Your bank statement balance reads $1,457,980,228.11.
You refresh, look again. $1,457,980,228.11. You log off, log back on. $1,457,980,228.11.
It’s a glitch, you think, as you turn your computer off, go to leave your apartment. They’ll fix it.
You’re canvassing beneath the R––––– Building as a member of the Action in Action Street Team. You took the job after a series of gigs in retail, all of which were unfulfilling, soul-sucking, drowned you in corporate bullshit that finally and totally soured you to the American capitalistic regime. Action in Action, in that regard, is an antidote. Their mission is to actively and aggressively campaign against Chicagoland businesses that engage in poor practices – ethically, environmentally, economically, morally. They’re grassroots and young and staffed with people like you – twentysomethings, progressive and full of a genuine desire to make a difference. One of their biggest targets is the D––––– corporation, probably the worst offender of all in this city, their horrors exponentially worsened by the fact that they house themselves in the R––––– Building, a gigantic, bluish glass structure whose highest spire literally pierces the clouds, like a lance piercing the very skin of the planet.
You spend four hours every day – part-time pay, hourly wage, a contracted employee for tax purposes – asking street passersby how their day is going, in an effort to spur them into conversation and educate them about D–––––. You just want to talk, explain the injustices, expand someone’s understanding of the cyclical doom of capitalism just a little, just a pinch, anything, really, to move us forward. Would a donation into your Action in Action-branded fanny pack be appreciated? Sure. Is that what you lead with? No, because you’re not part of the problem. If the conversation goes there, then fine, though; if someone is friendly enough, fine. Some are friendly. Some are not. Most are not.
It’s disheartening. But you persist. This work is important.
You’re working with Cassie today. Cassie is short, no taller than five three, and she has an undercut and wears baggy pants and oversized boots. You looked her up on Twitter and Instagram once when you were endlessly surfing the internet, as per usual. She has thousands of followers. She has shared pictures of herself from various rallies in Chicago, Milwaukee, elsewhere; she’s very involved; she knows people who are very involved; she is on the right side of history. She’s bisexual. You are very attracted to her.
When your shift ends the twosome who are supposed to relieve you don’t show up. You wait around for ten minutes.
Cassie rolls her eyes, as if to say: no one really cares, right, no one really cares, except us. We really care.
She says she can’t wait around anymore because she’s meeting friends for brunch, so you too leave, walk with her to the El. Your talk is typical: what her plans for tonight are (reading, tweeting productively); what your plans for tonight are (nothing); what the weather is supposed to be tomorrow (the same as it is today); what the weather is today (overcast). While you’re both waiting for the train to arrive you crack a banal joke and she laughs, and you see her teeth, bright and evenly straight and perfect.
You say very little to each other for twenty minutes until she gets off at Belmont, gives you a tiny wave.
Walking from your stop at Berwyn you find an ATM, lodged in the side of an unoccupied building a few blocks from your apartment. The machine prints a small paper slip with your balance stamped on it. It reads $1,457,980,228.11.
At this point you’re a little weirded out so you go home and shower and pop two Benadryl and knock yourself into another mid-day nap.
By the time you wake up it’s nighttime. Almost ten. Disoriented, you shower again, look at your bank statement again, see it’s still at $1,457,980,228.11, and decide to take an impromptu and mostly unprecedented walk down your block. If this was a glitch, you think, pulling your coat around your chest to block the springtime cold, it probably would’ve resolved itself by now, right? Except maybe not. It’s only been a business day. A business day is just a day, but shorter, somehow? Not entirely clear. But when you’ve talked to banks in the past about your credit card debt they usually said that your balance would be fully updated in one to two business days. So maybe it’ll be fixed tomorrow? Also, you don’t even know the money is real. It’s a weird string, $1,457,980,228.11. Seems random. If anything, you’d be doing a disservice to the bank and to yourself if you didn’t, you know, purchase something – something small, obviously – just to make sure the money is real, which would mean it’s a real problem, which would mean when you do ultimately call the bank, which you totally will, you won’t be wasting anyone’s time. Right? Again, just like, a bag of chips, or one beer. Two. Two would still be under ten dollars, which seems appropriate, which seems like not going overboard. And if it’s a little over, ten, eleven, fifteen, even, that’s still fine, because think: in the grand scheme of things, in the context of, say, one of the executives for D–––––, holed up in the evil fortress of the R––––– Building, what is twenty dollars? It’s nothing. Those executives blow their noses with twenty dollar bills. They use them as napkins for their eighty dollar lunches, discussing how much money they’re going to get by enacting their societal misery, damning everyone except themselves to perpetual financial woe. Assholes. Fuck them. You spending the money is a protest, in its own way. That’s what it is. You spending the money is an act of protest and if anyone tries to stop you they are infringing on your rights.
