Beast Fiction: Lea Carpenter’s ‘Clean’
They met in grad school, a place some people go when they want to change, become new.
Have you ever committed a crime? This was what they’d asked her, in her exit interview, after the firing and before her pivot. “Pivot” was a euphemism for “recovery” in that world. When they’d asked her that question her response had been rage.
When the priest asked that same question a year later she wouldn’t mind, she wasn’t flip. She wouldn’t say, I worked in espionage, you idiot. I commited crimes every day. One shouldn’t call a priest an idiot, in any event. When the priest asked, she was reverent. Perhaps she was reverent because she wanted what he had—faith. Perhaps she was reverent to prepare him for her answer. Yes, I have committed crimes. Or perhaps to prepare him for her questions, questions about heaven, atonement, things she knew very little about. She was ready for atonement now.
They met in grad school, a place some people go when they want to change, become new. He was preparing for a big job at Notre Dame. She was preparing for marriage, perhaps. They met in “math camp,” this absurd if rigorous week of classes you take if you can’t add, before they throw you to the wolves in Corporate Finance. It was assigned seating and she was C and he was D, so he was next to her, and as he’d sat down he’d dropped his pen in her lap. She wasn’t sure if he was clumsy or flirting so chose to believe the latter, as one must choose. She handed back the pen without saying anything. Admiring an American flag hung above the chalkboard, he whispered, “Liberté. Egalité. Beyoncé.” Which is to say, he didn’t sound like a priest. And he didn’t look like one either.
He didn’t look holy at all, according to her definition, which involved crosses and collars or at least a weird glow, qualities she’d absorbed from art and Hollywood. He was wearing dark grey jeans, and a Fighting Irish T-shirt. He was tall with blue eyes. They talked about nothing for a while, waiting for the professor. She assumed he was a banker; this was business school, after all. She assumed a lot of things about him, as we do about people when we first meet them, trusting instinct, or want, over the more rational and clearly more plausible interpretation which is that to know a person takes time. She immediately assumed he was arrogant and cool and that he had earned the right to such traits by virtue of a still-young yet starry career. She assumed, too, that he possessed the inimitable affect of certain Wall Street guys, their illusion that knowing how to value an asset was a skill simply transferrable to valuing other things, like people.
Her father had worked in that world. She grew up hearing casually about cash flows, IPOs, and equity before interest, depreciation, and amortization. She didn’t see those guys in a binary way, nor did she see them as heroic. She’d met painters, writers, even surfers who worked at the banks. She’d dated them here and there, and discussed their dreams and fears, the former usually involving an escape from banking, the latter involving bankruptcy. Everyone fears bankruptcy. And everyone dreams of escape. Especially bankers.
She saw them as she saw everyone—flawed, human, only better at numbers, which maybe on the margin brings some clarity. So when she met the guy in the grey jeans she was telling herself, still vulnerable to romance, He’s one of the good ones. She was telling herself, He’s probably into poetry. If you’re Irish, you kind of have to be. She was telling herself, Maybe he’ll be a diplomat. Perhaps he’s here to pivot into something more meaningful, too, like solving the water issues in Africa. Throughout all this, she never asked herself why a guy who worked with money would be in math camp. It was classic confirmation bias, Early Adoration Wing.
The professor entered. He was an icon, a brilliant Israeli game theorist clearly slumming it with the grad students. He treated them as you might treat a child you really like but who you knew would never quite understand, shifting from oversimplification to despair. He said things like, “balance sheets are called balance sheets because they must balance.” And, “There are no qualities attached to liabilities. There is no quality attached to debt.” They were all immediately in his thrall, as we are often in thrall to people who charismatically condescend to us.
