History is written by the winners. The losers mope around inventing the concept of injustice.

- Conversations with Lauren
by Dina Gallagher

vi. ingénue and improved

"Baka Desu," Alec translated off-handedly, handing the pin back to me with a vaguely fetishistic reluctance I was uncharacteristically slow to pattern-match. "’I’m stupid.’ I see Lauren is as insidiously brilliant as ever."

I went slightly more fetal than Alec’s needlessly tiny trophy car absolutely demanded, considered San Francisco’s Bay Bridge as it sped past and made a show of fumbling at the doorhandle. "Great. Well, guess she’s won. How does this door work? I hear you die before you actually hit the water."

"Hey, I’m on your side, okay?" Alec had snapped into "pathetically ineffectual big brother whose heart is in the right place" mode as though at the flip of a switch. His limitless ability to map any stressful situation onto our mutual upbringing at the hands of distant alcoholic parents and act accordingly sucks equal measures of disdain and pity from me, like Costa Rican baby turtles who simply can’t learn to look both ways before crossing the street.

As per long tradition, kismet graced me with frequent just-hold-my-baby-for-a-second duty during my long flight, and I spelunked through Alec’s stash of condiments and empty fry boxes (which liters the backseats of all overweight computer programmers) in hopes of finding something to de-sticky my hands with. This bought me a few moments to ponder how Lauren could charm people from 2,000 miles away, in written Japanese, when I was generally unable to do it in person.

Distantly, I registered Alec continuing to press the point, expounding upon the nuances of Japanese humor, etc. To punish him for being so impressed with Lauren, I continued to feign disinterest.

Unfortunately, he knows where I’m ticklish.

"Hey – cut it out!! I’m serious, stop!!!! Aaaigh!! Alec, I swear we’re going to careen into a ditch and die if you don’t stoooop!!"

"Promise not to get all serious and distant?"

"Extortion!!"

Alec escalated, working one hand under my sweatshirt.

"Promise?"

"Aargh!! All right, you bastard, I promise!!"

"Promise to actually enjoy yourself out here, instead of spending the whole time affecting writerly despair?"

"Promise."

"Promise to buy me a double-chocolate cone with sprinkles on top?"

"I hardly think..."

Alec withdrew his hand to open the glove compartment, from which he produced a Koosh ball – the nuclear bomb of tickling.

I threw in the moist towlette.

"How are Mom and Dad?" Alec asked, taking the first peremptory licks at his double-chocolate.

"Great. Dad stopped drinking, and Mom’s gone back to college to get a degree in electrical engineering."

Alec almost dropped his cone. "Really?"

"Sure. Also, the Easter Bunny has joined Dad’s bowling league."

Alec looked out at some landmark shaped like a big penis for a while without responding. [note to self: Why are the overwhelming majority of man-made landmarks shaped like giant penises? Oops. I kinda answered my own question, there. To their credit, at least San Franciscans have the decency to call theirs "Coit tower," confirming its "coital" possibilities with a practically overt nudge to the ribs.]

"You know, someday you’re going to forgive them for everything," Alex said suddenly.

"What’s to forgive? It’s not like they’re in breach of contract. I’ve known from day one that they have perfectly warm, storybook-paternal feelings for their DNA – just not the container it arrived in."

Alec finished his cone, met my eyes. "Yeah, well – someday you’re going to feel differently, then. I know what it’s like to be an outsider, Dina. But normal people are all normal in exactly the same way. Weirdness is different every time. Someday the thing that makes you different is going to be what makes you special, if you stop running away from it."

"You know, I wouldn’t mind coming out here to visit every year if it weren’t for the public service announcements."

Alec laughed, clapped me on the back. I made a mental note to avoid sitting near him with my back exposed in the future, in case this After School Special-style sibling bonding was a new schtick with him, and not just a one-time thing.

"Alec, you know Lauren pretty well, right?"

Alec got a weird, far-away look in his eyes, which I would have pursued if I wasn’t so focused on my little agenda. "Pretty well." He answered in that completely emotionless voice which suggests the speaker is trying to hide something emotional.

"And I told you about the bet. How do I beat her?"

Alec raised his eyebrows, started climbing back into the car. "Dina, can I tell you a story?"

"Do the good guys win?"

As we pulled back out onto the distinctly aortal highway, Alec graced me with the patented Gallagher sardonic smile, giving me a little glimpse of what it must be like to spend any extended period in my company. "Sort of. The people who won were then in a position to revisionistically interpret events such that they were, in hindsight, the good guys."