You stop in at the Taquería, which is still open, which never seems to close. You order two chorizo tacos, no, three, and an orange Jarritos. After you’ve eaten, a bit too quickly, you go back to the ATM, print your balance. It’s changed. $1,457,980,219.45. The tacos and the Jarritos cost $8.66. You do the mental math. Then you give up and do the math on your phone. It checks out. You turn around to look behind you. There are a few older people out with their dogs and some kids in sweatshirts with their hands tucked into their pockets walking briskly down the street, avoiding eye contact with you, with everyone else.
You go back to the Taquería. You order another taco.
Too full, you wander. You’re not really looking for anything. You just want to walk. Feel the air on your face. Look at the fronts of the restaurants, watch the people eating, drinking, spending time with friends, enjoying whatever moments they’re experiencing. Most are your age. Most are healthy and infused with youth. Somehow you find yourself in a bar, leaning against the counter, asking for beer, some kind of swill, which, no, actually, you flag down the bartender, scratch that order, give me a whisky. What kind? Something nice. More than ten bucks. You sip the drink and it stings your throat. You turn, reflexively cough. You see Cassie.
There’s a beat, a moment between you recognizing each other – is it really her, yes, it is – but once she sees who you are she smiles, beams. She says Hey! with the energy of an excitable puppy. She gives you a hug – she’s never hugged you before – and, unintentionally, you smell her hair; it smells clean, sugary.
I’m here with my friends, she says post-hello, gesturing vaguely behind her to the friends in question. You don’t know any of them, and she doesn’t invite you to join.
We’re up here from Lakeview, she says. Even in the darkness of the bar, a halo of light borders her face, cosmic and effervescent.
I live around here, you offer.
I love this neighborhood! she says. It’s not gentrified yet, which is so nice, and so rare. Sometimes I think the whole city is turning into a playground for white people. It sucks.
You are both white.
I should get back to my friends, she says.
Do you want to grab coffee sometime, you say.
She looks at you. Kind of cocks her head, like she’s trying to parse out exactly what it was you just asked her, and why. Maybe it’s the double-digit whisky clouding your eyes, but she looks confused. Confounded.
If you want, you say. No pressure.
No, she says, shouts, in order to be heard. No. Yeah. Yes. Let’s do that.
Let’s do that.
You make some excuse, say you have to leave. Practically sprint back home, beneath the tracks of the El, the cars above screeching through the night, a rusted symphony.
You sleep well. It’s a bright day, warm, moist. Your laptop is open at your bedside, your bank’s online portal still static from the previous day. You refresh, log back in. Examine the balance. $1,457,980,219.45. Still. Persistent. Therefore: real.
You pay off one credit card. In totality. Wait two hours. Check your balance again. Check your phone, your email. Nothing, no failure of payment. You pay off your other card. You look at the two balances of $0.00, staring into you like god eyes.
The student loans. The biggest of the numbers. You wipe them out, extinguish them, like a great fire smothered by sand. As you click through the payment prompts you feel some poisoned part of yourself expelled from your body. Your apartment appears brighter. The dead bugs seem smaller. The windows less cracked, floorboards less creaky. You stare at your wall and the plaster seems to spackle itself. You think you smell cookies baking, somewhere.
You text Cassie.
How would you like to do dinner instead, you ask.
You know she’s going to agree before she even does. You know the date is going to go well. You know that it will lead to a second. And a third. You know these things, even though they haven’t happened yet.
