I was in Midtown, sitting by a dry fountain, making a list of all the men I’d slept with since my last checkup—doctor’s orders. Afterward, I would head downtown and wait for Quimby at the bar, where there were only alcoholics and the graveyard shift this early. I’d just left the United Nations after a Friday morning session—likely my last. The agenda had included resolutions about a worldwide ban on plastic bags, condemnation of a Slobodan Miloševic statue, sanctions on Israel, and a truth and reconciliation commission in El Salvador. Except for the proclamation opposing the war criminal’s marble replica, everything was thwarted by the United States and a small contingent of its allies. None of this should have surprised me. Some version of these outcomes had been repeating weekly since World War II.
I’d been working at the U.N. for a little over a year, and in that short time I’d had sex with the South Korean ambassador, the spokesman for the Swedish Mission, an Irish delegate, a Russian interpreter, an Iraqi translator, the assistant to the deputy ambassador from El Salvador, an Armenian envoy, the chief of staff for the Ukrainian prime minister, the vice presidents of Suriname and the Gambia, a cultural attaché from Poland, the special assistant to the special assistant to the Saudi ambassador, the nephew of the ruling party’s general secretary of Laos, a distant cousin of Castro, a film director from Mauritania, countless low-level staffers, a few guides, a half-dozen tourists, and Brad.
William Mycroft Quimby. The other students called him Billy. To me, he was Quimby (sometimes Quim)—the Ph.D. student who led my section of Comparative Government 245 (“Cuba Isn’t Finland, but Neither Is Finland Cuba”). Quimby was a smart guy who came across as even smarter because his English was high-register and thickly accented. And he was authentically Irish, unlike the third-generation Catholics I’d grown up with, whose ethnic pride consisted of tattoos of shamrocks and pots of gold along their necks and ankles. In phenotypic ways, he reminded me of my friends’ dads back home. He had dark hair (also thick) and a knotted face—Quimby was an academic, but he could have been a middleweight boxer, a boxer who gave me attention I wasn’t accustomed to. He also had a gorgeous, uncircumcised cock (it, too, thick) that made me want to know him better, but we drew the line at office hours.
I hadn’t seen Quimby for almost twenty years when I ran into him at the Raw Hole—a gay bar, if you have to ask—one Friday about fifteen months ago. The red-bulb lighting made it difficult to be certain, but when he walked past the first time, I knew I knew him. The second time, I knew it was from college. The third time, a rush of blood inspirited me. “Quim!” I shouted. He stared at me momentarily, then a moment longer. “Wednesday afternoons,” I said. “Your basement office . . . ‘NAFTA, Schmafta, can you hear the world’s lafta?’ . . . ”
“Charles in Charge? Wow. I barely recognized you with that mustache. How in the heck are you?”
Before I could respond, Quimby set his pint down on the small table and joined me. “It’s been ages,” he said with a glassy stare. “What a truly magnificent surprise, Charles in Charge. Fine as ever, you are.”
Carlitos is my given name. “Carlitos Doritos,” the other kids used to call me—one more undesirable way in which I stood out. In middle school, I began demanding that my family address me as Alex P. Keaton, but my dad kept mispronouncing it as “Alice,” which my siblings seized upon, so I settled on Charles in Charge. This was the title of a sitcom that starred Scott Baio as a young heartthrob who nannies three children while going to school and juggling a prolific love life. I was drawn to the show because of Charles’s (Baio’s) relationship with his best friend, Buddy (Willie Aames), a one-dimensional, albeit oddly sagacious, buffoon. Their camaraderie and affection were genuine and subtle in ways that none of their other acting ever was. The slapstick humor struck me as either repressed or coded desire. Frankly, I didn’t understand how the show made it to network television.
“Carlitos?” Sister Susan called out. But instead of “Present,” I responded, “Charles in Charge!”
“Is that Mexican?” she asked, peering up from the attendance sheet.
“No,” I said, “it’s syndicated.”
“Are you visiting?” I asked Quimby.
“No, I live in Brooklyn. Near one of the bridges,” he explained, looking even more like the dads of my youth than he had twenty years earlier. “I work for the Irish mission to the U.N.,” he continued. “I’m engaged. He’s Italian. Divides his time between here and Rome—also government work. How about you?”
“I’m in Brooklyn, too. Single, recently single. Actually, always single. I’m at the Health Department.”
