Denis was an eccentric and possibly a hypocrite. He hated cell-phone culture, despised Facebook and Twitter and any other solipsistic form of communication. But, almost paradoxically, he seemed to live his life in order to tell the story of it. He seemed to pursue experiences that padded the mythology he had created for himself. He spent a year in an apprenticeship with a sumo wrestler; he lied to a Mormon family, pretending to be on a quest for spiritual enlightenment in exchange for a free room in Brooklyn (and six months of proselytization); he failed a volunteer firefighting exam (twice). In a way, his rejection of narcissistic modern culture was itself narcissistic—he was too special to assimilate into a culture where everyone was special.
He finally settled on becoming a children’s birthday party clown for a living and he proudly proclaimed this at Brooklyn hipster parties to investment bankers and Grey Advertising graphic designers. When they laughed at him, thinking he was kidding, he would bark at them: “Hey fuck you! I bring joy to kids! What the hell do you do for the world?” And they would shut up and walk away and he would be satisfied, having offended the people who, according to him, deserved to be offended.
We met in undergraduate school and I singled him out for friendship on Day One. It was in an acting class taught by a self-important fraud who, within minutes of the first class, warned us that he may not be able to teach the whole semester because he had an audition for Much Ado About Nothing in Tulsa and he would probably have to leave in a few weeks (he was never cast in any of the roles we were warned about; his memoir could be called Much Ado About Nothing). At the beginning of class, the teacher said that the first few weeks would be focused on general acting technique but towards the end of the semester we would “get into the real meat and potatoes” of acting. Later, when the teacher was going over the “ground rules,” he said that we were not allowed to bring food into class, to which Denis raised his hand and asked, “What about the meat and potatoes?” I thought it was the funniest thing I had ever heard—it was quick, sharp, rebellious, witty and ironic. In that moment, he had put this teacher in his place and totally won me over.
After class, I began a pursuit of Denis, which would probably be best described as “unrequited.” It wasn’t that he was ever mean to me, it was just that he wasn’t really interested in anyone besides himself.
He dropped out of college after that first year and holed up in a cabin in upstate New York. I was the only one who stayed in touch with him and I became kind of the cool messenger of all news Denis at school. He would send me handwritten letters on yellowed paper (always paper clipped to some paranoid, carefully cut-out news clipping decrying the degradation of the environment, the war crimes of western militaries) and I would share the news at school like a town crier: Denis has a beard! Denis is living in a tent near Woodstock! Denis became a vegan and is growing his own tomatoes!
After college, he moved back to Brooklyn and occasionally reached out. He would always pitch the strangest experiences: we would never just get dinner. Instead, it was: “Dude, there’s this tiny Indonesian place in Flushing that totally serves dog! I know it’s illegal but it’s our duty to eat it, in a way. We’re carnivores! And if we’re just eating chickens or cows or pigs, we’re being total hypocrites. Pigs are smarter than dogs, anyway!” So we wound up trying Bichon in Flushing. And we could never just take a walk. It was: “Dude, at midnight, let’s walk up to see where that girl got shot last night in the Bronx! It’s supposed to be, like, the Mecca of police brutality!” Or get a beer: “I know a guy in Westchester who literally makes absinthe in his Mom’s basement.” Or watch TV: “I bought a snuff film from a guy in Harlem. Do you know anyone who has a projector?”
Most of these experiences turned out to be boring. The dog just tasted like beef. The projects in the Bronx were just kind of quiet at two in the morning. The absinthe turned out to be non-hallucinogenic and the snuff film turned out to be phony and poorly made. But I loved the ambition of Denis’ mind. Whether it was narcissism or a genuine curiosity, he wasn’t satisfied with what the world offered; he was suspicious of any experience that was being marketed to him by any commercial enterprise. And, in a way, I began to see the world through his eyes; Commercialized experiences were pre-planned, safe. They promoted the conformity of an increasingly homogenized and less interesting society. Cultures were being cleansed by McDonalds and Disney Worlds, languages lost to the economic benefits of speaking English. And for someone like me—a writer, an actor, a liberal, curious—he was my ticket to the unusual.
