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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt.

8 Brooklyn NY 11215

NAD

After years of trying, Max sold a screenplay. It was sort of a sci-fi comedy in which all the silicone breast implants in the world became sentient and possessed their owners. Finally a producer had appreciated the potential in showing giant-breasted women first manipulating powerful men and then, once they were discovered, battling in the streets with a band of natural-breasted heroines of various cup sizes. The first sum of money, for the rights alone, was enough of a bump in income for him to leave his annoying roommates and take one of the few rental units in a new fullservice condominium building all the way on the west side, near the river. There was a gym on the second floor, a washer and dryer in every kitchen, a bar and lounge on one of the upper floors, even a concierge in the lobby with her own desk, separate from the doorman’s. The day after he moved in he asked her where in the neighborhood was good takeout, and she not only suggested a Thai restaurant that delivered, she told him which items on their menu were best. He soon became dependent on all the little conveniences. When he left in the morning for the job he couldn’t yet afford to quit, he no longer had to remember to put a change of underwear and socks in his gym bag. Instead he got to ride the elevator upstairs after a session on the treadmill or at the weight bench, shower in his own bathroom, and have all his clean clothes right there. He no longer had to monitor how much clean underwear he had left, either, and make time for the laundromat before it ran out, because he could do laundry any night while he prepared dinner and simultaneously watch the shows his Tivo had stored for him. When his agent FedExed papers to him or

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt. 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

he ordered shoes online, he could leave home and not worry about when the delivery truck would arrive. When he wanted a taxi he called down to the doorman and it was waiting when he reached the front door. He felt like he was beginning to arrive in the life he’d wanted ever since college. In his day job he worked for a major publishing empire, in a group that put out high-end luxury magazines like Yacht Magnate, Cigar and Brandy, and Margrave. Essentially he wrote and edited advertising copy dressed up as short articles and fitted around the primary content—the paid ads and other pictures of expensive products. He’d wanted badly to write something that stirred people, that made them happy, and being paid for it at long last validated that strangers (who counted for more than friends or family) might respond. The real feeling of success would come until the movie was actually made and released, of course, but the foretaste was very sweet. He could look at his socks and underpants tumbling in the dryer and think: my ideas and heartfelt effort paid for that.

Eighteen months later his movie went into production and he received another, considerably larger sum. He used part of it for a down payment on a condo unit on the opposite side of the building, the one with river views, and the remainder to make up the difference between what he could afford on his day-job salary and the checks he now had to write each month for his mortgage and the condo fees. The new apartment came with what the super described as a “magic box” and what the owner’s manual left on the kitchen counter called a Needs Anticipation Device. Apparently the building’s developers were experimenting with this new technology as a way to phase out the concierge. It was essentially an ordinary desktop computer locked

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt. 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

behind protective Plexiglas in an alcove in the living room and connected by cables hidden in the walls to touch-screen consoles in all four rooms: bedroom, bathroom, living room, and kitchen. It was supposed to collect information on his habits and use it to predict other things he might like to do or buy. According to the technician who came to turn it on and make sure there were no obvious initial bugs, it worked better the more information it was fed, so Max should get used to doing as much through it as possible. He should use it to order groceries from Fresh Direct and takeout food through Delivery.com, to buy movie tickets and band tickets, to reserve taxis, to program his Tivo, even to wake him in the morning. He should give it access to his Facebook page and all his email accounts. He should allow it to receive all his text messages and forward them to his cell phone, and he should use its VOIP whenever he had to make a call from home. In fact, to get it started on the right foot the technician opened a personality quiz on the living-room screen and told Max to complete it right away. It was basically a version of Meyers-Briggs, Max discovered when the tech had gone, with a few idiosyncratic questions thrown in like: Which was your favorite of Charlie’s Angels in the remake? (Drew Barrymore.) Do you like your friends to get you out of the house to do new things, or do you prefer that they accompany you to your favorite activities? (Get him out to new things.) Name your favorite martial arts movie star. (After considerable thought, he couldn’t justify Tony Jaa over Bruce Lee.) Name your top three favorite bands, and the top two bands you like secretly but wouldn’t want anyone to know you like? Joseph Conrad, Ernest Hemingway, or Gustave Flaubert? How often do you masturbate?

