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Trivial Pursuits

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Hail, gladiators!  I miss trivia night at The Thirsty Scholar and my local pub quiz sucks.  You are hereby REQUIRED to install this app and join my online geekout trivia.  Very exclusive, only the best of the best are invited.  We’ll keep it hardcore + nerdcore.  You only get 45 seconds to answer, so cheating is impossible.  We’ll start with a single leaderboard built question on question. Depending on the scores, we might split up into teams later.  Let’s get this started! BROTHERS (and some sisters too) WHAT WE DO IN LIFE ECHOES IN ETERNITY!

-Dustin “Proximo” Moskovitz

++

Dustin,

I’ll join up just so I can school you all.  And only on the condition you never quote Gladiator again.

-E.S.

++

At my signal, unleash hell!

-Mark

++

Mark has to admit: Dustin’s made a clever little app.  It’s self-paced, so you can click on through five questions or twenty, but human nature being what it is, the better you do, the more you want to play.  Since it’s a competition that spurs others to try to keep up with you, which, naturally, spurs you to try to keep your lead and, well, it turns into a quickly addictive cycle of answering questions and monitoring scores.

Another advantage in Dustin’s design: there’s only 16 people playing, almost all of them from the Harvard days with just a few from the first Palo Alto group of programmers and employees.  That makes the game feel more personal, more like you’re playing people you know, which in this cohort make the competition even more cutthroat. 

Mark pretends he doesn’t have any special reason for keeping such a close eye on the leaderboard, that he’s just enjoying the game play, the chance to click out of work for a few minutes and answer a couple of trivia questions, that he really doesn’t care one way or another, he’s just killing time and seeing how many questions about bad 1980s slasher films he can answer in a row.

But whenever he looks at the leaderboards, he knows that’s a lie.

++

Dustin measures points in the hundreds and the leaderboards roll over every 24 hours, with all the daily points going into a running monthly tally.  As far as Mark can tell, since the day Dustin launched the app, the top five players have remained fairly consistent, with their ranks shifting only by a few hundred points.  That means most days the leaderboards usually look something like this:

E.S. 2400
M.Z. 2100
B.O. 1800
S.P. 1700
A.E. 1700

Billy Olsen, who was always smarter than he looked and is now finishing up an MBA at Yale and headed to law school at Columbia, always makes a respectable showing.  Sean, who has a practically photographic memory, does pretty well when he can be bothered to play or is actually near a computer and not in some playmate’s hot tub.  Mark thought he knew everyone in the game, but Dustin told him Anton was a guy from his English seminar that Mark never bothered to notice and that made sense.  Anton’s pretty good too; sometimes he gets up to third place.

But the top two players are always the same: E.S. and M.Z.  None of the other players ever rank anywhere near them, it’s always just the two of them: Eduardo in first place and Mark just a few hundred points behind. No matter how long he plays or how well he does, every god-damn day he comes in second to Eduardo.

++

It’s the day that Anton gets within 100 points of Mark and 200 points of Eduardo that Mark realizes what must be done.

++

He opens a new Facebook message.

Eduardo,

We can’t let Anton, Billy, and Sean beat us.  HONOR is at stake.  It’s a time to tell Dustin we want teams. 

-M.

It takes less than fifteen minutes for his message notification to light up.  Well, of course.  Eduardo’s probably currently online outscoring Mark in trivia about beards.

Mark,

Since you didn’t quote Gladiator, I will concur.

-E.S. 

Another message pops up immediately.  This one isn’t just for him, though.

Dustin,

Time to switch to teams.  Four teams of four should be perfect.  Mark and I will take you and Chris on our team.

-E.S.

PS: And, yes, Mark and I are in agreement about this.  And, yes, this is really a real message from the real me.

++

The next day, Mark, Eduardo, Dustin and Chris are the top-ranking team.  But only two hundred points behind are Billy, Sean, Anton, and Andrew, that jerk that won the very first hackathon and was thus their first Palo Alto intern. 

Mark’s outrage knows no bounds.

It’s that outrage, he decides, that moves him to pull up a Facebook chat window without a second thought.   Yes, it must be outrage, that’s the only explanation. (not the way he felt when he sat and started for twenty minutes at Eduardo’s message to Dustin “Mark and I are in agreement.”  Not that.) Since Eduardo has now messaged him, he’s been added to his chat list.  (Yes, he knows it’s handy little design feature, it’s part of why he approved it.)

What the fuck!  We took bottom-rungers, they should have been forced to as well!

The box blinks back immediately.

Bottom-rungers?  We took Dustin and Chris because they’re – we didn’t take them for the ranking, Mark.

Obviously not as their rankings are for shit!   Dustin only cares about being the quizmaster and Chris hates trivia in general.  Now they’re three of the top five and we’ve got number thirteen and fifteen!

This time the chat window is empty for a while.

Finally Eduardo’s reply pops up.

Then me and you are just going to have to make sure we stay on top.

He signs off.

Later, Mark stares at the few lines of chat and realizes two things.  One is that this is the first time since, well, the first time in years that he and Eduardo have had anything even remotely resembling a conversation.  Two is that he is pretty sure that Eduardo almost referred to Dustin and Chris as our friends.

++

He levels them up three hundred points then watches the leaderboard turn over an hour later as Eduardo adds four hundred more.

++

Mark’s spending a Sunday night tweaking and reviewing some new code the programmers have installed.  When he sits back down in front of the computer with his steaming Cup Noodles there’s a Facebook message blinking on his screen,

Didn’t Billy spend 90% of his time lying on Dustin’s bed stoned and giggling?  How the fuck did he just clear a category on 19th century heads of state?!

Mark laughs and feels a stupidly huge grin form on his face.

He quickly types back.

I know, right?  I’ve been trying to think of ways he could get around Dustin’s cheating countermeasures.  It’s the only real explanation.

Eduardo types back just as quickly.

It’s Anton and Andrew we have to really worry about.  Between the two of them, I think they cover every random knowledge base.

Mark’s fingers fly.

And Sean!  I know he’s an autodidact with a photographic memory and everything but how has that allowed him to create such a huge knowledge base of 1950s sitcoms?

Eduardo’s response is immediate.

Ahahaha! 