So when Denis invited me to Mongolia, I jumped at the opportunity. I hadn’t really ever traveled. I grew up in New Jersey, which is like the opposite of traveling. I had been to Canada during college, but it didn’t feel like traveling—it just felt like watching TV in a different room. I was always envious of kids who’d spent their childhoods at “American Schools” around the world. They’d learned another language. They’d seen poverty up close (and presumably developed a more evolved version of empathy). They’d developed a more profound perspective on me and my culture, able to view my provincial existence with an anthropologist’s eye.
Denis said that he knew a guy from upstate New York who had moved to a yurt on the top of a mountain in Mongolia. He said that, if we could get ourselves to Ulan Bator, the guy would scoop us up and give us the experience of a lifetime. Denis never told me why he decided to invite me—I always suspected he was lonelier than he let on—but I didn’t ask questions. All I knew about Mongolia was that it was vast and under-populated. It made sense that Denis would be attracted to it—there were the fewest amount of humans per square mile than anywhere else in the world; he could be an ascetic on the cheap.
Denis and I scrunched into our seats on Aeroflot on the way to our first stop, Sheremetyevo International, in Moscow. As we were taking off, Denis grabbed the safety information pamphlet from the seat pocket and started thumbing through it, but it was all in Russian. I told Denis that I had actually studied Russian in college and could read Cyrillic so I’d be helpful if we got into a dangerous situation. Denis said, “If the plane crashes, it doesn’t really matter what language you die knowing.” I laughed and said, “That’s a really good point” and then Denis fell asleep and didn’t wake up until we landed in Moscow.
On the plane from Moscow to Chinggis Khaan International, Denis stayed awake the whole time, and we had what I would consider our first personal discussion. When Denis talked about his life, it was like hearing a celebrity talk about their scandal—like I was given access to knowledge that had been carefully guarded for the good of the public.
But he couched all of his personal stories in polemics. On his parents’ marriage: “Heteronormativity is suburban fascism.” On dating: “Sexuality is a Judeo-Christian construct leftover from an era of under-population. Prophylactics and pornography have made human sexuality entirely hedonistic and void of utility.” On why he dropped out of college after freshman year: “That shit was expensive.” His conversational style was diatribe-disguised-as-personal admission; the more you knew about him, the less you knew him.
I was the one exposing myself, revealing actual personal feelings, but ultimately, I was boring, revealing nothing new, contributing nothing interesting (e.g. My parents didn’t fully understand my writing; monogamy with my girlfriend is occasionally frustrating; I wish I played an instrument). He was cryptic and aloof, but a more interesting scene partner than I would ever be.
Chinggis Khaan Airport is situated in a vast chasm and its sparse design and lack of people was immediately refreshing to Denis and totally unnerving to me. I saw his shoulders relax, his gait widen with the extra space. In Mongolia, Denis was a narcissist with more room; I was insecure in a vacuum.
We took a taxi to the airport where we were scheduled to meet his pal, Titus, the next morning, to head out to the mountain. I proudly spoke to the taxi driver in my rusty Russian, telling him that Denis and I were New Yorkers on our first trip to Mongolia. (Denis rolled his eyes when he heard me say, “Novi York”; he knew I was from New Jersey.)
Ulan Bator was far more developed than I had imagined. It was a mix of hyper-modern office buildings and Chinatown-looking alleyways all situated around a Soviet-era, Propaganda-ready, town square. I got the feeling that everything that made me feel comfortable (the Western-style architecture, the billboards that signaled capitalism had arrived) was exactly what made Denis regret that he hadn’t travelled somewhere poorer.
We arrived at the hotel and I reached for my wallet as Denis jumped out of the taxi and bounded into the lobby. The driver took twenty American dollars, which felt like a bargain for the long ride and the wrong currency.