After class Irish asked her to go for coffee. As they walked across wide green campus courtyards it was all adding up for her, speaking of math: the jeans, the pen drop, the cool opening line. Beyoncé! As he talked about nothing in particular, about how the architecture around them reminded him of Balliol, about how he preferred Federer to Nadal, she thought about bias cut dresses and maybe no bridesmaids, the proper length of honeymoons and how it was time to learn to cook. At a stoplight near the river she asked casually, as she didn’t want to sound like she cared, “So what did you do before school?” He laughed. “Guess,” he said. She blushed. He said he worked with the poor and she didn’t push for detail. She resented when people pushed for detail.
They would spend the next days learning about debits and credits and about how money flows from one place to the next. While they listened bored out of their minds she watched Irish compose elaborate to-do lists on old school yellow legal pads, navy blue ink trains of tiny lettering which looked almost like art, if you didn’t look closely. How did anyone have that much to do, she thought. He must be involved in some very important banking. Her confidence increased. Sex appeal and capability: the rational girl’s brass tacks of love. Her to-do list those days consisted mainly of One, Breathe. Two, Repeat. And, Sleep. Though that never got crossed off the list. She hadn’t slept through the night in a year.
Most people think love arrives and knocks you out, proceeding on its terms while throwing you over, an unbroken mare. She wasn’t sure. She’d had enough of knockouts. She was ready for lists, and empathy. So as the professor continued on with opportunity vs. sunk costs, she watched while Irish crossed off his lines. Eventually, only one was left. He pushed the pad gently in her direction, and she put her glasses on to read what he wrote. MAKE DINNER. This amused her, so she leaned over and wrote I CAN MAKE DINNER, EVEN FOR A BANKER. He circled the word BANKER and under it wrote, CLOSE! She leaned back and looked at the ceiling. And he’s funny. Maybe this was it, is what she was thinking, The One. Maybe he would ask her to move in with him. They could spend the next two years crawling all over one another while learning the roots of the sub-prime crisis, and what the hell had happened to Greece.
He arrived at 7 with a six-pack of Stella, and in the same jeans, new shirt. As she pretended to know what she was doing in the kitchen he said, “I brought homework.” As she chopped and sautéed he said very little, and in the absence of his saying more she filled the silence with everything she could think of. Everything, except details about herself. This performance, played at a pitch of high self-deprecation, was one she’d perfected through the years, an aria of all she couldn’t do—and I mean I can barely add, I don’t know how I ended up at Harvard, et cetera. Some girls tell you who they are with what they wear. She preferred deflection and wit. He was charming, when he finally spoke, riffing on their professor, on Israel and the Red Sea, Netanyahu, Entebbe. He was telling her who he was by framing his place in a wider world, a world beyond campus courtyards and Excel. He was placing her at ease. He was placing her at ease almost as if to disarm her before telling her something that might scare her away. Here it comes. When they finished she laid their plates into her sink, then pulled two pints of vanilla ice cream from the freezer. She stuck spoons in, and handed him one. “Decadent,” he said. “Less dishes,” she replied, back to the aria. They ate for a while without talking. And then she said, “So why does a good banker give it all up to help the poor?” It was a gentle first flirt.
“I’m not a banker. I’m a priest.” She closed her eyes and thought, wait, what? And without opening them she said, “Well that was absolutely obvious.” She tried working through the psychic disconnect of how he looked and who he was, with little luck. “Sometimes people withdraw if I tell them before they get to know me.” “A Catholic priest?” “Well that tends to be the kind.” “Jesus, I thought you were hitting on me. I mean, not Jesus.” He laughed and said, “One can be Catholic and still appreciate beauty.” She opened her eyes. She didn’t say anything for a while. “So what now,” she said. “I can take your confession, if you like?” “Confession. I’m not Catholic.” “God’s mercy is broader than the church.” He looked at his watch. He took it off and laid it on her table. It was nearly 7 and the sun had set over the Charles. As she listened he explained what confession means, what a sacrament is. He said something about sacraments bringing grace to the soul which sounded good to her. He explained how the rite of confession works, and about penance versus acquittal, the acts of the penitent, the Council of Trent, and about the theory behind ecclesiastical notions of justice, all of which she felt was even more obscure than game theory. “Grace” was the one word she responded to. A graceful soul sounded good, maybe even worth a try. “How do you know I have something to confess?” she said. “Observation. Informed by experience.” “So I confess, and then I’m forgiven?” “The power to forgive sin is God’s alone,” he told her. “I am not able to forgive your sins.”
