A memorial for mankind (2)

[this is the second part. scroll down for the first if you have not already read it.]

Message in a bottle

 

Let me tell you what the thunder said.

 

Datta

When I was younger, my mother told me of Earth, but she called it La Terre.

She told me what thunder was. She told me about the mousson rains that would come to Pondicherry in the hot months.

She told me how the mousson began to fail more and more. She told me of cities swollen with refugees, of blue-helmeted soldiers handing out rations and water. She watched from behind the blast walls of the embassy, her own father rolling cigarettes nervously.

She told me of the dry thunder, when the rains did not come and the crops did not grow. She told me that whole cities could sometimes be destroyed in the blink of an eye. She would recite their names sometimes, like a prayer. Mombasa. Seoul. Jerusalem.

I’ve never seen a city with my own eyes. So many people all together! A pale blue ceiling that was infinitely high, swallowing up these huge glass buildings. The vision was unreal to me.

For her, this was the promise of Cybele. A world where war was unknown. A world where would be safe. She passed black beads between her fingers as she spoke. Justice for our lost children. Justice for my daughters. God, how could you let such crimes into the world?

We would sit together, after school-shift. She would read old poems to me and we would watch nature documentaries. There was this old man with a beautiful, clipped accent who narrated them. I used to think this was the voice of god, before father told me that god did not exist.

He ran his rough, scarred hands over the computer interface, and a human brain appeared. He pointed to a little spot in the temporal lobe. That was where god lived, he said. He could induce god with an electromagnet. Where he came from, rapture was a commodity. They gave it to people to convince them to blow up buildings and kill soldiers.

“Omar…” my mother cautioned him.

They argued through the whole night shift and we ate breakfast in silence. Later, after school-shift, we read poems and everything was normal. We watched a documentary about squid. Father was joking that we’d meet one on Cybele and it would try to eat us. Mother pointed out that he was a human medical doctor and didn’t know anything about alien squid. That was her field.

The narrator was a younger man with an accent almost like mother’s. I don’t recall what that sounds like anymore.

 

Dayadhvam

There was a girl in my secondary class named Li. She wanted to be a botanist more than anything, and it was incredible when you got her talking about plants. Her passion was intoxicating. She loved to sit in the oxygen gardens and meditate, and I loved to sit with her.

She was scared of the sky and how cold and black it was. She preferred the luminescence of the forest, and even when the lights dimmed there were algae that pulsed blue in the darkness.

We fell in love. We would walk together down the corridors of the medial drum, the broad sloping path that had always made my father so uneasy. A year later, we petitioned for our own communal living space and after a series of tests, we were granted it.

Father was too old fashioned to accept us, but he was a relic of a bygone era, a doctor in a world where machines could perform medical analysis with increasingly better accuracy. His scars, mother said, were the testimony of a world we had left behind. Still, he came in the end, standing statuesque in the back of the small crowd. He still loved me.

Not long after my wedding, he told me that he spent his last day on Earth at a hospital in Amman. He described to me a picture I could never have imagined. “Never forget.” He told me. “Never forget what we are capable of.”

I never have.

 

 

Damyata

When my father passed away, it was a surprise. He’d always been a survivor, from growing up on the streets of Haifa to now. The stroke that took him was sudden, immediate, and utterly random. By the time I had reached his quarters, it was far too late.

He and his belongings were mostly recycled. The constructs and attendants were picking over the relics of the past. They left little room for sentiment. He had brought a book with him, a beautifully bound text on human anatomy that was scanned, memorized, and then recycled. His clothes vanished before my eyes and soon the room was empty and silent. The interfaces where mother had showed me all those documentaries, the bedroom where Li and I had first made love. All of that was erased and sanitized.

I hated the constructs then, even if I understood. Images were cheap – but tangible reality was expensive.

Our world had strict tolerances. Waste was impermissible. On Earth they burned bodies or sealed them in metal cases where they did not biodegrade for decades or centuries. On Earth the air you breathe never emptied. The ocean was omnipresent, always rising.

 

These fragments I have shored against my ruins

Let me tell you about my home.

You gave me all my memories of Terre. Let me give you one of the future.

Looking wheelward from the engine, tethered to the exterior in perfect weightless harmony with the ship’s momentum, the whole vessel seems so small and precious – a child to be protected and nurtured. Or a skyscraper, fragile delicate glass rising impossibly against the elements. A monument to be cherished.

I will protect it, whatever the cost may be.

Where my father healed people, I heal our home. I follow its latticework conduits and make the repairs that will make our journey possible. I have always felt comfortable out here. So many of us do not.

When I return around lightdown, Li is always animated, torn between concern and joy. Some night-shifts she cradles me in her arms, whispering my name like mother’s prayers. Other night-shifts she is excited. “Renée!” She bounds forward and grabs me bodily. “Renée you won’t believe what happened at work! We fixed the mold!” She humors me in her stories because I’ve never understood her plants, let alone her discussions of genehacking and mold on the aestivum.

This is what I fell in love with all those years ago.

Still other nights, Li tells me about the seedbanks and the gene vaults, entire silos of resources that will not be opened until we arrive on Cybele. She tells me about the safeguards and reinforced walls. The vault is the closest thing to holy on this side of the vacuum.