Our room was bedraggled and sadly pandering to Western tourists. There was an old TV, a shitty painting of a generic metropolitan skyline and an ad for beer that featured two English soccer players. I told Denis that I was going to pop a Xanax to help me sleep so I could get on the right time zone. Denis lamented the West’s reliance on Big Pharma and told me that he was going to wander Ulan Bator for a bit. I sensed that he’d wanted to be alone and thought it was best for us if I stayed in.
As Denis was about to leave, he told me that Titus wanted to get paid in the local currency, Tugrik, and that he was going to look for an ATM. I gave him my card and told him to take out whatever we owed Titus (I didn’t care how much anything cost in Mongolia; operating in their economy felt like I was playing with house money.) Denis asked for my PIN number and I told him it was the year of my birthday: 1-9-8-3. Denis started laughing, saying that he used the exact same PIN. “Two peas, me and you. Two peas,” he said as left the room.
With Denis gone, I flipped on the TV—A poorly dubbed Fresh Prince of Bel Air was playing and I got momentarily depressed. I didn’t feel homesick; I just felt embarrassed. I knew that Denis wasn’t thrilled that I was his traveling partner. At best, I was an amiable body to sit across from at meals. At worst, I was there to remind Denis how interesting he was. Most likely, though, I was here because I was good with logistics. Denis could be interesting and I could set the alarm for the morning, work out the exchange rate to pay for the hotel, and make sure we had enough bottled water.
My phone’s alarm went off at 7:10, twenty minutes before we were supposed to meet Titus. I looked around the room: on my bedside table were a few bills of colorful, dirty Tugrik and my Chase bank card. Denis was curled up in a fetal position in his bed, a look of total bliss on his face. I suddenly hated him for being able to enjoy his life; that he was able to fall asleep so easily without worrying about getting the appropriate amount of hours. That he was able to just “wander” around Ulan Bator and probably have a great night, experiencing local culture and seamlessly integrating. I studied his face: he had the exhausted, satisfied look of someone who fell asleep directly after an orgasm. And, it occurred to me, that it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that Denis did, in fact, get laid last night. Most likely in the bed five feet from mine. Most likely, after sneaking in with a Mongolian woman, laughing about his dopey, sleeping roommate who would never wake up because he had to drug himself just to get to sleep. And most likely, she had crawled out of the room only recently, blowing air kisses and other easily translatable gestures to Denis as I dreamt about something useless and boring.
I shook Denis’ shoulder and he stirred and asked for ten more minutes. I told him we were supposed to meet Titus at 7:30 and he mumbled something about the hegemony of clocks and went back to sleep.
I decided to let Denis sleep; I would take a shower and get ready and Denis could apologize to Titus for being late. He was not my responsibility, I righteously (and pettily) decided.
At 7:30, with Denis still sleeping, I went down to meet Titus. As I exited the hotel, there was a burly white man, smoking a self-rolled cigarette with his back to me. “Titus?”
The man turned and I immediately relaxed: he was bearded and chubby and smiling and he stubbed out his cigarette and gave me a big hug. “Brother! So glad to meet you! So glad you guys made it.”
“Yeah, me too, thank you so much for getting us.”
“Of course, of course. Any friend of Denis is a friend of mine.”
From inside Titus’ flabby embrace, I almost wanted to cry—it was so shocking to be with someone who was nice. And not just nice compared to Denis, but actually, objectively, unusually nice.
When I told him that Denis was still sleeping, Titus laughed and said, “That kid’ll grow up eventually. Let’s go upstairs. If he’s not ready, I’ll drag him out myself.” Titus and I headed inside and I felt like the good son marching upstairs with dad to yell at lazy older brother..
I opened the door to our room and Denis was frustratingly up and ready to go. He said, “Doesn’t anyone knock anymore?” and Titus gave him a bear hug and Denis hugged him back, smiling for the first time on our trip. I immediately got pissed at Denis for smiling, for being awake and ready in five minutes, for being nice to Titus and to no one else. But I couldn’t be angry with Titus; he was pure id, pure goodness, it seemed.
