We liked to do things casually. We called at the last minute. We messaged one another from our hand-held devices. Sometimes our names were on exclusive guest lists (though we were poor, we were beautiful, and people liked to have us around), but often we preferred to do something else—attend a friend’s opening, drink in after-hours clubs or the room above a pub, trek off to remote suburbs to see a band play in a warehouse. We went dancing whenever we felt like it (none of us had regular jobs), and when we didn’t we stayed in, watching movies and getting high. Someone always had something new or special—illegal pre-releases of Hollywood blockbusters, dubs of 8-mm. shorts from the nineteen-seventies. We watched next summer’s exploding airplanes, Viennese Actionists masturbating onto operating tables. Raw meat and Nick Cage. Whatever we watched was, by definition, good, because we’d watched it, because it had belonged—at least, temporarily—to us. By the time the wider world caught up—which always happened, sooner or later—we’d usually got bored and moved on. We had long since given up mourning the loss of our various enthusiasms. We’d learned to discard them lightly. It was the same with clubs and bars. Wherever we went would be written about in magazines three or four months later. A single mention on a blog, and a place that had been spangled with beautiful, interesting faces would be swamped by young bankers in button-down shirts, nervously analyzing the room to see if they were having fun.
I must make it clear that we didn’t plan for our lives to be this way. We despised trendies—fashion kids who tried too hard, perennially hoping to get hosed down by the paps or interviewed about their hair. With us, it wasn’t a neurotic thing. We put on public events—salons, gigs, parties, shows. But once in a while, in the midst of our hectic social gyrations, we liked to do something for one another, something that didn’t drain our energy, that made us feel private again.
My friend Sunita had a sense of theatre. She loved formality, intrigue. She had a certain archaic style, which would have been pompous or tediously ironic if it hadn’t been for her cracked sense of humor, her painful, charming earnestness. For Sunita, the world was a kind of tragic game. When she threw one of her dinner parties, there were hand-made invitations, a dress code. Once, she held a surrealist dinner, all diving suits and lobsters, over which she presided in a sheer green dress that was almost completely transparent. Another time, her theme was war. You might think it bad taste to hold a war-themed dinner party—now, of all times—but Sunita pulled it off. We arrived carrying toy guns, wearing helmets daubed with bloodthirsty slogans. Some of us sniggered; others muttered about our hostess’s poor taste. Yet somehow the evening, which should have been ludicrous, took on an unexpected aura of profundity. How? Sunita turned it into a wake. We raised our glasses to the millions of dead, to all the people who had had to endure what we merely watched on television. We had escaped, and we felt very guilty about it. Our childish carnival costumes were a sign of our shame. Donkeys’ ears, dunces’ caps.
When word got around that Sunita was holding another dinner, people immediately started angling for invitations. Everyone knew that she and I were close. Friends called, more or less begging me to get them in. I had to apologize and say that there was nothing I could do. It was a rule, an unofficial rule: no liggers and no hangers-on.
Sunita lived in an old textile warehouse, a big, echoing building that was due to be converted into apartments. It had pools of water in the basement and a goods lift that clanked its way up to the third floor, where she’d set up home, plumbing in a kitchen and partitioning off a bedroom and a bathroom. The main space was a studio where she made her drawings, ramified patterns of abstract nested lines that had grown, in the time I’d known her, from tiny quadrants smaller than a paperback into huge things that rambled over sheets of paper in uncertain arcs. The landlord, a Greek named Constantine who had a dozen other properties in the area, was waiting for the market to improve before he redeveloped. In the meantime, Sunita lived rent-free. She and Constantine had some kind of deal; I never knew the details. I would occasionally find him there when I went to visit, a portly man in a cashmere coat, sitting at her huge pine table shelling pistachios. He often brought nuts, sometimes cherries or boxes of gluey sweets. Sunita seemed able to handle him well enough.
The card for Sunita’s latest dinner was minimal: a thick piece of cream-colored paper, with the words “Eating Is Honest” printed in an old-fashioned cursive font. Date and time, address, the cryptic instruction “Dress sincerely.” I spent a long time debating what to wear. Sunita was typically tight-lipped about how her theme should be interpreted. “No, I won’t help you,” she said. “You know it would ruin everything.” So I phoned around. No one had a clue. Vikram was his usual scatological self. “Toilets,” he said. “She’s going to do the thing out of the Buñuel film with the toilets. She’s going to make all of us take a shit around a dining table and then eat in little locked cubicles.”
