The Emissary of Upper Haight
by MARSHALL MOORE
On our introduction at a university banquet, Carey confessed that he never played with himself before ten pm. After the purgative, he felt disillusioned, unambitious, and doomed, and he couldn’t afford to be handicapped for the remainder of the day. Over the years, I had seen him stomp and claw through many bright souls as he tried to escape that darkness he had described. Now that he had killed all those bright souls, he was left in the dark with men like me and women like Delaney. I was on my way to his penthouse in Cleveland Park after receiving not a text, call, or email, but a wax-sealed invitation on parchment paper. “I have an enormous favor to ask of you,” said his letter. Because Carey had described his arrest and expulsion from MIT a “negligible setback”, and the loss of his right index finger to frostbite an apt “slap on the wrist” for putting off Mount McKinley until the end of fall semester, the word enormous in his letter impressed me. Carey was responsible for my Ambien dependence, a nasty infection (cured), and an Internal Revenue Service garnishment, so I had already taped my fists and Vaselined my eyebrows, prepared to resist whatever seduction awaited me in his sky home. The recklessness that served him so well did not serve me and I would not yield to him again. To understand Carey was to understand his metaphor for life—the nation-state metaphor was what I called it—Carey didn’t call it anything. Through childhood, existence had seemed to him to be a game, and so he had accepted that metaphor, trite or not. But when life had stung too much, and he had hurt too many people, and was finally left amid his casualties and their dashed dreams, life didn’t seem like a game anymore. The concept of nationhood may have developed in Europe during the seventeenth century, but for Carey, it developed during the spring semester of sophomore year. Carey considered himself not a person, but an embattled nation. And it wasn’t a game anymore, it was a war. Maximilien Robespierre had called life a war as well—so this metaphor wasn’t new. But without the distraction of the French Revolution, Carey had elaborately itemized the analogy and carved out elegant parallels to life’s war—attrition versus maneuvering, or sea power versus air superiority. Carey referred to his acceptance to Duke after his expulsion a “successful campaign”, his change from drama to business consulting a change from democracy to despotism. His serial and concurrent girlfriends were desultory colonies that had infused culture and occasionally altered the course of his nation’s history. Trade embargos, corporate bailouts, environmental crises, all had their parallels in his nation-state metaphor. I might have pitied Carey if he hadn’t treated the metaphor with the fatuousness it deserved. Yet with determined fatuousness, Carey lived by it, the idea capturing both his pain and self-importance perfectly. Carey’s building was as tall as Cleveland Park’s zoning code allowed. From the top floors, the southeastern windows looked out onto Connecticut Avenue and down into the squatting granite mass of Washington. On the mahogany bar that faced his nude windows, Carey had poured different brands of sake into small tumblers and now studied them with an engraver’s attention. His pursed lips had a bruised fullness that women envied nearly as much as his frond-like eyelashes. The sheen of sweat on his face, a product not of work, but desire, made the birthmark under his left eye glisten. The mark reminded me of the clef that began sheet music, adding something sinister to his face. “Nihonshu is the Japanese word for sake.” The crystal glass magnified Carey’s right eye as he examined it close-up. “Taste one.” I picked the sake that looked like a glass of milk. “Nigori.” Cary raised the glass on the end. “Exactly what I thought you’d pick. Kanpai.” I walked to his window and looked out toward the National Cathedral. “Have you changed your mind about quitting Accenture?” “Friday was my last day. I doubt I’ll work again.” “Then what about the favor in the letter? I thought you might need a character reference for your résumé.” “Why would I need character references? My reputation recedes from me.” “Delaney will always love you.” “Yes she will,” Carey said. “And that’s my problem.” “Forgive me if I don’t well up.” I kept looking out his window, but I watched his reflection. Behind me, Carey sighed and walked the periphery of his drawing room. “I never set out to have more than one girlfriend at a time,” Carey said. “For some men, having girls feeds their ego. My ego has always been perfectly developed.” “The women in your life aren’t girlfriends…not anymore. They’re people who have made real sacrifices on your behalf, vouched for you to their families, and planned their lives anticipating a future with you.” “And so I have an obligation,” Carey said. “Or obligations, rather. Obligations with the ‘s’ in parentheses.” “That’s