FICTION
The Egotist’s Fortune
Theresa Braun

Photo by Ben Rosett on Unsplash

Photo by Ben Rosett on Unsplash

It was a summer that had snuck up on us. All of a sudden, condensation appeared against gin glasses and kept skirts slicked to tanned thighs. We would go on parties every other evening, hanging over balconies on Suffolk or Sullivan, catching cool breezes. We would hold cigarettes to our sunburnt lips, lighting them with crisp folds of cash as we sunk into the bursts of music floating up from the second floor.

We showed up promptly to our lives, knowing that every moment would be just enough. The booze only flowed until we’d had our fill, the melody only played for as long as it would last in our memories, the conversation only ever paused for us to catch our collective breath.

And when I would inevitably let a glass slip through my fingers — the upper half of my body thrown desperately over the ledge just to watch it tumble, then shatter in the courtyard below — I only had to complete the smallest of pirouettes to accept the new drink that would magically materialize in a stranger’s outstretched hand.

In other words: We were immortal.

And yes, it would be easy, though certainly unfair, to say that all the drinking did us in, that our unique and glorious talent for being, creating, and (most of all) having fun was the very thing that made us — now in this grand hangover that is the nascent autumn — such exceptionally sordid, miserable sorts. Yet, incredibly, the only blame we ever found was in ourselves — manifested before the first turn of any cocktail shaker, before we’d even gotten our dancing shoes on the right feet.

 

 

It won’t rewrite itself. The group had been summoned to Elliot’s for an “up-down” affair; spirits were high, but we were dressed down and divided — half of us tripping over our fast feet on the first floor while the other half was above, draped over fading furniture. We were young and bright, swirling in small galaxies — the best bits of life gathered together. We spent our days working in solitude just to dazzle each other by night.

At the top of the stairs, there were five of us stuffed on a sofa: Elliot in his clashing shirt and tie, three poets in various shades of gray, and me, fiddling with the buttons on a bodice, ready to be unraveled. Tipsy, but not yet at my tipping point, I was asked to be soft and recount the exact moment when I had fallen in love with Alexander. I told the tale like it had a beginning or an end.

“It was his birthday. He said he had accomplished everything he had set out do by thirty, and here he was, only twenty-nine. How fantastic. He was so happy with his life. I wanted him to always be. And I wanted to be a part of it. And I was. It felt...safe. So I just sat there next to him. I stayed still. I didn't do anything. He was wearing a blue shirt, holding a glass of red wine. I looked at him for what was likely the millionth time, though it should have been the first. It was so quick. And I was struck with a sense of dread then because I knew.” (Small sip here.) “I knew that it was all over.”

Elliot transferred a handful of ice cubes from his glass to mine as a humble offering. The girls all had smiles (knowing ones, they thought). Doesn’t love ruin all of us just a little bit?

Truthfully, June was a bitch. The month and the girl, I must say. Earlier that year, I had published a novel called The Hidden Gem of New York, which attracted much acclaim from critics and much criticism from the man who claimed to love me. This didn’t much matter until it was talked about, of course.

The girl was a guest of no one, some sort of apparition in a leotard. When she entered the room, June made herself known, floating in on a gust of magnolia and muddled intentions. Alexander was introduced right away as the man who had made girls like her downright mythical (“He’ll write you into a fairy tale if you let him.”), but she was already familiar with my work: “Oh, but you’re the writer!” followed by the gentle twist of a blond curl.

Elliot quickly excused himself from the atomic bomb. And what could I do but laugh.

June feigned confusion, dark brows folding toward a delicate nose, her pink mouth hanging open slightly as she turned toward the man now pouring back his gin. Alexander shoved the emptied glass into a corner, then returned to address this inconvenience with a purposeful smirk.

“Why, yes, I suppose she does write.” As in the cosmos, one star devoured another.

June’s features had recovered in time for her to recognize the fuse she held in her hand. “Truthfully, I haven’t read the book yet.” She pulled her narrow shoulders forward, then back. “Though I’m sure it’s lovely.”

Alexander made an effort to appear bored with the whole thing, rolling wrinkled sleeves up his freckled forearms. After he turned lazily to listen in on a parallel discussion, I somehow thought to thank June for the insincerity, but found her tiny feet already pointed toward him.

Elliot quickly tugged me into the theories he was sharing with a pair of Scotch-sippers.

- It’s elusive. We love the city because it provides a constant muse.