It is Eduardo’s “ahahaha!” – this casual, friendly, string of letters that represent a smile, laughter, camaraderie – that makes Mark brave enough to type his next response.

So what’re you doing tonight?  Besides answering questions about the Law and Order franchise and leveling us up a few hundred points?  What time is it in Singapore?

I’m not in Singapore right now; actually, I’m on a work trip in New York.  So I’m pretty much just sitting around the hotel trying to figure out where to order take out from.

Mark has some suggestions.

++

They chat and level up for an hour before Eduardo’s dinner is finally delivered.

When Eduardo begins eating (drunk noodles from one of Mark’s favorite hole-in-the-wall places) he insists on clicking the “video calling” icon.

Before Mark can even think about it, there’s Eduardo on his screen, holding up his dinner and with a blissful look on his face.  “They’re so good,” he enthuses.

Mark shrugs, trying to go for humble.  It’s not like he made it himself.  “Yeah they’re a -”

Eduardo’s face darkens as he takes a closer look at Mark.  “Are you – Mark, are you eating Cup Noodles for dinner?”

At the sudden sight of Eduardo on his monitor, Eduardo smiling at him from the other side of the country, Mark pretty much forgot he still had the Cup Noodles in hand.  “Um, I was…coding…and they’re really not that…”

Eduardo cuts him off.  “Fuck no.  You are not fucking eating Cup Noodles for dinner, Mark.  That is completely unacceptable.  How many times have I – no.  Order some real take-out.  If you know a Thai place this amazing in New York, I know there has to be some place in Palo Alto you like.  Call them now.”

Mark sets down the Cup Noodles and gives a big sigh.  “Well, there’s this Chinese place I really love . . .”

Eduardo smiles and nods approvingly.

++

So maybe they eat dinner simultaneously and answer trivia questions and chat for the rest of the night.

++

And by the end of the night they are so far ahead the second place team will never catch up and they’ve taken care of the threat.  Which just means they never have to spend another night video chatting about noodle quality, economic markets, and music they’ve been listening to lately.  Which is just fine with Mark.  The trivia is the important thing, after all.

++

He has lots of emails waiting the next morning but only two catch his eye.

Dude, what in the hell?  Stats tell me you and Eduardo were gaming simultaneously for four and a half fucking hours last night.  You got something to tell me?

-D

I do not even know how they’re doing it but they’re within 700 points of us!  We must set up another marathon session soon.

-Eduardo

++

Over the next three weeks, Mark and Eduardo have two more nights of dinners, chatting, and trivia scoring.  There’s pizza and curry and conversation.  Lots of conversation.  Maybe sometimes more conversation that trivia, if Mark’s being honest.  (Although they do rack up that leaderboard, there’s no denying, the two of them together are a trivia juggernaut.)  Eduardo tells Mark about international business strategies and about the amazing food you discover on every corner in Singapore.  Mark tells Eduardo about new ideas he has for sharing content through Facebook and what it’s like to be an uncle.  These nights are like – well, they’re like Harvard.  They’re like Harvard and finding a best friend  But the way Mark’s heart does this weird thing in his chest when, on his laptop screen, he sees Eduardo duck his head and laugh at some cutting comment Mark’s made, well, that doesn’t feel like Harvard at all.

It feels better.

++

So there are two more nights of running up the leaderboards, of making sure the second place team can never catch up.  And that lasts for a day or two but, both times, the second place teams starts edging closer and closer.  It feels almost ominous to Mark.  But perhaps more ominous is how Mark finds himself not minding when he sees their score flip over and creep closer.  He and Eduardo will just have to catch up, which means they’ll just have to have another trivia night. 

When the second place team (Mark thinks of them, privately, as “The Antons”, since Anton is the great unknown in his head) is yet again within 700 points, Mark starts thinking of ways to broach suggesting they need to have another dedicated trivia evening.   But before he can come up with something that mixes casual (“just trivia!”) and competitively urgent (“we can’t let them win!”) Eduardo calls.

++

“Hello?” Mark says off-handedly.  He answers the phone because it’s a number he doesn’t recognize and he has a moment of sheer panic imagining some intern at Facebook calling to mutter, “There’s something wrong and we didn’t want to bother you but…”

“How are they doing this?  Did Sean just clear a category on puns?!” Eduardo asks without preamble.

And Mark takes a second, just one second, to hear Eduardo’s voice.  When was the last time he picked up a phone and heard Eduardo’s voice on the other end of the line? 

“Hey,” Mark says, almost surprised at how soft his voice sounds.

There’s a brief moment of silence on the other end, as if that one word has reminded Eduardo that, even with the messaging and the video-chatting, yeah, picking up the phone and calling Mark isn’t a regular occurrence. 

“Hey,” Eduardo says back, his voice now as soft as Mark’s.

Then there’s a pause and all Mark can hear is the sound of Eduardo’s breathing.  In this silence, Mark realizes something with perfect clarity: he likes Eduardo. Yes, likes him as a friend he is glad to be in touch with again, sure, of course, that was never an issue.  Mark didn’t make friends lightly, so he’d always liked Eduardo that way.  Even when it felt like Eduardo was going to hate him forever, he’d still liked him.

But this?  Since they’ve started talking again, since they’ve started sharing meals over a webcam and their lives have started to align?  This is a different kind of like, Mark suddenly knows.  This is likes in a way that makes Mark’s heart beat faster and his stomach feel full of butterflies whenever the two of them are laughing over noodles and answering questions about inventions.  Really likes him. 

It seems so obvious now that Mark is embarrassed of himself for not noticing sooner.  But now, in this endless pause of Eduardo breathing, in the way his voice said “Hey,” with something almost like wonder, now Mark knows as surely as he knows who the 19th President was.  (Rutherford B. Hayes.)

Eduardo breaks the silence.  “Honestly.  Puns?” Mark can hear the smile in his voice.

“I guess that means it’s time to turn the leaderboards over again,” Mark replies.

“Yeah,” Eduardo says.  “We should definitely do that.  I just – I had to vent about the puns, I guess.”

Mark nods in understanding.  “I totally feel you.  How about three days ago when Anton cleared two categories about make-up?  What’s up with that?”

