After her hectoring from Dr. Francis DeMasters, the need to change the abhorrent living conditions in her new neighborhood filled Nico with purpose. With no source of fresh food, no bohemian coffee shops, no underground theaters, and no safely edgy bodegas, she felt the population of Anacostia lacked opportunities and fuel to express its true identity and culture. The blight of gentrification, however, was ever on her mind, filling her with revulsion at the prospect of unintended consequences. If these cultural bastions were to spring to life, the subsequent cost of living increases would make the newly revitalized district unlivable for the very people she was trying to help. Her first order of business was to circumvent this issue by purchasing the whole of Anacostia.
Initially, this was not particularly difficult. Land was cheap and owners were happy to sell for the inflated price Nico was offering. But as word got around that a new slumlord was systematically buying every scrap of property, building owners became difficult, with some demanding outrageous sums for run-down piles of rubble barely fit to house the rats living beneath their rotting floorboards. But she paid it. Money was trivial compared to her vision.
Her board of directors was apoplectic. They harangued her for irresponsibility, claiming she would ruin herself if she continued. But as they’d made the same claim when she briefed them on the LLS, Nico merely humored the room of worried, wrinkled white men out of pity. From her room at the Red Roof Inn, she held daily teleconferences with her accountants and lawyers, but the news was always the same; her wise investment choices were soaring, leaving enough petty cash to run the entire LLS system at a loss for fifty years with money left to buy D.C. twice over. The board’s case was groundless, but to demonstrate she was a good sport she increased each of their shares by .1%. Nico assumed this gesture resolved the matter and moved on.
The lynchpin in her plan was the erection of a new Anacostia Performing Arts Center and Theater (APACT) to her extremely specific specifications. When the neighborhood began to buzz with culture, she’d use APACT to test her ideas for dance projects on a micro level, before she introduced them to the world. By experimenting in this low risk environment, she’d refine her ideas before she took the great personal risk of exposing her artistic sensibilities to haute culture. She envisioned future discussion of the Anacostia “scene,” a time and place that would surely become synonymous with boundless creativity and a renewal of the human imagination.
Nico felt the inclusion of experimental art projects would deeply enhance the lives of the residents of Anacostia. The more radical the project, the more rapidly their appreciation for the art world would grow. If she was conservative and merely introduced them to Classical, Baroque, and Impressionistic movements, she felt their palate would only grow at a moderate pace. By applying the theory of convergence, Nico knew she could stimulate rapid growth of artistic sensibilities through the use of radical contemporary movements. Her post-modern dance non-performances would be a central pillar in the education of the future aesthetic elites of Anacostia.
Her scheme moved forward, and the final lot was purchased in mid-April. While Nico was busy buying land, Asher was assisting Chandra in establishing herself as the preeminent thinker on the investigation into Non-Functional Violence Syndrome, or NFVS.
Over the same period, Raymond’s time was split between helping Asher write for Modern Issue, accompanying and assisting Nico in her real-estate venture, and frequent lunches with Dr. DeMasters, who was surprisingly tolerant of the exuberant Raymond. He’d often return to Nico gushing about a new theory on racial identity, novel strategies for community engagements, or interesting anecdotes from DeMasters’s colorful past. Though occasionally nettled by his obsession with DeMasters, Nico found Raymond’s passion and adept strategies for community engagements useful when incorporated into her own project.
The closer Nico drew to Raymond, the harder it was to intentionally treat him poorly. She caught herself slipping into tender utterances or caressing him with delicate looks, reassuming her painted-on identity by pummeling his ego only after she realized her mistake. These radical variances were as difficult for her as they were for Raymond. She kept them up, however, as they seemed to be working exactly as Asher predicted. Raymond appeared enamored with her without his usual hyper-analysis of how or why he felt that way.
