It was my best friend Aaron’s idea. He wanted Real Deal’s ear back. He’d lost it in a poker game.
It was a Tuesday, and we were eating breakfast at a San Francisco diner. Aaron made his offer in a normal, conversational speaking voice; he never looked up from smearing apple butter on his English muffin. I sprinkled pepper on my scrambled eggs and tried not to imagine how the bacon and hash browns churning in my stomach would make me gassy two hours later, when I had the first job interview I had been able to snag in four months.
“Holyfield’s ear?” I asked. “I didn’t realize someone owned that.”
“After Tyson spit it out,” Aaron said, waving his hand, “somebody, somehow, grabbed it off the canvas in the ensuing melee, sold it, etc. I never should have bet it.”
“When were you playing poker?”
“I never told you this? Well, look, how I got it is an entirely different story. Point is, it was mine, I might have had one too many Goose and tonics, and I got a little overconfident and bet the fucking thing, and I lost. Wanna guess to who?”
My mouth slowly grew into a smirk. “You lost it to Rube Benton.”
“Bingo. The man had four sevens. I had the boat. Didn’t see that one coming.”
Rube Benton was the founder and principal of Elysian Fields, a private equity firm based in the Bay Area. Aaron had started with Elysian, quit after eighteen months, earning a promotion and a raise in less than two years with his new company, then jumped from that to a startup that had made him disgustingly rich. Meanwhile, Elysian bought my old tech firm and, in their lexicon, downsized, restructured, commodified, and then sold it off in pieces at a seventy-eighty percent return. Laid off in the acquisition, I’d been unemployed ever since.
“So,” Aaron continued, “Rube always throws a Friday or Saturday night shindig. I know where the safe is that he keeps the ear in. And I know the code to his safe. All you gotta do is pick it up and walk out.”
“Just walk in, take an ear, and walk back out?”
“Candy plus babies equals easy.”
Rube was in his forties, a hedge fund mogul with a face insculpted with minor but meticulous plastic surgery. He was divorced twice, childless, and a regular at high profile arts events and higher stakes poker games; in a profile in San Francisco, he said he donated all three hundred and twenty two of his ties to charity, not just to raise money for pediatric care at UCSF Medical Center, but also as a symbol, both of ribbon cutting for the arts (“There should be no ties between artistic expression and corporate support”) and a disavowal of marriage in favor of his freewheeling lifestyle (“I’ve been to bed with men and women, a fact that I don’t think should be a big deal to anyone”). He was wealthy, pompous, handsome, and possessed the unshakeable belief that he was integral to the great state of California.
Aaron and I had been friends since college. All three of my roommates agreed Aaron was a douchebag. They were probably right. I wondered, not for the first time, why we were friends at all. Maybe friendships simply wore out like old tires.
I said, “I’m not stealing anything.”
“Not even for ten grand? Cash?”
“Look, I’d do it myself but Rube fucking hates me. I can’t show my face there. But, you, you he doesn’t know. You can roll in, have a few beers, get my ear back, and no one will know you were there.”
“I’m not stealing a fucking ear.”
“All right.” Aaron checked the time on his iPhone. “Forget it.”
After he picked up the check, we stood together on the curb, two young men in black suits in the chilly shadows of skyscrapers. While he hailed a cab, Aaron worked a toothpick around his mouth, and I mentally ran down the accomplishments on my resume, trying to think of a narrative that would make me employable.
“Want a lift?” he asked.
“I’ve got an hour. I’m gonna walk. Clear my head.”
“Cool. Text me, let me know how it goes.”
He gave me a bro-hug and then slipped into the back of a cab, and disappeared around the corner at the next intersection. Aaron and I had met at an Ohio State (my college) vs. Miami (his college) hockey game in Oxford, and after screaming at each other’s group of friends through the match and then getting drunk at the same bar, we got into a minor brouhaha outside First Run. Then, while bruises formed around our eyes and our bloody knuckles swelled, we held a personal Geneva Convention and became fast friends over a greasy breakfast. He graduated from Miami in three years, moved to Columbus to do his MBA at Ohio State, and we were roommates my senior year. We threw house parties, beat all comers at Mario Kart, and I even once nailed a seventy second kegstand. We did lots of drugs and drank lots of cheap beer, but as soon as graduation hit, we dumped all the powders and pills, packed our bags, and headed west, cultivating a taste in upscale vodka and whiskey, which is what we imagined the executives and moguls drank. He chameleoned from a shaggy college student into a slick stylish man, shedding his graphic t-shirts for slim-cut suits and hundred dollar haircuts, a transformation that appeared organic and effortless for him, while for me, similar choices were agonizingly difficult.
