The Drink Tank

Appear­ing in Vol­ume 26, Num­ber 1 of Mobius: the Jour­nal of Social Change

Are you able to real­ly quick­ly talk with us today about the Salahudeen assas­si­na­tion?”

The woman’s voice on the oth­er side of the phone was des­per­ate, plead­ing. It was 4:30 in the morn­ing.

I— I guess so,” I slurred. My girl­friend rolled over to give me her back and grunt­ed. I rolled away from her and cleared my throat. “Umm, you mean he died?”

This morn­ing, some­one killed him. Can you come in and talk to us about it?”

Sure. When will the car get here?”

Is 5:30 okay?”

Sure,” I said, and hit the End Call but­ton on my phone. It was going to be one of those days.

I stubbed my toe get­ting out of bed. Turn­ing on the light seemed rude. I tripped over a pair of sweat­pants, then the dog. He nor­mal­ly was so hap­py to get up and go run around out­side, but he just sort of huffed at me. I whis­pered toward the bed, “Can you take care of him today?”

Mmmh­m­mm,” she moaned. Her eyes stayed closed but her mouth formed a frown. She’d be cranky the rest of the day.

I don’t even remem­ber show­er­ing, though I clear­ly did that morn­ing. I also know I shaved in some fash­ion, because when I looked back at myself, a small patch of stub­ble was vis­i­ble on the under­side of my face. I’d missed it while shav­ing. The uneven­ness inch­ing down from my jaw was embar­rass­ing.

My phone buzzed after I got into the back of the Lin­coln MKX.

Are you on your way?” the voice on the phone inquired. I answered yes.

Okay good, are you a bit more awake now? Can we go over the inter­view?”

Sure. So what hap­pened?”

Say­eed Salahudeen died. He was killed in a car bomb, we think. Or maybe a drone. It’s unclear right now.”

Huh.” I had to scram­ble my head to remem­ber who this guy was. “So, he was a pret­ty impor­tant fig­ure. This is going to be a big deal.”

Yes, it is par­tic­u­lar­ly going to have reper­cus­sions in Kash­mir.” That’s who he was! Okay. I could fake this. She con­tin­ued, “We’d like to get from you your sense of what this means for the war on ter­ror.”

Oh.” I had no idea what it meant for the war on ter­ror. Who real­ly could? Peo­ple got killed off all the time; it nev­er seemed to kill off the appeal of these groups. “Well, I’m sure it will cause a tem­po­rary dis­rup­tion amongst the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen lead­er­ship. If the Indi­an gov­ern­ment uses this as an excuse to crack­down in Jam­mu or Kash­mir it could pose big ques­tions for their rap­proche­ment with Pak­istan.”

This is excel­lent, Michael.” She sound­ed relieved, now. “We’ll want to talk about where this group came from and how it will affect the U.S.”

Hmm. Okay.” This wouldn’t affect the U.S. one bit. Hizb-ul-Mujahideen is a Kash­miri issue. They’re ter­ror­ists and every­thing but it’s real­ly India’s prob­lem and Pakistan’s for sup­port­ing it. I began to pull up Wikipedia pages on my phone. Maybe there was a New York Times arti­cle or some­thing I could repeat. “Well, it does demon­strate that Pakistan’s sup­port for Kash­miri mil­i­tant groups can have real­ly bad effects on its neigh­bors. I’m sure there will be some rip­ple effects in Afghanistan.”

Per­fect!” she said.

And, it’s a big deal that India might have used a drone to kill him. I think that’s the first time it’s hap­pened.”

Thank you, Michael. This inter­view will be excel­lent. We’ll be wait­ing for you in the stu­dio.”

I des­per­ate­ly began read­ing. My head ached, pound­ed like a lancet through my eyes. I had too many gins and ton­ic last night at the young pro­fes­sion­als in for­eign pol­i­cy hap­py hour.