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt. 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

Soon he was more reliant on it than he’d been on all the building’s other services put together. The NAD monitored the weather and his schedule and told him what to wear. After observing him for two weeks it decided he needed a housekeeper and hired one, so he no longer had to clean his own bathroom, change his sheets, or remember to get his suits dry cleaned. In under a month it figured out what food he liked to have in the house and began to order more whenever he ran low on a few things at once. It knew how often he liked to cook and suggested recipes; it knew how often he preferred to order delivery and remembered which dishes he liked from the restaurants nearby. It prodded him to go see live music, movies, and art exhibits. It picked songs from his .mp3 library based on what it perceived as his moods at different times of day, and got better and better the more he corrected it. It even knew when he was horny and searched for porn that might turn him on. As soon as he wanted anything, it appeared, as if it knew his desires before he even became aware of them. It had him spending more money than before, considerably more, but he didn’t necessarily mind. Whether it paid for things itself from his account or merely made suggestions, he was nearly always happy with what he got for the money, so how could he complain?

Six weeks later one of the neighbors called and said his own NAD had suggested they hang out. “I know it sounds weird,” he said, “but I’ve had mine for a few months and it turns out to be right more often than not. Why don’t you come bowling with us?” So Max went and it was surprisingly comfortable. There were only four of them— the guy who’d called, his wife, and another neighbor—and by halfway through the first

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt. 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

game he felt as ease enough to throw in some good-natured trash talk when he completed a spare. He invited them to his place for pizza, beer, and the NBA playoffs that weekend, they accepted, and before the end of the night they were all buddies. When he’d first graduated from college, Max had had a close-knit group of friends that would visit each other’s apartments to hang out, no prior appointment necessary, but that group had eroded long before. Some friends moved away for graduate or law school, a few more left for jobs, and yet more followed lovers or spouses to their new jobs or Ph.D. programs. Most of the rest his ex had kept when they split up. For the past several years he hadn’t had many friends in the city at all, and certainly no close ones. He’d gone out for drinks with people in his office, but with them he always felt he had to keep a wall up. It wasn’t just the fear of doing or saying something embarrassing, it was more that there were facts about himself he wasn’t actually embarrassed about and yet still didn’t feel safe revealing to them: that he liked to unwind at home with a joint, for example, or that while he mostly liked women he had slept with men in the past and might do so again in the future. With these three, though, he broke out his bong within an hour and once they’d smoked up recounted pretty much his entire romantic history. From then on they hung out all the time. He barely saw his other, casual friends in the city anymore, and didn’t miss them. He and his neighbors went out all the time to dinner, plays, and music. They told him he couldn’t keep showing up to work dressed like a college intern, and Paul, the single one, took him shopping for shirts and suits at Barney’s, and for a sleek briefcase at Flight 001. In Dennis and Leeanne’s apartment he was introduced to the beauty of high-definition TV and bought a big flat-screen for his

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt. 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

own living room, for the nights when they watched games at his house. He borrowed Paul’s iPhone so much to play with it when they were together that eventually he bought one of those for himself too. The only real drawback was that he wasn’t meeting any women. He’d been single for some time now, and except for a few hookups here and there, mostly celibate. He told himself it didn’t matter, things would be different when his movie came out. A lot of women might not like it, but others surely would, and maybe if he met one who did, her respect for him could become love. He could think of no higher achievement as an artist than for his work to draw someone to love him.

