Despite what they believed, Raymond Clock and Nico Leftiè were not in love. The young couple met while volunteering at one of Nico’s famous luxury homeless shelters, a more romantic setting than one might imagine. Ms. Leftiè, an outrageously wealthy orphan, had invested a substantial portion of her inheritance in a nationwide chain of gourmet, five-star soup kitchens and top-of-the-line homeless resorts. She firmly believed if the downtrodden masses got a taste of comfort and the fruits of success through her philanthropic enterprise, it would awaken a powerful drive to rectify their lives and modify their desperate circumstances.
The shelters, named “Leftiè’s Luxury Suites for the Temporarily Monetarily Disinclined,” or “the LLS’s” as they were more commonly known, were a smashing success in terms of popularity and usage. Packed to bursting every evening, Nico attributed her venture’s fame and pristine reputation to her commitment to excellence, choosing only the finest fabrics and linens to adorn the opulent rooms. While perhaps not precisely in line with her initial intentions for the project, the regal splendor had the effect of sowing a very particular sort of attitude and mindset within LLS regulars. Non-LLS frequenting street denizens scoffed at the snooty airs adopted by the “LL’essers,” their sneering label for this new caste of privileged destitute. LLS inhabitants, in turn, looked down on their unsophisticated former compatriots who, according to a common joke, couldn’t tell a Frette from a Bellino. Nico glowed with pride whenever she overheard this sort of jocular banter drifting down the immaculate corridors of her facilities.
Her one concern, two years into her project, was the troubling statistic that not a single resident had ever filled out a job application or enrolled in any of the generously funded self-actualization seminars given on a weekly basis at each LLS location. To counter her concern, she soothed her mind with the thought that real and sustainable progress takes time and patience, and that she couldn’t expect to change the world overnight. The fact that the LLS initiative had single-handedly reduced the homeless population of the United States of America by 89% also offered a reasonable measure of consolation to the young heiress. The remainder were concentrated in enclaves existing in the more barren parts of Arizona, as well as pockets of “back-to-our-roots” non-housed radicals who believed the LLS system corrupted their pursuit of the Diogenic ideal.
Nico, who maintained a permanent residence on the top floor of every LLS, occasionally enjoyed anonymously volunteering at one of her shelters. She believed this enhanced her understanding of the plight of the homeless on the micro level as it gave her access to the fullness of the LLS experience. She was equally pleased with the chance it gave her to wear the traditional black-and-white maid uniform the lavish flop-houses required their volunteers to don during their shifts. The attention she received from the male volunteers made her feel superior, knowing at any moment she could overwhelm whatever lustful young man was currently harassing her by revealing her true identity. As much as she hated the men who believed her body and attention were their right, she reveled in the shocking potential potency of her own cloaked power suddenly unveiled in the name of divine justice. On more than one occasion she had unleashed the wrath of the legal gods she paid well to destroy lives in need of destroying.
The day they met, Raymond was volunteering as a bellhop at the flagship LLS near his residence in Georgetown. It was the autumn prior to the moment NFVS began ravaging human society, and on this day the young man noted a sensation of potential energy lazily loitering around him, waiting for a catalyst.
Mr. Clock knew this was a rare moment of Kairos. The drudgery of living in the present was heightened with a tension that invigorated and excited him. Even when considering the pointless aspects of his life: his job, his hobbies, his interests, his volunteer work at the LLS, his passions, his goals; for some reason today seemed less inane. His thoughts paused on the LLS and he wondered why he still dragged himself there three times a week.
Philosophically, Raymond found the concept of the LLS absurd, believing that human beings would never react to the external stimuli of comfort with a desire to work hard. Raymond knew his species to be shortsighted and essentially lazy creatures, requiring the proper brand of motivation to inspire them to greatness. He held that any human could be whatever they decided to be, but that they needed some defined force to steer the initial decision. In that respect, his work at the LLS was senseless, but he found humor in the irony of volunteering to participate in an act he knew to be futile. He took pride in knowing he knew that his actions contradicted his beliefs. Besides, if he factored in the girls running around in the French-Maid outfits and the fact that the LLS was a five-minute walk from his home, he acknowledged there were certainly worse places to check the box of obligatory volunteerism.
As a member of the self-aware middle-middle class, Raymond had a severe allergy to anything tainted with the slightest hint of the Myopic Bourgeoisie (MB). He knew that his hatred of the MBs was driven half by his annoyance with the self-serving, entitled idiots who filled out the demographics’ limitless ranks and half out of the fear that he was, underneath all of his vaunted self-awareness and lofty ideals, just another asshole MB who thought he was special. So he was understandably self-conscious whenever he walked around his neighborhood in his LLS uniform. Most of the other volunteers were avowed MBs: self-righteous yuppies looking for a quick and easy feel-good fix. He was terrified that strangers would stereotype him in the same way he stereotyped stereotypical LLS volunteers as he walked the two blocks from his door to the Georgetown location.