With the tools and materials inside we could recreate all the living things on Earth, and yet its door is locked until our arrival. Sometimes, when no-one is looking she stares at it and imagines what it would be like to have the door slide slowly open and pure possibilities to spill forth. She always described the miracles inside. I know she would give anything to get inside.

I try to remind her that this dream is impossible. We have our own miracle to care for.

Now, sitting on the brink of a new cycle, writing these words, I place Li’s hand on my belly, where the slight swell is just beginning to become noticeable. Our children will be the middle generation.

It was always an unspoken assumption that we would bring new life into the world. It was always our duty to perpetuate this story.

But the actuality of it is different. I can’t avoid being overawed and terrified at this responsibility, at the fact that the future has crept up some medical instrument and into me.

Then I remember my father’s words, the images of those last days in Amman that I can see clear as day. I have never told Li what he said that day, nor will I tell my children. I can spare them those images. I can spare them Pondicherry in the dry season. I can spare them Mombasa, Seoul, Jerusalem. I can keep for them the beautiful things.

 

Shantih shantih shantih

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A memorial for mankind

This is where we are.

 

*

 

We are a single, luminous point in an emptiness so vast that the human mind cannot conceive of it if it tried.

We are a ship, and we are a city. In our cylindrical drum there is perfect gravity. In our garden there is food. Water and air are closed systems. Our reserves are barely tapped, but there is room for error.

Our destination is a world called Cybele. It has approximate .8 earths of gravity and the correct atmosphere for fostering organic life. Ahead of us, capable of decelerating at speeds that would turn us to pulp, ride the terraforming machines, self-replicating devices who never tire and never complain.

By the time we arrive, Cybele will be a garden.

Or so we hope.

 

In space, there is nothing to slow you down. In the absence of all things, our forward progress is inexorable.

We will keep moving until the ship is rotated along its axis and the deceleration ‘burn’ begins. I will not live to see that day. None of us will.

That thought has never bothered me.

 

If by some accident we do not begin the deceleration, if the engine fails or if the crew is incapable of performing the “turn and burn” then we will continue moving forever, or until we find ourselves captured by a sufficiently large gravity well. That is a less comforting thought.

The laws that govern our motion are immutable.

 

We have to pray that our descendants can turn the ship around and pull the trigger at the appointed time. We have to pray that nothing goes wrong. We have to pray that the world does not end before then.

Nothing much has changed. This is the history of humanity.

 

In my time, Earth was not one nation. By the time you read this, it may well be. In my time, the nations of Earth were engaged in colonial endeavors amongst the stars. Our various polities sent autonomous vehicles to mine asteroids and humans had begun, slowly and cautiously, to visit and live on the surface of other worlds, hostile though they might have been to organic life.

That’s no way to ensure the survival of the species. That’s just stalling.

As long as humanity remains confined to one system, to one world, we are vulnerable. To those who have said the stars are not for us, I say they must be. We were made to wander. To seek out new worlds. To adapt. To thrive.

 

I spent my last day on Earth at Sandymount Strand. I have chosen to remember it as it was in early morning. The air ways slightly chilled by a wind from the west. Clouds dangled in the sky, moving as if along wires. Their filaments grew darker to the west, anchored by the path of the jet stream.

By the time you read this, those words might be meaningless to you. Even in my time, the Strand was sinking beneath a quickly rising sea. Humanity lived in a paradise we were destroying. The forests were gutted, the oceans choked with refuse and poisons.

Seagulls flew in arcing paths guided by sharp breaths of wind. The crest of Howth Head rose like the back of a beached leviathan out of the foggy deep.

The Strand was vacant, quiet. In the distance there were smokestacks and glass towers. On a clear day you would be able to see them. So it goes.

 

We have raised our children here. It has been thirty years since any of us have seen Earth, but we preserve its memory. We have told them of Paris, of the cafes of Buenos Aires, of the Grand Canyon and the Yellow River. We have tried to describe rainstorms and wildfires. We have tried and failed to relate things that you can only understand through experience.

We have tried to preserve Earth, to make a memorial of a place our children will never know. We have tried to explain what we have given up.

However, there is one thing we do not discuss. It has become a ritual for us.

No-one else knows about my last day. I have never told Siobhan, the love of my life. I have never told my children.

We decided, through unspoken agreement, to keep it holy. The organization that sent us off granted us the freedom to choose any place in the world. It was a small cost compared to the trillions of euros sunk into this endeavor.

 

This is the history of man. You make a machine. You make a machine to make a machine. That machine builds another machine.

Your children outlive you.

 

How can you explain a sunset to a child who has only seen the sun on computer screens and VR sims? How do you explain to them that our world was dying? How do you explain that we lived in constant war with ourselves, with nature, and with all our creations? How do you explain that to a child who has never known anything but bright, sterile abundance?

I have asked myself that every day. I have sat in front of my classroom and pondered how to explain to the dull, sleepy children in my care the burden we all share.

I sit in front of my own children sometimes. When I was born I had a choice. I chose this life. I chose to imagine a new life on Cybele. I chose to defer that dream so that my children’s children’s children could live it.

I chose to make my life a memorial of humanity.

How can I ask them to make that same choice? Eoin and Maeve are watching the ocean again. They are sitting in my living-room, awaiting the test results that will decide their occupation for the next five years.