Titus owned a decommissioned Soviet Military van and we began our journey to the mountain. I wanted to ask Titus about why he had moved into the yurt and why he’d moved from upstate New York to Mongolia in the first place, but Titus and Denis were sitting up front and I was sitting way in the back because there was no middle bench in the van. So I tried to pick up on snippets of their conversation as I looked out at the passing Mongolian countryside: As we passed a group of wild horses, I heard Denis say, “UB [Ulan Bator] is actually a really cool city,” which I guess he gleaned from the four hours we were there.
After about an hour, Titus turned back to me and said, “Wanna see a fucking huge Buddha?” And then he exited off the road into a large touristy parking lot, with UNESCO World Heritage signs proudly decorating a field. And Denis, Titus and I walked up a hill to see a fucking huge Buddha. It was golden and sitting cross legged on a massive plinth. I think I liked seeing it because it confirmed for me, in some unconscious way, that rural Mongolia was still looking out for its tourists.
Denis threw his arm around my neck and asked me, “How you doing in the back seat, brother?”
“Great,” I lied, “It’s incredible just to see the countryside. I feel like I’m on another planet.”
“Good, cause we’re gonna switch for the next leg. I gotta take a nap. Cool?”
“Sure, no problem.”
We got back in the car, me in the upgraded seat next to Titus, Denis in the back, stretched out across the bench in a way that would have never occurred to my body.
“Did you like the Buddha?” I asked Titus after a few minutes of silence.
“It’s kind of gaudy. It was built for tourists.”
“Oh. Yeah, me too. I mean, I thought it was gaudy too.”
Titus nodded, uninspired by my lack of convictions.
“So, how do you know Denis? I asked, “He’s kind of un-forthcoming with information.”
“That’s putting it mildly. You know, Denis doesn’t really like people that much.”
“I’ve noticed. Sometimes I don’t think he really likes me that much.”
“No, most likely he just doesn’t care about you.”
“Oh. That’s comforting.”
Titus laughed and I suddenly felt guilty talking about Denis. It felt dangerous having this kind of explicit conversation five feet from him. I glanced to the back seat—Denis was fast asleep. And even if he were awake, I decided, he probably wouldn’t care that we were gossiping. Titus continued:
“And, you know, I used to be just like him. I think that’s why we initially connected. I was living in a cabin upstate— outside Woodstock—and Denis moved up to the area about ten years back. Started living in a tent. I mean, really rustic. Really fringy, you know? Like he didn’t want to be bothered. It was actually kind of sad.”
“Yeah, it is,” I agreed. There was always something sad on the edge of Denis.
“And then there was some crazy storm, like a hurricane or some shit—you remember that?—maybe around 2003 and there was a knock on my door. Sure enough, Denis needed a place to stay. I felt for him, I mean I could see that he was embarrassed to ask for help. But he stayed on my couch and he became like a little brother to me. Then he moved to Brooklyn and we lost touch. Denis was never good at checking in.”
“I know! After he left college, I barely heard from him. He would send me letters every few months—”
“Did he include little news clippings?”
“Yes! How’d you know?”
“Denis loves clipping articles. Isn’t that crazy? Who still cuts out articles?”
“I think my grandmother does.”
“Exactly!” Titus was laughing. It felt so good to be able to talk about Denis to someone who hadn’t deified him, who could see him as a guy, struggling like the rest of us to find his place in the world. “So anyway, Denis moved to Brooklyn and I kind of got fed up with the scene around Woodstock. The area around my cabin started developing a bit and it just felt like I everything I had moved there to avoid was cropping up.”
“And I felt like I had to get out of there. Don’t ask me how I chose Mongolia—I guess I was just trying to think of the most remote place on the planet—but I bought a one way ticket.”