I ended up adopting a sort of ironic nerd look, with thick, plastic-framed glasses and a clip-on tie. I wasn’t very satisfied with it. I considered wearing my “own” clothes, on the ground that it would have been the most sincere response—to dress as if there were no dress code—but I couldn’t work out what the most neutral choice would be. How to let everyone know that not only was I myself, I was expressing myself? Damn Sunita, I thought. Damn her clever ideas.
When I arrived at the warehouse, I found that she’d transformed the place into a kind of kitsch Christian heaven. White sheets were draped over the walls. A long table was arrayed with flowers and candelabra and lavish silver platters of food. When you got up close, you saw that it was all aluminum foil and spray paint, but by candlelight the scene looked sumptuous, romantic. Next to each place setting was a little hand mirror. Evidently, self-examination was part of the rubric. A number of old–fashioned medical illustrations were tacked incongruously on the wall, demonstrating the digestive system. Sunita was dressed in a white linen shift, and welcomed us with a short speech that, as far as I could tell, was composed of cut-up extracts from diet books. The food was simple and plain—fruit, cheeses, loaves of crusty bread—and while we ate it there was a program of entertainment. Michel read several of his poems. Hengist and Horsa played folk songs. A woman called Kevin did some kind of improvised dance, a flurry of arm-swirling that made me feel embarrassed and slightly uncomfortable. I took that as a good sign. If a piece of art makes me uncomfortable or, better still, angry, that seems to be a reason to pay attention to it.
It was all very pure and calming, an atmosphere that Faye de Way (when we finally managed to steer her away from the perennial topic of her operation) labelled “Baroque detox.” If that was the effect our hostess was shooting for, it was slightly spoiled by her guests, who were all smoking like chimneys. “Chew twenty times!” Sunita admonished. “Once for each person at the table.” I was seated next to Thanh, who’d cut her hair into a fringe. She looked like a Vietnamese Nico. I told her she was an inscrutable Oriental, and she told me I was a round-eyed pervert who would cry like a little baby when she cut my cock off. How we laughed! I was in a beautiful place, surrounded by talented people. No one was showing off, no one was being pushy, but somehow everyone shone. For one night, we were glorious.
Gradually, we all swapped chairs, clustering in groups to chat. Vikram stood by the record player, putting on seven-inch singles. The table, which had looked so pristine, was strewn with a wreckage of empty bottles and ashtrays and plastic cups. Sunita sat down beside me and asked if I was enjoying myself. I told her I was. She hugged me and I kissed her on the lips. “You should save that for Thanh,” she warned. “If you’re not careful, Raj will get hold of her.”
Raj was one of the few people at the party that I didn’t know. He was good-looking, in that conventional way which seems to sabotage any chance of depth or credibility in a person. Are handsome men doomed to become skin-care-obsessed dullards simply because no one talks to them about serious things? Or are looks linked in some genetic way to intelligence? Raj’s hair was gelled and teased into spikes. He wore a fussy beard, shaved into a fine line around the contours of his jaw. He was flirting with Thanh, which annoyed me, since I’d weighed things up and decided that I definitely wanted to go home with her. Still, I swallowed my distaste—after all, the guy was a friend of Sunita’s—and was gratified to find that when I moved over to sit beside Thanh he ceded possession graciously enough.
As we chatted, I decided that he was actually rather charming. He even ventured an occasional shot at self-deprecation, which I certainly hadn’t expected from someone like him. He’d brought along several bottles of vodka, an unfamiliar brand. He poured a shot for each of us, telling us that he’d just discovered it and rhapsodizing about how fragrant it was, how smooth. We talked about a number of other things—I can’t remember what—and he took a few pictures with his phone, which I thought was lame. I mean, if you’re too busy recording the experience, are you actually having it in the first place? I came away thinking that he was all right. A little suburban, a little bland, but sweet enough.