“It smells of salt.” I tell them. “The air has this scent of salt. It’s all around you. It raises the hairs on the back of your neck. And when you wade into it, you can feel the power. You can feel it rushing around you. It’s exhilarating.” Siobhan and I met by the ocean, one night clubbing in Barcelona. I don’t tell them that. I don’t want to.

They have never seen water in quantities bigger than a hydroponic hose can produce. If by some miracle my children were to see a horizon they would never understand it. They wouldn’t be able to anchor their eyes correctly – they’re too used to the gentle arcing contours of their world, to confinement and false angles.

 

The next morning, I was back in the classroom. Today we had to run evacuation drills. In case of depressurization of any portion of the ship, you have mere minutes to make it to a safe zone. In case of a fire, the doors begin closing automatically. These are the cold equations we have made.

Li was trapped behind the wall. When the alarms went silent and the ship was cold and bright and safe again, I took her in my arms. I told her it was okay, that it was just a drill. There would be time to try again.

 

Our ship has an observation deck, where there is no pull of centrifugal gravity. Few of our children ever come here. It is mostly silent. The emptiness of space is strange to most, the conceit that we would even desire an observation deck being a very… planetary choice.

I took Eoin to see it once, when he was very young, before his sister was even born. Siobhan was there, holding his hand as he floated in the blackness.

The human body depends upon gravity to survive. In its absence we need medicine and calcium supplements. Our muscles atrophy. Our eyes deform and our organs suffer.

My son vomited the first time he floated in the blackness. Small constructs with cleaning agents and a damp towel were by his side immediately.

“I’m sorry… we’re sorry.” But this is the world. This is what you were born into. Forgive me.

 

Last night, I imagined that the hard burn had kicked in, and the long, slow deceleration that marked our journey’s end was upon us.

Our grandchildren were unrecognizable. When they stepped, blinking, onto solid ground they soiled themselves and screamed and fled back into the safety of the vehicle.

I stood there, resolute. I was Moses on the mountaintop. I knew that the chosen land was not for me. I knew I would never step foot in the holy land. Eoin was there, his eyes wide. He was seven years old, floating as if on wires in the emptiness. Terraforming machines combed the basalt architecture of the world.

What could I say to these children? They fled into the brightly lit womb of the ship. Cybele was not their mother.

 

Later, I took him to the observation deck again. He was seventeen then. It had been ten years since he’d seen the future.

I pointed to a single, solitary dot in the emptiness, chosen for me by a computer overlay. I could only hope that he would understand.

 

“This world is yours. We died for it.”

New poem

(not yet titled)

Do you remember the stars, Habibi?
I almost don’t anymore.
When I try to tell our daughter about them, I struggle.
They were like the flecks of dust or bonfire ash
dancing on updrafts,
only
the stars were fixed and anchored.

They were little holes in the heavens,
and sometimes on a clear night
after the cities all went dark,
you could see them twinkle.
My daughter brings me a handful of crisp,
pure stars one morning,
and she dissolves when I realize that is impossible.

We have nothing to fear but the clear blue sky.
We have nothing to fear but a false star in the azure.

Now and then sometimes I drift
half into wakefulness
and I see a single, brilliant point.
It dangles like a jewel
and somehow I know
somehow I know everything
revolves around it.
When it gutters like a candle,
I know that I am not needed.
When it flickers out entirely,
I am back with my daughter and my wife again.

Fatima is tending the storefront.
There is an extraordinary implication
between her red lips.
She passes it to me.
She dissolves when our daughter comes carrying the stars.

The point snaps into agonizing focus. It swallows the horizon.

It’s our little secret

Love in a motorcade,
Just an old game we played
Passing the hours
Counting the cars

You’ll be my Monica
I’ll be your Bill
It’s all okay baby
You always will

Snow in Colorado
A flood down the Rio
Out of catastrophe
The tamarisks drink

Really makes you think
Sex was our loaded gun
Out in the sunshine
Nothing’s much fun

Feeling the atrophy
Lotus to consume
You always will leave me
We have to make room

Constituents

Let me tell you about constituents.

I never paid them much attention. I should confess that first. Still though, talking to them was part of the job, the lowest position on the vast totem pole of the Washington DC legislature. But sometimes, particularly when a bill like ASC-INTF was coming down the pipeline, we’d be all hands on deck. In those hectic times, when the grunt work was unavoidable, the whole thing took on the appearance of ritual self-sacrifice, with exaggerated sighs and dramatic gestures. Afterwards we’d gather and commiserate, drink beers and share the most absurd or pathetic stories.

I didn’t care. You wouldn’t either. You learn quickly how to smile blandly, to noncommittally defend your beliefs and promise radical changes all at once. You learn how to dismiss without being dismissive. You learn these things because you have to, because the alternative is being reduced to tears by some redneck asshole from Delaware who thinks his legislators haven’t done enough to drive the welfare queens to Canada where they goddamn belong.

You find yourself sitting in the room with the people who are simultaneously your only friends and worst enemies. You find yourself wishing for a coffee break as some idiot from Colorado fails to understand that your politician doesn’t even represent him. “When do I get my FEMA money?” He asks you in a gravelly voice ruined by cigarettes and age. “They said I’d be getting money from FEMA. For the avalanche. You know. I talked to a nice lady the other day about it. I want my FEMA money.”