I explained to Quimby that after college I’d taken a stab at an acting career—some theater, a few clown parties, and a couple of television commercials. In fact, one toilet-paper ad paid for all of graduate school. I studied public health, specifically the effects of hierarchies: Does pecking order predict health outcomes? (Well, yes.)
“Fascinating,” he said, and reached across the table to squeeze my forearm.
Quimby and I exchanged numbers and had sex once, for old times’ sake, a few weeks later. Afterward, he asked me if I was looking for a new job. “The U.N. relies heavily on health data. You could find work rather easily,” he explained.
I wasn’t unhappy at the Health Department, but I found the idea of the U.N. intriguing and romantic, like Juliette Binoche and Naveen Andrews in The English Patient, so I followed up.
My official position was Health Researcher (Category IV) for the United Nations Human Rights Council (H.R.C.). In brief, I was a summarizer tasked with taking complicated research and reducing it to talking points—bulleted lists, fourteen-point font. Vis-à-vis the H.R.C., most of the nearly two hundred member states wanted me to build a bulwark of data against my own country. Anything to get the U.S. to come to its senses was the popular sentiment throughout the U.N.
At first, I felt strange about working for the world and not my country, like the orphan athletes who carry the nondescript flag at the opening ceremony of the Olympics. But then Quimby explained that we had no choice. “Convincing the U.S. to do no harm is the full-time job of many, many people,” he said. “What did you think happened here?”
The truth was I hadn’t given it much thought. Also true: it didn’t matter. My questionable influence-peddling didn’t influence shit. In a short period of time, I learned that the United States was immune to easily interpretable, commonsense data on everything—pollution, tuberculosis, birth control, breastfeeding, war, rape, white phosphorus, blue phosphorus, red phosphorus, lithium, P.T.S.D., G.M.O.s, slavery, winged migration, lions, tigers, polar bears, grizzly bears, panda bears, capital punishment, corporal punishment, spanking, poverty, drug decriminalization, incarceration, labor unions, cooperative business structures, racist mascots, climate change, Puerto Rico, Yemen, Syria, Flint, Michigan, women, children, wheelchairs, factory farms, bees, whales, sharks, daylight saving time, roman numerals, centimeters, condoms, coal, cockfighting, horse betting, dog racing, doping, wealth redistribution, mass transit, the I.M.F., CIA, I.D.F., MI5, MI6, TNT, snap bracelets, Pez dispensers, Banksy. It didn’t matter what it was. If the Human Rights Council (or Cuba) advocated one way, the U.S. went the other.
I kept at it anyway. This was, after all, what I was paid to do. And a few times, human rights did line up with U.S. interests. AIDS initiatives, for example, were well funded as long as they didn’t include mention of sex work, harm reduction, or anal sex. Also popular: eagles and pharmaceuticals.
Charles in Charge, take this report to the top was my primary directive. “The top” meant the penthouse floor, where the U.S. set up its operations. No other member state had its own floor, but since the U.S. had threatened to leave so many times, and since it gave more money to the U.N. than any other state—although it gave less in proportion to its GDP than most wealthy nations and several of the poor ones—the international community, in an effort to placate, offered the U.S. the most prime of its already circumscribed real estate. Never mind that the U.S. was 146th in terms of population density, 83rd in peacekeeper contributions, and that what it did contribute was always late, less than what it had promised, and came with a bad attitude.
The penthouse elevator, a refurbished contraption with 1970s maroon carpeting and a bright, L.E.D. control panel, made only two stops (top and bottom), slowly. On the way up, the trip lasted eight minutes; the reverse was six—something about gravity, I was told. The silver lining to all of this elevator travel was that most of the sex I had in the first six months retained an air of privacy. The remainder transpired in the middle stall of the nineteenth-floor bathroom, not far from the hall of U Thant busts.
I wasn’t alone in slipping skins at the nexus of global diplomacy. The U.N. functioned essentially as a sex club with simultaneous translation. And although everyone kept a shroud of decorum about it, it was frequent, widespread, and usually peaked after voting days. The musty aroma didn’t supplant the fetor of failure and futility that hung in the air and along the corridors, like inert gases or the ghosts of the League of Nations. But it certainly helped.
Betwixt the sex, I worked. On Mondays, I gathered and synthesized the relevant research pertaining to a Friday vote. Tuesdays, I delivered the one-pager to the penthouse. Wednesdays, I dropped off a shorter version in a larger font. On Thursdays, but sometimes on Friday mornings, I received a “We don’t understand” memo, occasionally with a list of questions. Often, however, the sheet was blank but for the header (“Huh?”) and footer (“God Bless America”).