"Ah. I think I’ve heard this story already. It was called The History of Western Civilization."

I don’t recall on what level of consciousness I was attempting to divert Alec with his favorite conversational tangent – amateur sociology – but he showed unusual single-mindedness by sticking to the topic at hand. "I guess it’s no secret that I was beaten up fairly often in high school," Alec began again. He made conversation like an old chainsaw: a few false starts before reaching the point where he could cut through anything.

Alec knows he can temporarily suspend my sarcasm mode by alluding to his years as Buffalo Creek’s premiere punching bag. Alec garnered kudos from bullies state-wide as a Grade-A victim. By the time Alec graduated with a full scholarship to M.I.T., he could cringe to within a 5-micron accuracy.

I acknowledged a dim memory of said beatings. "And I wonder if you might remember the name of the ringleader?" Alec’s voice had a terrific Clint Eastwood quality to it, perhaps by virtue of his tightly-clenched teeth and the slight froth buildup on his upper lip.

"Glade Southwick?"

"Glade Southwick." Alec repeated the name especially slowly, his voice magically dropping an extra octave. "Thanks to that man, I have more internal hemorrhages than he has brain cells."

"Three?"

"And do you know what the worst part was?"

"When he knocked all your teeth out with your Neils Bohr lunchbox?"

"Worse."

"That time he borrowed your Gray’s Anatomy, and then followed one of the diagrams to tear out your pancreas?"

"You know, I don’t think that bastard ever returned it."

"Which?"

"Either."

"Or was it the time he lodged a gummybear between your colon and large intestine, and you had to endure all those Richard Gere jokes in the emergency room?"

"Those were all pretty bad. But the worst part was that I was trying to impress a girl, and every time I managed to talk to her Glade would appear and puree me to within an inch of my life."

Alec graced me with a rare sideways glance, thereby lumping me in with women the world over, who have wronged him en masse by failing to be sufficiently impressed with his advances.

"I’ve noticed something about women," Alec started. "They tend not to go for guys who are sensitive, bright and frequently beaten up."

I had been wondering when Alec would bring up our primary historical point of contention. Namely, Alec’s belief that women are attracted to power, but give lip service to intelligence, kindness, and personality. Thus, women = conniving, hypocritical wenches. My general retorts tend to be something to the effect that men have so much power that they don’t need to be hypocritical; women are obliged to look good in a swimsuit or they can die lonely.

I think my real complaint is being held accountable for the collective sins of womankind, owing to the reproductive dice roll that resulted in my having ovaries. How does this somehow make me responsible for Mary-Lou Henninger turning him down in ninth grade? I was eleven!! I still hadn’t figured out what was missing from my Ken doll!!

"So, this dream girl you pined for. She was bright, sensitive, and not much to look at?"

"I wouldn’t call her plain-looking, now that you ask."

"Fat?"

"Not fat, exactly."

"No boobs?"

"I seem to remember a certain topological ambition to the terrain of her sweaters."

"She had acne, then?"

"Well, no... her complexion had been described as creamy once or twice."

"Ah, but she had no figure!! Alec, you deep, nurturing guy, you secretly harbored a burning passion for some sweet girl despite her lack of curves!!"

Alec looked into the distance longingly and traced an hourglass figure in the air.

"In other words, you had a crush on some physically perfect bimbo, but you’re bitter because she didn’t look past appearances at the ‘real you.’"

Alec narrowed his eyes as we pulled into a gas station, affording him a moment before answering.

"I like my wording better. Listen, Dina, there are only two layers in human communication." Alec added a little pantomime for visual clarity. "There’s the motivational level, which contains the real reasons anyone ever does anything. There are only a finite number of motivators: pride, avarice, gluttony.... On top of that is this incredibly murky surface level, which contains all the bullshit self-congratulatory rationalizations people use to justify and obfuscate their true agenda."

Alec’s "Cynicism 101" philosophy should have clued me as to the object of his long-standing crush. I see that now. Call it an uncharacteristic nod to fashion, but I was too busy making a mental note vis-à-vis wishing to avoid ever looking as greasy as the attendant approaching the car, under any circumstances whatsoever.

The Amazing Grease Man carried a little grease-saturated rag with him, with which he carefully redistributed the grease already covering his entire body as evenly as possible. Having reached us at last, he threw Alec a familiar, buck-toothed grin, and Alec waved him towards the gas tank.