“That sounds like a bad business model,” she said, laughing, why not be honest. “If our heart condemns us we know God is greater than our hearts,” he said, lowering her volume, coaxing her to relax. He took her hands in his and said, “Let’s pray,” which was weird and intimate but also felt like a natural extension of the evening. What else would they do; things weren’t evolving to a kiss. “I’ve never read the Bible,” she said. “Well let me tell you a story that’s not in it,” he said. “Once upon a time a young prince went to war. And in the battle, he killed a man. He felt great regret, only when he returned home and tried to wash the blood from his tunic, it wouldn’t come out.” “Prince, war, blood,” she said, tracking words which had meaning for her, finally. “A new law was created: Anyone who can wash the prince’s tunic will be his bride, and become queen.” “Incentives,” she said, mocking a word they’d heard in class, trying to amuse him, shake her nerves. “So the tunic makes the rounds. Time passes. The prince lives on, and eventually he forgets about the tunic. He forgets about the war.” “But not really,” she says. “Not really,” the priest affirmed. “Not really because something still isn’t right,” she said. “Tell me,” he said. “Tell me what’s not right.” And they moved to the couch and she talked. She talked until she couldn’t talk anymore and somewhere around midnight she fell asleep and started to dream. In the dream, she is walking the halls of a castle. In a bedroom, she sits down on a chair by a window. A door opens. It’s the professor, the game theorist. He asks her, “Have you ever committed a crime?” And she starts to tell him her story but he interrupts. “That’s not a crime,” he says. And he goes to a chalkboard, suddenly and improbably, there on the stone castle wall. He writes out a long string of numbers. “Do you understand,” he asks her, moving his hand over equation. “It’s so simple.” He keeps moving his hand back and forth until the numbers become letters and she can see it’s a sentence. “This is the solution,” he says. She can’t read it.
In her former line of work, as a case officer at the Central Intelligence Agency, she’d been trained in the art of dissemblance. Dissemblance is tiring. The truth can become a fish, hard to catch. When you tell yourself several stories at once the central story can slip its adherence to what actually happened. When you’re posing as several people at once the central person can slip, too. She was fired for doing what she was told then told what she had done was criminal. She’d wandered aimlessly in the overachiever wilderness until her roommate from The Farm handed her an application over beers at a bar in Georgetown. “What’s this,” she’d asked.
“It’s your pivot.” Six months later she was sitting next to Irish, making maps of mathematical decision trees. And apparently, awaiting absolution. And grace.
When she woke up it was morning. She was still on the couch. And he was still there, right by her feet, reading. The ice creams had been cleared away; later she would see the dishes had been done. He had wrapped her in a blanket. He had borrowed one for himself. “What time is it?” she asked, not opening her eyes.
“Almost six.” She had slept through the night. He had their textbook folded on his chest. Basic Economics. “Did you get it all done,” she asked, meaning homework. “I think I did,” he said, meaning something else. The sun was coming up. She thought about choices she had made, not only in the last hours but also over the last years, her decisions, her tree. That last interview. His blue eyes. Rage, confession. Confession is a finer word than help. She didn’t know what it was about him that allowed her to finally put words on the rage. Perhaps it was simply that he had seen her. He had seen her, and understood. Her heart was beating like it would burst. She closed her eyes and saw a cartoon heart explode into pieces. It wasn’t love of him it was love of what had happened, what had broken open in her. “Did I fall asleep before the prince sorted things out,” she asked. When he said nothing she continued, “Are you really here to help the poor?” He stood up and walked to glass doors that led to a little balcony. He was barefoot. As he drew back the blinds the sun shot in and for a second, she couldn’t see. For a second, she was blind. It was all too bright.