Stories of the recession had dominated the news for months, but it was only around this time that it occurred to Max in a serious way that his own job might be in jeopardy. It took a while after the collapse of the finance industry for his magazine group’s ad revenue to start plummeting, and a little longer than that for the news to make its way from the ad sales department to Max’s desk, but not very long at all for him to work out what it meant. The publishing emperors upstairs had only two choices: try to keep producing the same number of titles and issues with a smaller staff, or else cut back on issues, or even whole titles, shedding staff commensurately, until they made money again, or at least lost acceptably little. Either way, Max faced a decent chance of being laid off. The thought made him very nervous. Already his movie money, which he’d only intended to use a little to stretch his salary, was disappearing far too fast under the influence of his new friends and the NAD. He couldn’t afford this lifestyle for more than another couple of years unless he sold another script, even if he didn’t lose his job. If he

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt. 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

did lose his job he didn’t know what he’d do. He could cut back on the extra spending but his mortgage and condo fees would bite deep into his savings before long, not to mention the COBRA he’d suddenly have to pay for, along with all the other nibbles from his bank account for food, utilities, student loans, and so on. He lost his job. In the first weeks he made solemn resolutions to rein in his expenses, but after four days of stern self-discipline he blew nearly $200 on dinner and drinks with his neighbors. This quickly became a pattern: he’d control himself for a little while, virtuously resisting all of the NAD’s suggestions, overriding its purchases, and then grow exhausted by the stress of feeling broke and spend wildly, all at once, usually in a night out. It was the little things that made him lose control. They all took cabs in the evening, for example; subways were for commuting only. And once he opened his wallet for that first cab ride, it stayed open. He was like a fat man trying to diet, holding out against his hunger as long as he could and then eventually, inevitably, binging on a double-stack of pancakes with sausage. He sent his résumé everywhere he could, but the publishing industry had been dying for years and certainly no one was hiring now. He begged his agent to find him work doctoring scripts for Lifetime movies, ghostwriting memoirs for reality-show stars, anything. In vain. He sat in front of his computer for hours every day, listening to public radio talk and arguing with the guests out loud while playing simple point-and-click Flash games online, until his shoulder burned from lifting his arm to the mouse and his thumb and forefinger

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt. 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

went numb from carpal tunnel syndrome. Pretty soon he was so depressed he couldn’t muster much more than an hour or two of job-hunting activity a day. This went on for weeks. His anxiety about his dwindling reserve of money intensified, but it only got harder and harder to control his profligacy. As long as he put off balancing his checkbook or paying down the balance on his credit card, he didn’t have to know just how fast that reserve was dwindling, and every time he laid a credit card on a checkout counter it gave him that much more incentive to put it off. What he should do, he knew, was fix a budget for himself, but he couldn’t do that without determining just how long it was going to take him to go broke, and that he really didn’t want to know. It wasn’t exactly that he feared becoming homeless and going hungry. That seemed beyond what he was actually likely to suffer. (Although he did see more and more panhandlers, buskers, and candy sellers on the subway all the time, and gave them change for the first time in his life, as a kind of offering against fate.) No, he feared losing all the big and small conveniences he’d come to rely on, and more than that his little band of new friends. If he had to move back to a dismal shared apartment in an outer borough, sure they’d mean to stay close, but they wouldn’t. He wouldn’t ask them to come to his new place, and it would get embarrassing always to be traveling into Manhattan to sit in their homes, in a building where he could no longer afford to live. He decided he’d feel better if he could take the NAD with him or buy one of his own. He could live without the housekeeper and the gym in the building if he had the one thing constantly working to find what he needed to be happy. He would miss these friends, but it could make him new ones.

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt. 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

He searched online to learn how much it would cost, but he didn’t see it for sale anywhere. So he called the condo management company and talked to the woman in charge of repairs. “Is there something wrong with it?” she asked. No, no, he said. It was working fine. It was just that he had a friend who wanted one for himself, and he hadn’t been able to find the company that made or sold them. She said that someone would have to call him back. Two days later, when no one had called him back, he got her on the phone again. “Oh, right,” she said. “It was this thing some IT company hooked up for us, but they went out of business.” “What about the people who worked there?” he asked. “They’d have to know about it, wouldn’t they? Did anyone buy up their patents?” “How the hell should I know?” she said. He hung up, cross the living room, and squatted by the NAD’s alcove. The lock appeared as solid as the heavy Plexiglas. He could try what they did in the movies and drill into it, he supposed, but he didn’t actually know how to make that work. He didn’t even own a drill.