In a place where the United States had so much power, hope was naïve.
“This is the netherworld between possibility and delusion, but we continue to give it our all,” said my supervisor, a soft-spoken Tamil and former resistance fighter who wore pantsuits, shiny scarves, and flats. Jaya rarely interfered with my work, only occasionally suggesting that I add one more bullet point or that I indent my sub-lists. She also never left her office and always brought her lunch from home. If there was a warrior in her, it lay in repose beneath a passive, perfunctory veneer. The Sri Lankan government appointed her to the Human Rights Council during a temporary ceasefire, as a form of exile, Quimby explained. “She hasn’t a passport—not an uncommon predicament here.”
Each morning, upon entering the main building, my first stop was the second floor, where all of us were required to leave our phones in personalized lead boxes that fit seamlessly into a floor-to-ceiling wall unit composed of thousands of cubbies. The unintended side effect of being phoneless was that cruising happened the old-fashioned way. No dating apps or text messages or semicolons. Just eye contact. Corridors and bathrooms in the U.N. were how all streets and bathrooms used to be—namely, gay and closeted. The dalliances were old-fashioned, too. Discretion, after all, wasn’t only the mode at the U.N.; it was the guiding principle, for both policy-making and fornication. Over time, I inferred that divulging anything might be grounds for termination.
“Yes, it’s wise to be circumspect,” Quimby said, after another day of deflating No votes and a few pints. “On the other hand,” he added, with raised eyebrows and a subtle break in his posture, “some people have found innovative ways to use these encounters to their benefit.”
“Do you mean blackmail?”
Quimby scanned the main room of the Raw Hole for anyone who might be “earwigging,” as he put it. (In addition to being a warren of workplace inappropriateness, the U.N. also served as an asylum of sorts for people facing all manner of discrimination in their home countries.) “Not blackmail,” he said, leaning in close, “but yes, blackmail.”
Quimby must have seen straight through my eyes into the place where the gears had begun to turn, because immediately he switched into a severe tone. “Take heed, Charles in Charge. Once you’re caught in the web, it is near impossible to become unstuck.”
Quimby drank half of his beer in one go. Then he patted down the drops that had spilled onto his shirt. “Marco’s in town,” he said. “You wanna come back to ours for a roll in the hay?”
“Another time,” I said. I had had a quickie with a Senegalese tourist before leaving work.
It was common knowledge that Saudi Arabia wanted to maintain the practice of beheadings. And since the king and his princes had been, for years, disbursing low-interest gold ingots to the world’s most unsuccessful businessmen, no one on the Security Council, neither permanent nor temporary members (except for Venezuela, Vietnam, and Uruguay), was eager to support an upcoming resolution calling for a worldwide ban.
“You will have to give this report more oomph,” said Jaya.
Apart from the usual mix of statistics and boilerplate pith, I included evidence of how the practice of beheadings was applied discriminatorily in the few countries in the world where it remained common practice. I also appended proof of its barbarity—testimonies of loved ones, pictures, verses from the Bible, and a copy of Braveheart.
Somewhat surprisingly, no one responded; there wasn’t even a fax from the Americans.
The Saudis, like the Israelis, Egyptians, Russians, and Liechtensteiners, were known for playing rough. Upset them even a little and an onslaught of press releases questioning the very legitimacy of the U.N. appeared swiftly, which in the case of Israel was uniquely frustrating because the U.N. had legitimized its existence in the first place. (Periodically, a cartoon drawing of the Israeli ambassador pulling the rug out from under himself circulated in the General Assembly.) If I were going to do anything more to give this resolution a chance, I’d need to be cautious.
Quimby lent me his camera—a slender, 007-like device that he kept taped under his desk. I used it to record myself with Mo, the special assistant to the special assistant to Faisal, the Saudi ambassador. Mo was a small fry, physically and figuratively, but he was the closest I ever got to Faisal—the spoiled, third-born son of a very powerful businessman who’d been incapable of putting out the fires his son habitually started back home. (In addition to refuge and asylum, the U.N. was a rehabilitation camp for those with too much privilege to face consequences.) After arranging the camera on a shelf of the Dag Hammarskjöld Library—“the Old Jag-off Hammar Library,” Quimby called it—I made my way to the halal cafeteria on the thirteenth floor, where Mo tended to have lunch on Wednesdays. From there, it wasn’t difficult to lure him into the stacks. The hard part was making sure we stayed in the camera’s field of vision. Mo kept whipping me around in overwrought gestures that suggested he wanted desperately to be good at something he hadn’t practiced enough.
