Mark can't read minds. There's a fine line between predictive modeling and mind-reading, and he's decidedly on the 'predictive modeling' side. If you like the Killers, you can probably add the Vines to your playlist. If you like Kurt Vonnegut and '1984,' you'll probably read 'Neuromancer' at some point. If you like talk radio, you are probably a douchebag.
Or, rather, he couldn't read minds until now. This could be some lesson in humility, letting him know that each person is a unique and special snowflake of magical thoughts and feelings - each deserving of respect and dignity - but mostly it just makes him want to sandwich his head between his (very expensive hypoallergenic) pillows and tell humanity to fuck right off for a while.
'This is what happens when you spend 10 years living like a monk. The semen backs up into your brain and you get superpowers,' Dustin thinks, when Mark calls him. 'I bet he can do kung fu.'
"I can't do kung fu,' Mark says, pathetically.
'Not yet at least.'
His mother thinks about watering her plants while they're on the phone. And the neighbor's handyman, which he really really didn't want to know.
Chris tries to hide the fact that he's stoned out of his mind at 10 am on a Sunday.
'Fuck,' his assistant, Claire, thinks.
"Fuck," she says.
Mark doubles her salary on the spot.
Claire comes by with coffee, food, a hard copy of The New York Times and ear plugs.
"Dustin thinks this is because I haven't had sex in a ..." he begins.
"Right," she says. "This is really no different from any time other you've been sick."
"Chicken soup really doesn't alleviate psychic abilities."
"Matzoh balls might." She hands him a package he doesn't need to be psychic to know contains chicken soup and pie. "It can't hurt."
"No," he agrees. "It can't."
They sit on his overstuffed couch. She hands him the Arts section without him asking. She slurps her coffee.
"It started this morning," he says. "I could hear the news anchors worrying about their make-up running, about whether their spouses would find those pictures. I had two options - insanity, which I am totally not ruling out - or psychic powers."
"The nice thing," Claire says, "is it's not like you ever had two-sided conversations to begin with."
He almost expects it to wear off, like super-powers are a phase, like when he listened to Coldplay until Dustin destroyed his computer speakers or woke up at age 13 to realize that he could get erections anywhere for no fucking good reason.
Benefit functions, surprisingly, aren't that bad if you don't mind hearing, "Smile smile, goddamit," and "Where did I put my Vicodin?" Which is pretty much what everyone says out loud after two drinks, anyway.
He doesn't do his own shopping or driving, which is probably a blessing. He goes from the closed shell of his house to the car to the office without being around more than five people at a time. He installs a door on his office, starts shutting it. It doesn't actually help, but he appreciates the symbolism.
"This really sucks," Sean says. "I have to open the door to talk to you."
"You don't even have to open your mouth to talk to me," Mark counters.
Sean flops down on the couch Mark had installed on his office. Mark doesn't toss him a beer, but one seems to find its way into Sean's hands.
"Most women think you're an asshole," Mark says, for probably the 100th time.
"I don't need to be psychic to know that most women know you're one."
Things don't change that much, though he skis more than he used to, likes the cold distance mountains put between him and other people. He can't hear animals, thank fucking god, has no idea about the flighty thoughts of birds or the watery imaginings of fish. He does try to drown himself in snow, once, but that's mostly because he probably shouldn't be doing black diamond trails hungover, still reeking of pale Mexican beer.
Sean doesn't invite him out a whole lot. There's a creepy factor to it that even Mark can understand. He knows better than to try to date one of his employees, and Claire has the good sense not to bring her friends into the office. Her boyfriend's a former Marine who looks like he could unscrew Mark's head from his body as easily as the cap from a tube of toothpaste. Mark has her send herself the most platonic flowers she can find for Administrative Assistant's Day.
Family dinners are excruciating, but they were before. Nobody's cheating on anybody else, nothing that serious, but everyone hates what everyone else is wearing. His mother does actually want him to settle down with a nice girl or boy or human - and it's the human part that gets him, like he's made his fortune building fuckable robots and not making people the crux of what he does.
He learns not to watch live TV. He watches sports on a minute-delay, which seems to block all the 'run-run-run, fuck, run more' thoughts that trace through soccer games. He can't go to see plays - actors have the worst thoughts - can't sit in movie theaters. He has one installed in his basement, watches old movies where all the actors are dead, likes that he can almost sense the thoughts in them, like trying to imagine the smell of his grandmother's perfume.