what decent people would assume. But I won’t push the assumptions of decent people on you, especially when I’m guessing at them. I do know that Maura would move from Trenton with a phone call and sacrifice everything for you.” “So would anybody in Trenton. The apocalypse has already been archived in the city records.” The sake wetted his voice to a lisp. “Infidelity is commonplace, Carey. Don’t turn your selfishness into a virtuous flaw on your kick wheel—that’s commonplace too.” “Every affair has been meaningful, seismic, and certainly not commonplace. Dead-ended, always; commonplace, never.” “The dead-ends mean something different to the women on your arm. I’ve never had solutions to your philandering.” “I never sought solutions,” Carey replied. “No favor of mine can get you out of something so meticulously self-made.” Carey joined me at the window. “Dunstan, I’ve chosen Maura.” “Over Delaney?” “I hope you see this as progress for me…‘From This World to That Which Is to Come.’ Isn’t that how the motto goes?” “I wouldn’t call it a motto per se.” Carey was born rich, capable, and creative, yet Delaney’s love was easily his greatest asset. I’d met Delaney at Duke not long after Carey, and had seen her then as a woman whose charms would quickly overwhelm the mannish reluctance to commit. A superior thinker and administrator, she had been President of the Debate Team, and a standout in International Pistol. Delaney rocketed out of Duke as a Rhodes Scholar, and would’ve given up her trip to Oxford for Carey’s marriage proposal. She had spent the last years in excruciating suspense, deflecting worthy companions and mastering all the parts of life that mattered less. By the second year, maybe Delaney should’ve taken responsibility for the proposal—but she couldn’t be faulted for wanting Carey to ask her. “I never aggressively pursued Delaney,” Carey said at my shoulder. “Delaney is better than us, and deserving of better.” “I realized that when she got up to address our freshman class. She has always been well-rounded, and in all the right places.” “Delaney is better than us only because she believes in life. Fifteen years of adulthood and you and I are standing in rubble. We’ve built nothing.” “I happen to like standing in rubble,” Carey said. “And I want you to help me make more of it.” “I won’t lie for you if that’s what you’re asking. That’s the one crime I can’t abide, unless it’s on my behalf.” Carey crossed the room to retrieve an envelope from a desk drawer. “After three years—dinners with Delaney’s parents, nicknames from Delaney’s friends, and Delaney’s anesthesiology department at UCSF anticipating a marriage proposal, I’m quite past a breakup note over email.” “You’re using email now?” “Only with my creditors,” Carey said. “Facing her is the decent thing.” “Of course, but I don’t see what I can do—” “How can I face her myself?” Carey asked. “I’ve searched my heart for a way to blame her. I’ve scoured my heart for some exploit to effectively divorce my emotions, and turn it to my advantage, but Delaney is blameless. She’s done nothing but support me and trust me, while I’ve continued to betray her.” “She can’t be so blameless if she considers you and me her best friends. She’s at the very least naïve. And naïveté is like white lace, just begging to be stained and torn.” “Delaney’s naïveté is just another reason to root for her. I’ve yearned for her to meet someone and lie to me about it. But instead, I get infinite devotion, bottomless forgiveness. What am I supposed to do with that?” “I have no clue.” “Exactly,” said Carey. “Betrayal doesn’t run on solar power, it needs nourishment, it needs a catalyst of black coal, and it’s perfectly selfish of her not to give it to me.” “Fly to San Francisco, take the taxi to the Haight, but have a room reserved at the Mandarin on Sansome Street. Tell Delaney she’s wasted the last four years of her life, then get in the taxi and go to the hotel and have a drink at Silks.” “I’ll never go back to Silks,” he said. “Not after they stopped stocking orange bitters. Besides, if push came to shove, I’d rather bring her here and tell her she’s wasted the last four years of her life. She’s flying into Dulles next month.” “You can’t end a four-year affair then send her home on a plane,” I said. “Everyone knows it’s awful to be heartbroken on a plane, especially if you’re flying coach. You have no leg room.” “An unfortunate friend of mine once claimed the solution was to put your carry-on in the overhead.” Carey gave me the unsealed envelope, which contained a first-class plane ticket to San Francisco. “I know you’re not on call this weekend. Window seat.” “But I’ve still got sick patients in the hospital.” “I’m heart sick, Dunstan.” “What on earth do you expect me to do in San Francisco?” “I want you to be my emissary.” “Your emissary?” “Give her my side of it. End it for me. It’ll be easier for you.” “You don’t have a side, you’re a cheat.” “Then tell her that.” “I’ve