One Good Thing
He wasn't supposed to be here. Not him. Doing this.
For shit's sake, he was Aaron Rothstein. Aaron Fucking Rothstein, as he was fondly known to his friends, a man with a Midas touch, a huge success in every arena into which he'd ever stepped. Some of those friends loved him, others actually hated him, but they all shared one thing in common: everyone wanted his life. It was that good.
Yet here he was, at Tom Bergin's on Fairfax, an ill-lit, foul-smelling barroom that had seen its best days a quarter century earlier, as had many of the scattered patrons, who drank silently in the shadows cast by the Tuesday afternoon sun. "Ready for another?" A hunchbacked bartender with a bulbous nose and grease-stained vest cleared an empty glass. Aaron signaled to keep them coming, now two at time.
He looked terrible. His face was puffy and unshaven, his eyes bloodshot, his Zegna pants barely accommodating his rapidly expanding girth. He was already three martinis in, but not drinking the Grey Goose he used to enjoy during languid client lunches at The Grill. Now his drink of choice was bar vodka. He didn't have the heart to ask the actual brand. That would only put a label on just how far his star had fallen.
But Aaron had a plan to turn things around and Bergin's was a safe place to do the business he had in mind. 'Least that was the opinion of one Sergei of undisclosed last name, the man he was supposed to be meeting. Of course if Aaron had experienced even a moment of genuine clarity, he would have realized he had no reason to trust this Sergei something, to whom he'd only spoken over the phone after being introduced by his cousin Bernie the accountant, a shrewd numbers cruncher from Reseda, with the kind of clientele who paid their bills in paper bags filled with cash.
When the door to the street opened, its creaky hinges crying out for a shot of WD-40, Aaron's head jerked involuntarily to see who was entering. He turned away upon seeing two DWP workers, just off shift, looking to get sauced. Then, he glanced at the mid-sized piece of luggage sitting next to his feet, anxiously pushing the heavy suitcase toward the bar with his foot.
He was anxious because inside the suitcase was a million dollars in cold cash, "borrowed" from the last remaining accounts entrusted to his care. If all went well, he was going to turn this million into ten within a week, reimburse the client accounts, and have enough left over to make the kind of prudent trades that would lead to profits and a new batch of eager investors.
All had to go well. Because the last couple of months had been pure hell, and Aaron wasn't sure how much desire to live was left in his tank. Sure, he'd enjoyed intermittent moments of merciful unconsciousness, made possible by generous amounts of alcohol and carefully-rationed Vicodin kept from a calf muscle torn during a pick-up basketball game. But there was nothing restful about his nights. Mostly, he'd toss and turn between the Pratesi sheets his wife bought at Saks during one of the many shopping splurges he'd encouraged against her better judgment, grinding his teeth incessantly, eventually shattering a bicuspid. He'd stare at the dark ceiling, with Aline sleeping blissfully next to him, clocking eight solid hours every night. How she did this, with the turmoil rocking their lives, was a mystery to Aaron. Did she not appreciate the depths of their predicament? Not that he was going to rely on her for a solution. Her job simply was to camouflage their reversals as much as possible from her "Lions of Judah" peers at the Jewish Federation. Once those yentas started yapping, any financial recovery would be compromised by an ignominious social ostracism, and Aaron couldn't abide that.
Considering the plan Aaron had in mind and the absolute lack of experience he brought to the operation, however, all was probably not going to go well. But he was nevertheless confident that buying the pure cocaine from Sergei wholesale and selling it retail through intermediaries cousin Bernie had lined-up was a far safer bet than those he'd been making in the stock market. Still, there were unusual risks in a strategy of this kind and the thought of serving hard prison time was never far from Aaron's mind. Like right now, for example, just as his latest drinks arrived. Aaron downed the first one in a quick gulp, hoping for the tiniest bit of reassurance. No such luck. The second was similarly unhelpful.
His lifelong winning streak had started early, with the record-setting nine "Mensch of the Month" awards he'd won at the little Temple preschool in the Valley, filled with kids of Russian Jewish immigrants like his parents, through the summa cum laude Stanford MBA he'd earned while holding down a full-time job to pay tuition, to Goldman Sachs, where he'd turned his back on a likely partnership to hang up his own shingle. As the sole owner of Rothstein Investments Inc., with a couple billion in client funds under his control, he'd employed his preternatural quantitative skills and worked harder than he imagined possible, to get rich beyond his wildest dreams. Bought Tom Selleck's Tudor in the Palisades, drove a German rocket ship of a car, sent his kids to Curtis, the same Mulholland Drive private academy that slammed its gilded doors in his face when he applied, his parents fearful he'd be killed by the gang bangers loitering outside the local, graffiti-infested public school. But Aaron survived that harrowing experience and every other obstacle thrown in his path with a never-let-'em-see-you-sweat aplomb. Investor's Business Daily had even dubbed him the "Wunderkind of Wilshire Boulevard. " He was living the American Dream.