But you are sure. Unimpeachably sure.
So yes, you and Cassie start dating. It makes sense, the two of you. Like you, she only works twenty hour weeks, so you have plenty of time for each other. You wander around the city, because it requires no money, because you want to be mindful of her means, not inadvertently grandstand through your wealth, although not wealth, it’s not wealth, it’s just money, wealth is what D––––– has; you are not wealthy, you are not one of them. So you explore. To the west, to the north, to the south. Deep downtown, around the R––––– Building but not directly beneath it. Absorbing the sights, discerning the river. Cassie stands by your side and rests her head against your shoulder and in these moments you feel a sense of worth and belonging. You go to the zoo, see the gorillas, laugh at them as they shove fruit haphazardly into their mouths and look about them as if there is a perpetual humming in their ears.
Of course you get dinner, sometimes, occasionally. Nothing too extravagant. You’re dating. You go out to dinner when you’re dating. You also go to the movies. You also go to bars, dives, some sports pubs, maybe even clubs, every so often, the ones downtown, if you happen to be in the area. When you’re there, when you’re dancing with her, you congeal and equate to the patrons around you, like run-off from a clean stream.
You make love. It’s kind, it’s full of compassion and care. Her body is small and heats through your sheets, through your skin. You fall asleep in each other’s arms.
One morning she tells you she’s thinking about quitting Action in Action.
There are other ways to help, she says, other ways that are more utilitarian, in the long run. You know?
You do know.
You wanna quit too? she asks. It could be, I don’t know, kinda fun, in a weird way. We could stake out our own change. We could plan rallies. We could make calls. We could raise money. Start an organization of our own.
Cassie looks determined, looks sure. You’ve noticed that she can be a bit impulsive – it’s charming, endearing – but these impulses usually either fizzle into dust or are borne out through inconsequential things, like where to eat, which El line to take west, whatever. This is larger. She smiles, and when she smiles it makes you happy, so largely happy.
What will you do for work, you ask.
What will you do for work, she asks back.
She laughs, holds your hands and kisses you. Thirty minutes later you’ve both quit, no notice, and you shower together to celebrate, slick with steam, slick with satisfaction.
Weeks pass. You both learn to cook. You buy meat and produce from Whole Foods. You make roasts, pan-sear pork and steak. You braise vegetables, leeks, mushrooms, expensive stalks with confusing names. You buy these groceries, but of course you do, because you can afford it, because all that money is still there, less than $1,457,980,228.11, sure, but still so much, still so far from being gone. You never tell her about it. The money. It seems irrelevant, somehow. Things are good. Money, you know from D–––––, spoils humanity. So why spoil this?
When the city becomes boring and learned, you travel. You start close. Indianapolis. Columbus. The twin cities. The western coast of Michigan, resort towns, beaches, beaches in the Midwest, some geographic sleight of hand. Sometimes you drive; usually you fly. You meet up with Cassie’s friends from college; they have high-paying jobs and luxury apartments; you wonder what it must be like being so rich, then stop yourself, laugh, internally. You go to New York, Boston. To San Francisco, Denver. You and Cassie’s friends get drinks and joke and dance, as giggly and full of life as children. Their families own cottages in remote outposts in this great, although still flawed, yes, let’s not forget that, nation, so you go there, too. Montana. Wyoming. Cabins nestled in the mountains of Tennessee, along the coast of Alabama. Everywhere. Cassie’s friends are everywhere. Interconnected Cassie. It makes you feel significant, important, necessary.
Also, just so you’re clear to yourself, the R––––– Building and the D––––– corporation are still there, but we are all strong, and we are with the cause in spirit, because our voice is our greatest weapon, and also the tulip festival in Holland, Michigan only happens once a year, Cassie tells you, and she certainly isn’t wrong.
Which, speaking of that, it’s fall now, and nothing is different and there is still so, so much money. In a moment of slight insecurity, or perhaps too-bald self-awareness, you offhandedly mention to Cassie that maybe it’s time for you both to hit the ground running on that organization, ha ha. Cassie blinks.
