Once Upon a Time

There was a skilled safecracker who got pulled out retirement by the lure of one last job that could put him on easy street for good. He banded together with an motley assortment of long-time criminals and together they planned a daring jewel heist. It went off flawlessly, and with his cut of the loot the safecracker was able to move to Costa Rica where he lived happily ever after.

There was a successful tax lawyer in his early fifties with graying temples, an immaculately modern condo loft, and a surprisingly soft voice that nevertheless imputed an air of total self-assurance and command. While engaged in a complicated financial restructuring of a client’s firm, he found himself spending long hours with one of that firm’s junior executives, a charming gamine brunette a few years shy of her thirtieth birthday. What started as late nights perched at the end of a conference table eating from cartons of Chinese food devolved into torrid assignations at a hotel down the street. The tax lawyer insisted that he was motivated by the most obvious sort of lust which grew over time into into a genuine affection, though many of the people who knew him suspected darker motivations at work: a gnawing desire to feel powerful, or to recapture lost youth. Perhaps even a fear of death. The tax lawyer and the junior executive continued their relationship on and off for two years until she left him for a man closer to her own age. After a time they became friends again. Given the chance to do it all over, neither would have acted differently.

There was a young boy who grew up poor in southern California and loved the car chases he watched in Sunday afternoon movies on his family’s enormous wood-paneled TV. He imagined himself in a sports car, the engine roaring in his ears, racing down straightaways and drifting perilously through curves. He got a scholarship, which led to business school, which led to a many years toiling on Wall Street. He was smart, he was focused, he was hungry. To perform at the level at which he performed you had to be wired a certain way. Certain aspects of a normal personality have to have never developed, and others have to be shut down. It would be nearly two decades before any of his hard work paid off, but when it did he found himself back in California in a position of authority at a venture capital firm on Sand Hill Road at precisely the right moment in history. When he received the first of what would prove to be a series of windfalls he spent a chunk of it on a black Porsche just like he’d always dreamed of. Early one Saturday morning he took it out on empty roads outside San Jose. There with the sun rising over low brown hills, he finally found himself racing along in a sports car. It wasn’t anything like he had imagined as a kid–how could it have been?–but nevertheless it made him happy in a true, deep, and fulfilling way.

There was a young woman with long dark hair, a naturally athletic build, and a sincerely kind and open manner who, starting at age fifteen, found herself the center of gravity of any room she entered. Men were always around–anticipating her wants, mythologizing her quirks, listening attentively. She spent her twenties and thirties sleeping with a lot of them because the attention was intoxicating and the sex felt good. Women were not as kind, but it was a long time before she noticed. A clutch of spurned lovers said: just wait, she’ll age, her beauty will fade, and of course they were right. Around forty the ambient attention ceased, and she began the slow slide to invisibility, but by then it was too late: she had internalized an inclination to think the best of people. Still she was in no way naive. In a pinch she could be steely. She first discovered this in her late twenties when the company she worked for underwent a complicated financial restructuring, and she unexpectedly found herself the expert in an area where real money and reputations were on the line, none the least hers. She spent a year of her life conducting tense negotiations in sterile conference rooms, feigning confidence, until one day she discovered that she had transformed into the formidable person she was pretending to be. Her instincts had been right all along. Be open-hearted. The strength will come.

There was a man who lived his whole life in the town where he was born. Late one night when he was nineteen he drove with a friend to the top of a hill where they sat on the hood of the car passing a joint back and forth. Both of them boasted about the wild times they would have when they left this place, but even in that moment the words felt false to him, like lines written for someone else, so he gradually fell silent and just watched the house lights shut off one by one in the valley below. He got married not too many years later, worked a succession of jobs, and had two children. All told, his greatest joys were playing with his kids, eating Italian food, and watching basketball, in that order. There were ups and there were downs. When he has fifty-five he developed a fast-moving cancer that killed him within the year. There are no lessons to be learned from any of this. His life was not a parable enacted for our benefit. It was simply his life. It wasn’t about us.

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