Ironically, it was Mo’s aversion to being decapitated that ultimately led to Saudi Arabia’s support for the resolution against beheadings. “I need to show you something,” I said to him the day after the encounter in the library.
“Yes, yes, of course. Shall we go back to Jag Hammar?” he asked.
But I pulled us into a nearby office-supply closet instead. When I held up the camera, he began to cry. I was completely unprepared for his reaction. Usually stoic, Mo cried several viscous tears that hung from his chin for a small eternity before free-falling toward his wing tips. I felt shitty but didn’t know how to recant. “Just kidding” seemed a foolish and insufficient way forward. It didn’t matter. Before I could say anything more, he wiped his face with his tie, crossed his arms, and disappeared.
Rumor has it that Faisal rejected Mo’s request for reconsideration on the resolution and threatened to have him sent home, but instead of folding, Mo threatened back with a video of his own—one he’d been keeping for just such an occasion. Faisal grabbed Mo by his tie and leaned into his face, screaming, spittle flying. “My pet tiger will eat your spleen alive for this,” he said. That Friday, Faisal lobbied for an amendment to the day’s agenda so that he could speak in advance of the Security Council vote. Saudi Arabia would not oppose the resolution. The surprising reversal led to a brief recess, during which Australia and the United States regrouped with their allies and also decided to support the resolution.
“Congratulations,” Quimby said at happy hour the evening of the vote. “Now, lie low. Don’t get greedy.”
A few days later, I had a romp in the Kofi Annan Memorial Lounge with Robin, the spokesperson for the Swedish Mission. Afterward, he shepherded through a resolution against Iranian sanctions. Next, it was Wojciech, a cultural attaché from Poland, who, after an elevator ride, helped to maneuver a condemnation of the Brazilian president’s fascist rhetoric. Then came Bob, the king of Thailand’s valet plenipotentiary.
His real name was Apichatpong, but Bob was easier in this country, he told me. At his insistence, we went to his office. The room had no windows, and my repeated attempts at turning on the lights were met with resistance. Eventually, he pulled away and buttoned up his shirt. “I know what you are trying to do,” he said, as he relooped his belt. “That will not work with me. The king cares nothing of what I do. He cares nothing about anything. Try instead to ask me directly for what you need.” Bob was a slight man with a shaved head, faint mustache, and rimless eyeglasses. His sincerity embarrassed me. I zipped up my pants and walked toward the door. “Charles in Charge, your way is not sustainable,” he called out.
After that, I took a break from sex altogether. I focused instead on writing reports, which proved easy because everyone seemed to be nursing cold sores in those cold months. I’d been battling outbreaks for years, but I didn’t want to risk coinfection with another strain, or a superinfection.
Iwas on my third gin martini and ninth olive when the stool next to mine crashed to the floor. I turned to find a contorted figure trying to pick up his mess. It was Brad. Red-eyed, upper-middle-class, youth-adjacent Brad. Drunk but full of vim, vigor, and, as the girthy silhouette in his pants suggested, virility. That night, he fell asleep during sex, and I wasn’t able to wake him. The following morning, I fried eggs and bacon and toasted week-old sourdough. It’s what I would have made anyway, but since I had a companion, I prepared twice as much. I’d half-expected him to play the role of straight man with amnesia, but he was polite and, generally, quite genial. He was also the first U.N. co-worker I’d ever brought home.
Over several cups of coffee, I learned that Brad was a trust-fund kid with an almost undetectable lisp and half an M.B.A. On the surface, he reminded me of all the guys in college who’d never given me the time of day. His father had been a vice president at I.B.M. in its heyday, and his grandfather had been a well-known confidant of Ronald Reagan, as well as Nancy’s paramour throughout most of the Cold War. In fact, Brad appeared in the annual extended-family photographs of several prominent political families. These connections had marked his life—a warm welcome into Yale, then Harvard, then out of Harvard, and, finally, into the U.N. I’d known him simply as one of the quiet Americans who waited at the penthouse elevator bank to receive my reports. Once, maybe twice, I’d flirted with him, but he’d been unreceptive, and, to my credit, I hadn’t insisted. A younger version of myself would have set aside dignity to pursue him—rejections from white men have always come across as institutional or systemic, serving only to invigorate me. But my adult self met his disinterest with my own.
