THE RELATIVELY BEAUTIFUL AND THE DAMNED by J.S. Nunn

THE RELATIVELY BEAUTIFUL AND THE DAMNED by J.S. Nunn

It took three years at Harvard Law School for half the people I’d met at orientation to become alcoholics and the other half to develop eating disorders. The overachievers became alcoholics with eating disorders. Thin-limbed students stumbled through the campus bar on Fridays, after last class, ordering whiskey shots and truffle oil french fries with an eye on the bathroom door. We brought our food to booths for discussions of fitness regimens and John Locke, tried to demonstrate above-average knowledge of each, and dropped witticisms about the volume of booze our constitution would permit. The evenings wore on, the leftover fries congealed, and we went to the gym, the library, or the weekly gatherings at Eliot’s apartment. 

“Did Locke write the constitution?” I asked. “Someone tonight said he was British.”

“Everyone here thinks they’re so sophisticated,” Eliot said. “But they’re not sophisticated.” 

He took his shot glass rook and moved it to c3, capturing my shot glass pawn. 

It was Friday night, the autumn of our third and final year, and we were sitting in Eliot’s living room waiting for the others to arrive. We were lining up empty shot chess pieces on his humidor. We had been talking about our classmates and whether it might be possible to identify a reason for this unhappiness—theirs, Eliot’s. Eliot asked me if I was unhappy. I said I didn’t know. We agreed it didn’t make sense to think about it. We were at Harvard Law because we had judgment—we ignored our feelings, focused on the facts. We were going to be incredible lawyers. 

“I mean, I told you I’m not happy,” Eliot said. “I didn’t say it’s a problem.”

He could no longer pronounce certain phonemes, so it came out as “ploblem”.

The wingback chairs we were sitting on had wooden legs carved like cats’ feet. At parties, Eliot liked to wave a Glencairn glass around and tell people that the chairs were “Queen Anne”, then wait to see if they said the right thing. It was never clear to me what that thing was. He liked to serve blinis, to recommend poetry collections from his bookshelf, and to dip his cigars in Laphroaig before blowing the smoke into the extractor vent over the stove. 

People were slow in arriving that night and we were at risk of introspection, so Eliot made another wild gambit with his rook.

“That was a relatively poor move,” I said. “Relative to the other moves you could have made.”

Eliot stared at the chessboard. He twisted a cufflink between his fingers.

We were masters of the relative by then. We went to bars that were expensive relative to the money we had, but cheap relative to the money we thought we’d have later. We threw parties that weren’t as fun as the parties the undergraduates were having, but way more fun than the parties at the medical or the divinity school. On Friday nights, we packed the walls of Eliot’s apartment for a round-robin shot chess tournament and then trooped over to Lauren’s house to watch a documentary. Lauren had a nice television and a selection of laxative teas, but mostly we drank limoncello. The documentaries she put on were about powerful people, and they had titles like “The Smartest Guys in the Room”—that one was about the collapse of the Enron Corporation, and about Jeffrey Skilling, Enron’s former CEO. Jeffrey went to Harvard before he ran Enron. Jeffrey went to Montgomery Federal Prison Camp. Before we came to Harvard Law, most of us were the smartest people in the room, or thought we were, but now we were all in the same room. We were all smart, but only some of us could be relatively smart, and that was a fact we were each dealing with in our own way. 

“Macaron?” Eliot asked, holding a dainty box out over the chessboard. “They’re Ladurée.”

I was relatively dumb at Harvard. That was a fact, and so I accepted it. I was good-looking though, compared to the campus average, law school being the destination of choice for unbeautiful teenagers. I tried to focus on that. The bar was so low that the distinction was almost meaningless, and there was even a term for people like me: “law school hot”. We were hot in a defined, circumscribed setting; our hotness was not absolute and did not apply off campusoff campus we were too short. Too pale. Too skinny.

“Was she always that thin?” Lauren whispered. She was sitting beside me in Contracts, pointing at another student. “I could have sworn she had tits at orientation.”