Despite my confidence, five minutes into one of the nicest conversations I’ve ever had, about soccer and growing up in the Midwest and the Giants, I knew I wasn’t getting the job. The easy interviews, the ones I thought I aced, always ended up with a form email three weeks later. So, after thirty minutes, the HR coordinator thanked me for my time and I left feeling, once again, defeated. Outside, I stripped off my tie and wrapped it around my right hand, curling it into a fist. I threw a jab at no one.
In Iron Mike’s voice, I whispered, “I’ll just fade into Bolivian.”
I lived with three others in a rent controlled apartment that was still ridiculously expensive. My roommates were a solar engineer, a neuropsychologist, and a software engineer, the first a guy and the last two women. All of them had phased me out, particularly since I hadn’t been able to find work, and other than making sure my rent check cleared, they didn’t talk to me. I spent the first hour of each morning checking for new job listings and sending my resume to any opening there was—often an entire week would pass without anything posting—then I would walk outside, shoulders pulled tight to my body against the chilly San Francisco February, telling myself that since I couldn’t afford a gym membership, this was good exercise.
“My style is impetuous,” my Iron Mike said. “My defense is impregnable.”
Mimicry and accents came easily to me. I was a theater kid in high school, forced into acting by my parents to help me overcome my stammer, and stuck with it for the first two years of college, before deciding that redheads are unwanted in Hollywood and I had no interest in being a struggling New York actor. More than once, I considered doing some theater work again, just for fun, but I never tried out. I shed acting because I wanted to grow up; I liked being contrarian as a kid, but my parents’ ambition never really left me—she was a paralegal and he owned a landscaping company—and I came to believe the son of workers had no business being an actor. I believed I needed to be more like Aaron.
With my chin down and shoulders slumped, I passed the public library, its symmetrical design and long windows like sleepy but watchful eyes, and considered ducking inside for a book. Then I thought, fuck it, I’m having a drink. I unraveled my tie from my fist, looped it back around my neck, made a half Windsor knot without breaking stride, and ducked into the Holiday Inn on Eighth Street. With my hands out of my pockets I crossed the lobby, entered the bar, and stood upright and sober, studying the taps, the idea of a cold beer making my mouth water. The bartender came over, a smile forming on his face, like he was just beginning to get the joke he heard five minutes earlier.
“Hey, you look like that guy,” he said.
I smiled with my eyes and waited: I’ve heard this before. That guy from Band of Brothers. That guy from Homeland. The actor. Twenty bucks, I’d always reply in my flat nasally Midwestern accent, if you can name him. No one ever could.
“You know, that show?” he continued. “Homeland. You ever see that?”
With Damian’s British accent, I said, “I never watch my own work.”
The bartender’s eyes narrowed. “No way.”
Uncanny, but true: Damian Lewis and I were the same height and build. Same reddish hair, freckles and fair skin, steely gaze and small mouth. Our eyes crinkled the same way when we smiled. The only distinguishable difference was our voice.
“Don’t tell anyone,” I said.
“It’s really you! That’s awesome! Man, I love your show!”
“That’s very kind.” I imagined the British said stuff like “very kind” and other formal shit all the time.
“Are you filming here?”
“I can’t really say. You know how the first season ended?”
He nodded, a smile on his lips.
“San Francisco might play a part in season two. Please don’t quote me on that.”
The bartender bought my first drink, and a pair of businessmen bought my second. I shook hands, made up stories about how Claire Danes was a wonderful actress and super mom, explained I couldn’t pose for photos because of TMZ and the like, and made them glow with the feel all ordinary people get from being in the same room with a celebrity. Damian Lewis! That guy from that show! The one where the cop really likes fruit! After an hour, I strode out of the bar, snatching my sunglasses from my suit pocket with a snap of my wrist, feeling the best I had in months.
Halfway home, I found a park bench to sit on for a few hours and started sifting through Damian Lewis’s biography on my phone. He attended boarding schools: Damian’s British was stately, studied, but not nasally. I was sure no American would notice, but I was quite proud of my Wales-influenced London-ish. I studied abroad between my sophomore and junior year of college, forgoing a summer mowing rich people’s lawns for daddad, which both pissed him off and filled him with a pride he would never acknowledge. Maybe it wouldn’t matter to an American, but I didn’t want to sound like Hepburn in My Fair Lady.
I wiped my mouth and chin then dialed Aaron.
“How did it go?” he asked.
“The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain.”
“So you immediately got drunk.”
“They said they’ll call.” The shadow of a Marshall Fields finally stretched far enough to put me in the sun. “An ear. Rich people are fucking weird.”