The next day he woke extremely late, later than he’d been doing, in the early afternoon. He dragged himself to the kitchen and hit the button on the single-cup grinder to start his coffee brewing. On the NAD’s kitchen screen a short message in block letters floated against a blank yellow background: YOU DON’T NEED ME.

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt. 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

Max stared at it. Computers had addressed him hundreds of times over the years— with alerts, warnings, and error messages, or as an annoying paper clip remarking that he looked like he was writing a business letter, or as that soft feminine voice that spoke for every automated phone system in the world—but this was different. Those had all been generic, automatically triggered responses. This message was intended specifically for him, only for him. No subroutine could explain it. He couldn’t think of any reason a programmer might have taught the machine to ask itself: “Does my owner need me?” Max wasn’t a major sci-fi fan, but he knew as much about the genre as any average guy. In those movies, the machines that developed consciousness and in the end enslaved humanity were always descended from giant military mainframes, never humble little desktops running souped-up versions of Amazon’s recommendation function. But this one had struggled to consciousness, or at least to independent thought, not to dominate or destroy but to give him a message of self-sacrifice, almost love. The effect was exactly the opposite of what the NAD said. The machine seemed all the more precious to him now. How could he abandon it when it cared about him? Wouldn’t it get lonely while the apartment stood empty? When a new owner did move in, would it have to be wiped and relaunched from a blank state so it could start learning that new owner’s desires?

A few days later his agent called. “You said anything, no matter how small or demeaning,” he said. It was a job writing on a new cable network action drama. The showrunner had seen a prerelease version of Silicone Apocalypse and loved it, and wanted Max to join the staff.

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt. 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

It wasn’t a show Max recognized beyond thinking he’d heard the name recently—Iron Lady in a Velvet Dress. He Googled it and learned it was the subject of a minor but growing scandal. Only the pilot had been shot so far and hardly anyone apart from a few cable executives had seen it, but already it was drawing fire for its supposed misogyny. A broadcast network probably would have let it die quietly, avoiding controversy at all costs. But a fiftieth-place cable channel in need of a flagship show to pull it from obscurity relished any kind of publicity. They’d ordered a full season, for them ten episodes. The producer sent Max a DVD copy of the pilot. Max had to sign all sorts of paperwork promising not to show it to anyone else, make any copies, leak it to the Internet, etc., etc. Then he sat down and watched it, meaning to give it a chance. He was ready to believe that either the network itself had ginned up the furor or else people had overreacted to something that, after all, most of them only knew of thirdhand. He wanted to believe it. The job would not only solve his money problems, it would give him the legitimacy as a screenwriter that could bring more such jobs. It was far worse than he’d imagined. The public outcry so far had been entirely in reaction to the premise: an old, uncharismatic senator running for president chooses a young, charming, first-term woman governor to be his running mate, wins, and then dies during his first weeks in office. The brand-new female president belongs to a cultish brand of fundamentalist Christianity that aims to bring about the apocalypse, and surrounds herself with a cabal of like-minded, shrewish churchmarms. Together they and their invisible army of churchmarms across the country plot to throw the United States