That was then.
This was 2009. The epic market meltdown had exposed Aaron's highly-leveraged trading strategies for the delusions they truly were, his business was a heartbeat from Chapter 11, and an S.E.C. investigation was rumored about to commence.
And, for the first time in his life, Aaron was lost. No awards to win. No record-breaking profits to earn. No testimonials to attend recognizing his generosity. He was all about survival now and even this modest goal wasn't looking particularly attainable.
The door swung open again and, as before, Aaron turned in its direction. He was blinded by a shaft of sunlight and covered his eyes to see who was entering. A figure emerged from the brilliant glow and came into view. A woman. But no ordinary-looking woman. Not by a long shot.
She was tall and lithe, with ice-blue eyes so brilliant your corneas would be singed if you looked at them directly for too long. Dressed in a revealing spaghetti-strap top and short skirt, she belonged in that category of earth-dwellers reserved for only the most otherworldly of our species, certainly not the type of woman you would expect in Tom Bergin's.
And when she took the seat next to his, Aaron's head started to spin. Perhaps it was the vodka. Or the sun in his eyes. Maybe even the intoxicating proximity to this beautiful creature. Whatever it was, he didn't like the feeling. His brow started to sweat, his breathing quickened and he felt as if he were about to heave. He wiped his face with his sleeve, took a gulp of water and breathed deeply, trying to get a hold of himself. The moment grew more surreal when he felt himself stiffening in his pants. As if she wanted anything to do with him. The old Aaron Rothstein maybe. But not this depreciated version.
Improbably, she turned to him, asking in her slightly Russian accented, yet soothing, voice, "Mr. Rothstein?"
It took him a moment to respond. At first he thought he might be hallucinating. A single word croaked out. "Yeah?" She extended a hand, which Aaron took.
Aaron struggled to focus. "Baiul?"
"Yes, like Olympic skater." She flashed a dazzling smile. "Pleasure to meet you." Aaron's jaw simply went slack.
"My brother Sergei send me. He supposed to come here but got engaged otherwise."
Aaron breathed deeply, trying to push down the insistent nausea. When he finally composed himself, he reacted unfavorably to the change in plan. "I was supposed to meet Sergei. My cousin told me not to trust anyone else."
"I sorry, but Sergei has another situation happening now."
"What kind of situation?" With his foot, Aaron subtly steered the million dollar suitcase away from Irina.
"He no share with me. Just want me bring you to house. Do business there."
"He's got the...the item we discussed?"
"I don't know these detail. Just messenger. He little angry you not give him cell number. Make everything easier." Aaron smiled approvingly to himself. He wasn't about to give Sergei an easily traceable phone number. That was the move of a rank amateur.
Then, he considered her more closely. She certainly didn't look dangerous. And he didn't sense a set-up, not that his experience in matters such as these would have enabled him to see one coming. But more importantly, he was desperate to do this deal. "I'll follow you in my car."
"I no have car. We drive together yours."
His eyes narrowed suspiciously. A second warning flag. "Then how'd you get here?"
"You never took bus?"
"You don't look like the bus-riding type." She simply smiled. "Listen, Mr. Aaron Rothstein. I just take you where you need to be. That no good enough for you?"
She was probably right. Last-minute alterations in procedures were a common experience in most business dealings. The key always was not to be thrown, to maintain equilibrium in the face of changing circumstances. Getting to yes was Aaron's mantra and, until the recent downturn, a hallmark of his success. He picked up his suitcase, threw some bills on the bar and followed her to the door, wiping his brow again with his sleeve. On-the-fly rationalizations to the contrary, the sooner this was over, the better.
Outside, the late September air was desert dry and stiflingly hot. The bilious taste of the vodka was rising in Aaron's esophagus. He willed it back down, forced his alcohol-addled mind to think clearly. Despite the internal peace he'd achieved not a minute earlier, his qualms disturbingly reemerged: why was he deviating from the plan, when his cousin had warned him otherwise? Given the change in circumstance, why not simply abort this reckless scheme? His sphincter tightened uncomfortably as the not-so-random thought of trying to crap into a metal prison toilet flashed into his mind.