Twen­ty min­utes lat­er, I had a Wikipedia under­stand­ing of ter­ror­ism in Kash­mir: it was per­fect. Every­thing at the stu­dio was a blur. It wasn’t even six in the morn­ing. No one who mat­tered was going to watch this. It was inter­na­tion­al; my boss would hard­ly care. I got my face pan­caked with make­up and del­i­cate­ly wiped off the insertive end of the ear­piece with a san­i­tary wipe. God knows what oth­er ears it had been inside. The cof­fee wasn’t just bit­ter, it was sour. I sucked in my gut and but­toned my jack­et.

The pro­duc­er faffed around the tiny clos­et of a room, adjust­ing the cam­era through some­one in her ear piece, a dis­tant whis­per of Eng­lish accent drift­ing through her greasy hair. Was this the BBC or Al Jazeera Eng­lish? I for­get. I could nev­er remem­ber which build­ing was which.

The inter­view was non­sense, as they always were. My mind was wan­der­ing, so I tried to focus on my flipped-over reflec­tion in the lens of the cam­era. It was my only com­pan­ion, unless you count­ed the poor­ly lit pro­jec­tion of the U.S. Capi­tol behind me. If a piece of Wash­ing­ton, DC, kitsch was not in the same frame, peo­ple might not real­ize I was based in Wash­ing­ton, DC.

I said some­thing about how ter­ror­ists are bad and how Amer­i­ca doesn’t like bad ter­ror­ists and that Kash­miri ter­ror­ism was also bad. And drones, of course; peo­ple love to hear about how drones are scary, and every­thing is going to suck because of drones. With­in four min­utes it was over, and I didn’t need to be into my office for anoth­er 45 min­utes. It was time to go to a near­by Star­bucks.

I sat down with my skin­ny lat­te and pulled up my phone to read up more about Kash­mir. Maybe I could score an op-ed out of this. The real­i­ty was, I hadn’t the first clue what to make of this inci­dent. I don’t know a thing about India, and I hard­ly know much about Pak­istan. The clos­est I ever came to Kash­mir was a heli­copter tour of Afghanistan a few years ago, fol­low­ing some gen­er­al with stars on his shoul­der as he flew from army base to army base, watch­ing Pow­er­Point pre­sen­ta­tions and lis­ten­ing to troops crisply yell “Sir!” as they went about their dai­ly rou­tines. I’ve only seen a drone once, even though I read a lot of papers about them.

I am an igno­ra­mus, in oth­er words. A hang­er-on. An expert. I val­ue myself, and my work, based on how close I can get to peo­ple in pow­er, and I drop hints of that close­ness to peo­ple I think will get me onto TV, and so I can feel impor­tant. If I’m real­ly lucky, some of those impor­tant peo­ple might lis­ten to me, and a very tiny piece of the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment will shift almost imper­cep­ti­bly to match up with one of my flights of fan­cy.

I work at a think tank. And this is my con­fes­sion.

* * *

I first encoun­tered think tanks in high school. I was Googling around for some help in writ­ing a paper for Amer­i­can His­to­ry, and I found a long report about the long term lega­cies of mech­a­niza­tion on Amer­i­can farms. It was unspeak­ably bor­ing, so I pla­gia­rized it. I got a B+.

In col­lege, think tank reports took on a dif­fer­ent pati­na for me. They were more read­able, more acces­si­ble than the aca­d­e­m­ic papers we had to read for class. Made it sim­ple to mine them for facts and fig­ures to pad out my term papers. I assumed that it was because the think tankers were smarter, more in tune with boil­ing down com­pli­cat­ed ideas into an eas­i­ly-digest­ed form. It was like instant celebri­ty with none of the work of doing to grad school.

So the first thing I did when I grad­u­at­ed from col­lege was to try to get a low-lev­el job at one. On the advice of my pro­fes­sor, who had worked at a think tank before get­ting his PhD and becom­ing an aca­d­e­m­ic, I applied to every intern­ship I could find. Sure, they were all unpaid, and I didn’t know how I would live in DC with­out income, but I fig­ured I could burn that bridge when I got to it.