Nico was now unsure how or when she’d transition out of the charade. How long must this continue, she wondered, and when would Raymond be ready to love her without nuance? In part, she was perturbed her mind even manifested these questions. They made her feel subservient to Raymond; like he held power over her. To this she reminded herself she was as in control of this situation as she was for any project. This was her work. Her real desire for Raymond did not give him power over her.
Nico’s frequent inconsistencies in her treatment of Raymond attracted the notice of a curious Chandra, who approached Nico about the matter on an afternoon that found the two alone at the Red Roof Inn.
“Nico, I have a question, and I hope I am not making myself into a nuisance,” Chandra said apprehensively, knocking on the doorframe of Nico’s open room.
“Never, Chandra! I’m happy to have a chance to speak privately for once. Please, ask away!”
“Well, it is about Raymond,” Chandra said, taking a seat across from Nico.
“Oh…What about him?”
“I have noticed that your relationship seems rather erratic. You appear to care for him very much one moment, and then you become, if I may, imperious and condescending the next. Am I mistaken in this observation?”
“Have you spoken to Asher about this?”
“Oh no! I would never! I would not wish to speak of you behind your back!”
“Ahh, well, he’d explain the situation. I know it seems strange, but it’s something I’ve got to do. Unfortunately for my own sanity it’s the only way Raymond works.”
“I do not understand what you mean by this. You must treat Raymond with disdain? To what end?”
“I think you’ve noticed by now that Raymond’s a very…peculiar man?”
“Well…Yes, I have noticed his unique nature. Though I think we are, each of us, quite particular in our own ways.”
“True, but Raymond’s particularness is particularly bothersome for someone who might want to be close to him.”
“How so? He seems a lovely and thoughtful person. He strikes me as a unique and valuable person, but one who misunderstands what this means about his place in the world.”
“That’s just the problem. He’s too thoughtful and too neurotic to ever let himself feel something without building a mountain of justifications to accompany it. You’ve got to trick him into feeling something without having him realize he’s feeling it.”
“That is absurd!” laughed Chandra before collecting herself, “I apologize, I did not mean to imply…”
“No, of course you’re right. It’s absurd. But if I want to be with him so the he can achieve his full potential, it’s what I have to do.”
“Why would you wish to adapt yourself to him? Why can he not compromise and meet you halfway? It seems unfair to both of you.”
“Asher knows him best and this was his plan. Besides, I enjoy projects. It’s just one more thing to work on. But…I must admit, and I’m sure you’ve noticed, the strain of this particular venture is wearing on me.”
“Asher may know him well, but perhaps that makes him blind to what Raymond really needs. I know it is not my place, but I do not think you will ever create a happy or healthy relationship using Asher’s method. Raymond must change to be happy. Catering to his neurosis will simply entrench him further.”
“So then…you think we’re wrong? What else could I do?”
“Talk to him about this. Have an honest conversation with Raymond in which you tell him that if he wants to be with you, he must improve himself. Then tell him what he should do to improve.”
“But how? Don’t you think that’ll just increase his neurosis?”
“I think you need to give Raymond more credit. He is neurotic, but he seems strong as well. He must be if he was able to survive so many years of constant harassment from his own thoughts. Furthermore, I do not believe you are the type of person who is attracted to weak willed individuals. Am I correct?”
“I…yes. I think you are.”
“I think we are the same. We are both attracted to men who offer us what the rest of the world cannot; the potential for challenge and perhaps even an equal. I do not believe you would feel attracted to a man as weak as how you describe Raymond.”
“This is…is this true?” an increasingly excited Nico stammered, “So you think I can talk to him and he can become better through his own will?”
“Give him a direction and support and I think so.”
“Thank you, Chandra. You give me hope.”
“Of course, Nico. I think it would be wonderful to see you both happy. But please do not thank me until it works.”
Nico hugged Chandra, for her kindness and her insight, and slid back into her seat with a newly forged sense of intimacy between the two of them. They spent the remainder of the afternoon laughing and telling one another tales from their rich lives, discussing Chandra’s work on NFVS and Nico’s community restoration project, and debating various philosophies of aesthetics, an area in which they both possessed a keen interest.