“I’m happy to be rich and weird.”
All three of my roommates agreed Aaron was a douchebag. They were probably right. “Should we be talking about this on the phone?”
“You’re paranoid. Plus, if you really think it through, if someone wanted to lift my cell records, all that would show is that we talked on the phone. Which, given that we’re ol’ college buddies and worked together and all that other good stuff, doesn’t matter at all. Anyway, you’re stalling. No one is calling the cops, okay? Remember, the former heavyweight champ’s ear isn’t legal to own in the first place, am I right?”
I had enough money for one more month of rent, and then I would have to admit defeat and move back to Ohio.
“I, Damian Lewis, will plunder Evander Holyfield’s ear.”
“Bro, who the fuck is Damian Lewis?”
The entire week, I practiced being Damian. Where would he go? What would he do? What would he wear? I spoke my studied London accent to the shopkeepers in Chinatown. I feigned interest in acquiring paintings from several galleries. Hotel bars were best: bartenders were up on pop culture so to yammer with their guests, and tourists loved any and everything Hollywood. Secrecy around Homeland’s forthcoming second season was a perfect cover to avoid photos. And while looking like Damian certainly helped, as did the accent, it was done, I think, entirely through confidence: I wholeheartedly believed I was Damian Lewis, actor extraordinaire, and because I believed it, my audience believed it.
I entered the lobby to Aaron’s condo and took the elevator up to his place. My black suit and white shirt were freshly dry-cleaned. I even wore cuff links.
“Hey, man,” he said. “What are you doing here?”
“I need the keys to your car.”
“Fuck outta here,” he laughed.
“Think about it. It’s Pacific Heights. I can’t show up on foot, and I can’t show up in a car with an Enterprise sticker on it. Give me the keys.”
“No, you’re right.” He set down his imported beer on his granite countertop. He yanked his BMW key free from his key ring, and then slid it across that pretty counter. “Man, this is going to be so good. I cannot wait to get that fucking thing back.”
Aaron and I had met at an Ohio State (my college) vs. Miami (his college) hockey game in Oxford, and after screaming at each other’s group of friends through the match and then getting drunk at the same bar, we got into a minor brouhaha outside First Run. Then, while bruises formed around our eyes and our bloody knuckles swelled, we held a personal Geneva Convention and became fast friends over a greasy breakfast. He graduated from Miami in three years, moved to Columbus to do his MBA at Ohio State, and we were roommates my senior year. We threw house parties, beat all comers at Mario Kart, and I even once nailed a seventy second kegstand. We did lots of drugs and drank lots of cheap beer, but as soon as graduation hit, we dumped all the powders and pills, packed our bags, and headed west, cultivating a taste in upscale vodka and whiskey, which is what we imagined the executives and moguls drank. San Francisco appealed to us both: vaguely European and gorgeous, yet still young and cool and irreverent. He chameleoned from a shaggy college student into a slick stylish man, shedding his graphic t-shirts for slim cut suits and hundred dollar haircuts. It appeared organic and effortless for him, while all similar choices, for me, were agonizingly difficult. Aaron shot up the ladder, rising like smoke, something you could see but not contain, and every “junior” in front of his title became “senior,” climbing up the financial food chain like a cat swatting birds.
Maybe I wasn’t any good at being Aaron. Maybe I wasn’t any good at the type of aggressive corporate capitalist style that was necessary to move up in the world. I wanted its trappings—nice clothes, nice car, nice condo—with the most indifferent desire that it was almost a reflex, and I never stopped to consider if any of this would make me happy or be meaningful. The rational part of my brain had told me that acting wasn’t meaningful: pretending to be someone else for an audience with disposable income. For what? To be famous? I didn’t know and it was easier to punt the idea rather than think on it. Now, here I was, stealing a severed body part. And, as I twirled my wrists like a magician, I had never felt better about myself.
“Where are you going to put it?” I asked, scanning his condo. Everything was gorgeous, clean, and shiny, a bachelor pad of lightly used but very expensive furniture and electronics. I couldn’t stop thinking about the price of everything, and how casually Aaron had acquired all of it.
“I don’t know,” he said. “But that’s not the point. The point is, fuck him, I’ll have it and he won’t. Hey, man—” He raised his hand to slap me five and give me a bro-hug—“good luck.”
“Luck,” my Damian said, “has nothing to do with it.”
I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed driving. Aaron’s BMW purred as it accelerated, the transmission’s smooth shift when I pressed the clutch, the ergonomic contours of the seat, and I wondered why I had ever gotten away from this lifestyle. I had long considered San Francisco a temporary move, a chance to live somewhere beautiful and strange, before coming back to the Midwest to be near my parents. I wondered if that was still the plan.