I bare­ly even got acknowl­edge­ment from a fourth of them, and those were all rejec­tions. I didn’t know what to do, so I began apply­ing for entry lev­el jobs at defense con­trac­tors. One agreed to hire me as an entry lev­el facil­i­ty secu­ri­ty offi­cer, where I spent six months pro­cess­ing forms for peo­ple try­ing to get clear­ances. It got my foot in the door. I was able to do a late appli­ca­tion to a local grad school in north­ern Vir­ginia, and my com­pa­ny agreed to pay for part of it.

It took years: work­ing all day pro­cess­ing the many admin­is­tra­tive tail­ings that go into mak­ing a hefty prof­it off of the nation­al secu­ri­ty state, then work­ing all evening and night to go to class and get all my read­ings done. I burned out sev­er­al times, almost dropped out once. What­ev­er, that’s nor­mal.

Then, at 25, I had my moment: an entry-lev­el research assis­tant job opened up at the Cen­ter for Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Pri­or­i­ties, or CNSP. The pay was abysmal, so low I actu­al­ly had to apply for hous­ing assis­tance from the Dis­trict of Colum­bia. But it was my toe in the door.

I was lucky: I man­aged to escape the hell of an unpaid intern­ship. But then I learned that there was anoth­er angle to think tanks: booze. This town runs on the stuff, and seem­ing­ly noth­ing hap­pens with­out it. I also won­der, some­times, if it flows so freely because of what peo­ple have to do to thrive. Need­less to say, it made a big por­tion of my month­ly expens­es.

* * *

Michael, I have to know: is Egypt going to implode again?”

I stared mute­ly at her. Delayed respond­ing by swirling the scotch in my glass: a Glen­livet 12, noth­ing too osten­ta­tious but enough to sig­nal that I knew my craft. Danielle was a book­ing pro­duc­er; she was the girl who got me on TV. I had to impress her. But I had no idea what was going on in Egypt.

That morn­ing, the Finan­cial Times had run a sto­ry about some polit­i­cal machi­na­tions in the coun­try. The Mus­lim Broth­er­hood was being pres­sured for some­thing. “Well,” I began. “I mean, the Broth­er­hood is real­ly under the gun right now.”

That’s true,” Danielle said. “I dun­no, it seems just like Tahrir all over again.”

It eas­i­ly could be,” I said back, try­ing to remem­ber what Tahrir referred to. “The cur­rent gov­ern­ment just nev­er felt very secure, polit­i­cal­ly.” Ah hah! Egypt. The Square, the rev­o­lu­tion and the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood. God, it’s been years. “And, I think, the M.B. is an easy punch­ing bag for them.”

Mmmh­mm,” she said and sipped her white wine. You could hear Thiev­ery Cor­po­ra­tion play­ing from the speak­ers. Some­one behind us was hav­ing a pre­ten­tious con­ver­sa­tion about the plate of free cheese the bar had put out. I shift­ed in my seat.

So, Danielle, what do I have to do to get on Jason Peacock’s show?”

She grinned. She knew she was in con­trol of the con­ver­sa­tion. “Oh come on, now, Michael,” she began. “You know I can’t promise any­thing.”

I gig­gled. It usu­al­ly put peo­ple at ease. “I know. I’m just des­per­ate, you know? I’ve nev­er been on your net­work, and I want to make an inroad.”

She smirked. “We’ll see. I can at least keep you in mind.”

I smirked back and made eye con­tact. I downed the glass and ordered anoth­er.

* * *

One morn­ing I was catch­ing up on my email newslet­ters from all the blogs and mag­a­zines that hire 23-year olds for unpaid intern­ships that maKe them wake up at 5 am to read the day’s news and sum­ma­rize titles into Con­stant Con­tact on the off chance that some­one else might read it, and it will dri­ve a frac­tion of a per­cent more read­er­ship to their web­sites. Some­times it had gen­uine­ly use­ful tid­bits, and it sure as hell saved me time from read­ing it all myself.