It’s an amazing feeling to hear Eduardo laugh on the other end of the line.  It prompts Mark to be brave enough to ask his next question.  “So is this just about the puns or is there something else worth venting about?”

Eduardo sighs.  “The puns are the tip of the iceberg, I guess.  Work is a nightmare lately with these new import tariffs we’re looking at.”

“Yeah?” Mark prompts, almost surprised to find how genuinely interested he is.  But he always did like to hear Eduardo explain.  “Tariffs?  Is this, like, the year 1754 or  pirate story of some kind?”

Eduardo laughs again and Mark feels another shiver of, well, excitement at the sound. 

“Well,” Eduardo begins, his voice relaxing and sounding somehow indulgent, “OK.  Tariffs are still a real thing, first.  A lot of this goes back to the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, which really made importing a challenge when-”

Mark settles in.

++

“Wow,” Eduardo says.  “it’s been – we’ve been talking for six hours.”

Mark rolls over in bed and looks at his bedside clock.  “I guess so.”

“I – thank you.”  Eduardo seems surprised.  “I guess I needed – uh  – it was-”

“Yeah,” Mark interrupts.  “I agree.”

“We didn’t get any trivia done,” Eduardo says, carefully, as if he’s not sure that’s what Mark wants to hear, as if he’s not sure he should mention it.

“True,” Mark replies, his voice equally neutral.

“We could – we should – tomorrow?  If you want – tomorrow we could get food and-”

“About that,” Mark says, cutting Eduardo off, “I have an idea.”

++

Dear Proximo,

Half of this team is tired of the online element.  ONE of us (guess which one) thinks that Team #2 has figured out a way to cheat your algorithm somehow.  (Because one of us has the hubris to assume there’s no way they could actually be competing with us fairly.)

Accordingly, the only way to settle this is once and for all is an IN-PERSON TRIVIA BATTLE. 

Here’s what we propose: invite all four teams.  We’ll book a bar in Palo Alto (since the majority of us seem to be in and around this region) and, in roughly one month’s time, we’ll have an actual pub quiz night.  Anyone who can’t make it with all this advance notice forfeits. 

As for the rest of our team: we know in your heart you want to be the quizmaster most of all and Chris never even answers questions, so just make him your assistant.  The two of us are ready to win.

-Eduardo (and Mark)

PS: We will win the crowd.  We will show them something they’ve never seen before. – M
PPS: I did not approve of quoting “Gladiator” but he insisted. –E

++

Mark remembers it: the moment he heard the Winkelvii talking about their stupid dating site and everything, every single thing, slid into place.  In that moment, in that stupid moment standing in front of a bike rack, it all clicked.  He knew.  He didn't have all the code, he didn't have all the functionality, he didn't have all the features - but he knew what he was going to make, he knew what it was going to do, and, yeah, he even knew just how popular it was going to be.  He saw it all unfold and happen in that moment.  He knew.

And from the moment he knew, there was no going back.  From the moment he knew - there was only, only, only forward.

This is how Mark has lived his whole life.  This is how he approaches everything. If there is one secret to Mark’s success, if he ever had to point to one thing, that’s what it would be: forward motion always.

So when he figures out, with that wild, clawing feeling in his chest, that he feels something for Eduardo - well.  There's only one thing to do.  And that thing is to rush right forward, ever forward, and see what happens next.

Mark's not the kind of guy to waste time or momentum.  When he knows, he knows.

++

Is this a prank?

-Dustin

Not a prank.  I already booked The Rose & Crown.  It's happening.  Are you Proximo or not?

-M

While I have no idea who Proximo is (though I am assuming it yet another faceless character from Gladiator) I can confirm this is not a prank.

-Wardo

++

He stares at "Wardo" for a long, long time.  

His palms are sweaty, his heart is racing, and his mouth feels suspiciously dry.

He knows.

++

Oh, whatever Wardo.  You totally saw Gladiator one Friday movie night, don't even lie.  I remember you commented on the luxuriousness of Joaquin Phoenix's capes.

-Mark

He doesn't send this one to Dustin.

++

Seeing it once, years ago, on your small dorm room TV doesn't count.

-Wardo

Well…if I remember correctly, you were half-asleep with your head on my shoulder, so maybe not.

-Mark

Keeping careful track of when my head was on your shoulder, were you?

-Wardo

You have no idea.

-Mark

++

With just over two months to go before the actual trivia night, Mark buys several sets of geeky pub quiz questions and answers and a few editions of Trivial Pursuit for good measure.  He and Wardo start talking on the phone and Skyping every night.  You know, to go over questions and practice.

(Even if it starts to seem like, as the days go by, they only spend an hour or so on the trivia preparation and then find themselves talking about everything else in their lives.)

++

With two weeks to go, the other two teams gracefully bow out.  Not a big surprise to Mark, they were always such casual players.  Several of the members mention that they will be on hand at the actual battle, though, so there will be an audience if nothing else.

Team Anton affirms they’re in it to win it. 

“Our entire team will be there,” Sean posts on the locked Facebook events page Mark has created for the event.  “and we will bring you death – and you will love us for it.”

Mark’s phone buzzes with a text within twenty minutes of Sean’s post.

Another Gladiator quote/paraphrase, what a surprise.

His fingers fly in response.

Surely you must now see how quotable this movie is – thus proving it has some merit.

Super Troopers is also quotable, Mark, that doesn’t mean it has merit.

OMG…you can quote Super Troopers?! We must discuss this!!

I’m calling tonight.  But we won’t be discussing that.

We’ll see . . .

Texting Wardo.  It’s a thing he does now.

++

With a week left to go, they are discussing Wardo’s plans for arriving in Palo Alto.  He’s been doing more business than ever in New York (“It’s because of tariffs,” he mentions to Mark one evening, as if that’s the only reason he might have for spending so much time on the same continent, in the same country, as Mark.) so he won’t have a 14 hour commute or anything. 

Mark doesn’t hesitate to ask the question that’s burning on his tongue. “Do you want me to pick you up at the airport?”