Fencing isn't a challenge anymore, not when everyone's telegraphing their moves, the aches in their arms, their tells. He runs instead, develops a hack for the Nike shoe chip that correlates heart-rate to mileage and adjusts his playlist accordingly. Thoughts whoosh by, people doing people things, getting groceries, taking their kids to daycare, grilling on clear afternoons. He builds callouses, learns stretches, lets the air burn in his lungs and his head sing with blood.
Eduardo changes things.
Mark can hear Eduardo's thoughts before he even sees his face. He thinks in weird mix of English, Portuguese, math, stock symbols, and a touch of strange-sounding Spanish he must have picked up in Miami.
Mark's catching an early flight into New York. It's winter, though San Francisco is its usual gray 50 degree self. There's snow on the ground when he lands. He'd bundled in preparation for New York, has an iPod that can melt his eardrums to block the crowds going through the airport. The holidays suck, and everyone's thinking how much they would have rather stayed home and how much their feet look like ugly bricks squished into practical winter boots. Well, Mark's thinking that anyway.
Eduardo leans over the magazines at a newstand, scanning titles.
"You're going to buy The Economist," Mark says. "I don't know why you're even looking at the other titles."
"Mark," Eduardo says, drawing himself to his full height. "Merry - um, happy holidays."
"Hag sameach to you, too."
With anyone else, Mark would have preemptively side-hugged them. He hates hugging, but California certainly doesn't, and it's a lesser evil than cheek-air-kisses. He's gotten used to Sean's sudden affections, learned to combat them with a sharp shoulder and a back-pat. Instead, they stand facing each other, each armored in wool overcoat.
"I heard -" Eduardo begins.
"It's true," Mark says. He almost feels like smiling. "I can."
'You must really fucking hate it,' Eduardo thinks.
"It's probably the best thing to ever happen to you." Eduardo says this part out loud, even though Mark can hear him think it. "Make you actually have to sympathize with people."
"You haven't heard what people are thinking, obviously, if you think that."
"I don't need to read people's minds," Eduardo says. "To know what's going on with them. Common decency isn't an actual superpower."
"I need to-" Mark looks down, contemplates the toes of his ugly boots.
"Have a good holiday, Mark," Eduardo says. Mark looks up in time to see the back of Eduardo's coat merge into the rumbling thoughts of the crowd.
Mark's mother's latkes taste amazing, and there're these things with zucchini and cheese and mint that aren't latkes but are also great, and Mark eats a whole lot and falls asleep in front of whatever movie his parents rented on recommendation from some NPR commentator. The couch smells like cooking smells and cat hair and old wool.
"You really need someone in your life who doesn't work for you," his mother says, tucking a blanket around him. She's thinking it too, vaguely, sound muddled by his sleepiness. "You need someone in your life who'll tell you what they're thinking."
"Everyone tells me what they're thinking," Mark mumbles.
"You tell what everyone is thinking," she says. "You need someone to tell you."
Claire gave him a list of people he absolutely must call before Christmas, and she says that she doesn't give a shit if he's Jewish or Zoroastrian or Raelian, it has to get done. Eduardo is not on the list.
The calls are fine, expedited by the fact that he's thinking the same thing as the people he's calling - getting off the line with as few social faux pas as possible.
He calls Eduardo at his office. It's not hard to find the number, and his assistant must be new because she actually sounds impressed and not murderous when he says his name.
'Hi, Mark,' Eduardo thinks. It doesn't have the depth of speech, is more like a projection, like shapes on the back of your eyelids before you fall asleep.
"Eduardo," he says.
They breathe at each other for a while.
"If you want to know what I'm thinking, Mark," Eduardo says. "You could just open your mouth and ask."
"Are you blocking me? How are you blocking me?"
Eduardo suddenly and rather pointedly starts thinking about meteorology.
"I fucking hate meteorology," Mark says.
"I figured it was better than thinking about punching you in the face," Eduardo says.
"At least that'd be interesting."
"Some days, Mark, I don't think about you at all."
"I'm not really sure what to say to that," Mark says.