“And how has it been here for you?”
He paused and I got the sense that no one had asked him this before.
“I guess I thought that going somewhere so remote and so foreign would be comforting. Like all the stuff that annoyed me about being in the States—the unchecked privilege, the absolute environmental destruction, the stratification of wealth, the explicit racism—and it is explicit, I don’t care what anyone says—wouldn’t bother me if I wasn’t there. And even if there’s bad shit in Mongolia—and I’m sure there’s crazy racism and crazy wealth disparity here too—it wouldn’t bother me because I wouldn’t be able to recognize it. I guess I was a little selfish in that way.”
It was incredible to hear Titus talk about himself like this. People like Titus and Denis—self-righteous, moralistic, dogmatic—weren’t usallyso self-analytical. And certainly not willing to share with me.
“But the crazy thing is,” Titus continued, “I started living in a yurt at the top of this mountain—you’ll see it, we’ll be there in an hour, it’s incredible—and I was thinking there was no place more remote than this. But then, this strange thing happened. There are about ten other families there. They each have their own yurt—they’re nomadic, but they’ve been there for a few months—and I just totally became part of them. And everything that I spent my life avoiding—groups of people, parties, dumb bullshit meaningless small talk—I now do with these people. My Mongolian is shit and their English isn’t much better, but we’re, like, friends. And—don’t tell Denis this—but I actually kind of like it.”
By the time our Soviet van made it up the mountain, it had gotten dark. Titus parked in a clearing and I stepped out and looked around, adjusting my eyes to the unadulterated, unpolluted black sky. It smelled like fire and I noticed a few small trails of smoke billowing up from some of the yurts—which Titus told me were actually called “gers.”
We were in the protected region of Khan Kentii, a remote area toward the border of Russia, and I suddenly had a feeling of connectedness; the feeling that, a hundred years ago, my huddled ancestors would’ve been a few miles north of us, over the Russian border, in Irkutsk, Siberia, struggling to foment a revolution against the Czar. I had the feeling that they would be proud to see how easy my life was—that their toil had somehow paid off generations later in comfort, assimilation and wealth. But I also had the sense that they’d think I was lazy, that I had no meaning in my life, they’d be disappointed that I wasn’t connected to the main struggles of my era. Actually, I thought, they’d have the same gripes that Denis had about me—that I was soft, boring, comfortable.
Titus woke Denis up and led us to our ger, lighting the way with his headband flashlight. As we walked past the other gers (there were ten other tented huts, dotted about twenty feet from each other), I tried to acclimatize to the odd sensation of the altitude—the air was wet but the ground felt arid and sparsely covered: it felt at once tropical and thinly unlush.
Titus opened the thick wooden door to our room and handed us flashlights. “Home sweet home, brothers.” The ger had two small beds flanking the dome interior and there was a small stove in the middle. There was traditional carpeting lining the walls and the floor, the patterns and colors garish but homey.
I shone my flashlight toward Denis to see his reaction to the place, trying gauge how his mood might be for the next week. He smiled and nodded, “Not bad, man. Not too bad,” and I felt relieved. It would mean he’d be relatively nice.
“Batjin and I spent yesterday building this ourselves. I’ve actually gotten pretty good. We did this in 4 hours.”
“Who’s Batjin?” Denis asked.
“He’s one of the workers.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ll explain everything tomorrow morning.”
“What do you mean, one of the workers?” Denis asked again.
“We’re actually starting something pretty exciting here, but I wanted to tell you about it in the morning.”
“Who’s we?” Denis pushed.
“I’ll tell you about it tomorrow, man. Listen, I’m right next-door if you need anything. Meet me for breakfast at the center ger, right where we parked, at about eight. And I’ll give you a tour afterward. Cool?”