Aaron’s car did a nifty self-park that I figured would have been impossible on the incline of Rube’s street. I chided myself for contemplating such deft German engineering and focused I focused on being Damian, rolling his accent through my mind, thinking cool and British, which might be the same thing. I passed a massive stone fountain, an unsightly mixture of gargoyles, nymphs and faeries, spraying water from their mouths and conical horns, a landscape décor too gaudy for Versailles.
Inside, every room of the house blazed with light. It was a modernist beauty, a casual opulence of sleek lines, gorgeous paintings, careful and perfect lighting, hardwood floors, and intricate banisters. A grand fireplace dominated the formal dining room; on the opposite side of the foyer was a great room that ran the length of the house. I asked the bartender for a scotch, appreciated the ample pour, and took a lap around the house. There was an oversized chef’s kitchen in shades of white and gray paint that I knew had elegant names and expensive price tags. There were six bedrooms, including two master suites on the third floor. I counted five baths and two powder rooms, all featuring marble countertops and tile, and wondered how many people actually lived there. On the top floor, there was an entertainment room with surround sound and theater seating, and an executive office with a deck for al fresco coffee breaks that looked down on the courtyard below and offered a view of the Golden Gate. I finished my scotch and went back downstairs for a refill.
Aaron told me this was just a regular Rube party, which at the time I gave zero thought to since I was still processing the really important things: Evander Holyfield’s ear, ten thousand dollars, being Damian.
It was all Sinatra-esque. There were businessmen in dark suits, ties in Windsor knots. There was a Navy officer. Several women in the standard little black dresses. But there was also a man in running shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. There was an androgynous couple dressed in matching white tuxedos with platinum bleached hair slicked straight back into duck tails. Others wore masks with large boa feathers in their hair, as if they had wandered into the wrong party but decided to stay. Outside, there were men and women in golf clothes playing washers, both genders smoking cigars and smiling big canine grins of brilliant unstained teeth.
No one was going to ask me if I was That Guy From That Show.
The condensation of the glass slickened my dry fingers. All the voices in the room distanced and hollowed. I downed my scotch.
On each landing of the staircase, couples sat and talked drunkenly about real estate, or movies, or who at the party was drunker than they were. Electric sconces dimly lit the third floor hallway, an art deco vibe, and I passed a room with a television blasting a hockey game, the coffee table littered with martini glasses, and the nearly dozen men and women seemed to be playing Scrabble when they weren’t busy wandering to the deck. No one noticed me. I continued up the stairs and walked straight to Rube’s office.
The door was slightly ajar, and I shoved it open. The room was empty. The scotch sloshed in my stomach as I pressed the door closed. Then I grabbed a tissue off the desk, crouched down, pushed back the sliding drawer where Aaron said it would be, unsurprised to discover he was correct, typed the code he gave me—8675309 (yes, really)—and the tiny red light turned green, and with my fingerprint proof tissue, I tugged the drawer open.
There were two shelves. The bottom shelf held several stacks of hundred dollar bills still wrapped in bank straps. On the second shelf were two sealed manila envelopes, and on top of them, in a slim glass case, was Evander Holyfield’s ear. The case was the weight and shape of a smartphone, and I slid it into the pocket of my suit, pushed the safe door shut, closed the cabinet, and stood. This was easy. This was too easy. I picked up my Scotch? glass, wiped the whole thing down, and carried it with me, careful to hold it with my tissued hand. With each step down the staircase, Holyfield’s ear thumped against my heart like an uppercut. The front door was wide open, partygoers entering and leaving at will. At the bottom of the staircase, I paused, letting the room take in my presence before I walked out the door. No one noticed me. I counted to sixty, then ninety.
No one spoke to me.
I crossed the room, stepped onto the courtyard, and walked right to Rube Benton.
“Rube,” my Damian said, clapping his shoulder. “You know there is a good use for a necktie.”
“And what would that be?” he smiled.
“Why, binding wrists in the bedroom, of course!”
He laughed and clutched my hand. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”
“Damian Lewis,” I said. “Damn fine party, Rube.”
Three hours later, I was drunk, sitting on the back patio with Rube Benton and six other people whose names I had forgotten, telling stories about my days in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, how Donnie Wahlberg was “a charming fellow” but his brother Mark was a “raging arsehole.” How I had played Nintendo with Steven Spielberg when he visited the set of Band of Brothers. That Tom Hanks, yes indeed, was the nicest man in Hollywood. That Mandy Patinkin would get hammered and jump around his trailer in his tightie-whites screaming Inigo Montoya lines. Someone poured Goldschlagger and we finished the bottle. Rube insisted I stay in his house for the night, and I said I couldn’t but would be delighted to meet him for breakfast at the Mandarin, where I was booked under the name George Eliot.