There’s an awkward pause on the other end of the line, something that rarely happens between them anymore, before Wardo answers, “Uh, I mean, I hadn’t really – I’ll be -  um – I’m coming in that afternoon and, uh, trivia isn’t until the evening, so I thought you’d be at work and, um, I would just grab a cab to the hotel.  It’s not a -”

Mark cuts him off, smoothly.  “I’ll totally take the afternoon off work.  We need to get in some last minute cramming, right?  And besides I want to take you to lunch at that Moroccan place we were talking about last week.”

There’s another pause on the other end of the line, but this one doesn’t feel so awkward and Mark is sure it’s much shorter.  “Sure, I mean, if you’re sure, that’s – I mean – that  sounds…” Wardo’s voice is warm and relaxed and, after all the conversations they’ve had, Mark can feel the smile in it.  “that sounds … nice.”

Nice.  To Mark, his heart racing at the thought of actually standing there and seeing Wardo get off a plane, seeing his face light up when their eyes meet, it sounds so much morethan nice. 

He knows.

++

And that’s how it happens.  No, it happens better than that.  Mark buys a ticket to San Diego for a flight he won’t take because it’s cheap enough and it gets him through security.  That means he can wait for Wardo at the gate, which he is absolutely not expecting and Mark gets to see him the second he gets off the plane and after a momentary shock Wardo lights up in the most ridiculous way.  And it’s his smile when he sees Mark waiting there, it all comes rushing back to Mark – all the stuff he used to take for granted; Wardo’s eyes alight with happiness and anticipation.  Mark swallows hard and smiles back and reaches out, almost unconsciously, for a hug and Wardo drops his carry-on bags and hugs back, squeezing hard, as the crowd getting off the plane flows around them like water.

“Hey,” Mark says, in that same soft voice from a few weeks ago.

“Hey,” Wardo returns, laughter bubbling over in his voice.

So much better.

++

They eat Moroccan food cross-legged on the floor, laughing at each other as they sloppily scoop up handfuls of spicy couscous and lamb. 

Their conversation is overlapping and non-stop, as if it’s been years since they’ve talked.  It hasn’t been, Mark obviously knows, they talk all the time, after all.  But…in person?  With no eyes filled with anger and confusion or with no rooms filled with shareholders to keep them safely apart?  Yeah, that has been years, Mark realizes as he watches Wardo smile and reach for his glass of water.   

But in this moment, food and conversation warm between them, the years fall away and it is just the two of them – right here – in the moment of now.

++

"Shit," Wardo says, glancing down at his watch.  "I - we've - I think we'd better get to the hotel so I can get checked in.  We told, I mean, told Dustin we'd meet him and Chris at the Rose & Crown at 5:00 and it's already 3:00!" 

The sound of Wardo referring to them, quasi-accidentally, as a "we" sends a shiver of delight up Mark's spine.  It also convinces him that he's about to say the exact right thing.  (He was planning to say it anyway but extra confirmation never hurt.)  

"Forget the hotel," he says, keeping his voice carefully controlled.  "Stay with me."

Wardo's face goes blank for a second and all Mark hears is the silence.  He manages to keep his voice calm and continues.  "It'll be cool.  Dustin and Chris can come over, we can all hang out, we can eat food in the same room not over a computer screen and  ... I even have Gladiator on Blu-Ray!" He smirks a little at the last part and at that, Wardo's face relaxes just the slightest bit.  Mark knows then what he'll say.

"Actually ... that sounds pretty good.  Well, every part except…” Mark holds his breath for the second it takes to watch the smile break across Wardo’s face.  “except Gladiator, of course.”

Mark signals for the check.

++

They stop at Mark's just long enough for Wardo to drop his bags in one of the guest rooms. ("There's, like, four," he shrugs casually when giving Wardo a very basic and quick tour.  "Pick any one you want.") Wardo take a minute or two to wash his face and change his clothes while Mark paces around his living room and thinks about how, like, six months ago he couldn't even let himself imagine a world where, maybe, at a stockholder's meeting he and Eduardo might shake hands and now, because of trivia  Wardo is going to be sleeping in his fucking house and  … this is a real thing that is actually happening.

"Hey, what's with the pacing?" Wardo's voice breaks his concentration. "You're not nervous, are you?  We've got this."

Mark stops in his tracks and turns to look at Wardo, who's standing there in his front hallway, looking relaxed and, well, at home.  Mark drinks in the sight of Wardo: his ridiculous hair, this dark blue shirt that probably cost several small fortunes, his well tailored pants that are fitted to seem casual, his huge brown eyes, his smile.

This is a real thing.  It's actually happening.  And Mark knows.

"Nah, I'm not nervous," Mark says.  And he means it, entirely and totally.

++

“You have got to be kidding me,” says Wardo as they clear the bouncers at the door of the Rose & Crown and come into the main part of the bar.

Dustin is busy directing servers in how to set up tables while Chris stands beside him, paying very close attention to the clipboard he’s holding tightly. 

Oh and, naturally, Dustin is dressed in a toga.

At the sound of Wardo’s voice, Dustin and Chris turn to face them.  Their faces light up as they rush over to them.  “Wardo!” Dustin practically squeals with delight.  “You’re actually here, you actually came, this is actually-”

“You are actually wearing a toga,” Wardo interrupts, his voice deadpan.

Dustin blinks a few times and them explains, slowly, “Um, of course I am, dude.  Duh? As quizmaster I’m Proximo?  You know?  The trainer of the gladiators?  Wouldn’t it be more weird if I wasn’t wearing a toga?”

Wardo stares blankly at Dustin, who is stone-faced serious.  That’s when Chris starts chuckling sets his clipboard down.  In a quick move, he steps forward and opens his arms, pulling Wardo into a huge hug.  “Great to see you man,” Chris says, the words almost muffled in Wardo’s shoulders.

With this as a cue, Mark takes a few steps forward and sort of punches Dustin in the shoulder and before he even knows how it happens, the four of them are somehow all tangled up together.  Everyone is shaking hands and hugging and laughing and slapping backs and punching each other and smiling and talking over one other. It feels startlingly intimate.  Mark revels in this moment with his three old friends, the men he changed the world with, the four of them goofing around like it’s just another Friday night in their college dorm suite – and Mark feels – he can’t even name what he feels because it’s just too much, it’s just too good.