"The secret to getting what you want is to triangulate people’s motivators, and work with those. But you’ve got to give lip service to people’s rationalizers, or you’ll piss them off. And that’s where you drop the ball – you’re so desperate to prove how smart you are, you draw attention to inconsistencies in people’s rationalizers."

"But other people are idiots!! If people just realized how stupid they were, I wouldn’t feel so obligated to constantly point it out!!"

"Yeah? And I suppose it somehow advances your agenda to piss everyone off? Face it, Dina, if you’re so smart why do you go around alienating everyone?"

"Because I’m insecure!!" I threw up my arms in defeat. "I’ve got a self-esteem problem, and I compensate by constantly assuring myself of my own intellectual superiority!! I admit it!! You caught me, okay?!?"

Alec smiled. "Okay."

"Why do you bring this up, anyway?"

"Because it proves my point!!"

"Which was...?"

"Which was..." [long pause] "Which was that you should give up trying to beat Lauren at her own game and go find a game of your own!! That’s my agenda while you’re out here, Dina. To convince you to let go of trying to out-Lauren Lauren and to put some energy into being Dina."

"Ah, the ‘real you’ strategy. I’ve tried being the real me." I spoke with a hyperbolic amount of mock dejection poorly disguising a pathological amount of genuine dejection. "It didn’t work out."

"Nothing worth having comes easily."

On some level I knew Alec was right, so naturally I attacked him.

"Oh, yeah? If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?"

Alec smiled. Just then the attendant appeared at the window, close enough now that I could finally place his familiar, greasy buck teeth. "Fill it up, Mr. Gallagher?"

"Sure thing, Glade. Oh, and check the oil, wouldya?"

Even before visiting the apartment to drop off my luggage, we visited The Place Alec Worked. Like most males, Alec managed somehow to capitalize it with his voice. His tone became increasingly soft and reverent as we entered the Sacred Parking Garage, were waved through by the Holy Night Watchman, and rode up the Magical Elevator of the Gods, which delivered us to the Land of Ambrosia and Plenty, where singing nymphs and angels garlanded our path with rose petals and scented magic fairy dust.

So maybe that metaphor got away from me.

I’ll admit the building was nice, all new and shiny and expensive. It was in pointed contrast to Buffalo Creek, where architecture tends to fall into two distinct categories: (a) old, expensive, tastefully opulent, and built by Lauren’s ancestors on the backs of the poor, or (b) new, cheap, shoddy, and built by the poor.

Alec had a magnetic card with his picture on it, which he was obligated to run through a card-reader every few yards. He sighed each time, as though feeling needlessly hassled, although it was obvious that possessing the little card made him feel really important.

The universal male fantasy, according to Lauren, is not just to be thought incredibly important, but to be allotted sympathy for carrying the heavy burden of such importance.

The final door was marked "Special Projects," which said more about Alec’s rank than all his subtle boasting on the way over. Because if kindergarten politics extend into adulthood to the degree I’ve always suspected, the quickest way to make Kid A jealous is to announce that Kid B is "special." I imagined Alec leveraging such clout into a business card that read only "Alec Gallagher: Special."

I suppose my first intimation that something bizarre and silly was going to happen should have been the fact that the door had no knob, though at the time I assumed it was the sliding rice-paper sort that Japanophiles like Alec favored in their apartments. Imagine my surprise when Alec slid his card in the final slot and the door slid open with a fake "whoosh" sound.

Alec glanced at me quickly to assure himself that I was suitably at a loss for words before ushering me into the main geekarium.

I don’t think I jeopardize my status as a jaded cynic by acknowledging that it was amazing. The entire room had been tricked up to look like the bridge of the Enterprise, complete with fiber-glass desks and a big television screen. There was an open closet of Star Trek uniforms.

I put my hand to my chest and gasped for air, which Alec, true to form, misinterpreted as awe.

Admittedly, I was impressed. But not with Alec’s having surpassed every other life form on the planet for sheer geekliness. What amazed me was that Alec had a secret this big and had somehow concealed it from me for more than a week. This was a major new wrinkle in our relationship – what else was he hiding? I quickly summoned my memory of the day’s conversation to mine for further clues.