Asher and Raymond returned in the evening to find Chandra and Nico smoking pot and pondering the legacy of Duchamp. This newly created faction within their group caused low to middling level of consternation for the two men, who’d become accustomed to the frigid relationship between the two women. This thawing shifted the balance of power within their collective and made the fate of future decisions unclear.
Nico spent the next few days ruminating on Chandra’s idea while she contacted architects, city planners, health food logisticians, her personal choreographers, and direct trade sources for coffee beans. Making the decision to follow Chandra’s advice, Nico felt she had to execute on this new initiative immediately, before she was inundated with community meetings, building plans, and contracts for new commercial tenants.
On a night in which Chandra was working late with Asher at the lab, Nico collected Raymond from the desk where he was furiously scribbling notes for an article on the value of enlightened dictatorship in a world with no violence, and sat him down for a talk.
They sat facing one another on the cheap plastic chairs populating the suites. The controlled temperature of their room was always too warm and stuffy or too cool and dry. Today it was warm, adding to the feeling of claustrophobic cloistering within the modest room. Nico placed her hand on Raymond’s, who was sitting stiffly with his arms resting on his thighs.
“Raymond, I want to be with you.”
Raymond furrowed his brow; this was not what he’d imagined. He’d assumed she disagreed with his premise that without violence, the major risk to their own people posed by dictatorial governments vanished, making them the most efficient and effective form of government. He recovered adequately from his surprise to respond, “That is good.”
“I’m glad you think so. But we also have a problem, and that’s what we need to talk about.”
“There’s a problem? But…I’m sorry for not knowing right away. I think about our relationship a lot and…”
“I know you do, and that’s part of our problem,” she sighed, “I’m going to level with you, Raymond. I knew Asher from my past. We met when I was living in Paris for a few months after I graduated and…we were together briefly…”
“Really? Well, to be honest actually I already knew.”
“You…what!? You knew!?”
“Yeah, I mean, just from how quickly things became tense between the two of you it was kind of obvious you guys knew one another previously. That…and I heard you talking about me when we were having breakfast the morning violence stopped.”
“Why didn’t you say something!? I feel like an idiot!”
“Oh! I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to make you feel bad about it! I just…well I was really touched you guys cared about me so much and didn’t want to mess up your carefully mapped out plans. It was kind of fun!”
“You…so you knew we were talking about you?”
“Yeah! Actually sometimes I made excuses to go out and run errands to leave the two of you alone because I liked to think about you talking about me. Sorry…I know that’s impossibly self-absorbed.”
“I guess you’re a better actor than either of us.”
“Oh no, you were both so convincing. Maybe if I hadn’t overheard that first conversation I wouldn’t have known. You’re so good at it though!”
“One thing I didn’t know is that you and Asher had been together romantically. That’s definitely something I didn’t pick up on.”
“I’m sorry for lying to you for so long, and I promise I have no feelings other than respect for Asher.”
“Oh, it’s totally alright. I think I’ve always been platonically in love with him, so I can’t blame anyone else for feeling the same way, though I’m sure with slightly sexier thoughts. Did you know we tried to have sex once? We thought we were in love,” he began to laugh, remembering the experience, “It wasn’t very pleasant, which I guess was unfortunate because he’s a very attractive man and I would’ve been very lucky.”
“What!? You and Asher tried to have sex?”
“Sure, in college. It seemed like the thing to do. We figured we enjoyed one another’s company, so why not give it a go? But we’re both obstinately straight. Anyways, sorry for the tangent, you just reminded me of that. So why the secrecy? It’s no big deal, obviously. Asher would’ve known that I wouldn’t care.”
“Well, it wasn’t that we thought you’d be upset by our past connection, it was part of our…plan.”