I guess we could do that, she says as she chops a carrot. But, you know, there are still more ways we need to plan. Ways we can help in the interim. You know?
What ways, you ask, genuine.
Ugh, I hate slicing carrots, she says, pushing the cutting board away from her. Here, babe. You do it for me.
Everything remains perfect.
You plan to meet her parents over a lazy weekend in October – Patrick and Pat, about whom you’ve heard dozens of stories, some good, but most bad, critical. They are conservative. They do not understand Cassie or her passions. Their house is in the suburbs. It’s just north of the city and just north of Evanston, a few blocks away from Sheridan, one of the larger homes, one of the very much larger homes. There are at least three floors, maybe four. Inside it’s very white and there are more sofas than seem necessary. The entire house smells like fresh linen, even though you never see a washing machine.
Patrick and Pat are grey-haired, handsome. They look like they jog every day. They smile and hug you in a familiar way and immediately you feel like these people are your parents and will be your parents forever. Their kindness is immediate and unrelenting, cocooning and safe. Pat gives you coffee, tells you to make yourself at home, turn on the television, adjust the thermostat, whatever you need, sweetie, our home is your home. Patrick is fatherly, asks you where you’re from, how you and Cassie met, where you went to college, what you studied, whether or not you liked it. They only ask Cassie a few questions as you all sit in their den, their blonde labradoodle (Ditka) nuzzling you with its dripping snout. Cassie seems uninterested, or maybe embarrassed. At a certain point her parents ask her how the apartment is. They ask her if she would like them to take her car in for an oil change. They ask her how she’s doing on money.
Dinner is prepared by a chef who appears from nowhere and the plates are whisked away by a matron who also appears from nowhere, disappears into nowhere, is never seen or heard again once the apple pie is brought out, oven-warm, to be split between the four of you. Patrick, lubricated by two whisky sours, finally mentions that he is in “Resources.” Pat is a management consultant. Both of their offices are downtown, although, they say, the two of them travel so much that they can’t even remember the last time they stepped foot in either of those buildings, heh heh heh. Pat works right by the river, a giant glass structure that stares down onto Wacker. You’re familiar. You ask Patrick where he works.
He answers your question.
Things click. Immediately it makes sense.
That night you and Cassie sleep in the same room, her old bedroom, and you fuck. It is riskless fucking. Her parents’ bedroom is on the opposite side of their home; you could scream, full-throated, and they would not hear you. You don’t. But you could.
Afterwards you cradle each other, holding hands, fingers weakly interlaced.
So your dad, you say.
Come on, she says. I’m one of the good guys. That’s what’s important.
We still haven’t talked about that new organization. Or done anything else to help, for that matter. No rallies, no—
And whose fault is that.
It’s a good question. But, you suppose, you’ve been busy, the two of you. All those friends, all those valuable memories. The D––––– corporation isn’t going anywhere, you’ve thought to yourself. Neither is your money. Neither is your time.
So I’m rich, Cassie says. Everyone is rich, babe. You’re one to talk. Where’s your money from, huh.
You shrug. I don’t really think about it, you say.
And you don’t. Think about it. The amount has decreased, yes, but it’s still large. Ten digits. A one, then a four, then a five, then a seven, and so on, and so on, almost all of the numbers unchanged until you arrive at its end, those last six digits save for the decimal, which is insignificant, pennies are just pennies, you would throw pennies off of a building just to see what happens, and you have, and you did, because wasn’t there that time out in Albany when you—
None of this is important.
The next day it’s warm, unseasonably warm for October, so you all go out to the lake. Patrick sails, obviously. His boat is large and bounteous, striped blue, eerily clean. It rocks calmly as the four of you step aboard and you wonder, if you were to jump off of it and swim as far as you could into Lake Michigan, would anyone panic or would they instead all laugh, roll their eyes at you lovingly, throw you a life preserver and mandate you grab ahold.
There’s champagne. It’s dry, arresting. Patrick and Pat drink copiously; Cassie drinks copiously; you, therefore, drink, copiously. There is blurring. The lake is grey and ice-cold; you reach out, run your hand along the ebbing water; its frigidity stings you.
