetings.
“Marin,” Ray said. “How many countries are represented by the attendees this weekend?”
“Forty-six,” Marin said.
“Forty-six countries in attendance,” Ray said. “The international development community realizes the importance of this issue of infrastructure in the future development of countries in all stages of development in Asia. China may have the biggest projects and ambition, but Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia and Vietnam seek to benefit from an enormous boost to both industry and tourism from the construction of simple infrastructure projects. In fact, I would like to take the opportunity of this conference to encourage multinational infrastructure development projects for ASEAN countries—let us not underestimate what a connected Indochina or a better-connected Indonesia, Malaysia, and Philippines could mean for the maturation of these economies and boosting numbers and productivity across the board. My point being that, we should be cognizant of how the topic of infrastructure applies in general to the entire Pac purview of Asia, but also specifically to the Southeast Asian region and our—what is it now?—nine countries? They keep changing it on me.”
Finnegan raised his hand, and Ray called on him.
“I see a two-hour orientation on the itinerary on Sunday. Are we supposed to attend this, or is this for non-Pac staff only?”
“Why, do you have better places to be?” Ray asked.
“Well, I was just wondering. Not sure what I need orienting to,” Finnegan said.
“You need orienting to your free sandwich,” Mark said.
Jen and Larissa laughed.
“Go schmooze, meet people, get some business cards, learn some names,” Ray said. “That’s probably the best part of the conference; I don’t know why you would want to skip it.”
After the meeting with the Southeast Asia country directors, Ray, Jen, and Marin met for another forty minutes alone. After that, Marin did emails for another half-hour. At eight-thirty exactly she grabbed her stuff, taxied home, went straight to her car, and drove to Mountain View for her friend Nazneen’s twenty-second birthday party.
It was almost ten o’clock when Marin pulled up to the townhouse that Nazneen was renting with two of her graduate school friends on the winding suburban street that always confounded Marin. To get to Nazneen’s house, 34 Hierba Street, Marin had to turn off the street that she thought was Hierba, and then curve around north and west a mile from where the house seemed to be on her map. Just when she thought that she was lost, she’d see the pink house with the royal-purple crescent moon lantern hanging from the large tree in front: 34 Hierba Street.
There were approximately twenty cars parked in front of the house and neighboring houses, a few bicycles on Nazneen’s lawn, and one motorcycle parked on a narrow strip of Nazneen’s driveway to the right of someone’s Mercedes SUV. Marin parallel-parked in an empty spot across the street, got out of her car, and beeped it locked with the remote on her keychain. She heard hip hop music and the almost orchestral clamor of fifty newly-minted adults talking all at once. A dog barked in the distance.
A girl wearing a red raincoat and a couple of guys were standing outside on the lawn smoking. As Marin made her way up the driveway, she recognized the smokers as classmates from Stanford that she didn’t know well. She also recognized the sweet skunk of marijuana.
The red raincoat girl recognized her and waved. “Hey, Marin!”
Marin waved back.
“I think Naz is in the kitchen,” the girl said.
“Thanks, I’ll look for her,” said Marin. She hurried along the narrow walkway and up two low steps onto the porch, circling a narrow isthmus of brown mulch that smelled like eucalyptus and wet heather. She opened the door and went in.
Nazneen had been throwing the same party since freshman year of college. Drinks: one keg of beer; five six-packs of fruity vodka coolers; bottles of Jose Cuervo, Malibu, Stoli, cranberry juice, pineapple juice, and diet cola (Nazneen famously hated citrus); and a bag of ice. Music: Nazneen’s KZSU deejay friend (a sexually-ambiguous Science, Technology, and Society major named Joss) updated Nazneen’s MP3 library a day or two before the party; Nazneen patched her laptop into her thousand-dollar subwoofer and speaker system; and Joss’s picks ran, shuffle on, in a loop. Food: at least one tableful of homemade Persian food made by the host. And lighting: ceiling lights off or dimmed and replaced with small shaded lamps and jar candles that smelled like honey.
A Nazneen party was never not fun. Things happened at a Nazneen party. Marin knew of at least five still-existing couples who had first fallen in love under the spell of Nazneen Abadi’s lamb in lavash. And, of course, that wasn’t counting the many dozens of couples, like Marin and Max, who had met at a Nazneen party and were no longer together.
