I hadn't known him. I'd misinterpreted everything. Though it wasn't the harshest blow of the last decade, it may have been the most destabilizing, undermining my trust in other people and devastating my faith in my own judgment. Qualities in myself that I'd thought laudable – curiosity, openness, high spirits – suddenly felt like shortcomings or defects. "You can't cheat an honest man" goes the old saying, the notion being that falling for a charlatan requires moral softness in the victim. I had plenty of this, as I was well aware thanks to my upbringing in the Mormon Church. I lied on occasion, chiefly about sex. I could be two-faced around authority figures, kissing up to them while resenting them. At times I relished speaking caustically. And what I regarded as my trusting nature was, upon inspection, a kind of sloth. Instead of patiently working to get to know people, I'd decide that they were who I wanted them to be and discard them when they proved otherwise. This cycle of disappointment happened often. That it hadn't come close to happening with Clark – that he never diverged from my fantasies about him – should have been a sign.
Another symptom of my spiritual laxity was the Ritalin I was taking when I knew him. Its effect was to grant me cheap energy on cue, and thanks to the way I was living and working then – juggling deadlines, ranch chores, and young children – my demand for cheap energy was vast. The cycles of euphoria and exhaustion induced by the drug caused many skids and stumbles. I squandered thousands on online trading sprees. Buy Lucent Technologies at 28, sell in a sweat when it dips to 26, rebuy at 27, watch it rise, double up when it spikes, freak out when it ticks down, sell half, sell all, buy Apple, and on and on. I ordered a car once in this scrambled state, leaning in next to the salesman at his computer and choosing options that showed up on his screen as a morphing animated vehicle that kept changing colors because I couldn't pick one. Maybe the pills were one reason I bought Clark. The mood of promiscuous readiness they roused was indiscriminate and undiscerning.
Or maybe my egotism was a homing beacon. Maybe it made me a more attractive mark. Our history ran both ways, a partnership, meaning that whatever I'd seen in him, he had also spied something in me. These characters read you, according to the books, and all the time they're talking, they're really listening, alert for pings and echoes. They use sonar, not questions; Clark never asked me questions. I suspect that one quality he tuned in to early on was my collaborative listening style. Instead of shrinking from his loopy stories, I helped him refine them by teasing out their details and nudging them toward heightened vividness. It's one of the services Nick performs for Gatsby, consolidating his fabricated self by playing the role of ideal audience.
Clark would also have felt my eagerness not only to trust but to be trusted. He'd told me in our initial phone call that his plane was in China with his wife, and yet there she was when I arrived. I don't recall him explaining this inconsistency. I do recall noting it and saying nothing. What is it in people, or just in people like me, that would rather let a lie go by, would rather wish it away or minimize it, than point it out and cause the liar embarrassment? Why would we rather have someone see us naked than see someone naked? Politeness, I'd always thought. The essence of politeness is feigned blindness. But Clark knew otherwise. He knew that my choice to spare him the slightest shame, to view him as he wanted to be viewed, stemmed from a selfish craving for an alliance. I would blink when he stumbled, go deaf when he misspoke. He could count on me.
I'd come to Clark's murder trial with many questions, beginning with why I'd once found him so impressive and how, in instance after instance – some of them still in the process of resurfacing – I could have been so stupid, so obtuse. I also wanted to learn how his pretensions might be related to a violent nature (if Clark even had a "nature," a larger question). But there was this, too: I'd come to finish a story, the one I'd considered writing when I met him but later abandoned in deference to our friendship.
I still remembered where I was when I ruled out using him as a character, even in fiction. The Lotos Club on East 66th Street is a quietly posh refuge for Manhattan's cultural elites. Mark Twain was once a member. He called it "the ace of clubs." Its manicured furnishings and forgiving lighting brought to mind an exquisite funeral home or a faculty club for learned ghosts. We sat in high-backed chairs that afternoon, the focus of a grudging, aging staff whose loathing for us was obvious. He was drinking a gin and tonic. I had a Coke with lemon. I don't recall the topics we discussed, but they probably touched on global politics and his arch-theme of Western decadence versus Asian drive and discipline. Behind his chair was a portrait of some dead worthy gazing immortally into a future that the man appeared confident of shaping. Perhaps he had; I didn't recognize him. My hunch was that this would not have bothered him, since men of true influence operate offstage.
I wanted to be invited back – I liked the club's effect on me. I liked how it made me hold my glass, not wrapped in my hand and snug against my palm the way I'd hold it in a restaurant but lightly, with precise, prehensile fingertips. I also liked how comfortable I felt, sitting askew on my cushion, head tipped sideways, thumb on cheekbone, ankles crossed, mirroring the flow of Clark's remarks with adjustments of forehead tension and chin position. I wasn't the lone Princetonian there, I sensed. I doubted that I was the lone Oxfordian, either. Was that my old roommate's father in the striped tie? The wrinkles across the insteps of his brogues were exactly the ones I wanted on mine someday. Montana – I may have erred there. Too far afield. Perhaps it was time to move back to the center. ("I think you nailed it, Clark. I really do. I suspect that's what most people think but never say.") We made an interesting pair, the small-town novelist and the lonesome Rockefeller. I brought him news of the people, the human ruckus, and he brought me news from the Olympian eagle's nest. ("I think I'll switch to club soda with a lime. And you can take these nuts. We're done.") He envied my mobility, my freedom; I coveted his security, his ease. What was funny was how protective I felt toward him. What was nice was how safe he seemed to feel with me.