But some­thing was wrong: noth­ing was hap­pen­ing. There was the usu­al mar­itime non­sense in the South Chi­na Sea, Rus­sia was say­ing nasty things about Ukraine again, Afghanistan was a mess, Syr­ia was a mess, Iraq was a mess, Mali was a mess, Libya was a mess, Yemen was a mess, Chad was a mess, CAR was a mess, Pak­istan was a mess… even when com­plete­ly split apart at the seams, like a base­ball stitched in blood, the world had a depress­ing reg­u­lar­i­ty to it. Reg­u­lar­i­ty did not gen­er­ate news. And no news meant no media hits for me.

Every­one at a think tank is fund­ed by a grant. Think tanks don’t gen­er­ate their own income, not even the real­ly estab­lished ones with $150 mil­lion endow­ments. Their oper­at­ing bud­gets, rents, staff salaries, trav­el bud­gets, office sup­plies, booze, and cater­ing all comes from the mon­ey they raise from rich peo­ple, foun­da­tions, cor­po­ra­tions and gov­ern­ments. Noth­ing is ever free, espe­cial­ly at a think tank.

My grant was run­ning out in four months. I need­ed to be seen as an impor­tant media fig­ure so I could sell “shift­ing the con­ver­sa­tion” as one of the big “gets” my fun­ders would get if they decid­ed to give me mon­ey. No real cri­sis in the world—at least no nov­el crisis—meant I had no easy way of get­ting on TV. I had to write an opin­ion arti­cle and see how high up in the pubs I could run it.

While I was pon­der­ing what sort of angle I could take on the same old conflicts—I was out of ideas so I couldn’t float a new “oppor­tu­ni­ty;” no one want­ed to talk about diplo­ma­cy at the moment so I couldn’t call for more engage­ment; there had already been three oth­er op-eds that week about adding more troops to this insur­gency or that civ­il war so it was get­ting played out; maybe nuclear secu­ri­ty? I could talk about nukes some­how?

My boss poked his head into my office.

I have an oppor­tu­ni­ty for you.”

I paused typ­ing. “What’s that?”

Let’s go grab lunch with Van Louen. He will want to hear about it too.”

I grabbed my wal­let and stuffed my shirt into my pants, smoothed out the wrin­kles around the curve of my stom­ach and slid my belt buck­le so I would have a per­fect gig line down my front.

We hailed an Uber and drove to a brand-new restau­rant. The floor was cov­ered in some sort of pro­gres­sive glass mosa­ic design, the menu filled with words like slow and sea­son­al and local and paleo. I think that one was a sand­wich of some sort. I had become a bit dizzy and fatigued by this point; last night’s hap­py hour had become four and my late arrival home made my girl­friend angry. I slept poor­ly on the couch.

Van Louen was there, sit­ting at a table already, sol­id as mashed pota­toes. “Hel­lo Michael,” he intoned. “I hear you’re onto some­thing real­ly inter­est­ing.”

My boss cleared his throat. “Yes we are,” he said, instinc­tive­ly flick­ing his tongue across his low­er lip. “But first let’s get lunch start­ed.”

Glass­es of scotch all around. My stom­ach felt bet­ter. I ordered a pret­zel bread sand­wich with extra mus­tard and a side of smoked salmon with crème fraîche and dill cucum­bers. Van Louen ordered a steak au poivre, and my boss got anoth­er scotch and a pump­kin ravi­o­li.

So, Van Louen,” my boss began. “We think we can keep the stealth UCAV afloat.” Van Louen paused mid-sip at hear­ing this. “Michael has an ‘in’ with some­one on the Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, and he thinks he can get full fund­ing restored to the plane.”

Van Louen’s com­pa­ny built UCAVs. Drones. They had designed, but not sold, a stealthy UCAV. And no one in Con­gress had yet made a law requir­ing the mil­i­tary to buy one. That is how you get things done in this city: you trick a 30-year old staffer on the Hill to include a rid­er on a ran­dom bill that requires the gigan­tic machin­ery of the U.S. gov­ern­ment to shift two degrees your direc­tion, and the sliv­er of a per­cent of the bud­get that rep­re­sents will make an entire com­pa­ny prof­itable for a decade.