Despite our height and age disparities—four inches and ten years—Brad and I bonded to each other like a small magnet to a refrigerator door. It happened quickly, too. I can’t quite articulate how or why, but after a week his toothbrush and retainer appeared in my medicine cabinet.
As an unspoken rule, Brad and I didn’t acknowledge each other at work, but whenever I delivered a report to the Americans, he made sure to intercept it. The doors would open, he’d pop his head inside, and we’d embrace until the elevator started beeping. Those few, wet kisses constituted all of the contact we had outside of my apartment. At his request, we also avoided arriving at or leaving the U.N. at the same time, and we never discussed work. I preferred it that way. Better was to make dinner with him, interrupt dinner preparations to have sex, continue dinner-making, eat while watching reruns of Designing Women—a show he’d never heard of, which led to an awkward moment in the third week, when we were both reminded of our difference in age—and have sex again. Through it all, there was no mention of trade relations or species on the verge of extinction or tsunami relief or the official song of the World Cup. Our interactions were the most basic: eat, fuck, watch sitcoms. And I questioned none of it, including our eventual shift into the middle place between lust and love. No-man’s-land was an unfamiliar, classless, color-blind waiting room so comfortable that I didn’t care what was next.
Until the sixth week. That’s when I noticed reticence. Reticence in the kitchen. Reticence on the couch. Reticence in the elevator.
“Do you want to call it quits?” I asked.
“What? No! Why?”
“Oh. Well, you’ve been distant or uneasy lately.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, and folded himself onto the couch like an origami giraffe, leaving nary an opening between us. “It’s work. Just work stuff. Nothing to do with you. I promise.” Then he kissed my neck and unbuttoned my shirt. Afterward, both of us were famished but neither wanted to cook. We ordered dinner from the new pan-everywhere vegan restaurant that he’d been wanting to visit, and before going to bed we watched an episode of The Good Place, which he’d been advocating for all week.
The following night, his typical, upbeat confidence was again adagio. I wasn’t as worried as I’d been when I’d thought his mood had something to do with me, but I wanted him back to the way he had been nonetheless. Up to then, we’d done well by our rule of never discussing work, which should not have been easy, since our livelihoods were in some way tied to most current events as well as all of history.
“Do you want to talk about it? The thing at work, I mean.”
“Might make you feel better.”
After a bit more prodding, Brad opened up. “You see, the deputy rep is putting a lot of pressure on me to secure opposition for an upcoming resolution. And it’s more difficult than I expected. To complicate matters, a colleague let it slip that I’m on some sort of probation. Apparently, I’ve been underperforming.”
“Is it because of me—us?”
“No, no. I don’t think so. I’ve just been trying to do too much. I was hoping to move from communications into something legislative. But now I have to get my act together. Without this job, it’s back to Bunkport for me.”
“Which resolution is it? The one that’s giving you trouble.”
“The, uh—the one calling for a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate war crimes in El Salvador.”
“I know it well.”
“You know, my family is from El Salvador.”
He nodded again, and I felt my face turn and tighten, screwlike.
“It’s more complicated than you think,” he said. “This may surprise you, but we plan to get behind the resolution. The problem is that China signaled support for the T-and-R commission first, and we can’t go on record agreeing with China about a human-rights issue. That would set a bad precedent.”
Maybe I’d been working at the U.N. too long, but in that moment, his reasoning made perfect sense.
During dinner, Brad remained quiet. He spent more time dragging his spaghetti around the plate than eating. Afterward, he loaded the dishwasher and washed the pots and lids that didn’t fit—something he did often and that felt anomalous to who he was and where he came from. I mean, white men certainly wash dishes, but not white men who have family homes in Kennebunkport and who call Kennebunkport “Bunkport.” And never pots and lids. When we were done cleaning up, Brad didn’t want to watch any television, preferring instead to continue reading a tome of an LBJ biography in bed. I was left feeling like an unwanted guest in my own home, or the child of working-class parents around the first of the month, or a drunk person in a library. Finally, I broke the silence. “Is there something I can do to help?”
Brad set the gigantic book down over his bare abdomen. “I don’t want to mix you up in all this.”
“So there is something?”
“I don’t know. You see, China only agreed to support the resolution after El Salvador cut its diplomatic ties with Taiwan. We believe that if El Salvador were, in some way, to re-recognize Taiwan’s existence before Friday’s vote—even a minor overture—China would recant its support for the resolution, leaving us free to back it.”