However, as Marin made herself a Stoli and diet cola at the makeshift bar set up on a table in the living room and smelled the Nazneen party smell of spiced meat, sweet melting wax, and coconut rum, Marin found herself running through the schedule for Pac’s upcoming conference. As part of the welcome committee, in less than forty-eight hours, Marin would be meeting dozens of ministers of finance, senior policy advisors, World Bank and IMF economists, and senior executives of major international engineering corporations. She would rather not have the Nelly song Hot in Herre stuck in her head at that time.
Marin decided to go look for Nazneen in the kitchen.
She was halfway down the hallway when she heard someone yell “Marin!” behind her.
It was Jorge Jones-Ramirez, who, tonight, was making the rounds with Maya Reynolds, a girl from their class whose angelic face, long blonde curls, and tendency to waft around rooms without a strong sense of direction gave her the aura of a Greek Muse. Marin greeted them both with hugs and kisses on respective cheeks, and they caught up. Marin told them about Pac’s conference that weekend, and Jorge talked about his internship at the technology magazine Wired, which apparently involved going to a lot of tech industry parties, getting drunk on Midori sours, and talking about the latest startups to be given their death sentence on FuckedCompany.com.
“Benjamin’s here,” Jorge said. “He brought his new girlfriend.” He seemed disproportionately amused by this factual statement.
“I didn’t know that he was seeing anyone,” said Marin. “That’s either very brave or very stupid of him.”
“I wish that I had someone to be very brave or stupid with,” Maya said.
“I think Marin means that it’s brave of Ben to bring his new girlfriend to his ex-girlfriend’s birthday party,” said Jorge.
“Still...” said Maya.
“Are you still seeing that guy from work?” Marin asked Jorge.
“Yes, things are going pretty well with him. I tried to bring him tonight, but Mountain View was kind of a hard sell. And I don’t mean that as a double entendre.”
“There’s not much arousing about Mountain View,” Marin said.
“There’s not much arousing about anything outside of 45 Ocean Avenue, Apartment 3D these days,” said Maya.
“Maya’s stalking this guy that she met in yoga class,” Jorge said.
“He’s just so beautiful...” Maya said. “Hey, is that Rio Parker? I haven’t seen her since she vomited her brains out in the Mirrielees barbecue pit the night before graduation.” Maya sashayed, Muse-like, into the living room.
Jorge and Marin exchanged smiles: Maya hadn’t changed one bit.
“Our friends are so classy, ain’t they?” Jorge said. “I guess I should say ‘hi’ to Rio. Laters, Marin.” He patted Marin on the back and walked off in Maya’s direction.
Marin made it to the kitchen, where there was no sign of Ben or Nazneen, but where her friends Becky and Max were sitting on bar stools at the kitchen island eating Persian food out of paper bowls. Marin hugged Becky and Max hello, served herself some rice and eggplant stew, and pulled up a stool on Becky’s left.
“So Naz still can’t bring herself to buy a carton of orange juice?” said Max.
“I think it’s something about rinds that she doesn’t like,” said Marin.
“Rinds are weird,” said Becky. “They’re like kind of tough and waterproof, but soft and spongy underneath. And they have so much fragrance and flavor.”
“Where is the birthday girl anyway?” asked Marin.
“She was going to eat with us, but some people from her co-term program came and stole her away,” said Max. “They kept badgering her about where she’s planning on ‘interviewing.’ Since when did interviewees get permission to use ‘interview’ as an active verb?”
“Our generation likes to pretend that we have control over things that we don’t actually have control over,” said Becky. “It’s part of our charm.”
“How’s your job search going?” Marin asked Max.
“Well, I have been interviewed at a couple of places,” he said. He finished his food and began splitting the rim of his bowl open by rubbing into it with the side of his index finger. “There’s this small architecture firm in Daly City that’s looking for a planner, but I think they want someone with more experience than, well, zero. And I went in for an interview at the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency last week. I haven’t heard back from them yet, though.”
“You’ll find something,” said Marin.
“And then you’ll wish that you just did a co-term like Naz,” said Becky.
“Still not enjoying the nine-to-five life, huh?” Marin asked.
Becky mimed a shot gun to her head and pulled the trigger. “So I go into this meeting yesterday,” she said. “And our client has brought over all these samples from her new cosmetic line so that we can help her, like, sell them. And all the other girls break out their compact mirrors and packs of special makeup remover wipes and start removing soaking beige tissue after soaking beige tissue of makeup so that they can actually test the products on something resembling human skin. And then the client starts explaining how the makeup ‘works’ or whatever, and it literally makes absolutely no sense. She goes, ‘the built-in steam vapor technology means that when you put on your foundation in the morning, you are actually giving yourself a facial at the same time.’ And everyone starts ooh-ing and ahh-ing, even the macho straight guys who go to the shooting range every Thursday after work. And then the client goes, ‘I need a marketing plan that says to the world: this is not just makeup. This is a whole new life.’ And everyone starts clapping.”