Every loves talk­ing about drones,” I said, try­ing to keep up with the pitch. “And it’s true we should be able to save some cash for yours.” This will be a stretch: I knew two guys who had asked me to give them pri­vate brief­in­gs on drones before, but it was not at the top of anyone’s agen­da.

I con­tin­ued. “I can cre­ate a pub­lic mes­sag­ing cam­paign: get op-eds going, hold dis­cus­sion pan­els, prob­a­bly even get a jour­nal­ist or two to cov­er your tech in a way that makes Con­gress take notice. I can also arrange meet­ings with the Appro­pri­a­tions peo­ple to sit down and con­sid­er your planes for this year’s bud­get nego­ti­a­tions.”

That’s great!” Van Louen reached into his bag and pulled out a check­book. “How long do you need? Six months?”

My boss raised his eye brows and took a sip of his scotch. “Give us twelve. And two hun­dred thou­sand. We can hire four staff to do all the back­ground work while Michael works the Hill and the C‑ring to get us meet­ings with the acqui­si­tion offi­cers and staffers.”

Van Louen looked pleased. He had just hired the CNSP to do unreg­is­tered lob­by­ing on behalf of a weapons plat­form. Busi­ness as usu­al. Grin­ning, he began scrib­bling onto a check. “I’ll get lunch, too.”

* * *

It wasn’t until the fourth week­night in a row of com­ing home sway­ing from booze that my girl­friend con­front­ed me. “You have spent the last two months drink­ing every sin­gle night,” she said. “You need to take a break.”

I squished my face. “No I don’t. It’s fine. It’s just a few here and there. I need them to get work.”

But you have work.”

I ignored her, then shrugged off my under­shirt, then kicked off my shoes and lay back, flat on the bed. She came over and put her face over mine. My face tick­led from her hair brush­ing my nose. “If I can nudge these hill rats into adding a bud­get line, we are in sol­id. I’ll have us set up for years.”

Mike, I real­ly need you to take a step back.”

I tried to smile gen­uine­ly. “I will. I promise.” I reached up to touch the side of her head. Her brow knit­ted. I tried to run my fin­gers through her hair but she pulled back.

Not now, baby.”

You were mak­ing my face itch!”

Go drink some water.”

I did. I then poured myself two fin­gers of Dewars. Might as well push all the way off tonight.

* * *

My life as a think tanker is filled with meet­ings: con­fer­ence tables, lunch­es, din­ners, recep­tions, hap­py hours, phone calls, one-on-one con­ver­sa­tions, inter­views and lec­tures. It is a nev­er-end­ing path of sit­ting at tables, being clever. There are bound­aries to this cleverness—one can­not joke about the wrong thing, and one can­not be too sex­u­al or vulgar—but it is a com­mu­ni­ty with awful­ly low stan­dards for humor. I find it remark­ably easy to sound engaged with half my brain shut down.

But not this day. This day I had to be con­vinc­ing that I was mak­ing progress on pro­mot­ing those drones. It was a lunch meet­ing. In our con­fer­ence room. Dry.

I sipped my Diet Coke. “So, Mis­ter Van Louen, how are you?”

He offered a wan smile. “It’s been six months, Michael. How are you com­ing along?”

I’m com­ing along just fine. When I start­ed, no one want­ed to talk about increas­ing the drone bud­get. Now we might get a line item in the next Autho­riza­tion bill.”

Might?”

I leaned my head to the side. “Yes, might. A lot is up in the air right now, and frankly no one wants to talk about it. I’ve had to be very per­sis­tent.”

What does per­sis­tent mean?”

I leafed through the stack of papers I had next to my sand­wich. “These are the op-eds I have writ­ten about increas­ing drone fund­ing in the last five months. I’ve writ­ten fif­teen of them in thir­teen pub­li­ca­tions. Some have let me write one twice, which is rare. I’ve had those op-eds cit­ed by jour­nal­ists twen­ty-five times and have giv­en four speech­es about this as well.”