To prevent such aspersions from soiling his image in the minds of complete strangers, he would often dress in the garb of a homeless individual, walk to the LLS, and change into his uniform in a stall inside the lobby’s lavatory. It was in one of these impeccably carved oak stalls, each with their own Toto Neorest SE and roll of artisanal toilette cloth, that Raymond Clock could be found on this specific autumn day participating in his usual costumed ritual. He pulled on the expensive thick-velvet maroon bellhop uniform, dictated as the dress code for male LLS volunteers, and exited the stall and bathroom. He crossed the highly polished Pietra Firma Luxtouch tiles, and made his way to a side room that served as the posh bellhop-holding area. In this porter purgatory, Raymond was subjected to the color commentary of his MB colleagues. Their conversations spanned the full spectrum of human pursuits including by not limited to:
MB #1: Charles! How’s thy pieceth? Still getting it in?
MB #2: Nope. I droppedeth that slut last week after yonder hoe brought up the idea of moving in together. Could you even imagine? Move in with that bitcheth?
MB #1: Damn, bitch had some mad titeths on her though. Thou meteth her at Wicked Willy’s, right?
MB #2: Helleth yeah. Crazy bitch waseth wasted and working that pole. All I did was flashesth some of that sweet, sweet casheth and the slut was sold. I was fuckin’ trashed, so I was pretty stoked wheneth I awoke and she waseth hot.
MB #1: And the whore thought you’d let her move in? Fuckin’ sluts be crazeth. Can I get her number?
MB #1: Tristan! You make it out of New York alright, cur?
MB #2: What do you mean?
MB #1: Yonder fucking poors outsideth the NYSE.
MB #2: Ha! Bunch of fags and feminazi sluts. We got the proper authorities to beateth the shit out of ‘em when they tried to block the entrance.
MB #1: Jealous bitches. Haterz gonna hate, bro. Don’t let that shit get to you, What Would Ayn Rand do, am-I-right?
MB #2: Hells to the yeah, curseph. Fashion Meets Finance was that night so I fucked a bitcheth extra hard in honor of the leeches. That’s what that bitcheth Rand would do. Heard she was a freaketh.
MB #1: Hambleton! Fuck you! I saw you and your bitch at Tosca the other night!
MB #2: My B, cur. I didn’t even see you. Why were you even at that faggoty shit? Shit was wacketh as fuck.
MB #1: My number one slut dragged me along. I heard Wellington Sneath was going to be there, so I went to get a better seat than yon fucker.
MB #2: Knave’s such a prick. Doesn’t his father own the fuckin’ opera house though? How’d thou scoreth a better spot?
MB #1: His father owes my father for investing in some fracking shit out in West Virginia cousin-fuckin’ county or whatever a few years ago. So I called up my father and told him what I needed and he made shit happen. You shoulda seen that fag’s face when I sat down.
MB #2: Epic shit, yo-eth. Ha! How far did you get before you fell asleep?
MB #1: I didn’t even watch that shit. I just brought a lamp and worked on the KZQ-MBT merger.
MB #2: Nice, cur! Classic! By the way, is that shit going down this spring?
MB #1: Don’t tell anyone, but…
And so on.
His mind always flashed to the fate of the unfortunate Clyde Griffiths whenever he took a seat in the bellhop lounge. Unlike that yutz Griffiths, however, his eyes were wide open to the corruptions and seductions surrounding him. It was more likely he was playing the part of the worldly Eddie Doyle while the other bellhops were his naïve protégés. Whenever he suffered through their failings, he’d always remind himself it was not their fault, and that he was unquestionably responsible for guiding and influencing those with fewer deposits in the intellectual bank. He also felt sufficiently self-aware to recognize how condescending this worldview made him, so he settled on an arrangement where he would grudgingly admit his superiority only as long as he also believed he was a horrible person for considering himself superior. It was a constant mental battle resulting in an ouroboros of self-critique and analysis. Though he struggled, he was confident he was both equal to and horrible for being equal to the challenge.
While an easy assignment for those who didn’t feel responsible for the quality of life of the residents, volunteering as a bellhop at an LLS was physically and emotionally taxing for Raymond. The demand for the charity room service provided for the residents, with meals prepared around the clock by a cadre of volunteer chefs personally screened by Nico, always outstripped the supply of labor available from the corps of volunteers. Delays in service often led to a high level of emotional and physical abuse directed at weak bellhops by the unfortunate masses huddled in their master suites. The intensity of trauma inflicted on the maroon-clad workforce was such that every LLS required a volunteer clinical psychologist during each shift to counsel and support the browbeaten staff. The other volunteer bellhops came back for the volunteer maids, who were plentiful, often from respectable families, and already in a hotel bedroom. Raymond came back for the abuse.
After Williams, an investment banker with the MBiest of MB backgrounds, returned from a call with a face full of caviar, thrown at him by a resident who was perturbed his request for Beluga was filled with substandard Sterlet, it was Raymond’s turn to serve the less-fortunate. As usual, he did not have to wait long before an order for poached quail eggs on brioche toast points with jamon iberico and truffled hollandaise and a bone china demitasse of kopi luwak came less than a minute later. Springing into action, the indomitable Mr. Clock meandered out of the posh room and made his way down the mahogany-paneled back hallways leading to the LLS kitchens.