Careful there, Patrick says. He’s behind you. You rise, apologize, because your brain is gently flooded, because you don’t know what else to say.
You’re a stand-up person, he says, grabbing you by the shoulder, pulling you in for a hug. You catch a whiff of the crick of his neck; he smells evergreen, preserved.
You’re really good for Cassie, he goes on. She needs someone like you. Someone caring, and friendly, who’s going to push her in the right direction. Lord knows I can’t.
The sailboat, anchored, you hope, strikes a choppy wave. You feel your stomach kick up against your ribcage.
I keep the checks coming, though, he says. I keep ‘em coming, and coming, and coming. I don’t know. Her politics, eh, you know, I don’t agree, I don’t agree with her standing outside my place of work, spreading her gossip. But I let her do it. She’s passionate. She’s not doing any harm, and she’ll grow out of it, you know. But she is my daughter. I love her. I love her more than God Himself. You know when she was a baby, I’d take her out to the lake, right along the coast here, and we’d watch the boats, and she’d smile that big smile of hers, and—
He stops. Whether out of emotional inundation or some other force, you can’t be sure.
When you have children of your own, you’ll understand, he says, and pats you on the shoulder, a signal that this interaction is over, that he’s culled from you what he needs.
Dizzied, you wander about the deck of the sailboat, look out to the lake, look east, or what you think is east, then west, or what you think is west, and you see land, and then other land, but mostly you see water, and overcast fall sky, and a hint of sun above the clouds, sun that can’t break through. The water smells rank and fungal. Somehow, you’re holding a finger sandwich. You put it on the ship’s railing and it slips into the lake, floats on the roof of the water for a moment, then sinks below, fading out of sight.
You feel a greasy embrace, and turn around and see Cassie. She’s never been so radiant, so full and virile and cold. She’s wearing a heavy shawl over a one-piece that makes her look like a flesh-colored fish. Her large-framed sunglasses hide her eyes; you can see yourself in them; you look wan and sated. She smiles a crooked smile, tilts her head to the side like a snake arching in aggression.
You having fun, she says, a statement, not a question.
You peck her on the forehead. She tastes like oil and synthetic banana, sunscreen and compressed air.
Maybe it’s the champagne, she says, but I need to tell you.
You arch your eyebrows, like you’re supposed to.
I need to tell you that I love you.
She puts her hands to her mouth, as if suppressing vomit.
I love you, she repeats. I love you. For real. I love you.
And you embrace. She kisses you, her tongue scabbarding into your mouth like a knife into old fruit. You realize this is it, as you kiss her, as you pull back, as you say it too, as she says it again, again. You see beyond. You see you and Cassie move through the next months. More travel. More exploration. A shared apartment; new furniture, artwork, loud rugs; a dog, a cat; matching 401(k)s. You move through the years. There is a proposal. There is a wedding. All of your friends, her friends, are there, and you, they, are happy. Cassie’s parents take you in as their own child, and you are indebted to them, their kindness. You take a job at D–––––, on Patrick’s recommendation – something administrative but with benefits, a clear path to promotion, company stock and infinite security. It’s money you don’t need, but it’s money you can use, money that can be put towards the down-payment on a house in the suburbs, enough space for the dog, enough space for anything. Cassie, still passionate, still caring, does non-profit work. She does found her own organization, eventually, truly; its intentions are good; you’re not sure what it is that they do; it’s not that important. She realizes she can do more, and she runs for public office. She campaigns well; you self-finance; the years pass and she is elected to positions of greater and greater importance. She is loved by the people who look like her and who look like you, who share your experiences, your story. You make a difference, together. Maybe you have children; maybe you don’t. If you do, you give them the world. They play in your yard. They see Disneyworld; they see Graceland; they see the farthest corners of the earth. They attend the best schools; they succeed. You and Cassie are proud, protected, secure. The future doubles back on itself, minimizes, becomes a block of promise, impenetrable, foretold, gospel. In the present, you kiss Cassie again, bile ascending from the pit of your stomach. This is it. The world, the world you own now, has been cracked open at its mid-section, splayed beneath you like a butchered bird – flightless, dumb, certainly diseased.