- Yes, it could take an entire year just to understand one block.

- Perhaps it’s frustrating for those who want to fully understand—

- To control it.

- We love not getting it right, I think.

- Cheers.

Well, we certainly hadn’t gotten things right just yet, and I couldn’t bear it. I had to leave the world for a moment. While exiting, I passed by Alexander on an ottoman, leaning over smoke to smile at June. She was revealing her silly soul as he was puffing on his cigar, nearly missing the gaze that said, If you’re a cheater, cheat with me. I just want to win.  Alexander cleared away the ash like he was doing us all a favor, then tried to catch my eye with a simple, It’s okay. You’re beautiful, too.

 In the corner, a man in blue was describing true happiness as surrendering to the natural force of a tidal wave, but I fought for fresh air instead, clutching at the clasped window beside him. Pressing my hands on either side of the frame, I leaned forward into the night to look down on what I could draw by the light of a single street lamp.

I saw myself being seen—undone dress and spinning on the sidewalk. I saw my clenched teeth gnashing at the flesh of exposed ambitions, preying on my own vulnerabilities. I saw what it looked like to be the queen of the jungle of lies, what it looked like for creation to come unbound, what it looked like at the cusp of reality, where salted wounds fulfilled their prophecies. Watch out, girl—they’re coming for your heart.

 

 

My heart was split open on a bottle of wine. I held the bottle in the crowded kitchen, strangling its neck as the group scrounged up some semblance of a meal. Alexander concealed his internal bruising by stirring a sauce over June’s shoulder and letting her call him by any name she wanted. Elliot instructed another guest to rummage through the cabinets in search of bread. We added places at the table, as we seemed to multiply by the minute. We toasted to each other, as we weren’t sure anyone else existed. We consumed what was before us, as it was exactly what we had. And we took everything for granted. And another bottle was opened and we smiled biggerbiggerbigger and we knew we were tumbling down the slippery slope, but we couldn’t stop ourselves if we tried. Only ever add; never subtract.

After eating, one of the shades of gray stacked our dishes into leaning towers and used the table as a dance floor, while another declined an offer from Elliot to cause a scene of her own in the back room. “I don’t want to be That Girl,” she said, recasting herself in our play. They all want you to be The Girl, but never that one.

I mulled over the makings of my molecules. “Hmmm,” with a bite at the lip of a wine glass. “Mayhaps I’m one of the Lost Girls. They’re like the Lost Boys except more tragic.” I took a tuft of Alexander’s hair through my fingers and said so sweetly, “Boys never-never have to grow up.”

Alexander turned away, holding tight his retort in one fist, gripping his gin glass in the other. After a pause, he cooly offered, “When you show your hand, you’re letting people play with your cards, you know.”

For a moment, I thought I would only stand there, twisting left and right to ruffle my dress, crashing waves of the dark green fabric, but then he glanced back, looking so solely himself. I made sure his eyes were on mine and no one else’s. “When you fall in love with every woman you meet, you’re falling in love with new versions of yourself, you know.”

He hooked a hand through the crook of my elbow and pulled it toward him. His whisper scratched my ear. “You pretend to know about love,” he hissed. “You write about it and think that’s the same. But you’re only making up who you think we are.”

He didn’t let go. He squeezed my bare bicep, trying to mold my impulses into something more manageable. But the more you know of yourself, the less you are bent. I shook him from me and recited my line loud enough for the entire audience this time. “At least I do something with my delusions. But you. How can you call yourself a writer when you don’t write?”

Alexander fell back to regard me like a painting he might pretend to understand. He gestured casually with his glass and grinned up a smart remark. “Because we’re not defined by what we happen to do...or not do...at any given moment.”

“But I am,” I insisted, adding an emphasis that wasn’t in the stage directions. “I am the desires I suppress, I am the lives I will not lead, I am every word I don't say to you.”

There was hardly a day then that came to a close with him clear-headed. And whenever he would pass out across the bed in a drunken slumber, I would curl against him wide awake (almost sober, I swear it) to whisper horrible truths like this: “You just can’t forgive me for not being who you thought I was.” He only ever gave a snore in response, and so I would push the skin at his chin with the tips of my fingers, mushing his face around, pretending that I pulled the strings — that there were any strings at all.

Alexander placed a dripping glass to his creased forehead, sinfully bemused.

- And what’s that, then? What are the words?

- Oh, it doesn’t matter. They’d float away, anyhow.