Like all members of our generation, Alec gave me about 1.4 seconds to be awed before beginning the tour. I’m convinced this amount of time has been imparted to people our age by David Letterman, either first- or second-hand. It’s the exact amount of time he allows for laughter and applause between jokes. Andrea has argued that 1.4 seconds is merely the optimum joke lag time for humans, and Mr. Letterman has a performer’s instinct for it. But listen to people your parents’ age tell jokes sometime; they have a completely different sense of timing. I’ll bet a million dollars if you compared my Uncle Clarence’s post-joke pause to Steve Allen’s, they would match.

"...and over here’s the captain’s chair, of course." Alec was pointing out the obvious, as there was nothing else to point out and he wanted verbiage devoted to his accomplishment. Most boys learn this tactic circa Junior High. They replace "I won the race at school today" with "As I was winning the race at school today, I noticed the bleachers could use a fresh coat of paint," cagily pretending their conversational motivation is the sadly-neglected bleachers. Unfortunately, Alec had only started doing things that might be even vaguely construed as impressive in the last year or two, so he was still taking his first baby-steps with this particular conversational gambit.

"I assume you’re behind this." Feeling generous, I contributed to the trend of obvious, boring conversation. I was planning to stay in San Francisco for almost a week, and letting Alec puff his chest out for a few hours was cheaper than a hotel.

Alec puffed his chest out, nodding.

"Aren’t your bosses a little hesitant about spending so much money just so a few geeks can play Let’s Pretend?"

Alec smiled. "Sure, they were – until they ran the numbers. Special Projects productivity is up almost 200%. Project for paycheck, we’re the most lucrative coding team in the company."

I had a sudden revelation. "You really are rich, aren’t you?"

Alec nodded. I want to say he nodded smugly, but that has all these negative connotations. He nodded with a sort of confident happiness. "I make so much money it’s obscene. My annual salary approaches what Dad will make in his lifetime."

Alec settled into the captain’s chair, leaned back happily. "After all this time, after being taught over and over again that connections are everything, that talent, hard work and 35 cents will get you a cup of coffee, to have moved out here and found a meritocracy..."

Lauren’s voice in my ear: Meritocracy means "a system in which the speaker is rewarded."

The last time I visited, Alec had been a lowly code jockey at a rival software company, barely able to afford his beat-up old Civic. And the year before that, Alec was doing data entry for minimum wage. The cream rises to the top is no doubt an expression coined by someone who, like Alec, had bungled his way to the top.

I settled into the chair beside Alec’s (the Chief Financial Officer’s chair? The Proctologist’s? Andrea would know for sure). I had planned to exploit the staggering nerdishness of the arrangement to hone my sarcasm pyrotechnics, but was distracted by how utterly bitchin’ the chair was. I had always previously attributed the sinful comfort of dentists’ chairs to the nitrous oxide.

Experimentation with the tiny illuminated buttons lining each arm triggered action figures popping out at various locations around the room, Carmina Burana to burst from the sound system, candy bars and cappuccino to emerge from the control panel. Finally the auto-massage feature kicked in, so suddenly and with such eerily-perfect Japanese engineering that I erupted into, arguably, a sex noise.

I turned red. Alec coughed. The necessity of a quick subject change bloated to supernova in the air between us.

"So what’s your title at this place, anyway?"

I figured I’d show my appreciation by asking Alec a pointless little question providing an opening to brag about how great his job was. I can be nice.

"Process Engineer," Alec answered, punching away at the plastic console beside his chair. "I create constellations between our products, motivators, and rationalizers." Alec found what he was looking for, clicked another button. The main viewscreen snapped into life, white lines criss-crossing a field of blue like the veins on the back of Ms. Merteuil’s calves. "This is the element web for Lurid Orc Babes II; Bikini Karnage, which last year outgrossed the scrappy underdog nation of Uganda."

I winced. "Hopefully you’re joking, but even if sorta-true, isn’t that a little frightening? Such a massive amount of resources devoted to escapism?"

Alec didn’t glance up and to the left before answering, which I knew meant that his response was selected from a library of prefabricated arguments, rather than improvised. He slid from his chair and began pacing.

"Dina, let’s say Hofstader’s definition of intelligence is correct; that it essentially boils down to pattern-matching. Ergo, intelligence can be increased by learning to match ever more abstract patterns, yes?"

I nodded in that "I don’t necessarily agree but go on" manner Lauren had been good enough to drill into me.

"...So doesn’t that make imagination – the ability to match especially oblique patterns – a particular form of high-level intelligence? And how better to teach imagination than immersion in the imaginative?"

Bless the gods of self-impressed cleverness for granting me Alec.