Sooner or later, you’d just stop listening. You’d hear, of course. But you would be more Chinese Room Experiment than person. I just took it a bit further, hearing key words and modeling my responses off those. It sounds incredible, maybe. It sounds insane or terrible or reckless. But you’ve heard about me on the news. You’ve seen my face, you’ve seen the press conferences and the police lines and the body-bags. You know what they say about me. You probably believe it. Good.

That means somebody is doing their job. I don’t blame them for that. I can’t.

You have to understand I wasn’t thinking. I wasn’t thinking about much of anything but my job, my real one. ASC-INTF was coming. I needed to work on subsection 3A. And then make a pithy tweet about it. That’s the real work. Mass media. Mass communication. Polling data analysis. The hoi polloi just don’t get it.

You would stop listening. I did.

Six in the morning, and the sun is just cresting the scattered lowrises of the DC skyline. I’m already pounding back coffee, looking over my trade commission notes. They’re useless now. I check twitter. I don’t have the password anymore. I check the news. No new crises. The world is quiet, or as quiet as the dull roaring traffic ever lets it be. I still notice it, even after a few years. I don’t think my guest does.

I have company, but I’m not acknowledging him yet. I have to tend to my pain first, the private crisis building in my skull.

Sometimes, I longed for a new crisis. Crises are excellent for careers, because they separate the wheat from the chaff. No matter who you are, if you play a crisis right, you can advance. It comes down to how politicians react rhetorically, whether aides remain calm under pressure, how the media covers the whole affair. Never let a good crisis go to waste, right, Rahm?

There’s no time for a life here. I took, and still take, pride in that fact. In a weird, neurotic, type A way, it’s what we all want, right? Unending days that blend seamlessly into nights, whole twenty-four hour cycles spent alternating between offices, coffeeshops and bars. All my friends are in politics now. I just missed my best college friend’s wedding and when she called me I forgot I’d even RSVPed.

It’s fun though. Over beers and coffee we confess the dirty secrets of our trade, bicker about whose politician is the worst, and sometimes, if we’re really at a low point, we might even ask each other for advice.

I’d drag strangers back to my studio apartment, apologize for the mess, make them a drink and fuck them. It was nice, I guess. I had a boyfriend or two, but they were like me. We talked shop for foreplay and when they left and my bed was empty again it became tough to remember their names or faces. They made about as much of an impression as I ever did. There was always the lingering notion that life used to be somehow different, but all my more juvenile experiences with love were tinged with heartbreak or eventual boredom or more commonly some combination of the two.

Besides, being a good lover won’t get you very far here. Ask Monica or any of the thousand nameless people like her. It just makes you a pariah. Laziness is the enemy. Shortcuts are one thing… but being dumb enough to be caught, to be known? Hell itself follows.

Still, companionship helps. It really does. Especially on those eighty-hour workweeks when everything is reduced to the simple inescapable facts of policy and politics. The machine. ASC-INTF. I don’t even remember what it stands for anymore. The vast proletariat mass and the talking heads alike called it the Family Freedom and Jobs Bill. The Johnson Bill, if you were feeling prosaic. The Dick Bill if you worked here.

If only I knew then how much the Dick Bill would fuck me, I would have ran home and gotten a job at Best Buy. Or some other real growth industry, like the Newspaper or a taxi company. But I was oblivious. We all were.

You have to remember that we knew we were the elite. We were where it happened. The movers and shakers, the silent engine that kept the government running while politicians smiled and promise and made their sexy backroom deals with cigars and brandy. Our mandates came down from on high, sure, but we made them work. We sanitized and massaged. We didn’t work in communications because our job was to explain. Half the time I swear we just made the incomprehensible even more incomprehensible, just to make sure the constituents never noticed. It was exhausting. It was stressful. But it was fun.

You don’t last in this job unless you’ve got a real passion for it. An addiction to newsfeeds and statistics, to keeping your fist clenched around the heartbeat of America. You don’t last in this job. It wears you out. It steals your soul. It steals your sleep.

Sometimes, when I got sleep, I remembered my dreams. I always remembered my dreams. The alarm somehow managed to hit right in the middle of a REM cycle without fail. I swear it waited and watched. It sensed my eyes fluttering blindly and it knew, oh it knew, to start screaming.

Last night, I confess, I slept fine.

It was tough to get any sleep until now.

A year ago, during one of those brief and pointless flings, I asked if it ever got any easier.

“The slog doesn’t end, love.” He said, fumbling around in the dark, rooting amongst old bottles and heaps of clothes for his underwear. I didn’t mention that I’d clearly tossed them in the opposite corner. Let him struggle a bit. “You want my advice? You can make twenty thousand more a year in the private sector. All it requires is compromise.”

“Compromise?”

“Yeah. You’ve got to give up the antiquated crusader mentality. DC isn’t a fortress. Your war isn’t holy. Get out. Move to the suburbs. Start a family. What are you waiting for here? Life is all those moments you’re missing waiting for your big break in a city that chews up little staffers like you.” He stood straight again, giving my room a glassy-eyed survey, taking in the contents. “Oh god, they’re on the windowsill!” He shook his head in a mockery of awe.