Titus left the ger and I was suddenly nervous to be with Denis. Neither of us knew what Titus was talking about and it felt like something had shifted between us. I remembered how, in childhood, I’d always struggled in groups of threes. I didn’t know how to navigate the dynamic because it always felt like two people would inevitably pair off and I was always worried I’d either be left alone or, worse, the reason someone was excluded. Luckily, Denis said, “I think I’ll conk out” and jumped into the nearest bed. Within minutes he was fast asleep.
I scurried around the ger like a 1950’s housewife, performing a truncated version of my nighttime routine—washing my face with baby wipes, brushing my teeth with a disposable toothbrush, swallowing my multivitamin and half a Xanax with the huge bottle of water I crammed into my bag—and set my phone’s alarm to 7:40 and tucked into the itchy bed.
As I began to drift to sleep, I noticed something unnerving about the smell of the smoke in the air: it wasn’t the clean, crisp scent of a suburban winter. It was tinged with burning garbage.
I woke up to a piercing heat, the sun stewing the five Mongolian yak blankets I had burrowed under the night before. Denis was gone, his bed disheveled like a teenager running late for the school bus. I immediately reached for my phone, worried that I had overslept, that Denis (expectedly) didn’t wake me up and that I had missed breakfast. I had that familiar feeling in the pit of my stomach that something fun was happening without me. But it wasn’t even seven o’clock so I decided to take a walk before breakfast.
I emerged from the yurt like Early Man, ready to take on my day in the Mongolian wilderness. It was cold but sunny and I took a deep breath, suddenly filled with euphoria, suddenly impressed with myself: a kid from New Jersey in the middle of Asia, I thought, as though this merited some kind of global award. And in my momentary bliss, I was suddenly able to see Denis as a good friend: OK, maybe he’s a little troubled or angry, but who else would push me to do crazy things like this?
I seemed to be the only one awake; there was no sign of Denis outside. I could see the 10 other gers, identical and situated in a semi-circle, like a Mongolian suburb and I wondered if there was a Mongolian equivalent of my generation complaining to their parents, “All our gers look the same! I wanna move to the city and dye my hair!” Even though we were told we’d be living on top of a mountain, it just looked like we were in this vast expanse of nothingness, hills inaccessibly lining the distance. It looked more like Oklahoma than Everest.
I walked throughout our little camp towards Titus’ van, where I noticed a large sign with the words “Welcome to Johannsen Meadows!” outlined in pencil (The sign hadn’t been painted). I entered the center ger, where Titus had told us to meet him for breakfast.
The center ger was set up with two long tables, arranged with three place settings. At the left side was a glass-doored refrigerator stocked with imported beers and Coca Colas. Next to it was a sign that said, “Johannsen Meadows” and, underneath it, “Activities,” and under that, “Horse Riding,” “Kayaking on Lake Tuul,” “Nature Walks.” And these activities had prices next to them in euros and dollars. I was taken aback by evidence of what appeared to be a commercial enterprise.A man—Batjin, I assumed—entered with a pitcher of orange juice and a basket of fried dough, silently setting them right in front of me. He had a severe look—the reddened cheekbones of someone who’d spent most of their lives outdoors and closer to the sun than the rest of us. He left and a minute later returned with a plate of cheese squares, butter and a teapot, which he poured into my cup. I said, “Hi,” but he just nodded and, without making eye contact, left again.
I took a sip of the tea—it was an odd salty-sweet flavor that felt thick and fatty.
Titus came in, holding a bunch of bananas. “This stuff is like gold in Mongolia. You want a couple?” He handed me two bananas and poured himself some milky tea. “You gotta try some of these fried breads—they’re called boortsog, which sounds kind of hideous, but they’re fucking incredible! Put some butter on it. You can probably tell that I don’t exactly skimp out on butter. And put some on Denis’ plate. I guarantee you, if we put some food on his plate, he’ll show up. He’s like a cat in that way.”
I took a bite of the dough, which tasted like a delicious undercooked street fair doughnut and said, “Hey, I gotta ask you: What’s Johannsen Meadows?”