His entrance was greeted by a familiar volunteer saucier, an interesting-appearing young woman of whom he’d always been too intimidated to strike up a sustained conversation. Such an exchange would inevitably put his external façade of hipness under a microscope, something he feared above all else. He preferred maintaining his illusion of cool through the calculated implementation of aloof and casual world-weary remarks he spent hours perfecting before deploying them into the field.
Today, besides the usual spotless white chef garb provided by LLS, the saucier wore heavy olive combat boots, black stockings, and a billowing midnight-dyed skirt. Her liberally pierced ears indicated to Raymond she was steeped in the type of progressive, independent culture within which he believed he would feel most comfortable. He often thought of himself as an exiled member of this culture, born through unlucky chance into the stifling environment of Midwestern suburbia, forever hoping to meet the right sort of person who could lead him home. Every time he came into contact with someone exuding an aura or wearing paraphernalia associated with this independent tribe, he held his breath in hopes that this was the individual he’d been waiting for; the one who would introduce him to a subculture whose members understood the world in the same way he did. He often daydreamed of meeting this group: people who watched the right films, listened to the right music, read the right books, believed in the right philosophies, and, most importantly, wanted to talk about it.
Raymond presented his prepared quip; something about the irony of stereotypes and his recent involvement with an Italian diplomat he’d encountered by chance at a Driving to the Mall to Die concert. This man had invited Raymond to ride on his Vespa which, because he was a diplomat, possessed a diplomatic license plate. So Raymond had spent a surreal night riding to underground clubs on the back of a diplomatic Vespa. Though the saucier smiled appreciatively at the diversity and depth each element of the story implied his life possessed, he sensed her smile was more strained than usual.
He gathered the items for his delivery and departed the kitchen in haste before the saucier had time to intimate any further non-verbal indictments of Raymond’s being. Silently cursing himself for his obscene misstep, he made his way towards the elevator. Once safely alone within the ornate machine and climbing towards the twenty-second floor, he began considering the full repercussions to what he had done. This was an unfortunate turn of events. Between mocking his fellow bellhops and potentially meeting the right sort of people in the kitchen, Raymond reflected that he’d enjoyed volunteering at the LLS. But after today’s disaster, he could never again show his face.
Instead of dwelling on his shame and bemoaning his upcoming drought of French Maid costume wearing women, he focused on the next few steps of his plan of action. After dropping off this final delivery, he would change into his civilian clothes, stop by the manager’s office, explain that a sudden increase in his workload prohibited his continuation as an LLS volunteer, turn in his uniform, and walk home. He might even stop at that new Thai restaurant just down the street. It would certainly be nice if a decent Thai place moved into the neighborhood. While the current selection wasn’t horrible, they weren’t restaurants he could let slip in conversations that he lived within walking distance of and knew the menu of by heart and suggest that everyone try the pla rad prik and ask for Sven.
As Raymond created a list of potential benefits stemming from potentially having the best Thai food in the city right outside his door, the distinctive ding of the LLS elevator disrupted his meditation and announced his arrival at the presidential suite. He stepped out with resolve, unconditionally sure of the course his life would take over the next thirty to forty-five minutes, depending on whether he felt like Thai. He strode to the door, knocked vigorously, and dropped every dish he was carrying as soon as it opened.
Standing in the entrance was not the scrupulously kempt scruff of the typical aged LLS patron; rather Raymond was facing an astounding woman in her mid-twenties.
The woman in the open doorframe scrutinized him with her large, expressive eyes, which betrayed a mild shock buried beneath layers of effortless condescension. The impression one immediately derived from her manner was a demand for excellence, an intolerance for anything less than ones’ definitive best. It seemed that whenever an individual breathed the same air as this person, they were seized by a sudden, frantic desire to justify their existence. These sorts of situations offered a clear choice to the unlucky plebian: either attempt to rise to meet her as an equal, or be crushed under the weight of her unfulfilled expectations.
The delicacy of her physical features did nothing to diminish these overwhelming qualities. Her pale complexion was complimented by vaguely non-Anglo-Saxon features and dark hair, which was cropped short and streaked with a deep blue line running from the crown of her head to her left temple. Her slight frame was handsomely clad in the LLS-mandated French maid outfit. Even were he not scrambling to gather the shattered glass and smashed quail eggs while sopping up the hollandaise and kopi luwak quickly soaking into the cream-colored carpets of the hallway, Raymond would have been too astonished by the woman before him to formulate something worth saying.
Instead, he steeled himself for the trials ahead, forced a laugh, and claimed he was an idiot. He laughed again, apologized profusely, and said something about how he’d always been unforgivably clumsy. Finally finished cleaning what he could and feeling an adequate level of self-assurance, he stood and faced the figure in the doorway with the remnants of her order clutched in his arms.
For her part, Nico was passingly intrigued by the awkwardly formal young man. His movements were stiff and fitful, like a bargain bin android. He was transparent in his desire for her to think well of him, but buried beneath his embarrassment and false modesty was a hint of defiant masculine pride.
