He had cultivated a reputation for wickedness. He advertised that he regarded women as playthings. He was my best friend. I kept a cross-indexed record of his transgressions, ready for citation, in my head. I wrote him long letters excoriating him for the harm he had done to himself and others.
We had agreed upon a practice of lucidity in all things. He always wanted me to say the most injurious thing possible, if anything injurious could be said. It usually could. I was the conscience that he lacked and required for the full delectation of his abuses. He was the instrument of my own thwarted will to annihilation. I paid for everything and, in accordance with my unexpressed wish, he never thanked me or tried to reciprocate in any way, not even by accident. And yet this was managed without conscious deliberation. His conduct was pristine. He knew it to be his greatest failing.
We often spoke about the way our contrasting unresolved psychosexual traumas intersected. I spend my life making sure that no other person gets the better of any transaction in which I'm involved. I am attentive to all the details, and to all their implications, but it is in the instrumental manipulation of empathy that I really shine. I can generate from a handful of cues a predictive template of behavior for any friend or adversary. This allows me to feel how far and to what extent I can violate the rules governing civilized conduct to cause them to forget themselves in pursuit of what looks like easy advantage, thereby leaving themselves exposed.
This ability inheres strongly in any lineage indecent enough to have outlived as many mass atrocities as my ancestors did. It is at once the thing about myself that I despise the most and rely on most heavily in everything I do. I would like to feel guilty about it, and I do. I would like to be invested in a value system that condemns the way I live off the vulnerabilities of others, and the mindset from which it springs; however, though I do not want to, I take tremendous pride in it. I know that this pride is essentially zoological, the dumb will to live and prosper in spite of ourselves that evolution can't help but select for. This pride is the source of the irremediable shame in which I'm ensnared.
I don't see a good way to resolve this tension without relinquishing my will to live. A person like my best friend, bereft of empathy and of decency or shame (as I often tell him in the handwritten correspondence we maintain), lives the fantasy of freedom of conscience I cannot embrace and cannot reject. I met him through an old girlfriend, one whom I had ceased to love. Maybe it was that I couldn't love a woman who hadn't first been mishandled by the world. I suspected that she was already cheating on me. I did not trouble to wonder with whom. Would she be brazen enough to introduce me to the man who had cuckolded me? No, but the equanimity with which I accepted her confession was retroactive justification for what she had done. Nothing justifies the will to injure someone more than the realization that they can't be hurt by you. We both knew I had behaved faultlessly and that she was in the wrong.
My best friend and I entered into a silent complicity from that day forward. We trafficked women—I sent undamaged ones to him, women I hadn't the wherewithal to harm in the way they were seeking, and he sent damaged ones to me, women whom I was now able to love.
I sent him a woman I really liked, whom I had met at a party. He promised to be lousy in bed, she told me, and he was. "I only care about my own pleasure. I'm not different than anyone else in this, but I won't even make a pretense of doing otherwise." She had been warned. It seemed facetious, though the quiet fury behind the surface of these and other statements did not make her laugh.
The energetic contortions we saw for free on the Internet had left him scarcely able to sustain an erection without the aid of technological inducements. He was candid about this facet of his disabused hard drive. They had begun with a tour of his archive. Most of his interests had a beginning and an end date, each successive fascination eclipsing the last in wickedness and squalor. "I like to remind myself of my innocence by revisiting formative pornographic scenes of my youth,” he said.
Each of these scenes recalled the equipment that hosted it, the speed of transmission of the data, the iterations of software that handled the files, the mood of furtiveness and claustrophobia. All this made him not so different from her. A battery-powered device, a gift from a friend, helped her to discover firsthand, at the comparatively advanced age of twenty-three, what had only been rumored. She was through with all that for the time being. Now she was online, meeting actual men. She liked him more than the others, right from the start. He considered almost everything that people did habitually and out of deference to the needs of others to be a pretense with which he couldn't be bothered. He was both untidy and unclean. He slouched. He did not make eye contact.
She was unhappily conscious that none of this would have been acceptable to her if he weren’t so rangy and fair-haired, so loose-limbed and limber. Being beautiful is a form of merit, she decided. She liked his carelessness and his poverty and his scorn, and the ungainly pride and self-possession that he preserved in the midst of it. She liked that he could have any woman he wanted but withheld himself for solitary pleasures that had long since ceased to delight him. She knew it was foolish to grow attached after only a few meetings.
They had waited, almost decorously, to consummate their union, in the opalescent glow of his failing laptop, whose fan had lost the capacity to shut itself off. He had taken her to a concert on a boat, and a lecture by a famous dissident, and they had spent one seemingly endless evening on a rooftop by the canal confessing everything to each other. She didn't have to pretend to be someone she wasn't when she was with him. Yes, she took pills for depression and anxiety. She drank too much. She had turned down two marriage proposals before she had had her first orgasm. It had been a windswept evening and the humidity abated for a few hours, and the setting sun spread its purplish crimson across the sky in enormous blooming patches. It was 4:25 pm on a sweltering Sunday in August. It didn't make sense that she would feel as she did: nearly overcome with emotion, hotly flushed with affection, practically in love. He had been, just as he had promised, a selfish lover, scarcely able to satisfy himself. It hadn't been a clever ruse or a sideways form of enticement at all. He had really meant it. His face in repose bore the marks of a vaguely felt self-disgust. This made her love him even more than she already did. She resolved never to see him again, though she knew she would fail.
I was so in awe of my effort because I thought I could freshen the surface like a woman does putting powder on her face—that’s why I did it.
Our prolonged discomfort was meant to show us how lucky we were to live in the city, how lucky we were to have an education that brought us closer to the modern world.