Staying

We cling together like droplets of water, crawling up or down glass in order to fuse with similar molecules. We isolate ourselves and shut our eyes to what happens outside our safe haven. We are loyal to one another and to no one else.

When we climbed onto rooftops as children, we saw the reason behind our elders’ warnings not to go up there. The view beyond our narrow streets and teetering buildings was grim. If our own children’s expressions are anything like our own were, the world outside our walls has not improved.

When the rare outsider arrives, we celebrate. It is a low-key celebration, nothing like the City Holidays. We pour coffee and bring out the biscuits covered in chocolate, the ones we save for special occasions, and we ask the newcomer questions. We ask about faraway places, the names of which we often mispronounce. R-Kansas, we are told, is actually Ark-n’-Saw. Mehico, the outsider corrects, is Meksico. New York, he says, hasn’t been New for a dozen dozen years. And York, he adds, is not a place you want to know about. Whatever makes a person’s eyes alive dies when he says this, until we ask about Boss-town, and then he smiles and takes out a digigraph of his niece, who was born there, who is beautiful.

We all host the outsiders when they come. We take turns and try not to be greedy. We sometimes wonder whether the newcomers would prefer to settle in one place while they stay here, but the truth is that while we are all eager to talk to the people from outside, we also don’t trust them, not entirely. It is safer to keep them on their toes, keep them moving. We don’t want them getting too comfortable. It is the rare outsider who receives a permit to settle here, and we don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up. Not ours, not theirs.

City Holidays are magical. Fireworks are shot into the air and the power stays on all night and we break out the cosmetics and paint our faces as if we were Hollywood stars from the old 2D pictures, with lipstick and eyeshadow and cufflinks to match. We dance in the squares, in big circles, holding hands. We stay up until morning and then get together in big prearranged crews and clean up all the garbage our revelry generated.

There is a time for play and a time for order, and we teach our children to recognize the difference. When the thrice-yearly referendum on the state of our City come along, we show the children how to vote and explain why we choose the things we do and try to present a cheerful face even when the opposite result comes through, because that is what democracy is about, after all.

We remember our first votes, just after our fourteenth birthdays, coupled with our first apprenticeship placements and, for many of us, our first budding romances, kindled in the heat of the ironically called baby steps towards adulthood and the bittersweet flavor of responsibility. Our first votes were sweat-stained affairs. The decision, yae/nae for whichever proposition was our first, felt like a life-and-death one, even though no bullet-fueled weapon was being held to our heads, nor was there a threat to our beings should our vote ultimately be cast on the losing side.

There are rumors of people disappearing occasionally, but what society does not include conspiracy theories? We know our government, though. We are our government. And we aren’t thugs. We occasionally get into scraps when heavy drinking is involved, and of course we have a rotating schedule for guard duty and there are some nights when the more desperate among us attempt theft or assault, but murder is not a common crime. Similarly, kidnapping or “disappearing” criminals or, indeed, those who don’t agree with the more powerful among us – this is not a practice we condone. It is, besides, unnecessary. People know when they are not wanted, but it is more often by their family or their spurning lovers or, more tragically, by their resentful children. If people disappear from our City, it is because they have been active, have “disappeared” themselves, have, in short, left.

When the outsiders leave, though, few of us have the desire to go along with them. We remember our early days of rooftop adventures, and we remember the gray barrenness that lay outside our secure City. We’re safe here, and we’re staying.

Unexpected Royalty

“It was not cute,” my roommate said. “I’m not a screamer or anything, but eugh.”

That was the day the large rat made its entrance into our lives. It was an innocuous enough beginning. Nobody, not even my sturdy, stalwart roommate, likes to be faced with a rat as big as a tennis racket is long when going to the garbage room of the apartment building. Seeing them in the subway, running across the tracks and somehow always avoiding the third rail – that’s cute. But having one sit there and stare at you is an entirely different story.

I’m not the kind of guy who thinks of girls as wusses, but I was pretty surprised when my roommate wouldn’t let the subject of the rat go.

“Seriously, Mal, I’m telling you, it was so big, and it was just staring at me. You don’t understand. It had this look…”

“Yeah, okay, but you wipe the asses of old men all day for a living. How is a rat worse?”

She glared. “That’s not all I do and you know it. Look, I know that it’s not exactly sexy, going into geriatrics, but it’s important, okay, like how would you like it if you were eighty and in the hospital and all the nurses kept talking to you like you were four and–“

“Yeah, yeah, I know. You’re too easy to get, you know.”

She swatted me with the kitchen towel and threatened she wouldn’t share her food. The rat was forgotten at least then.

It was my turn to take the garbage out the next week. I pushed the responsibility off by shoving the yuck in the can down again and again with bits of cardboard from the recycling bin (which also needed clearing). When I couldn’t avoid it anymore, I made myself mouth-breathe, tied the bag, and took it down to the absolutely disgusting garbage room.