- Yeah, straight onto your page.

 

 

When we first met, ages ago, neither of us had published a thing. Alexander was closer to astronaut than author. He was a friend of a friend of a virtual stranger. I was seated next to him at a dinner party, but I paid no notice until his toast: “Here’s to reaching the ends of our ropes, grasping each other’s hands, and taking the leap in tandem.” When he returned his glass to the tablecloth, I told him an asteroid had nearly hit us seconds before, yet he had no idea. He called my brain nice and my dress pretty.  I called his bluffs. He spoke of Salinger, Fitzgerald, Bukowski, explaining himself as a fictional figure, and I vowed right then to turn him into an original protagonist in his own right.

“What will you do with my unbreakable heart?” he had asked with an arm around my chair, mocking my nonstick spirit with ease. We built our communication on constant prevarication, thinking we were coy rather than confused. We were the best we could ask for. We said our names sounded like palindromes. We read our histories like poems. And we knew our deaths would not be plagues. By evening’s end, I found myself wanting nothing more than to break his crème brulée, which was pointless, of course, because I had one myself.

 

 

Alexander rested against the table, waiting for anything. The girl in charcoal used him for balance as she attempted a twirl, still spinning off her axis. She giggled over my silence. The music grew dark and my reservation grew weak and I grew what I thought were wings but were really just the remains of failed attempts to fly.

“You say things, and they mean nothing. You’re hollow. I need substance, not substance abuse.” I tipped the dregs of Bordeaux back. Use up your whole life.

“If you’re not happy with the way things are, then maybe you should stop looking at them through the bottom of your wine glass.”

I held his gaze for a breath or two, letting my arm slowly fall. The group was now so quiet, eager for an emphatic rebuttal, a thunderous show. They wanted the glass smashed, but I let it down gently, breaking my stare instead.

They wanted me more poisonous. They wanted the venom to seep through our cracks for a great view. They wanted me incurable and ever-vicious. They wanted their flaws to be fabled and mine to be famed. They wanted more and more of it, whatever it turned out to be.

But I smoothed away bristling feathers and retreated to the next room, landing safely on the perch of an old wooden chair. Elliot approached with a disapproving smile in place.

“What’s this. You’re a bit off. This just isn’t very...you.”

“Don’t use ‘you’ as an adjective! I’m a fucking noun, okay.”

He let a laugh escape, finger gun extended. “I can think of a noun that might fit.”

I sprung up to grab his finger, forcing it to crumple against my palm. “Fine. So I am. Point at me in a dictionary or not at all.” What a relief to be defined.

Alexander appeared from around the corner. “Stop right there, now, alright?” He held a gin-free hand parallel to Elliot’s chest, careful not to rumple the shirt. “Now. This isn’t your place, right. This is us. This is Hemingway-important, okay.” He glanced around the room as if looking for inspiration, but I knew the soliloquy had been brewing from his sloppy synapses. “This is red-lipstick-confusing, I know. I know.” He nodded slowly. “But listen to me. Listen: This is Bleecker-in-the-rain-not-that-bad.”

Elliot made a move to brush the words aside, but Alexander still had more in the tank. “We’re all wolves in wolves’ clothing, right. We’re goddamn beastly, but we don’t hide it. Our lives are not all that fragile. I’ve thrown mine against a wall more than once, to be sure. Nothing changes. Maybe our choice of poison, but that’s all. What did I say about your lipstick?” He reached to smudge it across my bottom lip. “It won’t last, I promise you. We’re here because we believe in miracles. Why else would we stay up this late? Why else would we carry on this way? What do I have to do to get you to believe in us, huh?”

I pulled at his wrist until he couldn’t touch what I had anymore. “You bastard. Don’t you see? You're just a figment of my imagination. No, no, I'm yours. And you don't even believe in that anymore. You can call yourself hyperbolic, but what you really are is a hypocrite.”

We were starting to scribble outside of our lines.

“You never wanted what was real anyhow. We should have more than the imagined, we should have the unimaginable.”

“Don't dream me up,” I ordered ferociously. “It's just not fair.”

He already knew what to say. “Don’t you. I am not the villain of your story.”

Of course, there’s more than one way to fall from grace. In the doorway, June popped a bottle of champagne, fizzing it over our nuclear fusion. Alexander slipped away, taking a swig before leaving. The group scrambled forward to fill their glasses, clinking them merrily.