Irina stood near the passenger door of Aaron's leased SL 550. The same sporty convertible that was hemorrhaging him to the tune of $2,000 per month, not counting insurance and the high premium gasoline it demanded. The car on which he was already five months late in making payments, meaning a humiliating visit from a repo man was only a matter of time. He couldn't let that happen—giving up the car would put him firmly on the slippery slope to oblivion. The plan that seemed so foolhardy only a second ago was again his only real option. He had to stop the bleeding. Now.
So he beeped open the doors and followed Irina inside the car. She gave him an address to a house in the Hollywood Hills. Despite his buzzing head and slightly blurred vision, Aaron navigated the ride expertly. He'd become quite skilled at driving drunk, always staying within the speed limit and the lines, always keeping both eyes on the road ahead. He knew he was taking a big risk, what with the draconian DUI laws and all, but he was good. He'd never made a mistake and didn't expect to do so now. Irina sat on the seat next to him, bopping to the music playing from her iPod. God, he'd never seen anything so beautiful. He thought briefly about how she would look undressed, but quickly banished the idea from his mind. He had to concentrate on the task at hand.
They pulled into the driveway of an impressive mid-Century ranch. Aaron quickly estimated its current market value someplace north of four million. Sergei looked to be one very successful drug dealer. And with so much at stake, he probably wouldn't try any funny business. This thought comforted Aaron. Losing the million cash nestled in the suitcase would have meant the end for sure.
Irina's voice woke Aaron from his reverie. "Ready go inside?" Aaron nodded and grabbed the suitcase from the back seat, following the Russian beauty to the front door. She rang the bell several times. No response. Aaron practically shat his Brooks Brothers' Sea Island Boxers when an LAPD cruiser rolled nonchalantly by. Acute paranoia was understandably seeping into his consciousness.
"What the hell is going on?"
"I not know. He should be here by now. But sometime, he listen to music with headphone. Maybe he not hear ring."
Aaron pounded on the door with a closed fist. Still nothing.
"Come. We go around back and find him. I know way inside."
Yet another red flag. A voice inside Aaron's head was screaming, imploring him to bail now. But when Irina smiled beatifically and started walking toward the side of the house, the voice suddenly quieted. He followed her, unable to avert his eyes from the mesmerizing, metronome-like swing of her hips, now imagining lifting up her skirt for a more direct view. But as they turned a corner into the backyard, his carnal yearnings took a decided back seat to the angry Rottweiler staring angrily his way.
"Jesus Christ, you didn't tell me he had a dog!"
The Rottweiler snarled menacingly at Aaron and his large suitcase.
"Sergei usually keep him chained. But he nice dog. No worries."
No worries my ass. Aaron knew how dangerous dogs could be, from the German Shepherd that took a chunk of his leg while he was delivering newspapers on his neighborhood route. He backed away from the dog carefully, waiting for the right moment to cut and run. But the angry Rottweiler had other ideas, barking piercingly and stalking Aaron. Now panicking, he decided to make a run for it. Instead, he was overwhelmed by the adrenaline rush, and froze in place. Suddenly, the dog was upon him, clawing at his face and arms and knocking him to the ground. Aaron stumbled to his feet to face the again-attacking animal. But this time Aaron was ready, swinging the heavy suitcase at the canine's head.
The dog hit the grass with a sickening thud, suddenly silenced. His glassy, unmoving eyes stared at the blue sky overheard.
"Oh my God, you kill him!" Irina was correct. The Rottweiler was indeed dead.
Aaron was panicked. "I had no fucking choice! It was me or him!" Wiping blood from his forehead, he realized this bizarre, unforeseen event was not going to lead to a happy ending. Sergei would probably start by cutting off his fingers, one by one, laughing sadistically at Aaron's pain. That had really happened, to some poor sap in West Hollywood who had the moxie to cross these Russians. The police found the finger pieces stuffed inside a beer bottle, of all places. What was he thinking, doing a deal with such Neanderthals? Sharp pains spread from his fingers into his hands, and Aaron began to list, seemingly about to faint.
"Sergei be not happy. He love this dog like life itself." This brutally innocent honesty was not helping Aaron regain his equilibrium.
"It's not my fucking fault. You saw what happened." Aaron started to hyperventilate. Irina placed a comforting arm on Aaron's shoulder. "You need calm down. Get a grip, dude. This not be easy. But I try to explain this no your fault."
"Why would you do that?"
"Because I like you, Aaron Rothstein." His distrust grew. "Why?" She didn't hesitate in response. "Because deep down, I can tell you good man."