“That would be hilarious if it wasn’t completely depressing,” said Max.
“I’M GETTING SOMETHING TO EAT, DO YOU WANT ANYTHING TO EAT LEONA?” a familiar voice shouted, the voice’s owner walking backwards into the kitchen. Nazneen was wearing tight black pants and three-inch heels, which boosted her natural five feet and nine inches to a full two yards. Her hair was cut into a chic bob that curled in at a sharp angle. She turned, saw Marin, and threw up her hands theatrically. “Oh my god, when did you get here?”
“Happy birthday!” said Marin, standing up and smiling.
Nazneen rushed her with a bear hug. She smelled slightly of plums and suffused the air around them with a sniffing, animal warmth.
“Chookie! How are you doing, my sweets?” said Nazneen. “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god...” With the second “oh my god,” Nazneen had grabbed Marin’s hand. With the third, she had marched Marin down the hall to an empty bedroom and shut the door behind them.
“So Ben has seriously lost his mind,” Nazneen said. “This woman he’s dating, she’s a political activist. Ben Blakeman is the least political person that I know!”
“Don’t let him get to you,” said Marin. “It’s your birthday, and you look hot! How do you get your hair to do that?”
“Oh god, my hairdresser’s out of town, so I let her assistant do me. I look like a fucking 16th century Italian pageboy,” Nazneen said. “She’s old, too. Ben’s new girlfriend. Thirty or forty. Isn’t that weird? How did they even meet?”
“Maybe she’s an art lover,” said Marin.
“Did you know about this?” asked Nazneen. “You don’t seem that surprised.”
“No, I didn’t even know that he was seeing anybody,” said Marin. “I guess I haven’t seen him in awhile.”
“See, that’s just weird. They’ve been dating for a month and a half, and he doesn’t even tell you, his good friend in the city, about her?”
“I’ve been busy at work,” said Marin. “I haven’t met her yet, but you’re right—she doesn’t really sound like his type.”
“I know, right?” said Nazneen. “It’s been three years since we broke up. I don’t know why I still let him get to me like this. Maybe because I’m still at the same fucking school with all of the same fucking people running the same fucking Campus Drive loop that I’ve been running for four years.” She seemed tired.
Marin patted Nazneen on the shoulder. When they had pulled all-nighters together freshman year, Nazneen would draw upon a nameless internal energy source in times of need. She would close her eyes for a second and upon reopening them be ready for another hour of focused work.
Nazneen did this now, and then, refreshed, opened the door.
Some of Nazneen’s Pi Phi sisters were right outside the door and swiftly claimed her to referee some inane dispute.
Marin went back into the kitchen. Max was gone, but Becky was still sitting in the same spot. She was talking to Jorge, who was standing in front of her with his scarf, jacket, and hat on.
“Are you taking off?” Marin asked Jorge.
“Yeah, I’m supposed to go to this party back in the city,” he said. “Do you want a ride?”
“No, I’ve got my car,” said Marin.
“We’re going to have a cigarette first,” said Becky, standing up and grabbing a gray jacket slung over the edge of the counter. “Do you want to have a cigarette with us?”
“I’m still not a cool enough customer for that stuff,” said Marin. “Sorry.”
“What are you talking about?” said Jorge. “You’re the coolest customer I know, Marin Choo.”
They hugged, promised to see each other more in the city, and Jorge and Becky left.
Sometimes, in the middle of a particularly soul-draining week at Pac, Marin felt prematurely nostalgic for her college life and friends. Then, when Marin actually saw her college friends, she remembered how much she resented playing the straight man to Nazneen’s live wire, how bored she was with Max’s inert pretensions, and even how stupidly jealous she was of the doubled momentum propelling Jorge (who had finally come out of the closet earlier that year) forward into his post-collegiate, openly gay life.
Even before that Will guy had called Marin, something had been bothering her about him—about both him and Wan—ever since their presentation at Pac. She hadn’t been able to put her finger on it until now. She had just sensed that something about them went against the laws of nature, something about them was just wrong.