And like a deus ex machina or a big hungry outdoor cat, Denis stormed into the ger, on cue and pissed off. “Hey Titus, what the fuck is Johannsen Meadows?”
“Morning, sunshine!” Titus smiled.
“I said what the fuck is Johannsen Meadows?”
I was startled by Denis’ anger, but also wondering the same thing.
Titus tried to calm him: “Dude, sit down. Relax. Have some tea.”
Denis sat down but didn’t touch the food. And he didn’t look at me, either, as though I was somehow complicit in his confusion.
“This is what I wanted to talk to you guys about. We’re starting this incredible new venture and I wanted you to be the first two people to experience it.”
“Oh, cool. Experience what?” I asked, trying to shift the tone away from confrontation.
“Yeah, experience what?” Denis snorted, shifting the tone right back.
“OK, about six months ago, there was nothing up here on this mountain. I mean, it was really fucking barren. These people were nomadic but their lives were turning to shit. They’d sold yak hair for generations, and the price collapsed in the nineties and they were just totally lost. And then Batjin’s daughter, Sarnai—you’ll meet her, she’s fucking brilliant—moved to UB on scholarship. And she met this woman named Nora Johannsen. And the two of them had this idea to turn this place into an ecotourism center. And they asked me to run it with them.”
“Ah, I see! So you’re like the Hilton of Mongolia?” Denis said, throwing a doughnut in his mouth even though he was protesting—literally having his cake and eating it too.
“Excuse me?” Titus said, starting to get miffed.
“Do you realize what you’re doing, man? This is like the beginning of the end of this place.”
“This place? You’ve been here for, what? All of eight hours, most of it sleeping, and suddenly you have an interest in this place? What do you think you know about this place that I don’t?”
“I thought you were living off the grid, man. I thought you were living alone up here.”
“I was! I got lonely!”
“So you decided to pander to tourists?!”
“I’m not pandering to anybody! We’re starting an eco-tourism center.”
“There’s no such thing as eco-tourism!” Denis yelled. “That’s just a word that rich people use to feel less guilty about throwing their garbage out in other countries. I know what happens to places when tourists travel: It erodes local culture, creates unsustainable economies! Everything slowly turns into neocolonial, white-owned bullshit like the rest of the world. And no one notices until it’s too late—until the frog is boiled alive!”
“That’s not what’s happening here,” Titus said, and I could tell he believed it.
I was kind of mortified that Denis was being so brash, but I also semi-agreed with him. Denis was rude as hell. But he wasn’t stupid. I mean, Batjin was, in fact, serving me and my white American friends orange juice on his own mountain.
“Yes it is,” Denis continued. “Look at that fridge—where’d you get that Coke? Where’d you get that Heineken? How’d you get these bananas? Doesn’t seem very fucking tropical up here, does it? And who the fuck is Nora Johannsen?”
“Actually, Nora is a pretty incredible woman. She’s spent the last ten years at the World Bank and now she’s—”
Denis practically spat out the milky tea that he had finally sipped. “The World Bank?! Dude, what the fuck have you become? I can’t believe I’m hearing you say this!”
“Yo, Denis, calm down,” Titus pleaded. I wanted to tell Denis to calm down too, but not because I didn’t want to hear what he had to say.
“No, you sound like some paternalistic, neoliberal, apologist douchebag!”
“Hey, watch what you say to me,” Titus flared.
“No, you’re doing the wrong fucking thing!”
“Dude, I am here. I know what’s happening. Listen to me! These people were part of the global economy way before I got here—they were selling yak hair for rich women’s pashmina scarves way before Nora or I met any of them—and when that disappeared, they were fucking starving. And not starving like you starve, Denis—like artists “starve.” But actually no-food-on-the-fucking-table starving. Like actually hungry starving. Like going-to-bed-without-having-eaten starving! Do you understand me?”
It was kind of thrilling to sit back and watch Denis and Titus fight. Thrilling because I wasn’t a part of it. Thrilling because I didn’t know who was right.