Despite the arguably backhanded compliment, he forced a smile, which quickly evaporated when he noticed the irregular red circle forming on his shirt. More blood. His blood. Dropping the suitcase to the ground, he leaned over and vomited explosively, missing Irina by inches. Though the upheaval lasted for only seconds, it felt like a lifetime to Aaron. Irina grabbed a nearby garden hose. "We clean you up and go. And somehow find way to keep Sergei from doing to you what you do to dog." She meant this as some kind of black humor. But Aaron didn't get the joke, fell to his knees, and heaved again. This was not going as planned. Not even close.
The Mercedes sat in the parking lot of a liquor store on Sunset Boulevard. As Irina finished a call on her cell phone, Aaron emerged from the store, unwrapping a pack of gum and popping a stick in his mouth. He got into the car, pulled out a strategically concealed pint of vodka and swigged, exhaling in relief as his jittery nerves calmed.
Irina was all business. "I call Sergei on cell. He no answer phone." Aaron shrugged, merely thankful he wouldn't have to face today the owner of the dog he'd just murdered. "I owe you apology, Aaron, for taking you on this goose wild chase."
He smiled gently at her painfully incorrect syntax. She smiled back. Something was happening between them, at least in Aaron's mind, and he wasn't sure if this was a good thing or not. "How about I drive you home?"
"I live far. Santa Monica." But now that the deal was seemingly off, Aaron's calendar was suddenly clear. "That so nice of you, Aaron."
Another look passed between them. Aaron wondered whether the same idea passing through his mind was crossing hers. He discarded the notion as ridiculous in the extreme at once. She was simply expressing gratitude at not having to take a city bus all the way to Santa Monica in rush hour traffic. Besides, this kind of magical thinking—that a fresh beauty like Irina would actually be interested sexually in a sweaty, overweight, vomitous man like him—was what got him to this misbegotten situation in the first place. To banish the thought, he took a long pull of the vodka before starting the engine to leave.
As he drove westward on Pico towards the ocean, Aaron's driving had deteriorated noticeably, his Mercedes weaving between lanes, several times just missing sideswiping another vehicle. For her part, Irina seemed blissfully unaware of the danger she faced, apparently unconcerned that her sodden escort might not get her home without subjecting her to grievous bodily harm.
Despite his alcohol-induced haze, Aaron nonetheless was able to think clearly enough about the troubles awaiting him. Having been unable to consummate the deal with Sergei, it would be only a matter of days or weeks before margin calls put Rothstein Investments into Bankruptcy Court. The promised SEC investigation and attendant publicity would only complete the loss of face. The thought of ending it all began to cross his mind, but he recoiled at the pain it would cause his wife and children. Still, he was momentarily envious of a former Japanese business associate who'd handled his own fall from grace by diving off the 58th floor of a downtown Tokyo skyscraper. Unfortunately, he also landed upon and killed his country's most revered porn star, a consequence that devastated many of this man's colleagues, removing some of the luster otherwise associated with such an honorable act.
He allowed his car to drift into the adjacent lane. A nasty collision with a passing car was imminent and unavoidable. And Aaron was still hopelessly lost in his contemplation of the "Japanese solution." Miraculously, Irina was paying attention. She grabbed the wheel, jerking the car back into its proper lane.
Aaron snapped back into the moment. "Shit. What the fuck is wrong with me?"
"It not your fault, Aaron."
Of course it was his fault. But she was having none of it. "I feel your pain." She stared meaningfully at him. "I understand why you drink so. Why you want to buy drugs from Sergei. Because you are good man, caught up in bad situation, not your doing."
By God, thought Aaron, truer words were never spoken. And by this complete stranger, no less. But how could she know any of this? It wasn't adding up. Unless she was simply uncommonly perceptive. Or she'd done some homework before getting on the bus to Tom Bergin's? But how Irina came to this knowledge was beside the point. What mattered was she was right.
Of course his current dilemmas were not his fault. He was still the same Aaron Rothstein as always. The same hard worker who cared more about his clients' well-being than his own. Who was willing to risk a long stint in prison to revive his business so everyone else could prosper. So his wife and kids could lead the lives to which they were accustomed. He was truly a selfless man. A saint, really. His problems a simple matter of unfair bad luck. A long run of unfortunate circumstance he certainly didn't deserve and that could have happened to anyone. At bottom, he knew that all he had to do was weather the storm, till good things again came his way. It was simple, really. He could forget all about Sergei and his cocaine.