I sat on the edge of the bed and thought about it for a minute.
“I don’t understand. Why the sudden concern for human rights?”
“That’s not fair. We are for human rights.”
I didn’t respond, but Brad must have read my face. “I can see why an outsider would think that,” he said.
“I’m not an outsider.”
“You know what I mean.”
I knew what he meant, but I also thought it was possible that he could have meant several things at once.
“Charles in Charge, we care about El Salvador. It’s an ally.”
“Well”—Brad sat upright—“there’s a Central American trade agreement coming up. We plan to ask El Salvador to rename its largest garment-factory city ‘U.S.A.’ If the Salvadorans agree, the majority of textiles and apparel coming out of the country will read—”
“Let me guess: ‘Made in U.S.A.’ ”
“But the clothes would still be made in El Salvador.”
“People just want to see it on the label,” he said. “They’re not going to investigate past that—we’re getting ahead of ourselves anyway. What’s important is that we support El Salvador’s resolution now, so that they come through for us later. A win for retail and for human rights.”
Brad had come up onto his knees and was resting irresistibly on his heels, an impish grin across his face. The bedsheet had slid down onto the bed. Apart from the portrait of LBJ covering his johnson, he was naked.
“You overestimate my position and abilities if you think I can get El Salvador to change its stance on Taiwan.”
“I don’t have any doubts about your abilities,” Brad said before Lyndon Baines Johnson went facedown onto the bed.
The center-left party in El Salvador had campaigned on promises of de-privatizing water, magical realism, and truth and reconciliation. After winning the election, the new president signed bills that nationalized half of the drinking-water supply and ratified the CONCAMAGIA, a Latin American treaty granting every participatory nation unfettered access to literary fabulism, but he was dragging his feet on T&R. In the Nineties, the first U.N.-sanctioned investigation into the atrocities of the country’s civil war placed the preponderance of blame on the right-wing government and its allies. The Salvadoran government at the time was composed of conservative factions who disregarded the findings and never again mentioned truth or reconciliation. Although the left was now in power, it, too, feared what an investigation might uncover, especially with so many former revolutionaries in the government, including the new president. A trap door, vis-à-vis Taiwan, would be an appealing option.
“Oh, mate. Getting into bed with the Americans is a terrible idea. They’re all cute hoors,” Quimby said, something he was wont to say of anyone he considered unsavory. “Besides, T-and-R has been sought for years by the survivors of the war. If it falls apart now . . . ” Quimby raised his pint and his eyebrows.
Politically speaking, Quimby was a mellower version of the young man I recalled from my college days, the one who wrote his dissertation about the Irish struggle for northern independence as a J’Accuse of the British monarchy (“Anglican? How about Angliwon’t! Fuck the king, the queen, and the entire chessboard”). And still, he never passed up an opportunity to openly disparage the descendants of his own countrymen here, whom he accused of desecrating their anticolonialist histories: “Is there anything more despicable than a New York City cop with an Irish surname?” he’d say whenever we walked past a police officer.
“And what about your family, Charles in Charge?” Quimby set the empty glass down, revealing a light foam mustache. “Have you thought of them?”
The political congruencies between El Salvador and Ireland had always interested Quimby. After our office-hour romps in college, he’d ask me to recount the few family tales I knew because he said they reminded him of the stories his mother used to tell him. Lore about aunts, uncles, and cousins who’d worn wigs and prosthetic noses, baked codes and coordinates into pupusas, and trained in armed combat in jungles and university basements. People I’d never met, some of whom were still alive and, frankly, needed—if not urgently, then sooner rather than later—truth and reconciliation. Much of the country did. And while I may not have felt much allegiance to these stories and characters, actively betraying them seemed unnecessary.
“Don’t view it that way,” Brad said on my couch, on the eve of the vote. “Besides, it’s a moot point. Thanks to you, we’re free to support El Salvador.”
Brad had been right about China. Once Taiwan reentered the picture, the Chinese balked.
I was the one who had made sure Taiwan reentered the picture.
Hipólito, El Salvador’s assistant to the deputy ambassador, tended to cruise near the Boutros Boutros-Ghali Gallery on the twenty-fourth floor. As a place of art, it was unremarkable—a room full of empty plinths and lesser works by well-known painters that had been found in the rubble of war zones—but at the end of the mustard-colored corridor, there was a single-occupancy restroom that was rarely occupied. The guilt of cheating on Brad left me impotent at first, but after a few minutes, and despite the cold tile, I was able to enjoy myself. When we were done, Hipólito sat bare-assed on the sink, running his knuckly fingers through his hair. “Uff. Esome hacía falta,” he said before exhaling forcefully.