Lauren didn’t have tits and she didn’t like people who did. Lauren ran marathons. It was that time when everyone was thinking about running a marathon, but Lauren had gotten out ahead of them. She ran Baltimore, Boston. She ran the Marathon Marathon, in Greece, stopping at mile twenty-four to vomit purple Gatorade at the foot of the Parthenon. Running marathons is something you can do to feel special when you aren’t relatively smart anymore.

Lauren and I sat together in the back row of our classes. Lauren would arrive wearing highlighter pink lycra that matched the highlighter pink highlighter she used on her textbooks, and would bound up the stairs swinging a tote full of protein bars and jurisprudence. In December of our third year, as she looked searchingly at our classmate’s non-bosom, I told her that I had started writing. I said that I had been trying to find something else I could do, some other way to be special, but had also found writing to be emotionally rewarding. I had always been a kind of high-achieving robot and, now that I’d actually spent some time reflecting on my emotions, I’d noticed I was miserable. Borrowing fifty thousand dollars a year to occupy the bottom quintile at a prestigious law school increasingly looked like it might not be a path to happiness. 

Lauren took a pull from her water bottle. She said that she sincerely hoped that whatever stories I was writing were more unique than this one. 

The professor walked in and all eighty students tensed. Our Contracts professor had been a senior official in the Reagan administration. When he called your name, he made it sound like a slur. He ran a finger down the enrollment list. “Mr. Nunn,” he said. “Describe for the class the Court’s opinion in Lucy v. Zehmer.”

I had to shout to be heard from the back. We sat in the last row because we didn’t want to have to speak to anybody except one another. The law school admissions test, which we had all written, was made up of questions like that: Arthur, Betty, Charles and Danielle are going out for dinner. Arthur must sit next to Betty, and Betty with Charles but opposite Danielle, who dislikes Arthur. Find the configuration that satisfies everyone. The admissions test rewards people who think like robots. I did great. I gave the professor my answer, felt my shirt dampen under the arms, and listened as he sighed. I was beginning to have serious doubts about the configuration of my life, and whether it was satisfactory. 

“Mr. Nunn,” the professor said, “are you aware of why the plaintiff wished to go back on his agreement, which fact you appear to have neglected in your analysis?”

The classroom was quiet. Law school classrooms get very quiet while a student is being disgraced. 

“Mr. Nunn, are you aware of the contradiction between that statement and what you said previously about the law’s role in ensuring that individuals take responsibility for their choices?”

“Mr. Nunn, are you aware that you’re on track for an unremarkable career in a profession you chose solely to impress various authority figures?”

“Mr. Nunn, do you have regrets?”

Lauren and I walked up Massachusetts Avenue, stopped at Porter Square Wine & Spirits, then went on to Eliot’s apartment. The door was unlocked. We found him sitting on a chaise longue and reading a thick letter, his consolidated student loan statement. He handed it to me and said that, although it looked bad, he didn’t mind because it wasn’t as bad as some other people he knew. “Anyway,” he said, “I’ve adopted a new perspective on my debt. I’ve started thinking about it in fractions of millions of dollars.” He went to get glasses from the kitchen. “Barely over one half,” he added. “That’s fine.” 

I set up the chess board. Lauren did burpees in the hallway. Eliot poured the whiskey and then put me in a hopeless position within five moves. I sipped from a bishop and thought about my performance in class. I told Eliot that I had a new plan. I wasn’t going to be a lawyer after all. I was going to become a writer. I was going to reflect deeply on what I wanted from life, and pursue that path without worrying about people’s approval. I was going to use my writing to explore the deep wells of emotion that I was certain lay hidden inside me.

“You’ve never expressed a feeling more complex than boredom,” he said, without looking up. “Or maybe hunger.”

“It’s a journey,” I said. “A journey of personal growth.”

His queen was up to something but I had no idea what. 

“You can’t grow a tree once it’s already stunted,” he said.

Lauren stopped what she was doing and came to stand, huffing, beside the table. “Someone with as much debt as you have,” she said to me, “can’t afford to be anything other than a lawyer anyway.”

“Checkmate,” Eliot said.

 

Someone asked Jeffrey Skilling, during his Harvard admissions interview, if he was smart. “I’m fucking smart,” he said. That’s absolute, not relative. He knew who he was, knew what he wanted. If he went on to commit the largest corporate fraud in American history, at least he can say that he lived without qualification. 