"That's the first thing you've said that I actually believe," Eduardo says. "Fuck, Mark, it's like having the worst break up ever and then your ex is dating someone hotter, except who you're dating is three billion dollars and the Internet."
"Four billion dollars," Mark says.
"You actually haven't read the settlement, have you?"
Despite that, or maybe because of that, he agrees to meet Mark downtown to play some basketball at the JCC.
A ball spins past Mark's left ear. "Are you intentionally lobbing things at my head?"
'Yes,' Eduardo thinks. 'Suck it up.'
Eduardo wins. He's got a head on Mark, even if they still weigh about the same, and can rotate his joints out of their sockets in weird ways Mark associates with snakes unhinging their jaws.
"You're thinking you let me win," Eduardo says, wiping his face with a towel.
"I'm not thinking anything," Mark says. "I know I let you win."
'Bastard,' Wardo thinks, and throws the sweat-towel to Mark.
Eduardo's apartment looks over Central Park, has beige carpeting and tasteful masculine accouterments, a TV almost as large as a wall. He produces food before Mark's even said anything, accompanies it with wine dark as blood. Mark doesn't like wine much, but he's used to drinking whatever's handed to him at receptions, takes a gulp and rolls it to the back of his throat.
"Tobacco and dark cherries," Eduardo says. "If you don't know what to say about a red wine, just say one of those two - both if it's really dark - and people will think you're sophisticated."
Mark has on spare sweats; Eduardo's Polo looks like it's been ironed, an image broken somewhat by the fact that 'Keeping Up with the Kardasians' cues up when Mark flips on the TV.
"She's hot," Mark says.
"I saw a live interview with her once. The thing" - he still doesn't know what to call it - "works when they're talking into the camera live. All this girl was thinking was that she couldn't wait to get home, take her shoes off, and finish a Sookie Stackhouse book."
"That's ... unexpected," Eduardo says.
"Most people just want to get home. They spend all day thinking about it, and then when they do get home, they probably just want to go out."
'I'm good here now,' Wardo thinks.
They watch more TV. Eduardo finds the 'see what reality TV show stars are thinking' trick incredibly amusing, laughs and throws his arm around Mark.
Ryan Seacrest says exactly what he's thinking. Usually, Mark likes people like that - or doesn't hate them as much as everyone else - but with Seacrest it leads to this weird echo that makes the back of Mark's throat taste like plastic.
"Most of the people on 'The Bachelorette' are thinking about their tans," Mark says. "Except for the one who's thinking about how to hide the bodies in the basement and take off with the hot guy who's the key grip."
Eduardo's had a good amount of wine. It's stained his upper lip, the stubble there. 'You're really the best worst thing ever,' he thinks, thoughts blurred by alcohol and food and probably dehydration. "You should have sent that settlement check right to my therapist."
He closes his eyes and Mark gets a picture flash - Sean's done that a few times before, mostly to transfer what he wants an interface to look like or to tell Mark about some girl he met. Instead, Mark gets a picture of a squat women in her 60s with a severe gray bob and a lot of jewelry. "I'll send you her number," Wardo says. "Though she kind of scares me and keeps telling me I need to get laid."
"My mom tried to say the same thing. Sean too, more directly," Mark says. "She and Sean get along way way too well. Once I caught her thinking about his butt - but she thought 'rump' which made it even worse - and then I had to go for a run." It's possible Mark's had a good amount of wine too.
"You run now?" Eduardo asks.
"Mostly away from things," Mark says, and then Wardo smiles that big smile that Mark remembers, and Mark can't help but smile back, just a little.
The sun slips down over the Park, painting the apartment vaguely orange. Some cable channel is showing all three 'Lord of the Rings' movies, and the war cries of orcs lull Mark to sleep.
He wakes, later, with Wardo's head resting on his shoulder.
'This doesn't mean I don't want to punch you,' Wardo thinks. 'But I don't want to punch you right now.'
"Is this what your therapist considers a breakthrough?"
"She'd consider it more of a breakthrough if you blew me," Wardo says, laughing. "Like, she's said that. I showed her your picture and then we just looked at each other meaningfully for a while. And then she said that."
Mark shudders. "She's probably right."
'I know,' Wardo thinks. 'Other people generally are.'
It doesn't happen then, right then, but it happens, and that's probably the point.