“What sort of devilish machinations did the two of you cook up?”
“You’re a very difficult person, Raymond.”
“Taking into account what you told me about yourself as well as the way Asher talked about you, it seemed that if I approached our relationship from what I guess we’d call a ‘normal’ angle, you couldn’t have handled it.”
Nico was sweating. The warmth of the room and tautness of her emotion were proving a taxing combination.
“That seems like a pretty fair assessment. I recognize that I’ve sabotaged the majority of my relationships.”
“So knowing that, what Asher and I devised was a stratagem to ensure you fell in love with me before you let your neurosis get the better of you.”
“Wow! That’s really nice of you guys! You actually did that? You talked about me with Asher to that extent? Jesus, I feel like a mental patient!”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you feel…”
“Oh! No! No, No, No! I’m completely ecstatic! I can’t believe your feelings were so strong that you went through all that trouble! Thank you, Nico.”
Raymond leaned over to kiss Nico, who shooed him away.
“Well, I’m not done yet,”
“Alright then, but hurry. That bed seems criminally neglected.”
“To continue, I’ve been using the strategy of purposefully treating you poorly while remaining supportive emotionally and physically to keep you off balance and allow time for your raw emotions to develop organically.”
“Ahh, that does explain a few things. Organically, huh? Was that what all those colorful Squidge visits were about?
“Mr. Squidge’s offers? No, those were just tests. I wanted to be sure of who you were before our first date.”
“Jesus, Nico! So I guess I passed?”
“No, not really. You were supposed to negotiate with Mr. Squidge in order to secure an opportunity to see me. You just refused his offers outright like an idiot, so I assumed you weren’t interested. After the third visit I concluded you didn’t have feelings for me and gave up. But after a week or two I was thinking there might be something more to it, especially after Mr. Squidge told me how absurdly proud of yourself you seemed. Then I remembered Asher also went to Trotsky and had mentioned his odd friend Raymond who he’d crucified white children with, so I reached out and he explained how you work.”
“What a strange world. How chance plays into our lives constantly amazes me.”
“It’s odd, I agree. But after Asher explained, the whole thing made more sense. And I guess you could say I was hooked.”
“Naturally. Neurosis is the world’s greatest aphrodisiac.”
“I thought propaganda was the greatest aphrodisiac?”
“Well…I guess there are lots of nice aphrodisiacs. So you were saying how attracted you were to me?”
“Yes, I suppose. So I called you about that date with clear instructions from Asher. And you know the rest. Now, however, I think I made a mistake.”
“A mistake? What do you mean? Have I done something? I…”
“Calm down! I didn’t mean being with you. Remember what I said at the beginning of this conversation? The mistake I’m talking about is in the strategy I’ve been using.”
“First off, being abusive towards you has taken a toll on me. Have you noticed me being intermittently nicer?”
“No, Not really.”
“You’re truly a master observer. Well, both Asher and Chandra have noticed, particularly Chandra.”
“Oh! I feel so enigmatic!”
“Yeah, well she took the opportunity when you and Asher were out doing those interviews to talk to me.”
“Is that why you guys were so chummy when we came back? Asher and I were both a little disturbed by that.”
“Why? What’s so disturbing about Chandra and me developing a bond independent of our male companions?”
“Oh, I mean nothing is wrong with it! Of course not! We were just surprised by such a dramatic change in your relationship.”
“Sure. Sounds suspiciously like you were concerned the female portion of our collective might speak in a unified voice instead of remaining as the divided toadies of our strong, male leaders.”
“No! I swear that wasn’t it! I even brought that up to Asher, but we debated it for a while and decided…”
“Good god! I was joking Raymond. While I’m sure I could’ve kept that up for an hour, and as much as I love watching you get worked up, that isn’t the point. Basically what Chandra told me changed my whole outlook on us.”
“And what was that?”
“It seems she has a higher opinion of you than either Asher or myself.”