In addition to his demeanor, Nico noted a distinct physical appearance. His delicate, shadowed features gave the impression of an abused fragility of spirit, a notion reinforced by his minimal musculature and distressingly poor padding for his thin frame. His unnaturally light skin was topped with an unkempt mop of taupish hair, with mottled azure and sky blue eyes. His eyes struck her more than anything. Despite his air of desperation, his eyes were steady and intense. They burned with an indefatigable sense of purpose that seemed at odds with his insubstantial body, and she felt a nuanced pity for this sickly creature.
And so, imagining herself a fair Esmeralda deigning to help a poor grotesque, Nico allowed him to talk.
“So where would you like this?” Raymond inquired, forcing a smile as he slightly hefted his shard filled arms.
“Oh, please just put it anywhere, though I always take my meals in bed.” Nico joked to help him feel more comfortable in her presence.
Raymond moved into the room and dumped the full contents of the shattered chaos onto the luxurious bed.
“What are you doing!?” Nico snapped with genuine alarm. While her pity disappeared in the face of his patriarchal arrogance, she permitted him to explain.
“I was not going to judge your desires and your habits. Everyone has the right to live in the way they choose as long as it does not infringe upon the rights of others. I figured you taking your meals on your bed, even meals in less-than-ideal condition, was just one of those personal peccadilloes we all have. It is not for me to judge.” He proclaimed triumphantly, immensely proud that he had accomplished his goals of eliciting a reaction from her that was not cloaked in condescension, found an opportunity to establish that he was substantial, and used the word ‘peccadillo’ in a sentence.
Though Nico could tell this was a rehearsed recitation, and she was still put off by his poor sense of humor, she admitted to herself that she felt a twinge of admiration as she watched him exploit such a petty moment to wax philosophic.
“Well anyway, you ruined my bed with your stupid prank. Who are you?”
Internally quavering from the force of her words, Raymond re-centered himself and replied, just as he’d practiced so many times while standing at home in front of his closet mirror, “Why, I’m Raymond Clock. Who are you?”
He spoke as if reading from a script, which activated the impish part of Nico’s brain with an idea.
“Before we get to who I am, I have another question for you.”
Raymond performed an ungainly bow in his bellhop finery and nearly fell over as he answered, “I’m quite obviously at your service.”
“Indeed. So let’s say a man has pointed a gun at your face…”
“…and pulls the trigger…”
“That’s even more unfortunate. Did I do something in particular to this man?”
“Don’t ask questions, just listen,”
“Now then, you have three separate scenarios to choose from: one in which the bullet takes 10 seconds to reach you, one in which the bullet takes 10 minutes to reach you, and one in which the bullet takes 10 hours to reach you. First, what would you spend your time doing during each of those scenarios and second, which one of the three would you prefer?”
Raymond narrowed his eyes and cocked his head as if trying to get a better look at her. “Why did you ask me that?”
Making no effort to hide her disappointment, Nico said, “Never mind, it doesn’t matter. You can just leave all that there, thank you.”
As he shuffled to the door, Raymond looked pensive before finally saying, “You know, I asked why you asked me that because I’ve actually asked that question to people before and…well it was a bit odd to hear it coming from someone else.”
It was now Nico’s turn to be disarmed. She paused before she spoke, making sure to phrase her thoughts correctly, “You’ve asked this question before? Where and when did you hear it?”
“I made it up.”
“That’s not possible, I created this question.”
“Well, I mean my question is a bit different. I thought of it while on a rather turbulent plane ride and imagined the plane crashing into something; a building, a mountain, whatever.”
“You thought of that while on a plane?”
“Why would you do that to yourself?”
“Well, that’s a pretty morbid thought.”
“As opposed to being shot in the face with a bullet?”
“Well yes, but that doesn’t involve actively thinking about dying with everyone around me.”
“I suppose, but anyways, what I imagine is seeing the explosion or whatever as it’s rushing up this metal tube towards me. There’s no escape, there’s certain death, so really it’s all just about the length of time it takes for that death to reach you. In my scenario I even give 75 years as an option.”
“75 years on an airplane? Who in the world would choose that? Give me a quick, fiery death.”
“I think there’s a certain beauty in seeing your own death and embracing it on your terms. For me the image of being consumed by inevitable flames is much nicer than being shot in the head with a bullet.”
“The beauty of death is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose. You say you’ve asked people before, to who?”
Raymond reddened, “Well…I mean…mostly…women?”
Nico laughed at his embarrassment, “I bet you’re a real gem on dates.”
Raymond grinned back at her, “Like you wouldn’t believe. Want to hear another question?”
Nico smiled in spite of herself, “Well you didn’t answer my question, but I suppose I do.”
Encouraged, Raymond began reciting, “You’re given the most beautiful thing in the world, okay?”
“What do you mean ‘The most beautiful thing in the world’? How’s that defined?”
“It’s just something defined as the most beautiful thing in the world.”
“How did I come across this magical beautiful thing? Why is someone giving it to me? How long do I get to have it?
“Hold on! Just a moment! Let me ask the question first!”
“Well then get to it, please.”