Van Louen accept­ed the short stack and began thumb­ing through them. His jaw reced­ed into his chin fat as his low­er lip raised. It was how he read through his tran­si­tions bifo­cals. “These are great,” he said, paus­ing to take a sip of his Per­ri­er, “but it’s just talk. What are you actu­al­ly doing?”

I’m almost there,” I stam­mered. I could real­ly use a glass in my hand. Swig­ging from a plas­tic soda bot­tle just wasn’t the same sort of punc­tu­a­tion I need­ed for this pause. “You’ll have a line item by the time appropes fin­ish­es up.”

Van Louen smiled. “Good.”

* * *

I guess I did some­thing right: the email seemed glow­ing.

Michael: I am thrilled to be able to offer you a seat on our next edu­ca­tion­al tour to the UCAV man­u­fac­tur­ing plant. Please be at the Sig­na­ture pri­vate ter­mi­nal at Dulles air­port Thurs­day morn­ing at 7 am.

So that’s neat: I got to fly in Van Louen’s cor­po­rate jet to see drones get built. My girl­friend saw my smile lit up by my iPhone. “Good news?”

I said yes and showed her. “So, you’ll be gone Thurs­day?” I nod­ded. “Will you be back in time for din­ner?”

Shit. I had to hang out with her friends. “I should be,” I promised. “They said we’ll be land­ing by sev­en. I will just be a lit­tle late.” She thinned her lips. I knew I’d be late.

* * *

Take off was fun. We walked our bags out to the plane, a sleek but not new Gulf­stream V, and a man in a sil­ly hat hoist­ed them into the lug­gage com­part­ment. A woman in a stew­ardess cos­tume invit­ed us up the stairs. Inside was all leather, bur­nished wal­nut and plas­ma screens. The seats hugged your ass, and the win­dows were large. It was beau­ti­ful.

Soon as we were in the air, the stew­ardess fold­ed out the tables, cov­ered them in white linen and served drinks. “Who would like shrimp and bour­bon?” I raised my hand, to gig­gles from my cab­in mates.

I was sloshy by the time we land­ed, some­where near Dal­las. They took us into the fac­to­ry, made us put on hard hats and pushed us hard with cor­po­rate pro­pa­gan­da about this drone, why it’s so impor­tant, stuff about Rus­sia and Chi­na, and ter­ror­ists, gave us gift bags with drone-brand­ed sta­tionery and ball-point pens, USB dri­ves full of their Pow­er­Points and maybe some sort of mal­ware, who knew real­ly, and lots of col­or­ful brochures.

I squished this into my purse and asked when we would get to see the drones. “Soon, Michael, we’ll tour the floor soon.” I got up and went to the bath­room, paused to drink some water, and by the time I came back the human drone had fin­ished his pre­sen­ta­tion and was gath­er­ing us to head onto the fac­to­ry floor.

It wasn’t that inter­est­ing: just a bunch of met­al and cre­ative posters about keep­ing the floor free of debris. It wasn’t even as big as I thought: I’ve been to oth­er air­plane fac­to­ries before, and they are colos­sal, so big they seem like they should have their own weath­er. This was just a ware­house. I’d been to dance clubs big­ger.

By the time din­ner came around we were being plied with alco­hol, as very per­son­able cor­po­rate flacks pre­tend­ed to be inter­est­ed in our research projects. A black woman with just a hint of bel­ly fat touched my arm. “Michael, what are you work­ing on these days?”

I sipped my bour­bon. I prob­a­bly shouldn’t brag about my ille­gal lob­by­ing on behalf of her com­pa­ny. “I’m try­ing to work on some bud­getary issues, see­ing how to fit in some dis­put­ed acqui­si­tions projects with the coun­tert­er­ror­ism stuff on the Hill.” Nice and vague.

She arched an eye­brow. “‘Acqui­si­tions stuff?’ Intrigu­ing. Enjoy­ing your trip so far?”