"But let’s say abstract pattern-matching is beyond your abilities," he continued, "That your entertainment consists mostly of vicariously escaping from your own impotence through the war metaphor of sports. Then one day you’re exposed to a genre which broadens the imagination, a capacity you don’t have and can’t understand. What would your best guess be as to the appeal of that genre?"

I laughed. Alec gestured one data-gloved hand and Bikini Karnage reviews began cycling on the monitor, each of them including some variant on the word escapist – thoughfully highlighted with about as much subtlety as Brooke’s junior year prom dress. Whatever the hell it meant, the implied organizational ability was astounding. Ambiant blue light played over Alec’s face and he momentarily looked not like my geeky older brother who continued to play Star Trek well into "adulthood," but like an offbeat genius whose hard work had born the fruit of locating the one niche where his brainy freakiness would pay off.

"Congratulations, Alec. I mean it."

Alec looked shocked (do I really compliment people so rarely?), raised his eyebrows in disbelief as his eyes met mine. "Thanks. But that’s not what I wanted to show you."

He pressed a button, and the screen morphed into a net dissecting The Persistence of Bullshit, a novella I had tossed off earlier that year. Alec had showed no great enthusiasm when I sent him the original manuscript in lieu of a store-bought birthday gift. I could feel my blood run cold as I slowly realized that he had not only read it, but devoured it, psycho-analyzing me to nine decimal places.

"What does computer software have to do with fiction?" I asked, not really needing an answer but trying to buy time.

"Entertainment is universally made of the same stuff," Alec answered, rotating the Persistence construction absently. "A proxy overcomes some conflict on behalf of the consumer. Video game character, rock star, actor or protagonist in a novel, they’re all serving the same function: allowing the consumer to vicariously experience the quest for some trophy."

"From there, I divide entertainment into two major camps: educational and escapist. The former involves situations where the hero has to learn something to win the day, in theory passing this new knowledge to the consumer. People attracted to tool-building entertainment wish to become more capable.

"Escapist entertainment doesn’t involve any lessons. The hero is nothing but a wish-fulfillment projection of the consumer, overcoming opponents, attracting sexual partners and attaining glory without needing to learn anything. People attracted to escapist entertainment are looking to deaden the pain of their lives, a bit like alcoholics."

"I just know this is going somewhere."

"I also divide tool-building entertainment into two categories. There’s the Yang side: male, didactic. It raises questions and purports to answer them. Boy fiction.

"Then there’s the Yin side. It raises questions and then explores many different possibilities, without fixating on any one as the capital A Answer. And that’s just the outermost periphery of womanspeak, the scrap overlapping my ability to grok – beyond that is this vast unexplored sea of wonderfully chaotic.... stuff."

Obviously, Alec had gotten laid. Pretty recently, too, seeing as the female thought process was still the Hallowed Unknown and not yet the Maddeningly Unfathomable. Still, there was something in his rationalization metaphor worth exploring, so I dutifully pulled on my "rapt with interest" face.

"Western literature has been dominated by Yang writing for so long it’s widely held to be the only valid type of writing. Muscular Hemmingway-stuff, single-objective oriented without asides or adjectives or so-called irrelevancies. It’s what your teachers have taught you. And it’s what I see you struggling to imitate.

"You’ll never write like a man, not well. But maybe the world has seen enough of that kind of writing anyway. I’m saying I think you should stop trying to fit some preconceptions of ‘good writing’ and start writing in your own voice."

"I dunno, your classifications seem a bit over-simplified. What about the little-discussed advantages of being a member of a marginalized group? Would Oscar Wilde really have devoted thousands of pages to wonderfully sumptuous, literary-landscape-changing paraphrases of ‘young boys give me a stiffy’ if he could have just stated it outright at dinner parties?"

"Yes, that!! Exactly!! I have no idea how to take apart what you just assembled, but it ain’t preachy – it’s more than the sum of consumer junk food stock ingredients we keep recombining!! Why don’t you write more like that?!?"

I didn’t answer, which of course was an answer in itself. The Persistence net drifted in lazy circles on the monitor, like bits of dust in a ninth-grade Brownian motion experiment.

The door buzzed open and an impossibility strolled in, smiling broadly and wearing a Star Trek uniform.

The impossibility had perfect teeth, honey-colored hair and a soft curve to her hips that was visible even through the flattening uniform. Her eyes were a little too far apart, and she was a little too thin, but otherwise it was Lauren.