known Delaney as long as you have. She’s a friend.” “And you allowed her to be cheated on for years?” Carey went to the bar and took the next glass of sake in his line of tumblers. In its place he put his empty glass. “What did you say to her about me when you talked on the phone? What lies did you tell to cover for me?” “We never talked about you,” I said. “So you’re as blameless as she is,” Carey said. “Goodwill himself.” “I’ve always thought myself Mister Worldly Wiseman, actually.” “See? You’re a writer, Dunstan. You’re creative…even humorous once in a blue moon. Tell Delaney a story, anything, I don’t care.” “Delaney has never cared for my writing.” I put the plane ticket back in the envelope and offered it to him. “And she’s a damn good shot. You must do this yourself. Why can’t you see that?” “I’ve seen it already, from all sides. With two serious lovers, I am more committed than a man devoted to his wife because I’ve expanded my heart to meet the needs of two women, both of whom I hold in the highest regard. My love is working at one hundred-and-fifty-percent form.” “Is that what I should tell her? That she had seventy-five percent of you? That when she went down Market Street alone and through a picket line to kill the baby you made together that she had seventy-five percent of you?” “Tell her what you please, but don’t assume you really know a goddamn thing about the two of us or our chemistry. For a long time, I suspected you loved Delaney yourself, but no decent person with those feelings would allow her to be treated how I’ve treated her. You’ll make a good emissary. I may even promote you to consul afterward.” “I expect more from you—” “Sure, no one expects anything from Dunstan because he came up from shit, then he became a doctor after coming out of shit and so he’s superior to me because my mother had a Lamaze coach and I lunched on cucumber sandwiches behind a gate.” Carey slammed the plane ticket on the counter and put his empty shot glass on it as if a wind might swipe it through an open window. “Never getting out of that gate has done more damage to you, than never getting into it did to me. You’re not rejecting Delaney, you’re rejecting life itself. You do love her and you hate that you do.” “Of course I love her,” he said. “And I’m not embarrassed to admit my shortcomings. Despite all evidence, I’m not perfect. I’ve let her obvious devotion soften me up. Her compassion nearly drew something great out of me. But then I reminded myself that it serves Delaney to be devoted to me. Complete devotion to the one you love is easy, natural, gratifying. But let’s not forget that indulging in all that has a price.” “What?” I asked. “Reciprocation?” “Exactly. We’ve all felt that devotion once, then it killed us. Now it must kill Delaney. Brooking her devotion is a much greater sacrifice than her acts of devotion themselves. The pain her love inflicts on me is precisely why I’m sending you to San Francisco. Let’s leave greatness to the inferior people.” “You’ve manufactured all this to serve yourself,” I said. “I don’t know whether to call it a philosophy or a delusion.” “Metaphysics was never your strong suit.” Carey offered me another glass of sake but I declined, knowing that I’d soon start bargaining with him. “You really have no idea what’s at stake,” Carey pleaded. “That’s precisely why you can’t entrust such a task to me.” Carey paused, momentarily in pain. Then he started again—“The Park Hyatt for brunch tomorrow?” “I’ve got rounds.” “And that rules out champagne before?” “I should hope that it does.” I took my jacket. “But I don’t, and it doesn’t.” “Then I’ll see you at one.” “I’m not going to San Francisco.” “I sense that you’re caving in. That’s what I love about you—you say one thing, then do another, and somehow manage to actually feel a third thing.” “Do you still reserve your one o’clock table?” “I have something important to show you tomorrow—it’s truly a matter of life or death.” Carey’s casual remark about me being a writer was typical of him, a comment that worked on many levels, having both subtext and super-text, being both satirical and genuine. In his mind, my vain writing ambitions had long been validated, but he also acknowledged the reality that no one else sensed that validation, not even my mother on her peak dose of serotonin pills. Carey’s boil over failing and my boil over not succeeding had fostered solidarity between us. Unlike Carey, however, I still resented others for their successes, never quite convinced that I had made the correct decisions or been properly compensated for my work. Justice had yet to be done in my case—my talent, my personal sacrifices, which were greater than the average person’s, and more sharply felt on account of my honed sensitivities, had not been fairly rewarded. But Carey had escaped that sentiment. Whether it was his nation-state metaphor, or a side effect of never feeling the weight of poverty, or something else innate, his admiration for