++

Dustin grabs Wardo by his wrist and yanks him forward.  (Chris and Dustin can’t seem to stop casually touching Wardo, which in the past would have made the hair on the back of Mark’s neck prickle uncomfortably, but not in the new now of his connection with Wardo.  Now Mark just understands, just knows what Chris and Dustin are feeling.  Wardo’s right here, for the love of God, Mark knows what it feels like to want to anchor this moment in reality.  It’s just, well, he’s not as concerned about making sure that he’s touching Wardo, not that he’d mind, it’s just that he knows

“This is where Chris and I will be stationed,” Dustin gestures to an elevated stage area he’s had assembled.  Then he motions to two sets of tables on either side of the stage.  “Those are the team tables; you’ll notice they’re a good distance apart so you can’t eavesdrop on one another.  We gave both teams several feet of space all around and then, behind them, is the audience area, with tables and chairs and, of course, the bar.” Dustin preens at the set-up and Mark has to admit it actually does look pretty, well, serious.

“Thanks to the Facebook event page you made, Mark, we have an official guest list of sixty three people,” Chris says, glancing down at the clipboard he’s picked up again.  “That’s the original participants in Dustin’s game, old Harvard friends and classmates, people from the first few Facebook crews, and some of their friends and significant others.  No one gets in unless they are on the list,” he shakes the clipboard. 

“And check it out,” Dustin says, grabbing Mark’s wrist in his other hand and yanking both him and Wardo towards the stage, “look what the winners get!”

There, on a low table, is not only a giant trophy but several bright gold laurel leaf crowns. 

“I am not wearing one of those,” Wardo says instantly.

“Don’t worry, Wardo, it won’t de-poof your hair,” Dustin assures him.

All four of them break out laughing.

“You’re just assuming they’ll win,” Chris finally says. “Are you sure you two want to go against the four of them?  Do you really think you’ll be OK, just the two of you?”

Wardo stops laughing but he’s still smiling.  He slides a quick look at Mark.  “Yeah,” he says, smoothly, “we’re good.”

++

They sit down at the bar and eat chips and salsa while their conversation moves in a hundred directions at once, their voices lapping over each other time and again.  It’s that amazing thing that happens when the four of them get together: the way they somehow start to function as one unit: finishing each other’s sentences and smart remarks, telling circular stories that have no end but all four of them understand, the timing and memory of every moment clicking together.

“Man, hanging out like this is so,” Dustin begins to say through a mouthful of chips.

In a seemingly instinctive gesture, Chris leans in and wipes chips from Dustin’s mouth, muttering, “Mouth closed, please.” 

Mark loves the familiarity of the moment.

“What Dustin was trying to say is that it’s fun to get together like this, the four of us,” Chris supplies.

“Yes, besides the fine spray of tortilla chip dust and the threat of being made to wear one of those hideous crowns, it’s really good,” Wardo answers.

Dustin swallows and then says, seriously, “Remember, you only get to wear the crowns if you win.”

Mark laughs.  “As if that was even an issue.”  He taps a finger on the bar and gives Wardo a reassuring look.  “Besides the fact Wardo and I are clearly going to dominate with our superior knowledge, I’ve already analyzed all the weaknesses of their team.  Sean will be distracted by the attentions of the crowd, Billy doesn’t handle public pressure well, and Andrew becomes too focused and isn’t a good team player. Obviously, the only unknown quantity is Anton but even still-”

At the mention of Anton’s name, Dustin’s face falls and Mark is almost sure Chris clucks his tongue.

“What?” Mark says, immediately on guard.  “What is it?”

“Yeah,” Dustin says, slowly, dragging the word out.  “The thing about Anton is-” and then the words start coming out of him in a torrent, tumbling over each other in a frantic rush. “See, Mark, uh.  Well, when I came up with this app, I never thought it would lead to something like, I mean who would ever think it would lead to something like this?  Uh – what I mean to say is … at first I thought it would just be this fun … and I wanted you to play, so I … I never expected it would, we would, end up here.  You never really came to the regular quiz we used to do at the Thirsty Scholar and you were never the best listener back then, so…uh…I knew that you wouldn’t know that…uh…so it was just a tiny, extremely tiny, lie.  I never expected – I changed the truth just the-”

Lie?” Mark’s voice is pitched.  “What did you lie-”

And that’s when Mark hears it.  A voice from behind them, smooth as glass.  “My name is Erica Marie Albright, slandered on the Internet, attacked on LiveJournal of all places - and I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.”

++

“Anton Entrovitch,” Mark hisses as Chris and Erica make polite small talk, “is Erica Albright?”

“I can’t believe I just assumed Anton Entrovitch was a real name and not something Dustin made up,” Wardo mutters under his breath.

“She used to play against us sometimes, Mark, back in Boston and she’s really good at trivia.  And you know she and I are casual friends and I wanted the game to be fun.  I never thought we’d all end up – you’d end up – I didn’t even think you’d play if Wardo was playing so it would all be…but then before I knew it, the two of you started your thing and I-”

At the mention of a “thing” a faint blush creeps up Wardo’s neck and Mark is momentarily distracted from Erica Albright, from everything, because there’s Wardo, blushing at the mention of a thing and, yeah, the trivia, the stupid online trivia app that was never supposed to be real, turned into a genuine, honest-to-goodness thing and here they are in person, in a bar in Palo Alto with Wardo’s bags in his guest room and – yeah – who cares about anything else?

He nudges Wardo a little and Wardo smiles and nudges him back.  Dustin makes a disgusted sound, throwing his hands in the air.  “My point exactly!” He exclaims.  “What does it matter if it’s Erica Albright or Anton Entrovitch, the villain in my as of yet unproduced James Bond screenplay?  Here we all are and you two have …” he gestures wildly at them, “your thing.”

Their thing.  Mark’s not even entirely sure all that implies and means but he’s wondering if he’ll ever get tired of hearing that.  He can’t help it, he smiles.

“First,” Wardo says, “you should not raise your hands too high while wearing that toga, Dustin.  Second, Mark is going to go over and actually apologize to Erica,” he holds up a hand to silence Mark’s protests, “and then we’re going to kick her team’s ass in trivia.  And, at no point at all, will I be wearing a gold laurel-leaf crown.” 