“And anyway, what are you doing with your life that’s so fucking noble?” Titus asked. “You’re a birthday party clown!”
“Hey fuck you! I bring joy to kids!” Denis trotted out his familiar defense.
“Yeah—you’re a real fuckin’ saint, Denis!” Titus bellowed. And it stuck.
Denis looked down, suddenly choked up. I could see out of my peripheral vision that his eyes were wet. I think Titus had hit a nerve. The air had left the room. Titus calmed. “Sorry, man,” Titus offered meekly.
Denis took a breath, his head down, still hiding his eyes. His voice broke as he said, “I just don’t know why you would ask me to come out here if you knew I would hate this so much.”
I felt for Denis. He was so righteous but so easily pained.
“I guess I was hoping you could help us in some way,” Titus softened. “You have a great mind, Denis. You really do.”
“Don’t patronize me,” Denis said quietly.
“I’m not. I think you’re a genius, man.”
“Yeah, well, you’ve changed.”
“No, I just grew up. And I guess I hoped you grew up, too.”
An hour later, Denis and I were sitting in the back seat of Titus’ Soviet van on the way to the airport. Denis asked me to use the Johannsen WiFi (password: Adventure!) to move our flights up and I suddenly found myself on the way back home to the States, my first major Adventure! aborted after an hour. No one said anything on the way to Chinggis Khaan International. At the airport, Denis and I gave Titus some of the tugrik that Denis had taken out of the ATM. It was exchanged wordlessly.
Denis and I waited for our flight to Sheremetyevo International silently. I noticed that something had broken inside Denis. He wasn’t angry. He wasn’t stewing. He was, I think, defeated. Like a kid who just learned that Santa wasn’t real. Denis seemed to be coming to terms with a new world, and it wasn’t comfortable. But for the first time, I wasn’t nervous around him. I wasn’t trying to impress him. I was still invisible to him, but not because he was cooler than me. He was just resigned to be alone in a world that had passed him by.
On the plane, Denis thumbed through the safety manual again. It was in Mongolian. He just stared at the cartoon images of people putting on life jackets and jumping down inflatable slides, and I just felt so sad for him.
We got off in Moscow and spoke only out of necessity: “Can you hold my bags while I go to the bathroom?” “I’m gonna get some gum, you want anything?”
Denis slept on the flight from Sheremetyevo to JFK, repeating his sleeping pattern in reverse and, accordingly, I stayed awake and watched him. And I wondered what happened to people who try so hard to run away from the world. Do they become birthday party clowns—fighting to maintain their innocence through a kind of self-infantilization? Do they become homeless—living in a tent until a hurricane shows up? Do they become angry and embittered—pushing everyone away until they wind up righteous and alone? Denis was all of these things.
If he were living with my ancestors in Siberia, he’d be leading the charge against the czar. If he were Mongolian, he’d be marching against Nora Johannsen and her World Bank cronies. But he was white and American and alive now. There was no oppression to give his life meaning and so he was a fighter in a world that offered him nothing to fight for; the hobbled boxer, the aging rock star.
When I got home, I had four messages from Chase bank. Apparently, my debit card had been used to take out five-thousand dollars from my checking account—the maximum amount you can withdraw in one day. It was taken the night Denis went out to get money from the ATM. I changed my PIN, but I didn’t call Denis. In some way, I thought he earned the money he stole from me. And Denis probably didn’t think of it as stealing anyway. He probably just thought of it as revenge on Chase, on modern economic structures, on plutocracy. As long as Denis lived in the theoretical, he couldn’t actually take the blame for hurting anyone in the real world.
I never spoke to Denis again, but he continues to define my life in some negative spatial way—like I know who I am in relation to who he is. My life is less interesting without him in it—I haven’t eaten dog or tasted absinthe in years—but I’ve become more of who I am and, for better or worse, I imagine that Denis has, too.
Read more from Tablet’s Art & Ideas Week here.