“Fuck that. Fuck this.” I grumbled softly, and rolled back over into the pillow. I don’t remember the rest of our conversation. I don’t remember if he tried to roll me over to plant a kiss on my cheek or if he just awkwardly said goodbye or if he laid down beside me and we cuddled for a bit. I don’t remember if I was stubborn or tractable. I don’t remember what I said.

I knew what I wanted after all. It wasn’t him, it wasn’t words with strangers. It wasn’t money or power or any sort of fame. I just wanted to be somebody. I wanted to be somewhere important.

I don’t know why I wanted that. I’m sure there’s a morning talk show asking that very question now.

It wasn’t about the crusade for me. It wasn’t about that for most of us. The diehards, the ideologues, they slipped away slowly. The pragmatism ground them down and the fled into the ACLU or the NRA, into the Sierra Club or the Brookings Institute. Good riddance.

I don’t remember a lot of the past few months. At some point it all became a blur, imperfections creeping through the cracks in my premeditated façade. The stress grew with each little trip-up, each slip only giving validation to my greatest fears.

The first sign was when I started confusing my dreams for reality, waking up and not remembering if a certain email or a certain panicked summary of a trade bill was memory of fantasy. Then later I couldn’t honestly tell you what I ate for dinner. I tried to keep track in little binders, writing ‘dear diary today I had shrimp’ and ‘remember to iron your pants’ but within a week or two they joined the endless trash pile absorbing my room.

I can’t tell you how many times potential fuckbuddies told me girls were supposed to be tidy. I can’t tell you how many of their faces I’ve forgotten.

The room is tidy now. The empty beer bottles packed into recycling beside the half-used notebooks. The clothes are neatly ordered in a way that speaks to a certain unique sort of neurosis.

The siege is external, but eventually it will end. That’s what they tell me. The reporters will get bored. The newscycle will turn over and then I’ll be forgotten, for a while at least.

That’s when the real war begins.

This is just a foretaste, and it’s already breaking me. I ate a healthy fucking meal yesterday. I sat and watched the sunrise from between the slats of my apartment blinds.

I don’t remember what was said that day. I wish I did. My family, and the rare coworker brave enough to listen to my story, offer sympathy. They seem to have bought into one of the more flattering media narratives, that of my complete mental breakdown. Some paid psychological consultants apparently have said that my voice seems indicative of someone under considerable pressure.

My coworkers, especially Aaron, just make jokes about the Dick Bill. They shoot me texts about how ASC-INTF is officially the most boring document anyone’s ever been killed over. They send me dirty jokes too. Here’s one: “The Dick Bill really blew up in Johnson’s face. They’ll be cleaning up the aftermath for weeks. Hey, did you hear he’s hiring a fluffer to bring it back to life in a few cycles?”

I guess we’re pretty far away from it all. We have that luxury.

It’s not long before there’s a new project. Some bill which will either take all the jobs and reassign them to immigrants or move them all to China. Probably both at once. Don’t worry, America.

I watch from afar until the texts dry up and the siege does not let up. I’m running low on food and beer. I can’t face the cameras. Not until I get the call, at any rate. Finally, begrudgingly, I reach outside of the beltway bubble.

A few days into the siege, a familiar face appeared at my door, squinting into the peephole. At first, I didn’t recognize him. It had been a while since college, and to tell the truth, I expected more family, and more of the barbed pity I’d grown overly accustomed to.

“Jacob Foster!” I gave him a quick squeeze and a little kiss on the cheek which seemed to leave him a bit flustered. He had bags, including a case of beer which I gratefully took from him and set on the countertop. He’d lost a bit of a weight. He looked good.

“I… um… brought supplies.” He said, running a hand over the back of his neck.

“Right you did. The siege is broken.” That got a brief, polite laugh.

He was looking around, cautiously exploring like a stray cat let into a new house. “Tidier than the last time I was here. What has it been, a year or two?”

“I’ve had plenty of free time.” It was tough to keep a strong face but I did. I think.

Still, he laid his hand on my shoulder in sympathy, and I took it slowly in my own. I didn’t really want to talk about it.

We danced around the subject for a while, almost too long. But in the end, we were already on the bed, and it was easy and comfortable. A few beers in and the world was comfortably blurred. He felt warm and safe and remarkably strong. I wanted him, and I told him that. He was better than I remembered from college. There was something different there now, an urgency that the cocky sophomore who left me years ago never had.

Later, Jacob Foster offered the narcotic of escape. His fingers ran over my skin gently and he tried to offer vague reassurance.

“Not everyone cares about this. Half the English-speaking world thinks this is all bullshit. And I have… some pull. Down the line? I can probably get you a job for a bit. Get you out of this town. Get you out of the public eye.” I think he was bragging. I guess I’ll never be sure.

There’s something desperate and mad in his expression when he talks about escape, about his own adventures across Europe. Still playing the world traveler, I guess. Still hanging out with the same superficial friends and going to the same boring parties.

In his salvation is the very thing I was trying to escape.

I’m sure you’ll use all this against me. All these confessions. You already think I’m a slut or a soulless D.C. bitch just trying to get ahead. And I am. Sure. I am what you say I am.

You’re predisposed to hate me, after all. You want to hate me because of what you’ve seen. It’s just what the media does. I think it’s some sickness in our culture. We need enemies. We need targets.