“Really? I thought she thought I was an idiot!”
“I know, I was surprised too. But for whatever reason, she does. Her exact words were ‘He’s unique and valuable, but only if he lets himself be.’”
“Well that’s a nice way to be described. I want to be unique and valuable…”
“So do we. And she also thinks you can handle a normal relationship, but only if you change,” Nico said, looking into his crystalline eyes urging him to understand.
“Change? I mean, I’m all about self-improvement, if that’s what you mean.”
“Good. That’s along the lines of what I’m talking about. It seems that with my other strategy, I was killing myself trying to adapt to you. But you know you aren’t a happy or healthy person.”
“Well…I wouldn’t go that far…”
“You aren’t. Come on Raymond, do you really feel happy with who you are and how you feel about the world right now?”
“I…I guess you’re right…” he said slowly, ”I want to be happy, but I think I’ve become so comfortable with feeling unhappy that happiness actually feels less…easy, or comfortable. But, I think I want to be happy. I don’t want to feel content with my own suffering. I…I don’t know how though. If I ever feel content…I don’t know how to justify feeling content. There is so much wrong in the world…how can we ever justify being happy with anything? Especially as a white male I…”
“Raymond, look at me.”
“I…I think you help me feel less crazy. So does Asher, but I suppose you’re right, and I’m not happy.”
“Right, and so why would I adapt to that world? We can work on this together, but you need to change; you need to adapt to my world. If we can do that I think we have a good chance of experiencing some pretty legitimate happiness. Do you see Asher and Chandra? Asher has never been happy either, like you and for similar reasons. But with her, he feels justifiably content. We can have that too, Raymond.”
“I know we can, Nico. I’m so completely aware you’re everything I’ve ever desired to experience in another human being. But…I don’t know how. I want to be happy, but how?”
“As I said, we’ll do this together. I can help you. There are some very clear steps to take, you just have to be willing to commit to the effort.”
“I am, I promise I am!” Raymond swore to her, his voice rising “If you help me, I know I can be better.”
“I know you can!” Nico spoke happily, tears glimmering in her eyes, “And we can build a healthy life together!”
“So then, what do I have to do?”
“We’ll start that tomorrow, for now I just needed to know if you’re willing to change. You’ll feel so much better for it, I promise! But presently, I think you were right about that bed.”
Nico lay across Raymond’s chest resting happily. Raymond lay awake staring at the cracked plaster ceiling, drifting through his ever-shifting thoughts.
 Let alone the children orphaned by a recent bad batch of Alligator-Face aka Swiss Cheese aka Jesus Juice aka JJs, the hot new synthetic drug that made the user feel like a messiah* and look like an Alligator**.
*Which messiah was always, remarkably, dependent on the personal religion of each individual user. The clergy had no explanation for this phenomenon.
** Zoologists issued a strongly worded letter correcting the misleading name. Through careful examination, the scientists had determined it made people look more like Crocodiles.
 This phrase had emerged after an intense debate between the four permanent residents of the Anacostia Red Roof Inn. Chandra felt it was time to come forth with her theory on the spiritual nature of the non-violent epidemic and believed labeling the issue as “syndrome” was a misnomer that implied a physical source. In a rare departure from their typically resolute bloc, Asher joined Raymond and Nico in disagreeing, stating that the presentation of her spiritual theory must be approached with caution. He believed it should only be revealed when the evidence was both irrefutable and held the possibility of being broken down into non-technical talking points. If they presented the theory before they were prepared, he argued, the impact on society could be disastrous. Chandra grudgingly deferred to the political and social considerations of their argument and officially labeled the subject of her research NFVS.
 Nico enjoyed letting Raymond rant for long intervals as it gave her a break from playing her assumed character. She gained a great deal more from watching him enjoy listening to himself talk about his ideas than the actual content of the ideas themselves.
 Sour Diesel, coincidentally a favorite of both women.