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt. 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

and the rest of the world into chaos. They are opposed by a small band of men, including the hero, a freshly elected member of the House of Representatives. So far, no one (outside of a small circle that now included Max) knew about the rape. In the episode, one of the president’s minions seduced the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission and blackmailed him with the video footage. She wanted him to issue a regulation that would cripple American banks by revealing the true extent of their bad debts. She was a nasty character. When the SEC chief protested that he was married, she threatened to sue him for sexual harassment, even accuse him publicly of grabbing her breasts, if he refused to have sex with her. When he begged her not to tell his wife, she laughed at him. The audience was supposed to hate her. At the 36-minute mark, the resistance fighters captured her. Four of them, including the hero, discussed what to do and agreed that if she’d emailed the video to just one other person, they could never guarantee the blackmail would be over. “The whole economy could collapse. We’re talking starving kids, bread lines, roving gangs, all of it,” the hero said. If they couldn’t destroy the evidence, they decided, they’d have to destroy the woman. It wouldn’t solve the problem but it would buy some time, and that was all Congress was trying to do for the banks anyway, the hero said, buy them some time, because they weren’t bad institutions deep down. The camera cut to four hands drawing straws. The hero pulled the short straw at the 38-minute mark. He pulled on a hood to conceal his face and disappeared into the filthy warehouse room where they had the woman tied up. The door closed behind him and, presumably, the show went to commercial. A second of black screen later, after the

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt. 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

break, the door opened and the hero reemerged, buttoning his pants. When he stepped to the side the camera lingered for a moment on the woman, or at least on her naked legs lying on the floor, the rest of her body out of sight, a pile of fabric by her feet the same shade as her skirt had been. The next-to-last shot had the hero on CSPAN, questioning the SEC chief during some hearing. Then, in the final scene, the hero sat alone in a plush congressional office, a glass of whiskey in his hand, pulling an angsty face. Afterward Max read the pitch for the rest of the season, and that made it even worse. There would be at least two, possibly three more rapes during the remaining nine episodes, each for a different reason, though the reasons weren’t specified. The words “edgy” and “dark” were used a lot.

Beyond simple moral aversion to writing a hero rapist for the sake of “edginess,” Max knew that if he did join this show, it would sink his movie, which was set to open in the middle of Iron Lady’s season. He’d imagined Silicone Apocalypse campy and lighthearted, but if it were linked through him to this show, no one could possibly see it that way. On the other hand, his movie might not make any money at all, while Iron Lady, he guessed, would be on the air and providing a fat paycheck for years. Its dialogue was smart and did a deft job laying the considerable pipe required of a pilot. It was shot beautifully, in moody brown inside the Capitol, washed-out blues on the streets of Washington, and foreboding yellow in the While House. The lead actor was handsome and magnetic.

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt. 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

He spent the next few days postponing a decision and trying to provoke the NAD into further displays of sentience. He figured it wouldn’t mean anything if he asked it a question that by some coincidence its designers had programmed it to handle, so he didn’t ask it anything at all. He merely typed in statements: “I am afraid of going broke and being alone.” “I am afraid that if I take this show job my movie will fail.” “I am afraid that if I do not take the show job and my movie does fail, I will go broke.” “I do not want to become a bad person simply because I am afraid.” No response. The next night, out with them for dinner at a sushi restaurant he couldn’t afford, he told his friends about the offer. “That’s wonderful!” Dennis exclaimed. “We should get sake to celebrate,” said Leeanne, casting her gaze around for their waiter. Max shook his head sadly and explained why it wasn’t so wonderful after all. “Then why are you even considering it?” asked Paul. Max shrugged. “I need the money. I’m two or three months from starting to miss mortgage payments.” There was a moment of uncomfortable silence. They didn’t usually discuss money, and although his friends had all known when Max lost his job, he’d led them to believe he still had plenty saved.

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt. 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