other people’s good fortune never yellowed to envy. Carey reduced everyone to featherweight abstractions, neither good nor evil, defying judgment, and unqualified to inhabit his sunless island in its acidic ocean. His willingness to let a refugee like me join him on his island was the strongest argument to going to San Francisco as his emissary. Yet, even salvation could not entice me to deliver this news. I knew that showing up for brunch was at the very least teasing him. At its worst, I would grant him a chance to strengthen his argument. But the Park Hyatt restaurant had one of the best brunches in town, and Carey always put on a great show over a plate of carpaccio—someone ought to be there to see it. “Delaney and I celebrated our one-year here.” Carey rose from the table at my arrival, proudly unconcerned that both the gesture and his double-breasted blazer were leftovers from an era that had passed. “Familiarity may breed contempt, but it also breeds ennui, as you well know.” “I thought we settled Delaney and San Francisco yesterday.” “If you didn’t want a fresh argument, you wouldn’t have shown up,” he replied. “Have a Kir Royale and let’s talk about the airplane leaving Reagan tonight.” “Put yourself on it,” I said. “No one’s arguing it’s going to be a skillet from the moment you land, and worse, you feel more deeply than I do. I’ve never understood why a terminal romantic would put the people in his life on crash courses.” Carey pursed his lips as he turned on his private spike. He pulled back from me for a moment in thought, before his eyes rose over my shoulder as several people came from the hostess’s podium into the wood and glass dining room. I didn’t see the diners until they presented themselves to us. Aged from thirty to sixty, all five of them shared a bleached serenity that I was surprised to suddenly recognize in Carey. They were from different generations and not related, so it had to be something else that had brought such affinity. Carey introduced each diner by turns. The group had been having brunch weekly since summer, and by this season of cherry blossoms had developed a durable rapport that was tolerant of new interlopers. Carey watched me as the group made their way to another table across the room, expecting us to join them at any moment. It tickled Carey that I had remained impressionable into my thirties, and that his demonstrations, turns of phrase, and purple bromides were never in vain. You might’ve argued that these anemic friends of his were legitimate and not burlesque. But if you were in Carey’s life, you had a practical function for him. Presently, I was interviewing for emissary, with possible promotion to consul. “Friends of yours?” I played along. “We’ve been dining here since the summer,” he replied. “I’ve grown rather attached to them.” “So I’ll play emissary to them sometime next year?” “Less than half of them will be dining here next year.” “People are less fickle than you think…even loyal if you give them something to be loyal to.” “They’ve got something to be loyal to—” “And what is it that they’re so loyal to?” “Statistics.” “I don’t understand.” “Ninety percent of them won’t live six months.” Sudden gravity drew me into contemplation before I was able to begin—“I never tell my patients to ascribe to statistics. Statistics apply to a group, not the person.” “Certainly,” Carey replied. “But I find it presumptuous to assume that all six of us will live—that means that no less than sixty other bastards somewhere else are one-hundred percent certain to die.” Through my silence, Carey sipped Prosecco and watched me. The clarity of the morning became jelly. I could not speak. At work, I talked families through death daily; I expounded on mortality with gravitas, while thinking of whether I’d have Thai or sushi that evening. I thought I sat at a table with bottle service when it came to death—special insight afforded special privileges. Carey’s sudden mortality and my consternation when it brushed up against me promised otherwise. “If you’re not going to eat,” Carey said at last, “then maybe we should go see the blossoms.” We took a taxi to the tidal basin without exchanging a word. “Is it cancer?” I asked quietly. “Isn’t it always?” Carey got out and stretched his arms. The fanning white cherry blossoms festooned the brown tree branches. They were already falling and making a slick blanket of petals on the sidewalk, which served as a pestle for the footfall of tourists. “What kind of cancer is it?” I asked. “It started in my neck, but now it’s in my brain. Some people react to cancer by becoming fanatics about it, others disconnect. I really don’t know what to do. You know how I realized something was wrong? I stopped being able to taste anything. I haven’t tasted my food or drink for a long time. Without taste, the texture of food is horrible. Like a life without love, perhaps.” “Who’s your doctor?” “Pressman.” “He’s good.” “So I can expect an extra week? Look up at