++

“I’m glad you came,” Mark starts.  Wardo, Chris, and Dustin are standing off to the side, watching Mark warily as he talks to Erica. Mark tries to stay relaxed, keeps his voice calm.  “If you hadn’t, we probably…it might have made all this a forfeit and I’m glad we’re – I’m glad you came.” He’s surprising himself by how much he means it.

“You know,” Erica says, “so I am.”

“Not that I want to look a gift horse in the mouth or anything but why . . .” Mark shrugs, not sure quite how to finish.

Erica laughs lightly and returns his shrug, a mirroring gesture she used to do all the time, a way to remind Mark she knew his shrugs weren’t as innocent as he pretended.  “I thought it would be a fun chance to catch up with some people from school and I’m taking a whole week off to spend some time out here with other friends.  And the chance to completely dominate you in front of a crowd at trivia, well, who could resist that?”

Mark snorts.  “Well, we’ll have see about that part, won’t we?”

Erica shrugs again, this time much more deliberately. “You can’t stop a force like Anton Entrovitch.”

They share a laugh.  But Mark can’t stop himself.  “I – it’s just that…you’ve never even responded to my friend request, so, I’m surprised that you – once you knew I – that you came at all.”

Erica looks right at him, her gaze clear-eyed.  “I don’t know, Mark.  We all grow-up, right?  And it was fun – the trivia, the game.  Then you and Eduardo … when the two of you teamed up … I watched how and when the leaderboards turned over, the patterns of it.  I knew the two of you had to be gaming at the same time and so that made me think about the lawsuit, about my deposition, about the way Eduardo looked, so empty, during my deposition and,”

Mark can’t help it, he winces.  Erica shakes her head and continues.  “And that’s when I thought, surely, if Eduardo could get past that, then Mark has to have changed.  That’s when I knew you must have apologized or – the two of you had – well – time passes, people change.  Maybe I thought twice about the friend request, but by then I’d already dismissed it.  But a chance to see some of that change in person and to completely dominate you in front of a crowd at trivia?  Here we are.”

Apologized.  He – they – it had never come up, not once.  Mark hears Wardo’s voice in his head, “Mark’s going to go over there and actually apologize to Erica. . .” Apologized. 

“I’m sorry,” Mark blurts.  “I’m sorry I said all that nasty stuff about you and that I put it on the Internet.” Mark suddenly feels like a huge weight he didn’t even know he was carrying has been lifted.  He plows forward, the dizzying sense of confession sending his mind fluttering.

“It wasn’t fair and just because I was angry didn’t make it right to – dating me isn’t like dating a StairMaster, but that’s not the point and – you’re right, people change and you figure out stuff you couldn’t see at the time, maybe you were just too close to it then and when someone says that they are there for you it means something and, um, anyway – if it’s not too late to mean anything, well, even if it is, I’m sorry, I really am.” He bites his lip and stares right back at Erica Albright, holding her gaze.

“Thanks,” she says, her voice soft.  “I – it’s never too late for an apology, Mark.  Thank you. I’m glad you – you seem happier, Mark.  The fact you didn’t stomp out of here when I badly paraphrased Gladiator, the actual apology, how you and Eduardo are clearly working together as a team … it really seems like things have changed – like you’ve changed.  I’m glad for you.  If you’re not too upset after my team whips you at trivia, maybe you can send that friend request again?” She smirks happily at him.

“Like I said,” Mark quips, “let’s just wait and see about that part.”

++

Apologies.  Apologized.  Apology.

Chris comes over to facilitate Mark and Erica’s conversation, but it’s really going quite well.  More people filter in, faces Mark remembers and some he’s never seen before.  There are hugs and hellos and small groups in conversation. 

Mark walks over to the team table, stares up at stage and then looks back at the crowd.

Apologies.  Apologized.  Apology.

How’d he miss that part?

++

Wardo comes over to the table, a grin on his face.  “Mark, this is great.  It’s like a reunion but with only the people you want to see … and Sean.”

“Beating him in trivia will help,” Mark assures him.

Wardo’s smile grows even larger.  “I have no doubt.”

And it’s now, with the chatter around them growing ever louder, with the sight of Erica, Sean, Billy, and Andrew approaching their team table, at this very worst time, that Mark feels the words spilling out.  “Wardo – I – the timing – there’s something I think I should – I can’t believe I haven’t said this-”

Dustin’s voice booms over a loudspeaker.  “FRIENDS, ROMANS, COUNTRY-UH-PEOPLE! Welcome to the ultimate trivia battle.  Tonight, we welcome two teams to the arena … but only one will leave allllllive!  ARE YOU READY?!”

The room erupts in cheers and applause; it seems very loud in Mark’s ears.  He doesn’t have time for an apology, he realizes, and if he’s going to be honest, he’s not even sure where he should begin. 

Wardo leans in close, he’s only a breath away.  “Later, Mark,” he whispers. “For now?  Let’s show them how this is done.”

++

Dustin starts reviewing the very specific rules of how the questions will be read and the scoring determined. There are seven rounds with eight questions per round.  Some of the questions are worth multiple points.  Dustin and Chris will score two rounds at a time. 

Mark and Wardo scoot their chairs close together.  Mark doesn’t even bother to suppress the way his stomach flip-flops at Wardo’s proximity. 

“We need a name,” Wardo whispers, “and it should be really clever.”

Mark thinks for a minute, delights in Wardo’s earnest gaze.  He reaches out for the pen and slip of paper Dustin has left on the table for their team name.  In a quick scrawl, he writes out his suggestion.  Wardo picks up the paper, reads what Mark has written, and beams.

Mark’s stomach does the flip-flop thing again.

++

Dustin looks down at the two pieces of paper Chris has delivered to the stage.  He laughs a little then picks up his mic.  “And we have the names of the two teams who will be competing tonight for honor and glory!  Audience, please help me welcome our contestants!”

Dustin stands and gestures to Billy, Sean, Erica, and Andrew.  “The Anton Entrovitchs!” he shouts with a fake Russian accent.  Then he turns to Mark and Wardo.  “And in this corner…The Kirkland Algorithm!”