You picked me. That’s fine. Cause it wasn’t enough to focus on the psycho with the gun in the shopping mall anymore. Apparently there’s too many of those fuckers these days.

You had to take aim at the girl he called. You had to take aim at me.

And I can’t even offer a defense.

There’s a simple formula when it comes to mass shootings and politics. It’s not so different from any other issue. As with so many other crises of interest, it’s become a matter of mathematics. As a candidate, you invariably have to take a side, and that stand has undoubtedly be determined for you by a coalition of backers and constituents. The key is manipulating the rhetoric and the optics – not what you say but how you say it. The key is to come off at once as wise and statesmanlike and passionately angry. The people want to see epideictic rhetoric at work, those noble self-displays of virtue and tragic heartbreaking anguish, but they also want forensic rhetoric, the language of accusation.

They want to know who to hate.

Beltway chooses its targets in vast, unconscious patterns. The war of words, in some ways, is beyond our power to steer or manipulate. Our speechwriters might craft the buzzwords, the taglines, the lofty oratory that inspires the rank and file or dodges the execration of the other side, but all we really have the conscious power to do is become victims.

When I first came to work with the Congresswoman, I was nervous. The office seemed so huge, like an ancient temple. Her desk was an altar, and as she leaned across to shake my hand she only had one piece of advice for me.

“Politics is the art of avoiding fuckups.”

Just like every morning, it feels as if there is a nail in my skull. It feels as if my head is anchored to the bed and all the world is spinning around it.
As I drag myself out of my bed, past the sleeping body of Jacob Foster, I fumble with the coffee machine, jamming the little cup into the slot and punching the buttons.

He makes a joke about addiction as I groan into my mug.

“You drank half of that case you brought over.” I remind him. “Pot and kettle, bitch.”

His grin is the perfect combination of charming and sheepish. It helps that he’s naked.

In that moment, though, I can see right through him. I kind of want to take him up on his offer. I can’t, of course. It’s an illusion. There will be investigations and reinvestigations. Years of my life will be sacrificed to an invisible war that you, the voting public, will tire of before it even begins.

As much as I might want to forget this moment of weakness, I know that I won’t.

There is one other day I do remember, and for the rest of the world it was one of the deadliest massacres in American history. For me it was a warm summer Tuesday, and the world was ending one word at a time.

“Do you remember what was said?” The campaign’s director of communications was glaring through a pair of thin wireframe glasses. She had pale, icy eyes, and her breath smelled impeccably of mint. All else was a horrible blur. She spoke too fast for me to formulate a response. “Do you have a lawyer? Nevermind. We’ll get you a better one.”

“Take the day off.” Mike Stevenson says with a dismissive wave. “It’ll be better that way.”

Nobody’s said those words to me the entire time I worked here.

“How do you not remember?” They glare down at me, and I know there’s no escape. “How did you just forget?”

“There are certain textual ambiguities. Once the full transcript is released by the police we can use that to our advantage. But there are time delays…” Janet, one of the speechwriters, is already jotting down notes.

“Ambiguities?”

“It’s not clear exactly what the other speaker – the alleged gunman, intended.”

“What sort of damage are we exposed to?”

“It goes without saying that optics on this are terrible, ma’am. But we should be able to mitigate the worst of this pretty easily. News cycles move fast. None of this even happened in our district. We’re coordinating with people on the ground, and I’ve got Angela and Jan drafting a statement as we speak.”

“Good.” The congresswoman speaks finally. “It’s been a hard day for you, hasn’t it?” There’s no concern in her voice. It’s utterly affectless. “Get home before the media does. We’ll be in touch soon.”

This is all rehearsed. Preplanned with malice aforethought like one of the phone scripts I invented. It occurs to me how out of my depth I am, surrounded by these veterans. As I sit hunched in my office chair, they have me flanked, surrounded, a pack of wolves moving in for the kill.
They won’t hesitate to destroy me. I wouldn’t in their shoes.

I was almost in tears when I reached my studio apartment. My hand was shaking too much to get the key in the lock. I’d just stopped listening. It wasn’t even hard, really. They were all so predictable. So predictable, so normal, so bland.

It wasn’t a crime to stop listening.

Out of Space

There’s no room for children in heaven anymore
They took up too much space in our paradise
We had to leave them howling at the gate

We tried other things, of course, but it was fate
Forget nine hells, we packed all sinners into ice
Still no room for children in heaven anymore

Then, running out of options, we shut the door
On those we didn’t like, put them too in the ice
It was satisfying, watching them howling at the gate

Soon we began to fear it was much too late,
The angels all squeezed onto one pin, that was nice
Still no room for children in heaven anymore

Our gods should have seen this coming, therefore
We threw them out next, but it did not suffice
(We had tried all other things, it was only fate)
That we had to leave them howling at the gate

Whatever we tried, still the squeeze did not abate
And we had to make someone pay the price
So there’s no room for children in heaven anymore
We had to leave them howling at the gate

Proof

Proof

There was something here a minute ago,
now it is gone, just as easily as dropping the filter
of a cigarette onto a footpath.

Shamefully, it deserved its fate too,
some ungainly island bird unequipped
to handle plague rats and dogs and agriculture.

I didn’t leave any proof or evidence
I cleaned up the shell casings from my delete key
and scrubbed the paper with bleach.