They believed completely in the work that they were being paid to do. That was it: the extraterrestrial activity that Marin had detected was professional fulfillment. No realist concessions, no means-to-an-end Faustian bargains: was it really possible that she had never yet met another person who had achieved the simple goal of authentic professional fulfillment? She had, of course, met people who liked their jobs—her parents were/had been workaholics, many of her teachers seemed content with summers off and the chance to inspire the brighter minds of the next generation, and Ray of course had his fantastically diseased twenty-year relationship with Pac. However, none of these people had Will’s and Wan’s absolute conviction that what they were doing was exactly what they were meant to do.
“Marin!” another familiar voice exclaimed. Her friend Ben had come into the kitchen, holding hands with a beautiful Chinese woman wearing vintage denim and an adorable pair of nougat-colored boots. Ben himself looked taller than when Marin had last seen him one month ago in the city, where he lived and worked also. He’d always been one of the handsomest guys in their class, but had had a hobbit-like scruff and bend to his proportions and manner that was gone now. He waved Marin over. “There’s someone I want you to meet,” he said.
Marin introduced herself.
“Marin, this is my girlfriend, Judith,” said Ben.
“I’m so happy to finally meet you,” Judith said. “Ben has told me so much about you and your work.”
“Judith works with health care issues at BAARC,” said Ben. “I told her about your thesis.”
“So you’re working at Pac now?” asked Judith.
“Yes, I work for Ray Marcos, who’s the head of Southeast Asia research and development,” said Marin.
“That’s the intense, kooky guy, right?” asked Ben.
“Ray is the one you’ve heard about, yes,” said Marin.
“My very, very good friend Anastasia, who Ben knows very well,” said Judith.
They smiled at each other—an inside joke.
“Anastasia Richards,” said Ben, with a silent shudder.
“Yes, Anastasia has far more Asian street cred than me because she grew up in Bangkok and Seoul. Every South Korean of a certain age knows the name Frank Richards.”
“Frank Richards, former ED of Pac?” said Marin. “Who took a bullet for Park Chung-Hee?”
“I don’t know if he took a bullet for him, or if he just ducked the wrong direction,” said Judith. “Anastasia was born a month after the 1968 assassination attempt in a nuclear bunker guarded by U.S. agents.”
“You know Frank Richards’ daughter?” asked Marin.
“Anastasia is one of my closest friends,” Judith said, nodding.
If Judith was close in age to Anastasia, who was born in 1968, that put her at around thirty-four years old.
“And Frank Richards is a class act,” Judith continued. “I think the regional banks like Pac are a little bit more responsible than their Bretton-Woods cousins in D.C. A little bit more accountable to the people. The World Bank makes this huge deal about the billions of dollars of HIV antiretrovirals that it’s distributing in Africa, billions of dollars which go straight to pharmaceutical companies while prevention education—which has shown incredibly effective in reducing infection rates in Thailand—falls by the wayside.”
Of course the very next person that Marin met would be a person who also had a firm grasp on the Holy Grail of authentic professional fulfillment. Marin wasn’t sure yet that she trusted this type of person—Will, Wan, Judith—they had something precious, and knew it. This knowledge gave them a dangerous advantage over everyone else.
“Well, we’re a little more under the radar, which can make it easier to get things done,” said Marin. “And as much as Pac would love to take credit for Thailand’s HIV prevention education success: that was all the brilliant work of the Thai government.”
“It’s just these companies—BMS, Fenniskrante, Pfizer... they flog their patents and research costs, make the public feel guilty about buying generics, all the while knowing full well that they spend almost twice as much on marketing than R&D. It’s a dirty little secret that sixty cents of every dollar that we spend on medicine in the U.S. is spent on an ad campaign designed to convince us to pop pills for our problems instead of hitting the gym or eating vegetables or having safe sex. And the World Bank readily transposes this model around the world.”
“The majority of pharmaceutical marketing budgets is free samples, though,” said Marin, wondering if Judith had really placed extra emphasis on Fenniskrante’s name or if she was imagining things. Had Ben told Judith that Marin’s dad was a sales manager there?
“Since when does Marin Choo defend Big Pharma?” asked Ben. He seemed to be enjoying this, whatever it was.
“Well, I just know from my thesis research that that figure is misleading,” said Marin. “The term ‘marketing’ implies advertisements, but that figure that you quoted includes the market value of sample drugs that drug companies give out for free to health care providers.”