“I also needed that,” I replied, as I handed him his pants. “Oh, and just a heads-up, Australia is going to propose an emergency amendment to the resolution, one that requires immediate extradition to the International Criminal Court for anyone found to have aided or abetted war crimes during the civil war. I heard they want to go hard after the current administration so that the right wing wins the next election.”
“¿Qué?” Hipólito hopped off the sink, scrambled for his shoes, and ran off.
By lunchtime, the Salvadorans were abuzz. The following morning, the president of El Salvador, who had been scheduled to appear at the U.N. for Friday’s vote, canceled his visit. This signaled to everyone that something was awry. And when the Salvadoran mission announced that the president would be visiting Taiwan instead, everyone assumed the resolution would be dead on arrival.
“You tested positive for gonorrhea. You’re asymptomatic, but you’re still a carrier,” said Dr. Pangilinan over the phone, on the morning of the vote. “Nothing to worry about, but refrain from sex for a week after you’ve completed your treatment,” he said. “And please notify all of your sexual partners since your last exam.”
I hadn’t had gonorrhea since college.
“Down with your drawers,” said Quimby, who kept a stash of ceftriaxone and azithromycin in his desk. The former was an injection; the latter, pills.
“Shit, Quim, there have been dozens of men since my last checkup, and I don’t have any of their phone numbers. I might be responsible for a global epidemic.”
“That’s nothing. Half the U.N. died in the early Eighties,” he said. “But don’t fret, everyone here is on PrEP, and they know to keep a supply of these.” Quimby held up the bottle of zithro and an empty syringe. “Feel bad for the tourists.”
I nodded along, like a poorly trained public-health worker.
“Are you going downstairs for the session? Your vote should be coming up soon.”
“No. I’m going to watch from the Ban Ki-moon Room,” I said, as I zipped up.
When I arrived at the viewing deck, groups of second-tier aides and elementary-school students were making their way into the plexiglass-encased chambers above the Security Council. Just outside was Jaya, her hand over her chin, softly squeezing her own face. I’d never before seen her away from her office. “This one has slipped from our hands,” she said without looking at me. “I fear for El Salvador’s future.”
“It will happen today. I’m certain of it,” I responded.
“Have you not heard the murmurs in the corridors?”
“Gossip. That’s all.”
Jaya looked at me askance. “We almost had a win,” she said. “Almost.”
“Worst case, we can prepare for another vote in a few months,” I said, hoping to lighten her mood.
“Tell me, Charles in Charge, during your brief tenure here, have you ever seen a motion fail and return for a vote? There has not been a landmine resolution since Princess Diana.”
“Have some faith, Jaya.”
“Faith?” Jaya gave a scornful shake of her head. “Faith is for the unseen. Am I not visible to you?”
I nodded slowly, unsure if she’d used a double negative.
“You know, Charles in Charge, many people come here looking inside of these walls for what they have never been able to find outside of them. You’re not the first.”
Although I didn’t understand what Jaya meant, I continued nodding. She turned, as if to leave, but remained in place with her back to me. “Charles in Charge,” she whispered, “a piece of advice: you don’t have to do anything if you don’t want to, but don’t get in the fucking way either.” Then she marched away.
The speaker system in the viewing room created an uncanny effect: everyone was living the experience while simultaneously listening to it over a radio. The agenda listed the vote on El Salvador as the fourth of five items. On the floor now was the second, a resolution opposing a statue of Slobodan Miloševic in Manila, part of the new Filipino president’s homage to his heroes. (He’d already erected tributes to Suharto, Mussolini, and Andrew Jackson.) The first vote of the day, a resolution banning plastic bags, failed 8–7. Australia, which had classified it as an environmental MUSE (a Matter of Utmost Security and Exigency), cast the deciding vote against itself. With the United States breathing down its neck, Australia argued that the resolution was poorly written and ultimately inefficient—never mind that Australia had written the text to begin with.
In a rare win, the proclamation against the Miloševic statue passed 10–4, with one abstention, despite protestations from the Filipino envoy. “Spain and the United States made us this way!” he shouted. “And all of the airports here are named after warmongers!” Then there was a fifteen-minute recess.