And when he noticed Irina still gazing at him, with what he interpreted as a lustful look in her eyes, Aaron realized his life-changing moment was actually upon him. She was a signal aimed straight at him from God in heaven that all was to be fine. He would bring her to her home and she would express her gratitude by getting undressed before his appreciative eyes. What would happen next was almost too delicious to imagine. He would ravish her and she him, until mutual exhaustion took its toll. Oh, what a glorious end to a depressing day. And a fresh start to the rest of his life.
Of course, this would mean betraying Aline, something he had never even considered in all their years of marriage. But why would she have to find out? Her life and Irina's would never cross. Anyway, he deserved the kind of pleasure Irina was certain to offer him. His life lately—including his sex life with Aline—was methodical at best, altogether unsatisfying. Not that it was anyone's fault. Twenty years with the same person was bound to result in a certain amount of ennui. Yes, the more Aaron thought about a one-time fling with Irina, the more he was certain he deserved this. One good thing. With all the heartache and unjust disappointment he'd suffered lately, that was the least the universe owed him. He'd be a fool not to take advantage of the unexpected good fortune. To turn away would be a bigger crime than even the star-crossed drug purchase which had brought Irina into his life.
While contemplating this wondrous opportunity, Aaron again lost focus on his driving, completely disregarding the red light at the corner of Pico and Bundy. As his Mercedes entered the intersection, he was blind to the danger presented by the eighteen-wheel, four-axle, six ton Ralphs' produce delivery truck bearing down on them at forty miles per hour. Only the truck's blaring horn alerted him to the distinct possibility of impending doom.
Minutes later, an improbably intact Aaron remained in the car, now parked outside a Starbucks. His shirt again sweat-soaked, Aaron was completely devoid of feeling or emotion, save for the realization he had narrowly missed a particularly gruesome death. He also knew his drinking was to blame, that despite what he may have thought since his business reverses, he was at this moment as close to hitting bottom as he'd ever been, with no idea how to proceed. It was as if every coping strategy he'd even learned or employed had simply deserted him.
He barely noticed when Irina returned to the car carrying two black coffees. "Drink this, Aaron, you will feel better much quickly."
"Why? Why are you even with me still? I almost killed you."
"Drink the coffee. We have another place to go." Aaron stared at her, nonplussed.
"Sergei call me. He apologize to you, Aaron. Another unavoidable plan change. He give new address. Just few blocks from here. You see, this is all going to be good after all."
Aaron's mind reeled and his voice was filled with dread. "Did you tell him about the dog?" Irina downplayed his worry at once. "Sergei not angry one bit. Dog have tumor in stomach. Have to be put down tomorrow anyway. He say you save him visit to vet."
Aaron shook his head in disbelief. Irina shrugged. "Sergei unpredictable man. Once he have no further use for someone, like that person dead to him." Aaron gulped. He wondered whether once Sergei got his hands on the money, would this seemingly sociopathic attitude toward his once-beloved Rottweiler be aimed his way? But Aaron didn't have time to dwell on the negative thought. "He very excited about seeing you now. Said to bring you there ASAP. To make your deal. So you both make lot of money together."
The words Aaron longed to hear. He felt a sudden surge of confidence swelling from inside and his doubts disappeared. Everything was happening for a reason. This was not going to be the disaster he imagined. All was going to be well in his world again.
Led by Irina, Aaron approached the non-descript, one-story industrial building on a side street off Pico, his knuckles white around the handle of the suitcase. Again, he had thoughts of retreat, but Irina grabbed his arm and pulled him inside. Aaron initially had trouble adjusting to the low light level but, upon acclimating himself, his eyes opened wide at what he saw: thirty or so motley individuals, sitting on metal folding chairs. One by one, they were introducing themselves by first name and common appellation, "Alcoholic."
Aaron was certain they'd come to the wrong address and turned to go. But Irina stood in his path, a previously unseen, steely, unyielding, unsmiling look in her eyes, one Aaron felt unequipped to cross. He walked awkwardly towards two nearby empty chairs in the rear. But as he sat, having turned his back on her for two seconds at most, he saw Irina was inexplicably gone. It was as if she'd simply vanished into the air.
He grabbed the suitcase, ran from the room and back onto the street, but she was nowhere to be seen. He checked around a corner. Nothing. His mind was flooded with conflicting thoughts. Was she simply a figment of his drunken brain? Or was she not the corporeal being he assumed her to be? Aaron knew at once he would never be sure. But he was certain that Irina—whoever, whatever she was—was sent into his life for a reason. He straightened his shoulders, a warm serenity overtook his body, and walked back inside.
This was exactly where Aaron Rothstein was supposed to be.