Elliot passed his to me for a sip. I took three. He gripped my shoulder as I sunk back into the chair.

“Why do we do these things? He’s right. We've given ourselves permission to be hellish. But it's not permissible. We are not good, and so there is no goodness.”

Elliot extended a hand, not allowing the tears to get farther than my cheeks. “If you were better people, would you lead better lives?”

Don’t crumble at your own edges. “No. Life is still hell, isn’t it, though. There’s nowhere else.” I looked to a burn mark on the wilting scarlet rug, dragging my ballet slipper across it. “So we are what we’re given. And we give what we are.”

 

 

I wasn’t given the chance to sulk for very long. I went searching for my purse but found Alexander instead, sitting somberly in a darkened bedroom, praying in the graveyard we’d made of our relationship. Forgive me, for I have sinned.

He spread his hands across his face and spoke through the barrier. “Don’t think I don’t love you, alright.”

I grinned like the creature I had warned us about. “Don’t think I didn’t think about punching you in the mouth back there.”

“Oh come on,” he pouted. “Aren't I playing it right?”

“You're just fine,” I sighed.

“Just fine,” he repeated dimly.

We rearranged the pieces on our chessboard.

I collapsed under gravity and onto the bed. Splashes of green dress and red wine sullied the clean slate. “Have you noticed they’re only saying things that sound nice, just over and over: pine cones, felt-tipped pens, ginger snaps, borrowed boat shoes…” I dragged the words out carefully, though I didn’t care. “As if they’re saying anything at all.”

“They?”

I gave a grand gesture to the hall. “Oh, of course we’re enchanted by what sounds nice. If the words are lovely and there’s a good story…”

He frowned at my thoughts and exchanged them for his. “But ultimately, we only succeed or fail based on those nice words, on the stories we tell ourselves.”

“That’s the problem,” I accused, undoing myself. “Where’s the truth, where’s the purpose, where’s the fate, where’s the fact that you’re only pretending, that you’re clinging onto something that was never meant to be yours?”

Alexander swiveled to face my reality, moving out of the moonlight. “You made me, isn’t that it? You’re Frankenstein, and I’m the monster, and who gets the glory?”

- There’s no jealousy here.

- I gave you your story. What more do you want?

- I want it to be true.

- I’ve never been enough of a character for you, have I? Not enough fodder for you.

- Let’s not fight anymore.

- But here it is: If the story isn’t enough to satiate, then we’ll just write a new one.

He said it like a promise, but it sounded like a curse.

I rested my crown resolutely against the wall. “Can we really change when we change the story? Or will we always be ourselves?”

Alexander closed his eyes briefly, as if to disappear the thought away. Then with half a smile, he raised a drink to the common corona between us. “Oh, gin up, love. No matter what, you know it’s a better story when we’re both in it.”

Some fundamental force pulled me to my feet. Never hear the truth more than once. I hesitated at the door, watching Alexander think furiously into the void. He shook his glass twice, rattling the ice inside. “It’s getting early. I need another drink.”

We both left the room, but we would not leave ourselves behind.

 

 

I liked how I looked on the balcony: with spine straightened and fingertips light on the rail, surveying something I knew anything about. It was comforting to stand inside an immovable moment. From the open window came June’s voice quoting my own words (“I thought you were a good guy. Do you know what that does to a girl?”) followed by a good laugh from Elliot. Alexander ducked out into my world again, cradling two glasses of something crisp and fresh and surely better than before. He joined me on the edge. Beacons cluttered the horizon, warning where limits lay, and a wide-eyed wind rustled our clothes. We saw what couldn’t be seen—fabrications fraying at the seams of eternity, a legacy that would put us back together. We touched glasses then retreated. We settled our bets.

Scuffing one shoe along the ground, I realized the other had been lost. He discovered it in the corner, tucked into a hydrangea bush, and when he returned it to me, when I slipped into the worn toes, it was almost as if we had finally accepted our histories, written by our very own hands.

Complete, I tipped my head to look up at the way the moon was bleeding into the night and how the pin-pricks refused to get in line. We were such a dark star—known only by the light we couldn’t give, by the existence we couldn’t quite verify. Above, there were countless ways to be. But we were on the balcony.

“What are you looking for?”

“Nothing.”


Theresa Braun is a writer, editor, and Oxford comma advocate living in New York. Her creative writing can be found in Belleville Park Pages, Human Parts, and Thought Catalog.