“Alright, so, you’ve got the most beautiful thing in the world, but as part of the bargain of receiving it you have to choose one of three options. The first option is you have to look at it every day for the rest of your life for a minimum of one hour. The second option is to look at it once and then never again. The final option is to never look at the most beautiful thing in the world ever. Which one would you choose?”
“Well, that’s a slightly better question to ask on a date at least. Do these women you go out with swoon as your deep and gentle soul discusses the nature of temporal beauty?”
Raymond was embarrassed again. He’d revealed something important to him, information that left him more vulnerable than he’d intended.
Seeing his hurt expression, Nico changed her tone, “Oh I’m only teasing you. I‘d choose the second option because the first option would make this beautiful thing mundane and the last option would make me a coward. The second option understands the importance of experiences and how beauty works.”
“Yes…yes! That’s…That’s exactly what I say as my answer!”
“It’s a bit sad though, particularly if you’re talking to a potential romantic partner.”
“Well, if you’re saying beauty and your appreciation for that beauty is based on frequency or level of exposure, why would anyone think you’d be someone they could be with long-term? Wouldn’t your exposure to the ‘beauty’ of that person’s wit or intellect or physical features cause their beauty to fade in your eyes so that it becomes mundane?”
“Well, I see how you could get that…that’s something I didn’t entirely consider…I think because the way I look at it, if you’re going to be with someone for quite some time you’d find a new part of their beauty in every action or every shared experience. So if that person is the most beautiful thing in the world to you, you get to experience a new aspect of that beauty every day as situations are constantly changing.”
“Doesn’t the first option imply that though? Couldn’t you do that by seeing the thing for one hour every day?”
“I suppose, so maybe I just talked myself into a different answer. Or maybe both answers are right and it just depends on the relationship, if we’re talking about relationships.”
The conversation had gone on for much longer than Nico had intended. She’d become more interested in this odd man than she’d ever thought possible. The way his brain worked both fascinated and frustrated her. Deciding it was time to end their dialogue before it encroached any further on the sanctum she’d built around her emotions, she finally answered his first question, “Anyways, my name is Nico Leftiè,” she hesitated and quickly added, “I’m a dancer.”
“Oh, what type of dancer are you?”
Nico was annoyed with herself. The dancer comment was supposed to be a joke, a triviality juxtaposed with the grandeur and implications of her name. The whole point had been to observe his reaction when he discovered who he’d been chatting with. The dancer addendum was a jest, an absurd descriptor clearly dwarfed by her towering moniker. No one had ever described Nico Leftiè as a dancer. In truth, however, it was how she defined herself, and she didn’t know why she told him. Now this man knew something about her.
Dancing had been Nico’s concentration at the Millard Fillmore Preparatory Academy, an institution famed for churning out the best minds the nation’s privileged, non-working class had to offer. MF Prep’s main focus, after charging $150,000 a year for tuition, was on grooming its attendees for their future charming lives of leisure. Among the courses offered were The Logistical Challenges of Material Accumulation, The Art of Art Patronage, and Personal Imagery in the Public Conscience: Projection, Construction, and Maintenance. Nico had been the Academy’s most gifted pupil, excelling in every accelerated course the Rhode Island based institute offered.
After six years at the school, in a break from their proud traditions, 12-year-old Nico was asked by her handlers what she’d like to learn most. Her emphatic answer was dance. This was unprecedented; never in the history of the school had a student expressed a desire to learn something new or try. After increasing her tuition rate to justify the special request, a team of elite professional dance instructors were well compensated to teach Nico how to dance.
Due to the peculiarity of Nico’s nature, the academy felt it would be prudent to keep any news of these events closely guarded. They advised Nico to maintain her appearance as a normal MF Prep student, perfectly impermeable to the woes of the world through a patented aegis of sophisticated ennui.
It was the fear of those closest to the immense wealth of the Leftie Fortune that any deviation from the measured vapidity ingrained in MF Prep pupils would destabilize their comfortable existence. These anxieties reached a fevered pitch when Nico legally changed her name by adding an accent grave to her second “e.” While the official line coming from Nico’s camp stated the change stemmed from her desire to distance herself from a blood-soaked heritage, in reality Nico felt the è looked artistic and gave her name a sense of European urbanity. This reasoning was kept among board members who held that an heiress who cares about anything is a loose cannon and threatens stock prices.
Those of her hangers-on who were in the know also blamed the LLS disaster on Nico’s “abnormal” passion for dance. If she were true to the principles of an MF Prep education, she would be gallivanting around Monaco like her peers instead of wasting her time and fortune on the homeless. However, as a family with a history of slight paranoid schizophrenia, the Lefties had taken every precaution to protect their money, ensuring Nico’s riches were hers and hers alone to squander. When Nico’s father and mother, Felix Leftie and Yoshi Fukui, met their unfortunate end in a tragic ritual suicide accident when Nico was 11, the quality of the legal documents safeguarding transfer of the Leftie Fortune to Nico were unimpeachable. This meant that the criticisms of the sycophants surrounding her served merely as background noise in Nico’s life.