As I’d hoped, I went home with Thanh, and for a few weeks my memories of Sunita’s party were filtered through my new relationship with her. We’d lie for hours on a rug on her studio floor, fucking and listening to music. One evening, while she got dressed to go back to the boyfriend with whom she had a complex but live-in relationship, I was idly typing our names into a search engine—sort of the digital equivalent of scratching initials into the trunk of a tree—when I came across a picture of the two of us, arms around each other, our cheeks mashed together as we blew kisses at the camera. In the foreground was a vodka bottle. For a moment, I couldn’t work out where the photograph had been taken. Then, to my surprise, I realized that it was from Sunita’s party. The site it was on was a corporate advertorial affair called something like Get-the-Taste, or Feel-the-Refreshment. There was a competition and an unpopulated “community.” Across the screen scrolled similar photos of sexy young things in social situations, always with the vodka bottle in the shot. None of the pictures seemed posed.
It took me a minute or two to put it together, and when I did I wasn’t happy. The bastard. The two-faced little fucker. Raj had been getting paid to take those pictures. He’d come to our party, and not just any party, to Sunita’s party, the most beautiful gathering imaginable, and he’d shamelessly used it to sell us—to sell me—a product. The more I thought about it, the more angry I became. All that trash about the vodka being smooth: his whole conversation had been a sales pitch. It was creepy. More than creepy. It was sinister. Furious, I told Thanh to come over and have a look. She peered at the monitor, doing up her blouse.
“You came out pretty well,” she said. “I like your glam-rock pout.”
“But look at it. That bastard made us into an advert.”
“Are we credited?”
“Only our first names.”
“Shame. And I look so drunk.”
“I suppose you—no, no, no! That’s not the point. I mean, don’t you feel used?”
“What are you so upset about? You don’t look nearly as wasted as me. It’s hardly fair. You were downing those shots all night.”
“But what about Raj? He never asked us whether we wanted to be on his damn vodka Web site. And all that patter about how smooth it tasted!”
“It was smooth.”
“But to talk to people and secretly be trying to sell them something—isn’t that, I don’t know, unethical? Surely you agree that it’s completely out of order.”
“He didn’t ask us to buy anything. He gave us free drinks.”
“I know, but the point was to get us to buy something later on. That particular brand. We generate buzz. We recommend it to our friends, it becomes hip, blah-blah-blah.”
“He should have given me image approval. Look at my chin! I’m going to have words next time I see him.”
“For fuck’s sake, Thanh! He was just using us. He wanted to make us into—into early adopters.”
“But we are early adopters. I got a free phone a few months ago. All I had to do was watch a film and say how it made me feel.”
“Jesus, you really are a shallow bitch.”
Thanh and I more or less stopped seeing each other after that. I couldn’t understand why she didn’t feel more angry. Something precious to me had been violated, something I’d been holding on to. A secret pleasure that I hadn’t wanted to throw into the big commercial vat with all the rest of the stuff—all the other moments and memories that get recycled into processed trends, like so many cheese triangles. Sunita’s party had been private. That is the only way I can put it. The party had been private and he’d made it public.
I went to tell Sunita. “That’s so Raj,” she said.
I was confused. What did she mean, “so Raj”? Didn’t she think that he’d betrayed her trust? Wasn’t his behavior sleazy and underhanded?
“He was just being himself.” She laughed. “He’s a hustler. That’s something you’ll learn about Raj when you get to know him better.”
One thing I must admit here: I find anger tricky. Anger is a very sincere emotion. We live under the rule of cool, and we are expected to encounter the vicissitudes of the world with a certain degree of irony. Sincerity, as any hipster will tell you, is for awkward teens and people on SSRIs. Think about it—sincerity is gauche, gauche is boring, and boring is rude, so it’s only a matter of ordinary politeness not to take things too seriously. But I really couldn’t deal with Sunita laughing at me. When you’re truly vexed, so vexed that it makes you incoherent and frustrated, there’s nothing worse than being laughed at. You cunt, I thought. You fucking cunt. You’re not who I thought you were.
Just as I was making up my mind to say something, I was saved by the intercom. Sunita buzzed up fat Constantine, who was hefting a box of mangoes in his meaty hands. He nodded to me, installed himself at the table, and started to peel and slice them. Sunita sat down beside him. I stood by the sink, my fists balled, so consumed with irritation that I couldn’t think of anything to say. Constantine fed Sunita slices of mango, spearing them on the tip of his knife. She took them between her teeth, making eyes at him. Eventually, he looked up at me. “Don’t let me interrupt,” he said.
“He was talking about my friend Raj,” Sunita explained, wiping her mouth with a napkin. “He’s a bit of a wheeler-dealer.”
