It was the kind of party where you could talk to everyone or no one. Player’s choice. I was a guest of a guest, and tired that night, and not interested in making small talk with strangers. He was tall and he wore wire-rimmed glasses. His clean-shaven silhouette made him inconspicuous in this crowd of lawyers, financiers, doctoral students. I might have overlooked him but for the authenticity of his handshake, which I complimented, prompting him to laughingly reminisce about how his older brother used to make him practice shaking hands, perhaps for just such an occasion as this.
He was courteous, pleasant, self-effacing, sociable. After a while, though, I was aware that we were circling around and around the subject of what he did for a living. He seemed hesitant to articulate the exact nature of his job. He told me his “job” (finger quotes his) had taken him away from the city for the last three months. He told me he had spent these three months “working” in the heat of the Mojave Desert. I pressed him for further details. He demurred. I persisted. Finally, stepping out his left foot about 12 inches from center, and clasping his hands behind his back, he stated:
“I’m a United States Marine.”
Half-confession, half-brag, it put an end to our small talk, but not our conversation. I wanted information, in detail. He was not intimidated by provocative questions. We talked for three hours straight, pausing only when he would go refill our glasses. At some point, we wandered toward the chess set on the coffee table and played two rounds. He did not let me win.