“It’s the same for me,” Paul said at last. He was an investment manager. “Most of our fund was stock in small companies, and those are the ones that got killed when banks quit lending. The difference is, I’m already two behind.” “Us too,” offered Dennis. He was a consultant on big-city traffic systems. “Every town in the country cut its budget this year.” “We should all get out of our overpriced apartments and buy a house together,” said Leeanne, who did Flash animation, “one out in Queens with a yard.” They all laughed and agreed that they should, and the waiter brought the first plates of their omakase. It seemed at first like one of those lovely, ridiculous fantasies they sometimes entertained, like camping across the Southwest together, taking up hang gliding together, or buying a yacht when they got old and retiring to it together. It didn’t laugh off the same, though. Leeanne kept returning to it and soon they were discussing neighborhoods and commuting, and how they could find a place to split three ways, and Max started to think it wasn’t a crazy idea at all. Not only would he be able to live with the mortgage, he’d be free of the crippling condo fees. That much would be a relief even if he couldn’t find another good job right away. He didn’t need the in-building gym. He didn’t need the NAD, even if it truly came to life and had a soul. In his mind he could see all of them sitting in the backyard of a brick semidetached house, drinking beer in the summer heat and barbecuing, lounging in a plain t-shirt and cargo shorts. Leeanne and Dennis could take one side, he and Paul the other; maybe down the road they could split their half into two apartments. They could grow vegetables in a garden or set up a trampoline. They could cook at home more often. They could live more simply. It would make him much happier.

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt. 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

“It’s too bad I’m upside down,” Paul sighed. “I won’t be buying anything new for a while.” And Max realized that he too owed more on his mortgage than his apartment was currently worth. From the looks on their faces he guessed that that was also the case for Dennis and Leeanne. If they tried to sell, it might just be possible to convince whoever held their loans to accept the sales price as payment in full, but then they’d all be wiped out, with no money left for a new down payment. No, they were all stuck where they were, unless they scattered to what rentals they could afford. When he got home the NAD had another message for him: DON’T TAKE THE JOB.

He took the job. The effect on Silicone Apocalypse started out more or less as he’d feared: critics linked it to Iron Lady and bashed it or celebrated it entirely as an extension of the show. The result was not at all what he’d expected, though. Iron Lady quickly attracted a big, defensive, overwhelmingly male audience, and they made his movie a modest hit. Even his few tenths of a percent of the gross turned out to be worth quite a lot, enough to pay his mortgage for a few years all by itself. No chance of attracting a woman with it, though. He had to adjust his hopes and imagine meeting one who loved him in spite of what he wrote, or at least who didn’t care about it one way or another. The NAD never accepted his decision. Every few weeks it told him to quit, and against his wishes it searched constantly for new jobs for him, sometimes going so far as to send his resume. He tried deleting the resume document from its hard drive, but it had squirreled away other copies somewhere in its file structure where he couldn’t find them.

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt. 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

He supposed he should have found this remarkable, but really it was just annoying, and after not too long he got sick of being reprimanded all the time and had the condo management company find someone to come in and disconnect the thing, although not remove it. Every so often he would look at its blank screen and imagine that someday, perhaps, he would have it turned back on. Iron Lady stayed on the air for four seasons. After the second the head writer started to worry that they might be stagnating. Perhaps he also finally took some of his hate mail to heart, because in the third season the evil president started using male minions alongside her female ones, and in the last episode that year the main character raped one of them. The fourth year was a mess, the audience thoroughly confused as the hero continued to rape enemies of both sexes, and after a thoroughly dissatisfying season finale the network cancelled them. By then, though, Max had written and sold a second movie script and could get work when he needed it. When the housing market rebounded he and his friends could have sold their condos and bought a home together, but Max no longer felt the fear and dread he had when he was unemployed, and so no longer cared to bring it up. In the end Dennis and Leeanne moved away when they wanted more space to have kids, and a year after that Max sold his own condo and moved to Los Angeles. He lived alone in a bare, expensively rented apartment in Westwood with nothing on the white walls and thin, industrial carpets, cold on January nights because L.A. homes had no insulation, stifling hot in the summer unless he turned up the window A/C units all the way. He spent as little time there as possible, and no one else ever saw the inside of it except his occasional girlfriends, none of whom ever lasted long. He made a lot of

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt. 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

industry acquaintances but no new good friends. He couldn’t say he was satisfied with all this, but it was a hell of a lot better than those months of being unemployed and terrified about the future. He still spoke to his friends in New York on the phone from time to time.

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