"Dina, this is my girlfriend Max. Honey, this is my sister Dina. I told you she’d be visiting for a few days."

The impossibility giggled hello, shook my hand. Her voice was too high, an airy soprano where I expected Lauren’s contralto. Also, she had an accent of the sort I can’t train myself not to associate with Monty Python. I made an unattractive choking sound meant to be salutatory.

Foreign accents, like people whose ancestors are from places other than Europe, are something of a rarity in Buffalo Creek. Just about every family in town is German or Irish and has been in residence for several generations. Most everyone has family trees with intertwining roots, if you dig back deep enough. (In fact I did a paper on genetic disorders in eleventh grade, tracing the increasing prevalence of recessive traits in prominent Buffalo Creek families. I seemed to be the only Buffalo Girl who registered surprised when this valuable information didn’t spark a wave of awe and gratitude among the local aristocracy. But I digress.)

I glanced at Alec, who looked oddly like a housecat affecting innocence despite the hint of a feather protruding from the side of his mouth.

"You have a British accent," I said finally. Just as I was wrapping up the word "accent," a tiny part of my brain screamed something about first impressions and the perceived intelligence of those who state the obvious. That’s why I’m a writer, incidentally: my foresight may be 45-60, but I’m the Nostradamus of hindsight.

"From Manchester," Max agreed warmly, shaking my hand. "Your brother and I share a flat."

I glanced again at Alec, this time with one of those weighty, meaningful looks which was intended to convey: (a) "How do British people manage to work in ‘special British words’ five minutes into the relationship?" and (b) "Okay, so she’s beautiful, a clone of Lauren, and bright enough to work at one of these geek factories. Don’t tell me she’s also personable!!" Again, this is a heavy burden for a single look. But don’t forget that with a single bark Lassie was able to convey, "The children are trapped down at the bottom of an abandoned well, their legs are broken, and they need insulin." As a species, we’re obviously not taking full advantage of language.

"You’ve got something on her family, Alex, is that it?" I turned to her. "He has your parents tied up in a basement somewhere, is that why you’re dating him? I’m his sister, I promise not to squeal."

Max laughed again, and hugged me. "You’re as funny as your brother said you’d be, Dina. I’m sure we’ll get along famously."

I made big eyes at Alec from behind Max’s hair. We’re not big huggers in Buffalo Creek, so this took me a little off-guard.

"You uh... you come to the States for the job market?" (Note for aspiring pretentious people: those who have never set foot off American soil call their country "America," but people who fly around the world a lot call it "The States." Start fostering a false cosmopolitan air today!!)

"Everyone thinks that," Max answered. "I came here because in America a person can get off the dole without all her friends accusing her of putting on airs."

"What did I tell ya, Sis?" Alec threw one arm around Max’s waist, drew some Cokes out of a little armchair cooler with the other. "Silicon Valley is a meritocracy. The rewards go to the intelligent and hardworking." His eyes took on a frightening southern preacher evangelical glow as he launched into what is no doubt his cause d’être. "In fact, I’m betting Silicon Valley is only the beginning. The technocratic meritocracy is like a seed crystal, which will propagate through the world like Levis or Coke," Alec pretended to notice his carefully prepared visual aid at this point as if in surprise: Hey, I’m holding a Coke right now!! "Someday soon the global community will be an egalitarian economic ecosystem without any barriers of race, class, sexual preference, what have you."

Obliquely enough, this brings us to Lauren’s theory regarding my inability to tolerate the poorly-reasoned rationalizations of others: "When you were growing up, your parents used weak rationalizations to justify their shortcomings as parents, and somehow this hurt you deeply. So you’ve grown up with intolerance for the margin of denial most people need to get by. This isn’t going to win you many friends."

"So you’re saying I’m a jerk, but it’s my parents’ fault."

"No. Every erg you devote to blame you steal from problem-solving. I’m helping you sift through the available information. Whether you use it to overcome your shortcomings or absolve yourself of responsibility is up to you."

I relaxed into the Chief Proctologist’s chair with the nearly inhuman confidence of an Olympic athlete, took a deep breath. "So what you’re saying," I began reasonably, "is that you dream of a utopian society where the bright and industrious reap the greatest rewards."

"An end to bigotry," Alec said with a distant, megalomaniacal look which I suspect Mussolini and Alexander the Great might have grudgingly admitted made them slightly envious.