The third item was sanctions on Israel in response to its seemingly regular Friday massacres of Palestinians in Gaza. But no sooner had gavel hit table than Israel’s representative interrupted to argue that the measure didn’t clarify whether it included today. “Today, after all, is also a Friday,” he said. “If the resolution includes today, it is invalid because we have definitive proof that the I.D.F. has not fired upon anyone yet. And it is too early to assume that anything will happen later.” Before the delegates could respond, the U.S. representative offered a motion to table the resolution until the following Friday so that they could have time to gather information about this Friday. Without a single hand going up or down, the functionary announced that the motion had passed 14–1. Everyone, including the Israeli delegation, looked gobsmacked. A slow train of sighs, boos, and tsks gradually circled the hall and entered our enclosed aerie.
Next was El Salvador.
As the chamber reshuffled, I noticed Brad conferring with his delegation, a small coterie of faint pinstripes and one sienna skirt suit, most of whom were seated and balding. Whenever he bent over to speak to them, he pressed his tie against his midsection—the red one with white diagonal stripes that I had picked out that morning. The Americans nodded with bobbleheaded fervor. Brad then walked over to the Australian delegation and went through a similar protocol. He shook their hands before walking up the aisle and disappearing to a level beneath me.
The U.S. put forth the motion to support the Salvadoran resolution. Venezuela, Vietnam, Uruguay, Sweden, Burkina Faso, the U.K., and the U.S. voted in favor, just as we had foreseen. Opposition arose expectedly from China, Russia, France, Guatemala, Poland, Kazakhstan, and Uganda. Australia was the last to cast its vote, and when its ambassador raised his hand he said, “No.” Then he added, “Without prejudice.”
“The resolution fails by a vote of eight to seven,” it was announced. “We will take a short recess and resume the agenda on the hour.”
I leaned forward and pressed both hands against the plexiglass. The crowd of people behind me trickled out of the room. Half of them were nonplussed in a traditional English manner; the other half were North American nonplussed; all of them hummed the “Marseillaise.” When I thought the room had cleared, the sound of faux throat-clearing entered. “Charles in Charge,” he said.
“Let me explain.”
“I don’t understand. The Australians always do what you want them to. How could—”
“They did do what we wanted them to.”
Brad’s eyes widened, like those of an underfed lemur. His body, however, was a steel beam on an ancient burial ground—a far cry from the gentle giraffe he’d been on my couch, in my kitchen, and in the elevator. “Be realistic,” he said. “Did you think the United States was going to open itself up to being investigated? El Salvador’s civil war was essentially of our making.”
Brad’s point was completely logical. Still, I was angry. “You didn’t have to do all of this. You have the power to veto whatever you want.”
“Veto too much and you get a reputation.”
“The world’s changing. We can’t risk another state actor becoming the moral compass. You prefer Russia? China? No one wants that. Playing the game is the only way.”
“Don’t be coy. Why don’t we ask Mo about playing games? Oh, right, he’s no longer here. In fact, he’s no longer anywhere. He had the distinction of being Saudi Arabia’s last official beheading.” (I’d heard the rumor about Mo’s death, but nothing had been confirmed.) “Perspective, Charles in Charge. That’s what you need. You’re alive. I’m alive. No harm from this. You’ve lived to fight another day.”
My ears went warm. Something, possibly my heart, was expanding in my throat. Somewhere in my chest was my stomach.
“But I—weren’t you—I mean . . . We all suck, Brad, but you’re the worst.”
His gaze turned downward. Above us was a sketchlike painting of Earth, a graph of gilded longitudes and latitudes: an outlined world with no sign of life.
“I guess this means I’m not going to see you later?”
I continued to stare at the empty globe, silent.
“Okay, have it your way. See you around, Charles in Charge.”
“Yes, this is hell after all.”
I thought I heard him chuckle in response, but I wasn’t certain because by that point the sounds of the outside had come in through the open door.
Quimby was waiting for me at my desk. He’d come to give his condolences about El Salvador. “Don’t get down on yourself. I’ve been there before,” he said. “We all have. You have no idea how much the future of this world is shaped by a few shags.”
“But didn’t I tell you never to trust the emissary of an empire?”
Quimby patted my shoulder. “Lesson learned,” he said. “Let it go, Charles—”
“You know what? Don’t call me that. Call me Carlitos.”
“Carlitos? Hmm. Carlitos. Better. Much better . . . Well, Carlitos, the Puerto Rico resolution will be up shortly. You coming?”