I qualified and became a lawyer. 

I’m a partner in the venture capital investment group of a mid-tier law firm. My work is unexciting, but lucrative and predictable, and I’ve discovered that the upper echelons of my profession are dominated not by the exceptional but by those who combine determination with deviousness. On Wednesday evenings I take writing classes—the highlight of my week. The classes are held in a church basement, attended by people in rumpled office attire, and watched over by a teacher who wears black gloves with no fingers. I sit with Charlene, a grandmother with sciatica who brings a pillow for her chair, and she talks about a daughter she wants to set me up with—“you’d adore her kids, such sweet little things”—and about her novel, and about why she thinks the teacher is a wanker. The first story I shared with the group was about my friendship with Eliot and Lauren, and about the dysfunctional environment that results when you put too many hyper-competitive people in one place. People in the class said that it lacked any real emotion but also seemed, somehow, truthful. 

“It wasn’t so bad,” Charlene said, standing out on the sidewalk, where she’d tricked me into waiting with her until her daughter came to pick her up. “Did you at least enjoy writing it?”

“I think so,” I said.

“That’s what matters.”

“Maybe.”

“I think you’re a fine writer,” she said. “And you’re handsome, for your age.” 

I met up with Eliot and Lauren during the cocktail hour at our ten-year reunion. Eliot was struggling to get lobster mousse out of his cravat and insisted that he wasn’t drinking. When a waitress carrying a tray of champagne came too close, he looked frightened. Lauren looked healthy though. She had stopped running marathons because everyone else was doing it, and said she only ran for charity now. She was thinking about running for breast cancer, but had misgivings. She was thinking about running for Congress. We stood apart from everyone else and talked about who had aged the most, who had divorced. Lauren said that lately she thought less about how she compared to other people and more about how she compared to other versions of herself, versions who had known what they wanted when seizing what they wanted was still a possibility. “Did you know I used to cross stitch?” she asked. “I was unbelievable. And I loved it. I could have been a cross stitch influencer.” She was building a ziggurat of canapés on a napkin. “I’ve started doing it again. What do you do, Eliot?”

“I can tell you some things I don’t do anymore.”

“Are you getting some time for your writing?” she asked me.

“About ten minutes a day.”

“How does that feel?”

“Better than all the other minutes.”

“I’ve found that hobbies are a great way to distract yourself from the fact that it’s too late to realize your potential.” She was disassembling some nigiri, going tuna-only. “Maybe I should stitch that up. Hang it on the wall.”

The Dean tapped a microphone at the front of the room. He introduced a special guest speaker, a woman we had graduated with, who was now the CEO of some tech unicorn. As he read out a list of her accomplishments, and the corporate boards she sat on, it became clear that she was far more successful than every other person in the room. She gave a speech about why doggedly pursuing a single, narrowly-defined ambition is the only route to happiness. She talked about closing her Series B financing round while fully dilated. “The most important thing,” she said at the end, holding up an undiminished glass of champagne, “is to stay hungry.” 

Everyone clapped.

We went outside and walked through the yard, over the crisscrossing paths that connect one ornate building to the next. Reddish leaves covered the metal chairs scattered around for a younger class of students. The evening was cool and quiet, and the tapping of our shoes carried beyond the gates and out into the city. The students we passed traveled in tight groups, speaking in anxious voices, borne down by heavy backpacks. 

“That was unbearable,” Lauren said. “Weren’t you friends with her at some point?”

“We weren’t close,” I said. “I remember that she could really put away the fries though.”

“I miss this place so much,” Eliot said, standing with his hands in his pockets. He was looking up into the yellow windows of a dormitory. The light accentuated the wrinkles around his mouth. “Those were the happiest years of my life.” 

“Jesus Christ, Eliot,” Lauren said. “Compared to what?”


J.S. Nunn is a writer and recent immigrant living in Zürich, Switzerland. Their fiction has been published in The Greensboro Review (Spring 2023). Their nonfiction has appeared in the Financial Times, Maclean’s Magazine and Canada’s National Post.

Art by Jaime Goh

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