"But how is a system that rewards the bright any more moral than a system that rewards white Europeans, or the wealthy? Isn’t that just a shift in bigotry from wealth and race to intelligence? Sure, it benefits you – you’re well-educated and bright. But how is an intelligent/stupid dichotomy any more moral than an Aryan/Jewish dichotomy? Or a European/African one?"

Max inched away like female gorillas do when two silverbacks are preparing to fight for supremacy. Alec narrowed his eyes and adjusted his pocket protector, which any freshman from MIT can tell you means big trouble. Maybe I should have backed off, but I was heady with the smell of blood:

"Your conception of morality is fundamentally the same as Hitler’s, David Duke’s, and Hirohito’s: a flimsy justification for convincing yourself that you ‘deserve’ to be in power through random birth factors."

Alec offhandedly flipped a switch on his Very Large Remote Control With Upholstery, and the room switched to the "red battle lighting" originally popularized by submarine movies. (I think the reasoning for this was along the lines of "We’ll probably lose anyway, let’s make it an extra challenge to see the controls clearly.")

A lesser man might have defended himself, but Alec had lived through enough conversations with Lauren to osmose that justifying a position is a no-win situation; if you win, you’re at ground zero. If you lose, your opponent wins with no casualties on her side. Showing a remarkable grasp of my Achilles heel, he leaned back and waited me out.

Lauren would have deftly kept the lens of debate on Alec, but I can only blame the smug arrogance of youth for my next move: actually explaining my scheme for world domination. I think back on how dumb this was and cringe.

"Remember those history textbooks they gave us in high school, which not only told us the indisputable version of history, but then ended each chapter by telling us which questions to ask? They not only dictated what to think, but also what to think about what to think. I love that. My dream is to achieve the same level of brazenness in propagating my opinions as the indisputable, capital "T" truth, and get away with it."

Alec smirked the unsettling smirk of victory. "In other words, your dream is a small-minded, self-serving act of cynical manipulation," he said, taking a swig of soda.

"So is yours," I responded with the "you’ve-meandered-into-my-trap" voice. "I just don’t lie to myself about it."

Within less than 1.4 seconds Alec completely bathed me in Coke to within a 5-micron accuracy.

Later in Alec’s apartment, he and I played yet another round in our lifelong "Are women manipulating shrews, or what?" debate. Max was off doing some unbelievably hip twenty-something Silicon Valley straight-girl-gone-bad thing like teaching a class on the aesthetics of drive-by piercing, so Alec and I were alone.

"Max is quite a looker," I said, mistakenly giving Alec his opening. I had intended to lead into the cradle-robbing implications of Alec’s obvious crush on the much-younger Lauren.

"Yeah," he answered, "funny how I become successful, and all of a sudden I finally get some attention from women."

I bit my lower lip, actually thought for a moment before answering. "Have you ever considered that maybe getting a good job gave you confidence, and the confidence is what women find attractive?"

Alec seemed surprised by this idea. He regarded the endless shelves of streamlined, ridiculously expensive electronic gizmos that defined his apartment for a moment before responding.

"Maybe. But either way, if a guy wants to date babes, he needs to make beacoup bucks."

I had half-brewed a devastating retort when something on Alec’s refrigerator caught my eye – a hand-written list of women’s magazines. Vogue, Cosmo...

"Thinking of taking up reading, Alec? This handwriting looks familiar..."

"Oh, that’s, you know... that’s Max’s stuff..." Alec said in his famous "I’m lying" voice.

I quickly scanned the rest of the crap Alec had plastered over his refrigerator, thinking there might be another clue to the mystery of the list. It was two or three heartbeats before I spotted the photo innocuously hiding in one corner.

The photo was of Lauren and Kelly, made up to look older, presumably acting on Andrea’s dubious advice regarding the tastes of more desirable older guys. Never one to admit victory easily, I attempted to respond to Alec’s point while simultaneously trying to figure out what about the picture was out of place.

"I... yeah... women are all shrews...."

"Dina? You okay?" Alec appeared by my side with genuine concern – an inability to retort quickly and with more words than absolutely necessary was an historic symptom of serious illness on my part.

When he saw what I was looking at, Alec quickly grabbed the photo up and away. "Oh, yeah – Lauren let me have that picture to remember Kelly by. I forgot I left it out."

I had already lost interest in the Lauren-Kelly picture, and was absorbed with the one beneath it. It was a beautiful monochrome of some Asian women practicing Tai Kwan Do in a park somewhere, processed in the particular style Kelly was in love with right before she died: grainy and sienna with no depth-of-field, like an old daguerreotype.