I’m kidding, I’ll always have the words I erased,
I didn’t destroy them, but kept them as proof
that this didn’t spring out fully formed, but

when it was all over, feeling self-referential
I dressed up a little mannequin to stand where it
should have been, and set it to greet the customers.

Sponsored by your local pest control service

Sponsored by your local pest control service

The papered daub of wasps, it clings to trees
in layered latticework, a veil to hide
uncountable barbs, all buzzing and unified
behind unconscious urges, quite like disease.
If yoked together with a common drive
they might build cities, soaring edifice
with their mouth-pulped mindless artifice
A commune, bound to consume all alive.

But we can kill this mindless foe with ease,
Despite their grand accomplishments and plan
wasps die simply beneath chemical breeze
Despite their commune concord, one human
can press their thumb against a switch. And so

end all their little artificial dreams.

Jacob Foster (3)

The Siene beneath them was bracketed by an artificial valley of buildings, every conceivable shade of tan. The language all around them was unfamiliar and strange. Caught in the ebb and flow of tourism they moved from place to place with the ubiquitous crowds of camera wielding people no different from them. The first day was a whirlwind of luggage and metro stations with unfamiliar names. He could, with effort, draw upon a single solid memory: their hotel in the 4th arrondissement, pressed on all sides by buildings clotted in history.

 Even if it all becomes a blur, they will keep it safe in photographs. They point the cameras back at themselves, creating the proof they crave. Jacob Foster and Rajiv Sansotta have escaped. Together they have broken the shackles of the mundane. Jacob is grinning like a madman. The child playing soldier in the backwoods, running through the overgrown gardens amongst the blue bottle trees – he would never have imagined himself in gay Paree. It was a miracle. For a glistening moment, looking down the expanse of the greycapped river, hearing the cascade of voices and the rush of traffic, he felt free. All of history lay behind him and finally he had achieved that thing he had always longed for.

The city was beautiful and novel. And while Jacob Foster did not think himself an idiot, while he knew that this all was cliché, trite almost… while most importantly it had been done before… what mattered was that it had not been done by him. Maybe Jacob Foster could find himself here. In Paris.

Maybe it wasn’t too late.

 

The next morning the two wandered without plans, stopping when hunger or vague curiosity compelled them. They walked for hours along the riverbank. For the fog, they could not see the Eiffel Tower. Rajiv made a note of it every time they snapped a picture. They walked in silence through the Norte Dame.

-It’s a little better than the Basilica of the Assumption, I’ll give it that.

-A little. One assumes. Raja smirked. You know they still have services here?

-Well, yeah, it’s a church.

-Still odd. You’d think that places this old, they wouldn’t need to use. I mean I feel like they could keep it to look at but they’d have figured out something better to replace it.

-Like an iChurch or something?

-What?

-Nevermind.

Emerging into daylight, Jacob Foster stared out, blinking, into the unfamiliar world. He could not help but feel provincial, self conscious of his voice when he had to ask for directions that one time in the shopping district. Seven days and they will barely see a fraction of a fraction of it all. It will all slip away. It already is. Streetnames he grasped only for a minute are out of his head. Their names are unfamiliar on his tongue. Rue Mazarine. Qaui de la Tournelle. Boulevard St. Germain. Even Raja stumbles on them, flushed with embarrassment.

-Not so loud, Jacob teases. They’ll figure us out. They’ll know.

-Know what?

-Know we’re tourists. And then they’ll never stop trying to scam us. Have you noticed that they only come up to us when they hear us speaking English?

-Everyone here is a tourist, Jake. We’re waving around cameraphones and your shirt is a very American style of hipster. Neither of us speak a word of French. I think they just maybe can tell. But don’t worry. I know where we’re going. I have the map.

-Can I see the map?

-I’ve got this, man.

-Let me.

-We’ll I don’t see… Oh god you really don’t trust me? That’s hurtful. I’m hurt. Give it back.

 

They orient themselves along the Champs-Élysées for a lack of anything better to pick. It is straight and the triumphal arch is at the end, and the glass pyramid of the Louve at the other. It reminds Jacob of the National Aquarium, back home. Except they are the exhibit. Tomorrow they will wander wide eyed through the statues. Moorish swords and Ottoman rugs. Long dead faces of Egyptian kings.

 

They walked among endless rows of paintings. The Louve is a maze of culture. Rajiv is stunned into uncustomary silence.

-Well that was a museum.

-It was. Nice one though. They have the same thing stateside, don’t they though, don’t they? Museums, art. Jacob Foster could not help but feel a bit disappointed.

-What’s next on the itinerary? The Marquis de Sade exhibit?

-That’s not at this one. We’ll do that Thursday.

-I thought it was. Dammit.

 

Atop the Sacré-Cœur they paused for a cigarette, Jacob leaning against the balcony, Rajiv pacing idly. The city should have stretched out before them, but the grey expanse of clouds concealed any view. But if Jake turned around, he could see the Basilica. Another beautiful building. This place was clotted with them. After a while you became desensitized.

Raja handed him a cigarette and Jake leaned forward so his friend could light it. It was cooler here than he expected.

-Photo? Jacob pulled his smart phone out of his pocket. This would be a good one. One worth the remembering. Not like the one they took of the Eiffel, while jostling through crowds and gaping at the steel monstrosity.