++

It’s fun and it’s intense.  Dustin is a great quizmaster, wise-cracking and excited, with Chris acting as a fantastic straight man for Dustin’s over-the-top routine. 

The part Mark notices the most, the part he likes the most, is how seamlessly him and Wardo work together.  It’s almost effortless, the give and take of their answers.  They read each other’s eyes, whisper over scrawled notes, nod at each other in assent when they come up with the same answer at the same time or when they piece together an answer with their individual bits of knowledge.  It’s … intimate, is the thing, startlingly intimate.  They’re on the same page at the same time and it’s thrilling.

Mark’s starting to think he doesn’t care if they win or not – as long as they get to keep doing this forever.

++

But after four rounds The Kirkland Algorithm is holding a five point lead, so there’s that.

++

There’s a break before the last round.  The Anton Entrovitchs have shaved down the gap to a two point lead and Mark’s starting to feel the stress, which he guesses is showing on his face.

“Hey,” Wardo says, close to his ear, softly, “stand up and stretch, you’re starting to look a little pinched around the edges.”

It’s the care in Wardo’s voice that has him on his feet before he even really knows what he’s doing.  But the second he stands and looks down at Wardo, he knows what to do.  He wraps a hand around Wardo’s wrist and feels his skin, fever-hot, imagines he can even feel Wardo’s pulse racing.  He pulls Wardo up too. Wardo stumbles for a second then rights himself.  They’re only inches away now and the sound of sixty plus people all around them fades to nothing and – Mark squeezes Wardo’s wrist and – Wardo nods and maybe he leans forward just the smallest bit until there’s barely any space between them at all and they are breathing the same breath.

It feels better than stretching. 

It’s being a team, in the same moment at the same time.

It feels better than winning.

++

The final round is random knowledge and it is full of multiple answer questions, meaning there’s a lot of points at stake.

But Mark feels beyond confident by this point.

At least until Dustin stands, his face beyond elated and his hands shaking, and announces, “Romans!  We have a tie!” There are gasps and applause from the audience and Mark looks over to see Erica pumping her fist in victory as Billy and Andrew high-five. “SUDDEN DEATH TIEBREAKER RULES ACTIVATED!” Dustin shouts with glee as Chris pinches the bridge of his nose.

++

“Sudden death tiebreaker rules” sounds very dramatic (which is, of course, as Dustin intended) but what it means is actually rather simple.  Dustin will read a question and each team will have one minute to write down their answer.  Chris will then come individually check their answers.  If both teams get it wrong, it moves on to the next question.  And, quite simply enough, fulfilling the “sudden death” requirement: the first wrong answer loses.

“We can do this,” Wardo assures him.

And Mark believes him.

++

They move through four questions, both teams answering correctly.  The room is getting quieter and quieter with each question.  It’s on the fifth question that, for the first time, Mark and Wardo disagree.

++

“Before his death in 1990, Jim Henson directed three major motion pictures.  Only one of these featured characters from The Muppet Show.  What was that movie?”

++

“It’s The Muppet Movie,” Mark says simply.

“No, that feels wrong,” Eduardo responds.

“No.  Oz directed The Muppet Caper and … and-” Mark’s searching his mind.

“No, I think that’s wrong too,” Wardo sounds cautious.  “Maybe it’s Muppets Take Manhattan.

“It’s The Muppet Movie,” Mark insists again, his whisper gaining conviction.  “It did really well at the box office, so they ended the show so he could concentrate on films.  I know it.”

“I don’t know – that just feels wrong to me,” Wardo’s whisper is also insistent.

“We’re running out of time,” Mark hisses, “We lose if we don’t have anything down.  We’re wasting time, c’mon, Wardo!”

As soon as the words leave his mouth, Mark knows they’re a mistake.  He sees Wardo’s face go blank and, in the back of his mind, he hears an echo of his words from so many years ago, spit out in a dim hallway.  “It’s moving faster than any of us ever imagined-”

“I didn’t mean – it’s not – I just want an answer,” Mark says.  His voice feels ragged.  He’s not even sure what he’s asking anymore.

“Mark,” Wardo’s voice is lower than a whisper, it’s feather-light.  “Mark, I…”

“Trust me,” Mark pleads and now, this time, he knows just what he’s asking for.

And Wardo, his hand steady, writes down The Muppet Movie.

++

Chris walks to their table, reads their answer. 

Mark sees it in his eyes.  Mark sees it before he holds up his forearms above his head in an X.  Mark sees it before he can say that single word.

“Kirkland Algorithm, incorrect,” Chris says, his voice full of regret Mark feels resonate all the way to his bones.

++

His stomach is in free-fall.  He can’t look Wardo in the eyes, he can’t – he can’t.  The bar has fallen completely silent.  Chris walks over to The Anton Entrovitch’s table very slowly. 

Then Mark feels it, the pressure of Wardo’s hand around his wrist.  Wardo is squeezing gently, so gently, Mark dares to look up and Wardo’s eyes are kind, not cold, and in the seconds it takes for Chris to walk towards Erica’s pro-offered answer sheet, Mark finally says it.“I’m sorry, Wardo.  I’m sorry we’re about to lose and I’m sorry about – about  everything.  That night in the hall, not listening, not telling you, letting you sign, taking it all for granted, doing what I did.  I’m sorry.”

And Wardo just smiles and moves his hand from Mark’s wrist up to the back of Mark’s hand.  Mark, without thinking, turns his hand over and then Wardo is lacing their fingers together and, yeah, they’re holding hands.

“I forgive you, Mark,” Wardo’s voice is low and sweet, maybe the best sound Mark’s ever heard.  “For The Muppet Movie and everything else too.  And I’m sorry for everything I did wrong too.  We both made-”

Then, clear as a bell, Chris’s voice rings out.  “The Anton Entrovitchs, incorrect.”

++

Dustin voice is tremulous with excitement.  “Since neither team had the correct answer, we will now move on to our next question.”  He shuffles to the next card.  As quizmaster, Dustin is supposed to be impartial.  And, for the most part, he’s done a pretty good job of it.  So maybe no one other than a friend who knows him as well as Mark does would be able to read the quick expression that passes over his face when he scans the next card.  But Mark does catch it.  And that means Mark knows they’ve got it.  He knows.