“Well, free doesn’t automatically mean harmless,” said Judith. “When it carries a brand name or comes with a sales pitch, ‘free’ or not, it’s advertising.”
“That’s true,” said Marin.
“Marin, we should hang out together in the city more,” said Ben. “It’s crazy that I haven’t seen you in a month.”
“I know...” said Marin. “This weekend I’m crazed, but next weekend I’m pretty free.”
“I think I’m free next Friday night,” he said. “Except, actually...” He looked at Judith as if he could download the necessary calendar data through sustained eye contact with her. “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”
Marin got it: Judith was Ben’s ticket out. He was just as tired of the Nazneen-Becky-Maya-Jorge-Max contingent as Marin was. Even Nazneen was tired of it. Instead of enduring the same parties, mini-dramas, and conversations ad infinitum, Ben had crossed through a magic door to a world filled with fairy tale creatures like the tacitly alarming daughters of famous technocrats, sexy agitprops with a bat phone to The Moment, and god knows what other well-rounded, high-functioning adults.
“You know where to reach me,” Marin said.
“I think we’re heading back to the city—do you need a ride?” he said.
“No, I have my car, and I think I’m going to hang out a wee bit longer,” said Marin.
Ben nodded, briefly letting go of Judith’s hand to hug Marin good-bye.
They left, and Marin suddenly felt exhausted. She went back into the empty bedroom that Nazneen had dragged her into earlier, shut the door behind herself, and plopped backwards onto the bed, the comforter down giving way with a soft wheeze. Marin pressed down gently with both hands on the flat space between her belly and hips where, perhaps, unaccountably, a child might one day be. The room was one of the housemates’ bedrooms: Marin felt the scratchy cotton of the housemate’s duvet cover on the inch of lower back where her top had rode up. Marin closed her eyes and listened to the dimwitted roar of her twenties passing her by.
Ben had always been ahead of the curve about stuff like this. Marin had too, though. That was the thing.
She felt the brutal, nonsensical panic of the perfectionist: if she was behind the curve on this, what else/who else was she behind the curve on?
She opened her eyes and propped herself up on her elbows. There were several framed photographs on the shelf in front of her, and a framed diploma: this was Shelly Yang’s room. How had Marin not known that Shelly Yang was one of Nazneen’s housemates?
Shelly was another Stanford classmate. An international relations major like Marin, Shelly had been in a lot of Marin’s classes. Despite this, Marin didn’t know her well. She knew that Shelly used to be really conservative and Christian; Shelly had been heavily involved in a Christian students’ group on campus and had organized missions to South America during the spring breaks of their sophomore and junior years. Something must have happened during the summer of 2001, though, because Marin kept running into a very drunk Shelly at parties senior year, and Marin had a blurry memory of seeing Shelly smoking a pipe at a Dead House party the week before graduation. Also, Marin had heard that Shelly and Max had dated briefly this past summer, and Max was a raging atheist in the vein of Bertrand Russell.
Marin stood up and walked over to the desk in the corner. A pink laptop sat closed in the center of the L-shaped desk. To its right was a lavender-colored mouse on a mousepad with an unfamiliar logo on it:
There was a press release sitting on top of a short stack of papers to the left of the computer. It was printed on Tripcapture letterhead, with a miniature version of the mousepad logo printed in the upper right-hand corner. It read:
PR NEWSWIRE: Element Capital Buys 40% Stake in New Web Venture
Palo Alto, California—Leading venture capital firm, Element Capital LP, has provided $460,000 of startup funds to Tripcapture, Inc., a travel fares search website established by recent graduates of Stanford University earlier this year. In exchange, as per the agreement signed by both companies, Element Capital will have a 40% equity stake in this promising new tech company.
In addition to aggregating available airfares for purchase onto a single, easy-to-use website, Tripcapture.com makes use of a unique proprietary algorithm to track fluctuations in commercial airfare prices over time, and alert subscribing users when prices for the flights they need have reached their likely bottom.
The idea for Tripcapture.com came when Tripcapture founder and CEO Shelly Yang, as a student, organized 20-30 person groups of student volunteers to travel to rural Venezuela and Colombia during their spring vacation to build schools and medical clinics.
“Since I was responsible for booking flights for 25 people, I became obsessed with checking airfares online every few hours,” Yang recalled. “If the price went up or down $20, that was $500 more or less that we would have to raise in donations for the trip.”