"Kelly took that.," I muttered under my breath. It wasn’t a question.

Alec stammered a few unintelligible syllables, but he knew I could tell when he was lying. I snatched the photograph out of his hand. "This was taken in San Francisco; They were here, and you never told me. No one ever told me."

Alec splashed his face with some water from the kitchen sink, glanced around as if someone might be watching us. "Dina, I... Lauren made me promise not to tell anyone. Not even you."

"Not even...?" Suddenly something about the sienna photograph struck me as odd. "This is that place we drove by today... Union Square." It was only a short walk away; I grabbed the second photo and started running.

Alec was sprinting after me down the street, his triple-cheeseburger nerd-boy frame creaking and sweating with unfamiliar exertion. "Dina, wait!! She made me promise!!"

There was only one place in Union Square the photograph could have been taken from, a second-floor apartment with a "for rent" sign in the window. Alex was a speck in the distance by the time I scampered up the stone steps to the first floor.

An elderly woman answered the door, identified herself as the building super.

"Have you ever seen these girls?" I asked, handing her the Lauren/Kelly photograph. She adjusted her glasses and pursed her lips, taking the inordinate amount of time old people seem to require to do the smallest thing. I glanced at Alec’s fast-lumbering form apprehensively. "Please, it’s important."

"I remember these women," the woman said finally. "Sisters. They were supposed to rent the second-floor apartment, ‘bout a year and a half ago. Paid the security deposit and a month’s rent, then never showed up. The redhead, she was a photographer; took pictures the whole time I showed them the place. The blond woman was some kind of executive, I think. Carried herself like a real lady."

"Do you remember their names?"

"Sure, I remember because they had a French name, but the redhead looked Irish. Lauren and Kelly Beaudreaux."

Beaudreaux!!

Just then Alec appeared on the stoop, red-faced, with sweat stains under each armpit and squatting with exhaustion.

"They made me promise," he said between desperate gulps of air. "They made me promise not to tell."

"So they were running away?"

We were sitting in a little eatery off Union Square. Alec claimed he was having a heart attack, but ordered a double cheeseburger with curly fries so he wouldn’t die hungry.

"That doesn’t sound quite right," he said between fistfuls of fries. "’Running away’ implies evasion of a greater authority. I kind of get the impression Lauren doesn’t recognize any greater authority."

"But they were planning to move out here without telling anyone."

"Yeah. They were wearing makeup, passing as a few years older. I’m the only person they know out here, so they asked me to help them find a place and stuff. But they swore me to secrecy."

"Alec, why would they run away? They seemed so happy in Buffalo Creek!! Sure they hated it, but we all hate it!! Instant camaraderie!!"

Alec lowered his burger, indicating the especially weighty nature of what he had to say.

"I don’t know, Dina. I really don’t. They were moving out here, and they weren’t going to tell anyone about it. That’s all I know."

I toyed with my turbo-dog, but couldn’t muster much of an appetite with such a delicious mystery lingering in the air.

"Alec, you’re smart. How do I win this bet with Lauren?"

"I wouldn’t recommend –"

"Alec, I know. I know that you wouldn’t recommend it. But the storm clouds are gathering, and you’re my brother, and I’m asking you how I can win."

Alec pulled the fry basket into the light, hunting for strays. He answered only as if with great reluctance. "Well... you say everyone thinks the button says ‘Good morning.’ I think they’d sour on it if they realize it actually says ‘I’m an idiot.’"

"So I should tell them?"

"No, only point out the ignorance of others if you want to make an enemy. The best thing to do... this is outside consideration of scruples, mind you, just on a tactical level... the best thing to do is arrange for everyone to find out what it means."

"How?"

"I dunno. By the highest authority possible. Arrange for them all to be in a room while you’re watching a documentary on the evolution of language, leave some Japanese Made Easy books lying on the coffee table... something like that."

I was halfway through my patented Dina Gallagher Interpretive Condiment Sculpture when it came to me. "Can I borrow your calling card?" I asked innocently. "I should let Mom and Dad know I arrived safely."

"Hello, Gracie?" For realism’s sake, I tried to remember how requests were worded when they didn’t conceal hidden agendas, but somehow couldn’t quite manage it. "How would you feel about getting that foreign exchange student after all?"

[note to self: "Scruple"? Possibly Japanese. Remember to ask exchange student re. exact meaning]



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After Kelly ©1995 by Kristen Brennan