“My kind of guy,” Constantine said.
Sunita smiled at me. “Raj has the greatest car. Have you seen it?”
No, I hadn’t.
“It’s a big metallic purple thing, with under-floor lighting and ‘Rude Mercs’ written on the back window. It’s hilarious.”
“How did you and Raj meet?”
That was her standard euphemism for sleeping with someone. There had never been anything serious between Sunita and me, but all the same I felt a pang.
“I can’t believe it, Sunny. He’s an idiot.”
“What’s the problem?” Constantine asked. “Who is this Raj?”
“No one,” Sunita said. “Just a guy who’s been treading on someone’s little tootsies.”
Constantine gestured to his plate. “Try a mango,” he said. “They’re Alfonsos. Very sweet.”
That night, I couldn’t get to sleep. Round and round it went in my mind: Raj, vodka. Of course, it wasn’t about the vodka. I’d enjoyed the damn vodka. And surely there was nothing intrinsically wrong with accepting a free drink. But there must come a time when you’re allowed to stop being a consumer. There has to be some respite from all that choosing, a time, well, just to be. Sunita’s party had been cool. Add as many quotation marks around the word as you like, but it was true. Most people never get the chance to attend a party like that. And, yes, there had been an element of performance to it. But I’d thought that we were just being cool for one another, to stave off boredom for a few hours, not to make some poor shell-suited kid on a housing estate feel jealous. I mean, jealousy just breeds resentment, right? Violence. People could get mugged because of Raj and his pictures. People could get raped. I started to look at my life style in a new, fearful light. What did I have that people might want to take? Did people get burgled for their cultural capital?
I’d assumed that Raj’s betrayal of trust would be obvious to everyone, but, to my shock, none of my friends seemed to see anything wrong. Otto was a long-haired German who shot music promos. “I need information, man,” he said, shrugging. We were sitting in a sushi bar, drinking green tea. “I don’t care how it gets to me.”
“It’s not information,” I argued, waving my cup around. “The speed of light, the date of the moon landing. That’s information.”
“Uh, they recently invented this thing called the Internet.”
“Piss off, Otto. You know what I mean.”
“Get over yourself, man. You’re acting so old-fashioned, like some kind of Communist. I have the right to perform acts of rational consumer choice: our ancestors fought wars for it. And I think I’m clever enough to filter a little bit of spin, don’t you? Look, why don’t you check out this band I’m working with?” He handed me a sleek little music player. I listened for a while, out of politeness.
“They’re the final wave of New Wave,” he explained. “After this, there will never be another reason to wear a Blondie T-shirt.”
I nodded listlessly. I felt too despondent to argue anymore. Otto, smiling at me as he bounced his head to the beat of the music he couldn’t hear, seemed not to notice. “I knew you’d like them. Aren’t those headphones great, though? Optional noise cancellation. Amazing dynamic range. Particularly the bass—really rich, considering how small they are.”
A sudden suspicion crossed my mind. But, no, this wasn’t some suburban wide-boy. This was Otto.
And yet . . . Over the next few days, I started to notice something odd. Every time I met a friend, he or she would immediately make a recommendation, urge me to try something new. Lucas had been to a club on the other side of town and insisted that it was the best night out he’d had in ages. Janine almost forced me to take home a bottle of her “new favorite nutritional supplement.” At first, I shrugged it off. But, deep down, I knew that it had something to do with Raj and his vodka. Every night, I’d turn the incident over in my mind. I swallowed Ativan and Valium and Paxil (I had a compliant doctor), hoping that my anxiety would pass. It didn’t. There was Joe and his new running shoes. Razia’s bike. All my friends seemed to be dropping snippets of advertising copy into their conversation, short messages from their sponsors. They were constantly stating preferences for particular brands, dishing out free samples.
Perhaps nothing had changed. We’d always shared new music with one another or recommended places to eat. But now there was something different. A tone? It was hard to say. I found myself wondering if Sasha was telling me that the sushi at Bar Fugu was “to die for” because he meant it or because it was a snappy slogan. Vikram started talking to me at nauseating length about tires. Steel radials, depth of tread. I hadn’t even known that Vikram had a car. When Wei Lin began rhapsodizing about the streaming capabilities of his new video projector, I snapped.