There are always flies hovering around it, a dark cloud of them buzzing and flying in geometric shapes, over and over again. One night, when I was really high, I speculated that maybe the shapes they made were runes, spells, and that it was flies that kept the earth twirling and going round the sun. The idea stuck with me, unlike most of my stoned babble, and it made me wary of swatting them.

I pushed the garbage room door open and swung the bag back in an arc so I could toss it all the way in without setting foot inside the room. Before I let the bag loose, though, a fat brown rat caught my eye. The bag swung back down and pendulumed a little in my upraised hand. I didn’t really notice. I suppose I kept my hold on it by sheer instinct.

I was mesmerized. This rat – it was positively majestic. It was the Cleopatra of rats. The Henry VIII of rats. The freaking Freddie Mercury of rats. It had a scar across its left eye and one of its protruding front teeth was chipped. Its grey fur was matted but it looked like a coat bought from the Salvation Army, like a vintage delicacy scrounged from the bargain bin. There should have been a soundtrack of a guitar solo going.

It – I have no idea how you tell rat gender – was also slouched sideways, kind of leaning towards one hip. If it had eyebrows, it would only have been raising one. This rat, this cool as a mofo rat, was basically asking me what the hell did I think I was doing, barging into its domain.

There was squeak, the only squeak I’ve ever heard that had a smoker’s rasp to it, and I could swear the intonation was the same as “get the hell out of here,” as spoken by any impatient bartender getting rid of a shoeless customer.

I took the garbage next door and tossed it in their garbage room.

When I got back upstairs, I asked my roommate if she’d thrown the garbage in there with the rat last week.

“What rat?”

“Oh come on. You know which rat.”

“…you’ve seen it?”

“Have I. Have I!”

“So you know,” she breathed.

“Why did you pretend to be disgusted by it?”

“What else could I do? Tell you that the King of All Rats is presiding over our very garbage room? You’d have told me I was insane.”

“I guess. But now I understand. I get it. We have royalty here.”

“Yes. And you know what makes us. Courtiers.”

That- that was just the beginning of our involvement with the rat.

Irene, Social Media Queen

It’s a funny thing about electric kettles. Irene always forgets about them. She clicks it on again and again, leaves the kitchen, and forgets to come back. The kettle is so quiet, boiling away, and by the time it shuts itself off with a little hiss, she’s already back at her desk, her head sucked back into the world of social media, her eyes glued to the screen and her neck craned forward in the way the doctor told her was bad.

Women like Irene don’t really exist. Women in their sixties aren’t suppose to understand blogging, tweeting, tumbling. They’re supposed to be scandalized by Reddit. Scared of Facebook. Simple emails are all they can do. Except women like Irene, who do exist, sort of, on the periphery of reality.

Irene smokes a pack a day. Still. She doesn’t have lung cancer. Yet. She measures things this way. What is she still doing, what hasn’t happened yet. She puts things into columns in her head, dividing the good habits from the bad, the desired future events from the ones to be avoided.

On her fourth smoking break of the day, Irene talks to the young assistants. They’re eager, tattooed, rainbow-haired. One of the boys – Irene can’t think of him as a man, even though he’s in his twenties – has grown his hair into an afro. Irene can tell he takes care of it. She admires him. Her granddaughters are all straightening their hair or keeping it short. She knows that she could grow her hair out too, but it would be such an awful lot of effort to dye the gray away. It isn’t worth the time.

She’s forgotten about the coffee she was trying to make again. A bottle of ice tea is what she needs. The kind with the wacky flavors that marketers invented to make the drinks seem trendy and healthy, which means the same thing, even though they’re infused with so much sugar they don’t taste like tea anymore. Irene loves them.

It’s always been this way. Irene loves everything and everybody that isn’t good for her.

“I saw you in the paper!” the cashier at the deli across the street says to Irene as she rings up her bottle of tea and the bag of pseudo-homemade chocolate chip cookies that Irene picked out on a whim and a sweet tooth. The cashier is shorter than Irene by a foot and has braces. She’s wrapped in a white smock that hides her pregnant belly. Irene feels sorry for her and knows she shouldn’t. People must look at Irene and feel sorry for her too, she knows, and she would resent it if they ever expressed it. Not that they would. After she’d punched that man on the train for touching her hair once, when it was longer and she was younger, she seemed to project a new air of fearlessness, of don’t-approach-me-don’t-talk-to-me. A street savvy she wishes other women would adopt.

“Yup. That’s me,” Irene says.

“You’re cool, abuela,” the cashier grins as she hands Irene her change.

“Yo no soy tu abuela,” Irene says. She doesn’t wait for the girl’s response. She leaves the deli and has one of the cookies on her way back up to the office. The man in the suit in the elevator stares at her, digging around in the crinkly plastic cookie-bag. She proffers it. “Want one?”