After 16 years of intensive instruction, Ms. Leftiè, with the help of a team of internationally known dance professionals, felt ready to strike out on her own. Though dance was something she was eager to pursue, she was also practical. Nico knew that once her passions, the reinforcing support beams of her psyche, were exposed, she would be left in a position of increased emotional vulnerability. Overtly caring about something would expose her to potential critiques; attacks on her artistic essence. Her challenge was in finding a way to limit her disclosures while still expressing herself through dance as much as possible. She normally approached the idea of going public with extreme caution. But here, in this room, her psychological acrobatics had suffered a disastrous dismount.
“I studied the art of post-performance dance, a fairly new school of thought within the dance world. It aims to affect audiences through what we like to call ‘dance deprivation.’”
With a tone of disappointment accompanied by a thrilling mental rush that she may be able to salvage the situation, Nico elaborated, “Dance deprivation is the delta between the audience’s expectation of a dance performance and the reality of no such performance actually ever existing.”
Raymond was firmly committed to possessing the character trait of considering no art too strange or experimental. The philosophy he chose to believe in held that every fringe art movement had value and every aesthetic sensibility should be tolerated and promoted, if for no other reason than to add to the diversity of an otherwise inane human existence. Whenever he witnessed a person experience and reject a challenging piece, he couldn’t help, nor did he wish to deny, feeling a sense of superior sophistication and aesthetic understanding. He held that his personal enjoyment of a work should have very little to do with his designation of a work as good or bad. For Raymond, the lack of universal aesthetic rules meant that labeling any art as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ was an absurd exercise in futility.
The implementation of his philosophy was stymied, however, by the terror he felt at being associated with anything the caste of professional critics who served as official arbiters of taste labeled “bad.” Though he told himself he didn’t believe in their pronouncements, he was careful to publicly carry their cumbersome water in order to maintain his own credibility. Using this strategy, he achieved a feeling of even greater superiority. By ensuring he followed the defined guidelines of good taste, his public palate remained immune to any possible official censure, and by not actually believing in those guidelines, he was able to cast himself as a vanguard of the post-aesthetic world.
Now he was confronted with an extraordinary person with an artistic idea he’d never heard before. Raymond thought this concept was exactly the type of idea the person he defined himself as should accept as an example of challenging Post-Avant-Garde art. But he was horrified to discover, through the way she was looking at him right now, that he might be representing himself as more conservative than she. Wasn’t it obvious from his demeanor that he valued the contributions of Cy Twombly? He was seized with a desperation to prove his universal acceptance of artistic concepts.
“That’s an interesting idea,” he said with all the sincerity he could muster. “When will the next non-performance occur?”
Vaguely surprised by his answer but assuming he was merely trying to ingratiate himself through blandly positive remarks, she replied, “We don’t put on non-performances as events, we plant them as potential ideas within the mind of a potential audience. See, look at this.” She grabbed that day’s New York Times from the gilded nightstand. “This’s what we create: impressions of the prospect of dance.”
Nico opened the paper to a full-page advertisement nestled in Culture. The spread featured a picture of a woman who appeared to be dancing on an anonymous stage. The only text on the page read, in bold, blocked capital letters “DANCE: NOVEMBER 13.”
In almost every circumstance, when discussing a work of art with its creator, Raymond intentionally avoided offering critical suggestions, instead focusing on what the piece made him feel or think. His reasoning behind this practice was simple: first, he didn’t want to be rude to the creative who’d infused their work with a piece of themselves. And second, he was terrified the artist would think he was a fraud who didn’t “get” difficult art. He’d never considered himself a creative person – satisfied with the roles of deep thinker and patron of the arts – so he felt completely unqualified to remark with any authority on the work of another. His usual nightmares began with a vision of hip people with cool tattoos talking about cool things while wearing cool clothes and hanging out in cool places.
Here, with Nico’s concept of “Dance Deprivation,” however, he felt for the first time he had something substantial to contribute. Hurling caution into the grasping hands of Boreas, Raymond offered his suggestion.
“What if you added a location to this impression? Wouldn’t that increase the deprivation delta?”
The impact of this suggestion on Nico’s world was profound. Her next few seconds were replete with wide-eyed blinking, descending lower mandibles, and a subtle body-wide shiver. Who was this person and what were his qualifications? In perfecting her dance deprivation project, she’d worked with a team comprised of top conceptual artists, choreographers, and marketing engineers. Her commitment to credentialing the project above reproach was absolute. But here was just some person from the streets, volunteering in a business she owned and wearing clothes she’d selected, trying to tell her how to improve her work. And as far as Nico was concerned, it was a marvelous suggestion.
The summation of the entirety of her life experiences informed her that good ideas did not materialize out of the minds of unqualified and unpaid sources. Her next question was entirely practical, uttered in the tone she employed when dealing with subordinate business associates who tried to play coy with offers.
“How much do you want for that idea?”
The abrupt change from personally approachable to professional adversarial was jarring. Dismayed but not broken, Raymond hoped a pleasant and engaging demeanor would reassure her that he was not some god-awful opportunist.
“It’s a suggestion. I don’t want anything for it; I was talking to you about your work and thought that idea might be nice.”
But any hopes he held that his statement contained restorative elements were shredded as he watched her face cloud with righteous anger.