“Don’t start this shit on me, Wei. I’m sick of it.”
“This sales patter. I can’t take it anymore. Frankly, you disgust me.”
“It’s not even as if you need the money. You’re loaded.”
“I don’t understand why you’re being so hostile.”
“Your daddy in Shanghai owns a fucking construction company. We all know, Wei. It’s not a secret. So why do you need to do this? There’s no reason! Is it fun? Does it get you laid?”
Afterward, he told everyone that I’d physically threatened him. He said to Thanh that he thought I might be on crack.
I was shaken up. I tried to get on with my life, working on my designs, speaking to people—even going out, just as if things were normal. But they weren’t. I felt I was under immense mental pressure, in constant danger of some unforeseen catastrophic event, a psychological bridge collapse. I found parties increasingly traumatic: the bombardment of messages, the pitches coming at me from every side. It was impossible to untangle what was being said because the speaker felt or believed it from what was merely repetition. When were people being themselves and when were they acting? I began, ever so slightly, to doubt the reality of other minds. People seemed to zone in and out of existence. Sometimes they were fully present, animated by something original and real. But mostly they were just zombies, empty vessels operated by corporate remote control.
I tell you, I was afraid. Becoming a hermit was looking like a good option. A cave in the Hebrides. The lonely sea and the sky. I was ready to batten down the hatches and crawl into the submarine of my own paranoia when I met Zoe. She understood me immediately, saw that my life had been stripped of all humor, all scope and playfulness, that it was irising down to the enforced sincerity of the locked ward.
Zoe didn’t like being in physical proximity to too many people, because she thought it made her sick, though as far as I could tell she was a perfectly healthy person. She didn’t go outside much, and always went to the shops with a tub of antiseptic wipes in her bag. On bad days, she wore a face mask. Despite her eccentricities, she was no introvert, was a lively presence on various online sites and game worlds. We spent a lot of time indoors, smoking and talking. She wasn’t physically beautiful, but I didn’t want someone beautiful; I wanted someone who made me feel safe, which Zoe did—until the night I mentioned her ring.
It was a large copper band with a number of tiny stones set into it, a trashy-looking thing with a vaguely “Lord of the Rings” aesthetic. I asked her what it was.
“This?” she said absent-mindedly, sticking one hand out as she manipulated a joystick with the other, careering through some virtual maze. “It’s an appetite-reduction ring. See the tiny gems? There are nine of them. It helps correct biochemical imbalances in the body by reverse-actuating the ionic flow in my bloodstream. You should get one.”
Zombie-speech. She had reeled it off without a pause.
“Oh, no, Zoe.”
She paused her game. “What?”
“Not you, too.”
“I don’t understand. Are you all right?”
“Zoe, I’m going to ask you something, and you’d better tell me the truth.”
“What are you talking about? You look pale.”
“Is someone paying you to say that stuff?”
She giggled. “Sorry, babe, it just pops out sometimes. I didn’t mean to pitch you. I’m supposed only to do it to my girlfriends.”
“Ignore me. You know how hard it is to keep track of one’s placements.”
“Placements. Why are you making that face? You’re looking at me like I’m some kind of freak.”
“You have a lot of—placements?”
“Oh, don’t get on your high horse. You don’t work, either. What do you do for cash? If a girl doesn’t want a straight job, she has to monetize her social network.”
I’m not proud of what I did then. I just couldn’t control myself. I slapped her. I told her that she was a fake, a zombie. Before I walked out, I took a last look at her, pathetically scrubbing at her cheek with a cloth.
At my flat, I looked at the presents she’d bought me during our short relationship—a pair of shoes, a scarf. I decided to give them to charity. I found a cardboard box, but it was big and the shoes and scarf didn’t take up much space, so I added a few more things. The experience was oddly pleasurable. Once I’d started, it was hard to stop. Soon I’d filled several boxes, then several more. They were too heavy to carry to the charity shop, so I just left them on the street outside my building. For the rest of the day, I watched from the balcony as people stopped to rummage and carry things away. That night, I put the rest of my stuff out. All of it—clothes, books and records, furniture, even the cans of food from my kitchen cupboards. Everything I owned. By the following afternoon, it was all gone.