Nobody knew her age where it mattered, not until the stupid profile. Irene can’t get the word out of her mind. Abuela. She shouldn’t have been so rude to the girl. It was meant to be a compliment, an endearment. Irene had chatted to the girl before about her grandkids, congratulated the girl on her pregnancy. She was pretty sure she’d even joked about how since her own kids only want to see her when she can watch their children and fulfill her role as grandmother. Maybe that’s why the girl said it. Maybe it was all Irene’s fault.

She’d gotten nine hundred and twelve new followers on Twitter in the last twenty-four hours alone. Her Tumblr inbox was getting ridiculous. The profile had gone viral online. “Sixty-three, Irene, Social Media Queen.” It shouldn’t have come as a shock, but it had. She, who understood so much about what made people tick, what words drew people in, still knew that it was a crap shoot, what would get really popular and what wouldn’t. She didn’t expect to become a sensation on par with some minor walrus videos that got pretty big.

Irene put her tea in the kitchen fridge to get it colder and clicked the kettle on.

Watched

I’ve never known what constitutes a garden. It’s something cultivated. Something that needs pruning and sheering . Weeding and seeding and watering. I have always been under the impression that gardens need care but not constant supervision. That they’re planted for the enjoyment of people. Like the rose gardens that some really fancy hotels have. Or for practical use, like a vegetable garden. The kind of thing that hippies live off of.

I was surprised when Nora told me she was moving into her garden.

I hadn’t visited her yet. She’d moved upstate to somewhere with cheap houses and high taxes. The kind of loose collection of residencies that is called a village and that is nestled inside something called a township which is then part of a county. I’m pretty sure we don’t have hamlets in the US. I think that’s just an English thing. But if Nora could have moved to a hamlet, she would have.

She’d hated living in the city. Four years for college, then seven years for her MA and PhD. Until she gave up on her dissertation and moved away. I never understood it. How she could she abandon all that work. Seven years. All those hours in the library. All those late nights agonizing over data. She’d jumped up and down after year five, when the department agreed to fund her for two more years. That’s how much promise they saw in her.
Anyway, I hadn’t heard from Nora in a good six months, since she’d moved away in November. In May, while I was loading up the dishwasher that I’d finally started using, I got this call from her. Her voice was the same. Distracted. I asked her how she was, and she said she was moving out of her house for the summer.

“Coming back to the city, huh? Knew you couldn’t keep away.”

“No,” she said. I can never tell if she knows I’m making a dig at her or not. Probably not. But maybe. She did leave, after all. “No, not at all. I’m just moving outside. The garden needs watching.”

“Why does it need watching? Are your eyeballs going to make it grow faster?” I stood over the hot sink, and my face was still sweaty, and Nora sounded like she’d always sounded, like she was looking for a piece of paper to jot something down on.

“Yes, basically.”

“What, so you have a quantum garden?”

Her laughter had always been kind of horsey, at odds with her small teeth and wide jawline that betrayed nothing equine. She was more cat than anything. She started and stopped things abruptly.When she laughed, like she did then, it was a short neighing sequence followed by sudden silence.

She asked me how I was. I wanted to stop talking about her, so I said, “I’m using the dishwasher now. But you’ve ruined me, I’m still washing the dishes before putting them in there.”

Nora had always been very anti-dishwasher. She sounded less certain now. “Well,” she said. “That’s good. You always wanted to use it.”

I wasn’t going to ask her why she’d called. She would tell me or she wouldn’t, and if she didn’t, I’d be able to invent my own – better – reason.

We Sheltered

Bomb shelters aren’t romantic.
As children, we cowered under our desks, hands stuffed tightly to our mouths to keep ourselves from giggling. The teacher, struggling to stay in her high heeled shoes, would hide under her big table just like us. We worried about the brown-bag lunches in our desks, and how we would get to them if we had to stay crouched for a long time. We worried about our bladders, which only made the urge to go worse. But we were ultimately thrilled every time the duck-and-cover drill came along. We felt important. We were Americans, and we were worthy of being saved. We also got to miss ten minutes of New Math, another plus.
When we grew up and had children of our own, we told them the stories of that old-school naivete. They laughed at us, at our time, at the hair we had in the crumbling photographs we never bothered putting in photo albums. We felt less important. We tried to make our children feel more so. We put their photos in albums, until Facebook came along and they did it themselves.

We remember our fathers digging bomb shelters in the back yard. We remember asking him if he was trying to dig to China, and the way he picked us up and swung us up to his shoulders and told us it was the damn foreigners he was trying to get away from. We sat on his shoulders on the 4th of July too, and felt that much closer to the fireworks exploding above us in the sky. Our dogs would hide during the explosions. They understood better than we did that things that go boom in the sky are to be feared, not welcomed with gleeful applause.

Our children fear things more intelligently than we do. We were brave. We wanted to change the world, get out the vote, stop the war. We had more ideals than fears. Our children roll their eyes at us and tell us we don’t understand, our privacy is at risk, the government is listening in on us, it’s a George Orwell nightmare. We remember 1984 being so far away, we tell our children. We remember believing a desk could protect us from the atom bomb. We remember trusting.