“Who do you think you’re talking to? Everyone wants something. You don’t just say things expecting to receive nothing in return. Even our biological impulses for altruism are underpinned by our desire to preserve our genetic line. We’re not reinventing the wheel with this conversation. So, I’ll ask again, how much do you want for that idea?”
With a sudden swell of emotions inspiring an honesty he hadn’t used in the presence of another human being since he first became self-aware, Raymond’s words tumbled forth in a muddled torrent. “I think you’re right, I do want something. I want to demonstrate to you that I’m worth talking to; that I’m someone with whom you’d want to hold a conversation. I want to continue talking to you and learn what you think about everything in the world. Finally, I’m trying to validate my own estimation of my self-worth.”
“Please leave my room, Mr. Clock.”
Feeling what he was sure to be a purity of emotion untainted by his usual analytical neurosis, he listened to himself say, “Yes, I understand. I am very sorry.” After which he strode proudly out the door.
In a noticeably softer tone, Nico called after him, “One moment, please.”
Raymond ceased his haughty promenade, stiffly halting just outside the entrance.
This was it. He’d played this instant in his head thousands of times, memorizing every sensory-rich nanosecond. He knew what she would say, he knew how he’d respond, and he knew what it would mean to his future. As he turned, time flowed around him with the inexorable grace of orbiting celestial bodies. He was filled with equal measures breathless anticipation and soul-shrinking fear. Though he had no doubts pertaining to the events about to transpire, he feared that this, his most hallowed of occasions, would not meet his lofty expectations.
Now standing, facing Nico and his destiny, Raymond braced his heart for the force with which this whirlwind of transformation would sweep his old life away. In a controlled tone, speaking as if acting within a lucid dream, Raymond quietly addressed his future, “Yes?”
“Before you go, could I please have your contact information? My lawyers will be in touch regarding the acquisition of your idea. It is a good idea and I’d like to use it.”
Raymond remained standing, facing Nico. He was frozen in place as he pored over the words, trying to glean their true meaning. What he’d experienced couldn’t really be what’d happened. What she’d said couldn’t really be what she’d said. He’d known this moment; it couldn’t be anything other than the predetermined event he’d spent his whole life imagining. But he couldn’t understand what she meant. What was she implying? With a humble confidence rooted in absolute faith in his vision, Raymond asked her to elucidate.
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you mean. You want my contact information?”
“I don’t understand why you don’t understand.” Nico responded with an exasperated, candid perplexity. “How do I make this clearer? I really like your idea and I want to use it. Is that possible?”
He considered what she was saying, tamping down the molten ball of panic creeping up his chest. For the first time since the conversation began, he felt doubt in meaning and outcome. In order to remain in control of his mind until he found a psychologically safe location to disintegrate, he chose to put off considering the consequences of his mistake. Remaining physically functional was now his primary concern.
“That’s fine, here’s my card.” Raymond intoned as he mechanically reached into his pocket to retrieve an outdated business card from an unpaid internship he’d held at a now-defunct newspaper. He no longer worked at that particular paper, but his current position as an orderly at Serene Green’s House for the Intellectually Unique didn’t afford him the opportunity to create a new, appropriately representative name card.
Nico politely accepted the card and thanked him for his time.
Raymond drifted home in a fog of repressed despair.
 If one were a classist bigot towards the homeless.
 Few and proud though they were.
 Though cardboard boxes serve as poor substitutes for wooden barrels.
 According to his official autobiography and subsequent interviews.
 A culturally rather than legally obligatory practice. To not volunteer was to signal one’s lack of virtue to elite American society.
 Designed by Nico and exclusively manufactured for use in the LLS’s.
 Names have obviously been changed to protect the innocent.
 Thinking about the extended period for which he’d waited on this fantasy savior depressed him. However, it also infused him with the belief that perhaps this idealized culture might not even exist and that he was inherently special. This was something he never let himself acknowledge, but when calculating the raw data measuring these emotional triggers and the resulting release of serotonin and dopamine within his brain, empirically speaking, Raymond quantitatively enjoyed the idea that he might be unique more than he valued the potential of meeting his mental kinfolk. His refusal to submit to his natural arrogance caused him to violently reject these thoughts whenever they manifested within his consciousness. But they were always there, drifting on the periphery of his psyche.
By constraining his interactions with individuals who had the potential to change his life to pithy statements laboriously constructed to demonstrate that he was a person who possessed the traits he believed the theoretical person he would respect should respect, he was able to protect himself from exposure as a fraud . The barrier also served to enshrine the object of his delusions in a protective and idealistic bubble. He would not reveal himself and could continue to imagine the object of his utopian vision was exactly the person he wanted them to be. Raymond, acknowledging this strategy was cowardly, mitigated the negative impact of that label by also believing it was pragmatic. Ultimately, he felt that as much as he suppressed it, his secret belief that he was special meant he would never find the person or culture he was looking for. Therefore living in this fantasy world of cursory encounters with people he could idealize might be the closest he would ever come to feeling fulfilled or connected to any other human being. In his mind, his naïve belief in an idealized human’s potential was a superior worldview to the realist’s certainty of that same individual’s inescapable failings.