++

“This famous Tariff Act of 1930 reduced American exports and imports by more than half and was incorrectly referenced in Ferris Buller’s Day Off.  It’s more commonly known by the name of the men who introduced it.  Name them both.”

++

Wardo is printing Smoot-Hawley without a second’s hesitation. 

“I can’t believe the final question is about tariffs,” Mark whispers with wonder.

“I told you they were a real thing,” Wardo says, a perfect smile playing around his mouth.

++

“The Anton Entrovitchs, incorrect,” Chris calls.

They’ve won.

++

Then it’s a blur of applause and catcalls and cheers and maybe even some boos and somehow him and Wardo are pushing and

pulling each other the few feet to the stage where Dustin is dancing in his toga and calling out random phrases through the mic about eternal victory and perpetual glory and a battle for the ages and a struggle never seen before in this world and never to be forgotten.

Then they’re side-by-side on the stage, looking out at a crowd that seems endless to Mark.  Chris steps over, holding out the giant trophy, a giant smile on his face.  They grab for it at the same time, but even that is in perfect time, Wardo going for the right side and Mark for the left. 

“Congratulations, Kirkland Algorithm.” Chris says in a voice meant only for the two of them.  “I never had any doubt.”

The trophy hangs dumbly between them for a few seconds while the three of them share a smile.  Then Dustin comes up beside Chris and he’s smiling so big it looks like his face hurts “Fuck yes, you guys, fuck yes,” Dustin says away from the mic and suddenly it’s just four best friends, no one else, and this is a moment Mark wants to remember as much as anything.

Dustin gestures at the trophy.  “You know what to do,” he crows.

And, as one, they do.  They thrust the trophy above their heads and through the mic Dustin booms, “Romans!  Salute your champions!”

++

As the crowd cheers, Mark sees that Dustin has two of the laurel-leaf crowns in hand.   Mark lets go of the trophy and Wardo takes it in both hands and hands it almost delicately to Chris.  Chris steps back to set it on the table while Dustin advances with the crowns, a wicked smile on his face.  Wardo shakes his head, playfully, but Mark moves to Dustin, lowers his head.

Dustin leans in and places the crown on his head.  He whispers in Mark’s ear, “Be a true champion, Markus.”

Mark doesn’t wonder at what that could possibly mean in a moment like this.

He knows.

++

He grabs the other crown from Dustin’s hand and turns to face Wardo.  See the crown in Mark’s hand, his eyes go soft.  “Please?” Mark asks, his voice cajoling.

And then Wardo is stepping towards Mark, so there’s not a single inch between them and he lowers his head, so their foreheads practically brush and Mark’s hands are shaking, just the littlest bit, as he reaches up and softly places the crown right on Wardo’s head. 

“Congratulations, Wardo.  We did it,” he says, his voice soft.

“We did indeed,” Wardo murmurs back.

Wardo reaches out for both of Mark’s hands, presses palms to palms.  Their fingers twist together and they stand, holding hands in front everyone, and Mark is sure, absolutely sure, that this moment cannot possibly get any better.

Then Wardo leans that extra millimeter forward and kisses him.

++

For just a second, Mark lets himself feel the soft press of Wardo’s lips against his own, a rolling sensation of wonder and, yeah, he’ll think it – bliss. 

He lets the fact that he and Wardo are wearing gold laurel-leaf crowns and kissing while standing on stage in front of almost seventy very tech-savvy people wash right out of his mind and goes with the fact that, yes, he and Wardo are kissing.

Mark reluctantly pulls his hands free so he can wrap his arms around Wardo’s waist and pull him closer and, in return, Wardo licks at his lips.  Mark opens his mouth with hesitation, feels the hot, wet slide of Wardo’s tongue, pushes towards him and feels their teeth click against each other, feels a dirty franticness.

Mark kisses Wardo.  He kisses back with years of apology and not one more second of regret and the thrill of victory and all those things he knows burning up through his blood.

++

When they pull apart and the thrum of his heart slows down, Mark realizes that they are standing in a totally silent room. He steps out of Wardo’s arms and stands right beside him.  Then he turns to face the room and the crowd.  The crowd: the crowd of friends, acquaintances, co-workers, competitors, and even a few strangers, stares back.  He sees mouths agape and huge smiles and, yeah, even a few phones in hand. 

Before Mark can say or do anything, out of the corner of his eye he sees Wardo, who, in a flash, has reached over and grabbed the microphone from Dustin’s now loosened grip.

Wardo adjusts his crown, grins at the now-silent and very stunned crowd.

“Are you not entertained?!” Wardo slides his gaze to Mark, a world full of promise and joy dancing in his eyes.  “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?!” he shouts to the crowd. 

There’s a split-second of silence and then the crowd erupts in cheers – applause and laughter so loud it almost hurts Mark’s ears.  It's the roar of the crowd  

Mark’s laugh rises up from somewhere deep inside, somewhere he can’t stop.  He pulls Wardo close. 

“I knew you’d seen it,” Mark says, triumph in his voice.

“What can I say?” Wardo laughs.  “I guess I was paying a lot of attention to those nights on the Kirkland couch.”

“That makes two of us, then.”

“Can you finish the line, Mark?  Do you remember what he says next?” Wardo sighs, teasingly, into Mark’s ear.

Mark does.  “Is this not why you’re here?” He quotes and questions all at once.

“It is,” Wardo confirms, leaning in to kiss Mark again.

++

Wardo stays for a week, tells Mark that he’s long since grown tired of tariffs and plans to move his business back to the USA and that, overall, endless summer in Palo Alto sounds much better than New York winters.

Mark kisses him until he see stars behind his eyes and says this is exactly what Smoot-Hawley had in mind.

They watch Gladiator over drinks and pizza with Dustin and Chris and end up staying up all night.

They go to Mark’s favorite Mexican restaurant with Erica.

The day after Wardo flies back to Singapore, Dustin re-launches the trivia app.

“Who’s ready for another round of the trivia challenge to end all trivia challenges?

Gladiators!  Hold the line!  Stay with me!" 

Stay with me.  Mark likes the sound of that.

Mark clicks the link and waits for Wardo to sign on. 

It’s time to play.

++