Marin understood the utility of a price-tracking algorithm for individual consumers, but if Shelly had booked flights for twenty-five people, couldn’t she just have negotiated a group rate with the airline? It seemed exactly the wrong selling point. Marin skimmed the rest of the press release—that seemed to be the only suspect part of the impressive, if servicey, announcement. Marin had clearly underestimated Shelly.
Marin remembered coming home from an ordinary high school day to an “emergency” meeting of Fenniskrante drug reps in her living room: some competitor company had committed some egregious breach of drug sales code and her father and his reps were planning their retaliation. Someone shouted something incendiary, and all sixteen Fenniskrante numbskulls broke out into a unison chant: “Win! Win! Win! Win! Win!”
As much as Marin hated to admit it, the Choo competitive streak had not skipped her generation. Marin was not a jealous ex-girlfriend, but the thought that Max and Shelly may have had sex in this room, on that scratchy duvet-covered bed, now agitated her far more than could be accounted for by the mix of annoyance and affection that constituted the current state of her feelings for Max.
The only time that Marin had given Shelly more than a passing thought before tonight was when they had gotten into that weird debate about model minorities a few years ago. It was during a TA-led section for a history class, “Race and America,” that Marin had taken to satisfy her American Cultures core requirement. That week the syllabus had been devoted to discussing the “model minority” stereotype of Asian-Americans which had emerged in the eighties and nineties. Marin had taken issue with the assigned readings because they uniformly emphasized that the problem with the model minority label was that it didn’t fit all APA communities and individuals. Newer, economically-disenfranchised immigrants from countries like Cambodia and Vietnam, the readings argued, were overlooked for public assistance programs, affirmative action, and other needed forms of outreach because of the “model minority” stereotype. In Marin’s opinion it was asinine to criticize a pithy stereotype for its poor representation of reality.
Marin’s problem with the “model minority” label was in the instances where it was, for all intents and purposes, a correct representation of reality. “The word ‘model’ implies a hollow kind of success which I think unfortunately describes many middle class Asian-Americans exactly,” she had argued during section. “Asian-Americans in the past twenty years have as a group achieved a rapid economic upward mobility that is all the more startling for the lack of corresponding cultural and political empowerment.”
“I take offense at that,” Shelly had said. “I’m proud of my parents for the success that they’ve achieved. And with money comes cultural and political power.”
“I’m not saying that economic success is not something to be proud of,” Marin had replied. “I’m just saying that it’s not everything. Many middle class Asian-Americans have voluntarily forfeited their voices in the politics and culture of this country in order to single-handedly pursue economic and professional success.”
“Well that’s just being smart, isn’t it?” Shelly had said. “I think a lot of people from our parents’ generation came from countries with limited opportunities, political and economic, and the attraction of America was that hard work could actually lead to a better life. I don’t think they should be faulted for focusing on that.”
“It’s one thing to make a thoughtful, considered compromise,” Marin had said. “It’s another thing to not think about the trade-offs that you’re making, to play by rules which limit your own potential status in a society because you don’t want to incite the resentment or outrage of groups who are in power.”
“What ‘rules?’” Shelly had said, to snickering from their fellow classmates. “I must have missed the memo about these mysterious ‘rules’ you speak of, Marin. We’re in a discussion section of a class at a top five American university, which is being led by an African-American woman, with classmates of all colors and genders, and we, two Asian-American women, are dominating the discussion. I don’t feel too oppressed right now, honestly.”
“Well, Shelly,” Marin had said, “I find your defensiveness on this topic extremely telling. I just fear that whenever people are taking money and not asking questions—there’s something dangerous about that. And I just want people to ask questions. It’s obvious what my father has gotten from working hard within the existing system—a nice house in the suburbs, a great education for me, his daughter—but what has he given up?”
Marin’s mistake, she realized now, had been letting herself feel superior to Shelly because Shelly was cheesy.
Marin wasn’t jealous of Shelly’s material success—there was nothing more ritually aspirational in this day and age than starting a web business—it was Shelly’s capacity to surprise, to be the wildcard that no one saw coming, that Marin envied. To always do exactly what people expected of you—to be the “cool customer” whose sensibleness and equipoise everyone took for granted—Marin, at twenty-two, could think of nothing more oppressive than that.
The jungles of Borneo were no picnic, let alone a six-figure venture capital deal, but Marin was still far enough ahead of the curve to know that there are very few moments in your life when someone will care enough to ask you to do something completely against your own nature. She just wished that she could know for certain whether or not she would be betraying herself if she said “yes.”