me, Dunstan.” “You could’ve told me.” I looked up at him and saw our years together in his face. Those years were long and short at once. “I never wanted to involve you in this business of mortality—you’re a doctor, so you know nothing about it. And it’s for that reason, that I ask you to be my emissary.” “You must tell Delaney about this yourself.” “I don’t intend on telling her about this.” He motioned at himself with disgust. “What?” “You heard me.” “You’d send me there to tell her what then?” “Simply that I’m ending it.” “She will despise you for sending me, is that what you want?” “And on her bitterness, she’ll move on with her life with even more clarity than she already possesses.” “But—” “If I widow her, Dunstan, there’ll be grief. And grief doesn’t bring clarity of mind, it brings paralysis. You say we stand in rubble, well I submit that if you’re going to destroy something completely, you must also destroy the rubble.” “And what of Maura?” “I’ve been dating her for three months. A letter shall suffice, and if poetic enough, it might even inspire a real emotion in her, which I’ve been waiting to see since the Chinese New Year.” I vacillated throughout the five-hour flight to San Francisco. Over West Virginia, I intended to execute Carey’s plan as he envisioned. By Wyoming, I had resolved to confess everything to Delaney. As we flew into eastern California, I had retreated from tendering the easy confession, and would instead honor Carey by tendering the hard lie. Over the Sierras, I realized what disturbed me the most about Carey was his determination to treat his death with the fatuousness that he had treated his life. If my patients were so casual about their cancers, I’d work eight-hour days instead of twelve. Where did Carey’s death fit in with his nation-state metaphor? Revolution, overthrow, complete annihilation? I had been nursing the belief that death resolved all things, and lying to Delaney about Carey would leave much unresolved. But death didn’t resolve all things—dying cut right through unsolved puzzles and raveled knots. Death was an ending, not a conclusion. Lopsided, unforeseeable, cruel in its irony, damning in its banality, and cutting through beauty always. So maybe it didn’t matter. Give Carey the honor of choosing his own endgame. The pilot directed the passengers to look out the window—Yosemite was thousands of feet below us and I spotted the pate of El Capitan. So you lie to her Dunstan—your affair with the truth has been up and down all your life. Besides, the truth moves around; a masterful lie stands there like the granite El Capitan and obscures forever. I would not tolerate another flip-flop, so I took a taxi directly from the airport to Upper Haight. Delaney was on her way home from work when I called her, giving her little less than an hour’s notice. She lived a block off of Haight Street in a third-floor apartment with a view of downtown and the Bay. The time change gave me three extra evening hours, which I thought would be more than enough. “What’s happened?” Delaney asked me at the door. “You couldn’t wait two weeks?” Delaney still wore her white lab coat, her UCSF badge attached to the collar. She had let her hair down from a tortoise shell beret that kept it tidy during her cases in the operating room. “Carey is breaking up with you,” I said simply. Her hand fell from the door. I walked by her without an embrace and sat on her couch to calm myself, more roused than I had anticipated. Perfectly symmetric on the walls of her foyer and living room were original paintings and prints bought from Washington and San Francisco galleries. She had finally hung the lithograph purchased during our rendezvous in Vancouver. Her artistic tastes were uncommonly developed for a physician—a sign of her dense broad education. “How did he find out?” Her voice was low, dry, and edged. “Carey doesn’t know.” Delaney shed her lab coat. Her arms, like her legs, were disproportionately long. She was lean, and though generously compensated by emotional gristle, she remained physically weak. “Then why would he break up with me, and why are you here about it?” “He sent me.” Delaney walked along the margin of her drawing room, and then receded into her kitchen. “And you agreed?” “It was another opportunity to see you. I hoped you’d see this as progress.” “Progress toward what?” She turned away from me, crying. “You know that I love him.” I didn’t get up to comfort her. Somehow, as the interloper, I didn’t have that right. “He’s a coward,” she said in a voice I hardly heard. “I wouldn’t be so quick to judge him. Carey is better than us.” “And you’re despicable for agreeing to be his errand boy.” “I’m loyal to him,” I said. “And I’m no errand boy. I’m his emissary.” “You’re his Brutus.” “And his emissary.” “If he cares so little to send his emissary, then there’s nothing left to save.” “There’s nothing left to save, Delaney.” “Then take me to bed.”
MARSHALL MOORE is a surgeon in Jacksonville, Florida.