 Immediately, he began analyzing each feature of the information he’d just relayed; assessing potential vulnerabilities. He was sure Driving to the Mall to Die was a well-regarded band in almost every circle. The majority of their albums had received a high 7 or mid-8 on Meatstick (A website Raymond abhorred for its taste-making elitism and pretense, but read regularly to make sure he didn’t commit a faux pas in his professed aesthetic preferences in front of anyone who pretentiously cared what Meatstick had to say). Sure, Eat Burgers to Save Lives had received a 6, but it was a high 6! Anyway, she couldn’t possibly believe that album was his favorite DttMtD album. Another possibility flashed through his cerebral cortex: maybe she was concerned that DttMtD’s music had been used in a few commercials and films. He dismissed this idea as well, as he’d considered this potential landmine when originally crafting the story. He’d deemed it a safe reference with the saucier because he was positive he’d referenced enough obscure music and art in her presence to achieve credibility in her mind, safeguarding against any confusion that his taste was tainted with any tawdry commercialism. Perhaps it had something to do with the Italian diplomat? And just then, a thunderbolt rent his brain in twain: what if she thought he was racist for talking about stereotypes, Italians and, Vespas? Startled by this idea, one he had never even considered given that the irony of stereotypes was one of the themes of his tale, Raymond anxiously reflected on the prospect, eventually deciding this must be the reason for her muted reaction. His mind frantically raced to gather itself and send its corporeal extension into crisis response mode.
 A ding Nico had selected after passing over fifty other elevator dings presented to her by the leading brand in the elevator ding industry.
 Raymond had spent many weeks’ worth of accumulated time throughout his interminable twenty-six years imagining the moment he would meet the woman who would save his life. Everything he rabidly and doggedly drove himself to experience and every nuance in the character he had meticulously crafted for the role he wished to fill was done in preparation for that moment. He’d left a part of himself open at all times in anticipation, veritably hurtling through his life, bouncing from one experience to another as he desperately sought to find her, whoever she was. He was always ready, completely willing, and, as far as he was concerned, totally able for that one long-awaited figure to appear before him. Unfortunately, all of his plans and preparations were for naught as he watched them crash to the ground with those hand-crafted porcelain dishes and a significant portion of his ego.
 Perhaps, he thought, his floundering about on the floor with the remnants of her dinner was a happy coincidence, for it gave him time to gather his wits. It was as if he’d encountered an ethereal entity; a figure from a classical mural suddenly sprung to life; the perfect amalgamation of his idealizations wrought through his years of delusions. Every ounce of his personal will was necessary to combat his instinct to bolt down the emergency exit, not return his uniform, ignore the judgmental stares of the creatures he passed on the street who would surely lump him in with the LLS MBs, and sprint by the new Thai restaurant without even considering if the best Thai food in the city had indeed moved in next door.
 There was comfort in self-effacement, and it was from there he drew a great measure of his confidence. Openly admitting mistakes and teasing himself in a public setting demonstrated his sense of security and that he was willing to listen to constructive criticism.
 While Raymond was fully aware that Nico Leftiè was a world-renowned billionaire philanthropist in whose corporately owned clothing and building he was currently standing, his fierce commitment to treating everyone he encountered as an equal mitigated his mind-numbing terror and disorientation.
 Nico’s monetarily enhanced position was derived from her grandfather, Havel Leftie, who had amassed his fortune through his start-up advanced defense and weapons research firm, Leftie’s Left-Handed Bits and Bobs (LBB). The highly advanced defense research corporation specialized in outfitting clients with a southpaw-friendly arsenal while maintaining the death-dealing capabilities of alternately handed munitions. Though initially a massive failure, LBB became an overnight success in 1974 with the election of Gerald Ford as President of the United States. Ford’s emphasis on left-handed integration, the keystone of his defense policy initiatives, allowed LBB to corner the market. Once American forces fielded and became proficient in left-leaning arms, top military strategists discovered it theoretically gave their troops in the field an advantage over adversaries unused to being shot at by leftwardly fired bullets, bombs, and missiles. As American military dominance asserted itself and took advantage of the weakness of their right-handed foes, the fortunes of the Leftie clan soared.
 A sad necessity as Ms. Leftiè completed her MF Prep coursework tremendously early, with many years’ worth of tuition still possible.
 Raymond had a guess as to what she might mean, but feared being wrong more than he desired to be right, so he gambled on sounding less deeply artistic as preferential to chancing catastrophic wrongness.
 The group would suddenly realize they’d been infiltrated by a fake, and turn to Raymond with hatred in their eyes. He was totally uncool, not someone this elite group would ever want to keep around. He was cast out, back into the wilderness of lonely consciousness. Then he’d wake, knowing he’d never left.
 Tailoring his entire being towards the pursuit of one single moment had given him clarity of purpose, but once complete, he was unsure how he’d be affected. He had peripheral goals: a career he could take pride in, making an impact on the world through some presently unknown project, and esoteric, ill-defined personal development objectives. However, these plans were all subordinate to what he knew was the aorta of his existence: finding a kindred mind he was able to love that would lead him away from the trite mediocrity engulfing him.