I smiled and swirled my glass for her to see. “When does the food get here?”

Her eyes dart­ed to my gut. “Any minute now.”

* * *

I don’t remem­ber the rest of the night. When I woke up the next morn­ing, my girl­friend wouldn’t talk to me. There was a note on the kitchen table telling me to take an Uber out to Dulles to pick up my car. My stom­ach was upset, and there was a lanc­ing pain in my sinus­es.

Around lunch that day, I got an email from her.

I am so mad at you for miss­ing din­ner last night and demand­ing I pick you up from the air­port. You’re a fuck­ing alco­holic, Michael. Get some help.

I tried to call her. No response. I texted her. After an hour of no response I wrote back.

Look, I’m sor­ry, okay? I fucked up. I can’t lose this project from Van Louen. I need the fund­ing to keep my job here. It’s the only thing keep­ing me, keep­ing us afloat. I’ll make it up to you, I promise.

My boss was hap­py with the trip. “You real­ly made them like you,” he said. “When are you writ­ing again about this drone fund­ing?”

I made up an answer to him. I couldn’t think straight. I didn’t want to do unreg­is­tered lob­by­ing any­more. It felt dirty—it was dirty. I need­ed to think.

By the time I got home that night, she was gone: her books, her CD col­lec­tion, the eleven Blu-rays she had received as ran­dom Christ­mas presents over the years, the wire­less router, her bed­sheets and throw pil­lows, the per­fumes and skin care prod­ucts, the toi­let paper, the fuck­ing ice cub trays in the freez­er, her sacks of whole wheat and almond flour, the shoe rack, the prints pur­chased at the Hir­shorn muse­um, even the bowl of loose change—all of it was gone.

I went to the cab­i­net. She left my low­ball glass­es. I put a sin­gle cube of ice in one and poured some mid-grade whiskey atop. Maybe the fumes would calm me down.

They didn’t. I took a sip. Still not calm.

Danielle texted me. Time for a quick chat?

I texted her back. Yeah. Want to meet at The Atoll? It’s tiki night.

She send a smile emo­ji. 9 pm?

I sent a thumbs-up.

When we clinked our glass­es, she asked if I’d con­sid­er being a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to the Jason Pea­cock show. “What made you offer me that?”

She raised a cor­ner of her mouth. “You’ve done real­ly great work on the drone stuff, and all the peo­ple we have on oppose them. We need a foil, some­one who can keep push­ing back on it when­ev­er it’s in the news.”

I grinned. “Well I think I can do that.”

She ordered us anoth­er round.

I woke up the next morn­ing with my hand asleep, her shoul­der dig­ging into the crook of my elbow. I tried to flex my hand but I couldn’t feel the fin­gers move, just a gen­tle sense of a fin­ger­nail dig­ging into my palm.

Danielle.” Moan­ing, her hair rus­tled. “Danielle, I have to pee.” No response.

I yanked my arm back. She yelped and opened a puffy eye. “What the fuck, Michael?”

I said I have to pee.” Stand­ing up that lanc­ing pain struck my occip­i­tal lobe again. Too much, too much. In the bath­room, I cupped my hand under the run­ning faucet and gulped water. Gulped again. God, it wasn’t enough, and my head was pound­ing. More gulp­ing.

There was a thud on the door. “Michael are you okay? The water is run­ning.”

I pulled my head to the side, let­ting the water run over my fin­gers. “I’m fine, just wash­ing my face.”

I shut off the water and sat on the bath­room floor. Was I sin­gle? What just hap­pened?

My phone buzzed. It was low on bat­tery, and a new email had come in.

Michael, can you talk to us about the syn­a­gogue riots in Ger­many last night?

It was that TV pro­duc­er. I guess I need­ed to find a tie.

Sure, I’d love to,” I wrote back. “Can you send a car?

I smiled at Danielle as I left the bath­room and pulled on my pants. She had the door closed. I think she vom­it­ed. I loaded the New York Times app on my phone and began read­ing.