I spent the next couple of days squatting on my haunches in a corner of my empty flat. Something in me had snapped, was broken beyond repair. My taste had been central to my identity. I’d cultivated it, kept it fed and watered like an exotic flowering plant. Now I realized that what I thought had been an expression of my innermost humanity was nothing but a cloud of life-style signals, available to anyone at the click of a mouse. How had this happened?
I couldn’t understand. There had to be something else. What was a personality if it wasn’t a drop-down menu, a collection of likes and dislikes? And now that my possessions were gone, what would I put in their place? Who was I without my private pressings, my limited editions, my vintage one-offs? How could I signal to potential allies across the vast black reaches of interpersonal space?
It was then that I realized I’d been robbed. I’d been forcibly expropriated from myself. And who had done this to me? Who was the cause of all my loss and pain? I stormed around to Sunita’s to ask for Raj’s address. The door was opened by Constantine, wearing a quilted paisley dressing gown.
“She’s out,” he said, tightening the cord around his paunch. “She says don’t come around no more.” He burped.
“Sunita doesn’t want to see me?”
“That’s right. She says you have a bad energy.”
I didn’t know quite how to process that information. “Whatever. For now, I just need a number for Raj.”
“Raj is it? He’s a nice guy.”
“So you know him?”
“Sure. Everyone knows Raj.”
“So how do I get hold of him?”
“I’ve got his card somewhere.”
He disappeared and came back holding a business card. On it was written, in a cheesy futuristic font, “Raj, Bohemian.” I couldn’t tell if it was a company name or a job description. The office address was close by.
Constantine looked at me solicitously. “You know your problem?”
“Tell me my problem.”
“Stress. You should get a massage. I’ll give you another number. It’s local. The girls are very attentive.”
I turned my back on him and pressed the call button on the lift.
The trip to Raj’s office passed in a dream. I was a ghost, floating through a world of moving signage, people carrying shopping bags, immigrants handing out flyers for bars and language schools. I went into a department store, dazzled by chrome and glass and brushed steel. It was a palace of mirrors, zombie heaven. Girls at the makeup counter, dressed like slutty pharmacists. Rich men with ski tans fingering cashmere sweaters. In the housewares department was a display cabinet of knives, gleaming with surgical allure. I bought the largest and headed back up the escalator to the teeming street.
Raj’s office wasn’t what I’d expected. I was imagining—I don’t know what I was imagining. A flashy loft. A life-style statement. It turned out to be a shared suite, a dreary place with grubby tube lights and contract carpeting, where freelancers rented desks, huddling together to make themselves feel less alone. One or two people looked up from their work as I walked in. I felt dizzy, disoriented, carrying the knife wrapped in a yellow plastic bag.
“Hey, man! Good to see you!”
Raj was standing up behind a desk piled high with paper and promotional knickknacks. Across the top of his computer monitor paraded a little line of toys. He looked tired and drab, his eyes rimmed with dark circles, a reddish stain disfiguring his crisp white polo shirt. Raj, my nemesis. So ordinary. I had gone there to kill him, to make him into nothing for having made me into nothing. But now that he stood in front of me he was just a guy with a greasy forehead and a pimple on his top lip. Now that I saw the reality of his life, the plastic bags full of free samples, the half-eaten sandwich balanced on a teetering stack of magazines, I knew that any confrontation would be absurd. I sank down onto a swivel chair and spun in little half circles, while he hovered over me, this person who’d polluted my whole life without even realizing it. Someone else was there. A woman. I think he was trying to introduce her to me. I shook my head mutely. What was I? A sorting device. A filter. A human bivalve, culture accreting in me like a mercury deposit. I looked around the office at the young workers wearing headphones, typing, talking into phones with their feet on their desks. This was the world, just the same indoors and out, a place of total nullity. How could anything make any difference? Unless you managed to keep your head underwater, to immerse yourself in the endless metonymic shuffling of objects, it would be intolerable.
“You look awful,” Raj said. “Are you feeling O.K.?”
I stared up at him. He was holding out a glass of water.
“Is it good?” I asked.
He shook his head, not understanding.
“Is it better than other brands of water?”
“It’s just water. From the tap.”
I took a sip.
“Are you sick?” he asked gently.
“What is it, then?”
I closed my eyes. “I’m not sure. I think I might be bored.”
“Is there anything going on tonight?”
He smiled and started to tell me about a party, a guest list, a secret venue. I took out my phone to punch in the contact number.
This story first appeared in The New Yorker