I walked out at four in the morning holding a half-filled highball glass, then climbed in Aaron’s Beamer and drove home like Cary Grant in North by Northwest. I let the car self-park outside my building, hypnotized by the steering wheel spinning itself, then I exited the car and vomited all over the sidewalk before clumping my way up to my apartment and passing out.
When I woke up, I was momentarily confused, staring down the length of my body at my undershirt and boxers. I raised my head, and the pressure inside my skull sloshed against my brain. On the bedside table was a glass of water that I downed in three gulps.
I made coffee and sat at the kitchen table, clutching the mug like a life preserver. The place was silent. My roommates had significant others and were usually not home on the weekends and so my Sundays were often like this: by myself in front of a large and empty table big enough for eight that often was only occupied by one. The ceramic cup had completely cooled in my hands before the doorbell rang. I buzzed Aaron in without even bothering to see if it was him.
“I was waiting on the steps,” he said. He wore a motorcycle jacket I knew he had spent over a grand on. “You had your phone off, you prick. By the way, there’s puke on the sidewalk that, from the color of your face, is yours. Driving home was pretty fucking stupid of you, bro. But I guess you weren’t getting a cab at that time, right?” He laughed and shook his head, a theatrical gesture, and then his eyes stilled with thought. Last year, he had made a small angel investment in a company called Uber, something he would remind me of for the rest of our lives. He looked down at me and tapped the breast pocket of his leather jacket. “You get it?”
I made some sort of noise that meant Aye, Captain and stood, went to my room, fished around in my crumpled suit, and found the glass case. I carried it out to the table, where Aaron sat with two fresh cups of coffee. He pushed my refilled mug toward me.
I set the ear down between us on the kitchen table and we gazed at it as if it were a rare and beautiful museum piece.
“My man,” Aaron murmured.
Last night, I hadn’t really looked at it, focused on getting in and out of the office without being caught. The case was heavy like a paper weight. Its back was some sort of steel, and the front was a sturdy, clean glass. Inside, resting against a purple velvet base, were two pieces, separated ever so slightly, like puzzle pieces about to be linked together. Taking up the lower half of the case was a composite model of the lower portion of an ear. Up at the top, the jagged edges in the cartilage like a mountain range, was the top of Evander Holyfield’s ear.
“You know,” Aaron said. “I never really looked at it.”
“It’s kind of beautiful,” I said, more to myself than him. “Strange, isn’t it?”
“Did you have any trouble getting it out?”
“I was Peter Scott,” I said. “And Damian. All the Brits.”
“I didn’t even have to be Damian. No one fucking cared. I could have been anybody. I could have just been me.”
Aaron loved to talk, and his silence said that he didn’t understand my complaint at all. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a thick white envelope. One more time, he said, my man. I palmed the envelope but couldn’t look up from the ear. Holyfield took and gave punches for a living. I had never been in a fight in my life. In Band of Brothers, the HBO show that made Damian Lewis my permanent doppelgänger, he played a character, Lieutenant Richard Winters, an American officer who fought in World War II and who was the kind of person I once wanted to be: a leader who was intelligent, hardworking, humble, and honest. He was decent, in all the good ways we use that word. It never stopped occurring to me that there was something remarkably sad about finding guidance through a fictitious character.
“I think I need some air,” I said. From the envelope I plucked a hundred dollar bill, bank crisp, and headed out the door, ignoring Aaron’s yell to hold up a minute.
It was still early on Sunday, the smell of fresh baked donuts all throughout the city. In the chilly air, people wrapped up in jackets of all kinds—thrift shop army fatigues to boating jackets to waspy Brooks Brothers blazers—dipped in and out of breakfast joints, carrying their Sunday paper, dining with someone they loved. Or maybe they ate by themselves. What did I really know about what was happening inside anyone’s head?
I live elsewhere now. This year, Damian Lewis starred in a new show, Billions. He played Bobby Axelrod, a powerful New York hedge fund mogul. He and I still look alike. On the show, Damian climbs out of his Olympic size swimming pool, climbs out of his luxury car, walks through his mansion, walks through his masculine and expensive office. I watched Damian Lewis, the self I pretended to be, playing the role of the type of person I wanted to be, Bobby Axelrod. The road not taken, I thought, and I stared at my Frostian doppelgänger acting powerful and confident on screen, the bleak manipulation in the dark, far below the surface.
I glanced at my watch, then I turned off the show. It was time for me to go to work.