-Sure. Raja stubbed out his cigarette and let it fall. I like it up here, Jake. Fewer gypsies trying to sell you things.

-I don’t know if they’re gypsies.

-You’re right. One shouldn’t make assumptions. Especially when it comes to gypsies. They’re the worst but if you start assuming you know how they’re going to scam you, that’s when they hit you with the long con. I saw this tv show about it. Trust me.

-Ah right. The classic long con.

-Yeah. Its like a normal con… but it takes long…er.

-Want to go in? Jake laughed.

-But of course.

The next day, after seeing what was, in Rajiv Sansotta’s expert opinion, the best the Marquis de Sade exhibit had to offer – an enormous fish tonguing a naked woman in ecstasy – they found dinner at a little cafe, one of the better ones they’d stopped in. They drank overpriced wine and ate equally overpriced food, and Jacob Foster could feel the euphoria of the past few days slipping away. From their seats outside, they watched the crowds and Jacob found himself inventing stories about each one.

That man, with the tight-fitting peacoat – maybe he was an Irishman, on business in Paris. Maybe he worked for Google. Dublin had the European corporate office for Google. Jake knew that because he had seen it when searching for jobs. Secretly, the man in the peacoat was having an affair. He was never content.

That woman, in the dress and scarf, let’s say she was French. She was very self-conscious about the poetry she wrote in her spare time, and would never share it with the world. Her lesbian lover was from Algeria, and together they ran a charity which secretly helped Russian spies get into the country. Plausible? Probably not.

That child would never remember his vacation to Paris. He was way too little. But he’d have the photos, and like Rajiv he would always get to wave them around and prove that his life had always been interesting.

It was the interesting one beside him who like always dragged him from his daydreams.

 

-This is it, Jake. Escape. Maybe now you can stop bugging me about rent? I told you I earn my keep.

-Really? Jacob Foster asks, whirling around. Rajiv’s face was half-hidden in shadow, and unreadable besides. Is now the time?

-You’re right you’re right. Sorry man. Hey, what do you want to do tomorrow. In the afternoon I figured we’d…

That man… hmm… he’s an accountant for a major firm. Secretly, he moonlights as a male stripper. He is very good at both of these jobs. Shockingly so. Is it that hard to believe? He has the right build for it, but a certain intellectual air to him.

-Hello? Are you even,  listening to me?

-Not really. I was inventing, er, backstories for the people. Jacob confessed, smoothing back his hair, fiddling with his shirtcollar.

-Oh. I understand. Planning these sorts of things is always so boring. But it’s worth it, isn’t it? Seeing the world. Maybe when I go back to school, I’ll look into studying some place in Europe. Maybe you could come too. That would be fun, wouldn’t it?

 

It becomes hard to remember it all. Sitting in the hotel, feeling more than a little buzzed. The metro is a whirlwind of light and dark, apparitions and lights. They sip beers out of Raja’s backpack. Whole worlds glide past in dingy shadow.

Like everything else, Jacob will forget. It won’t be real after he gets on that next plane. Just a feverish dream. A drug that only works for a little while and leaves you wanting more. But how long will there be any more? If Jacob is honest with himself, he can realize he is nothing more than a passing object of interest to Raja. And one day Sansotta, like he always does, will vanish back into whatever alternate life he decides is the most welcome relief from boredom. It’s happened before. Jacob has been burned before.

Raja will leave again, in all likelyhood. He can see the whole timeline stretching out before him. He can see the warning signs. The flakiness of the past few weeks, the sudden desire to go to Paris. Rajiv will betray him again as he always does. Sure, Jacob knows how he can postpone that inevitable fact – not bugging Raja about the rent would be a good start. Not complaining about how Raja took the bigger room in their apartment. Letting him smoke inside. But it won’t last, and when it doesn’t, Jacob Foster knows he won’t even be angry.

Sure, he will for a time. He’ll be bitter, and he’ll spend more time with his coworkers, or Andrea. He’ll meet new people, even though he has no idea how to do that in the dying city he calls his home. But he’ll forget. He’ll meet up with Raja again, after a few years, just like last time.

He won’t want to be bound by the past, after all. And Raja knows that about his friend just as Jake knows that about himself. Jacob Foster will always be addicted to the narcotic of escape that Raja can provide.

 

Jacob Foster sat in the hotel room, finished off another beer, tossed it into the trashcan by his bedside, and lit a cigarette, staring out the window. The view was blind, just like in his apartment. The Parisian skyline was obscured by the adjacent building, giving them a view of ivysprawling plaster and red-framed windows.

-Have a good last day?

-The club was fun. Really, um… intense. Fun. That fucking cab though – I always forget how much the exchange rate is a bitch.

-Don’t worry about it. I’ll cover it. I’ll get you back, um. Here. A shuffling of feet. Rajiv stuffed a crumpled fifty euro note into Jacob’s hand. Cigarette cocked in mouth, Jacob smoothed it off, folded it into his own wallet. Checked his phone on the hotel wifi. Ashed the cigarette into the beer can. He felt unaccountably tense and stiff, in spite of six beers, four jaegerbombs and a glass of red wine. No, no, seven beers. Still not at all drunk. Must be the caffeine. Feet sore from dancing.

He does not thank Rajiv for the bill. The next morning they bid goodbye to Paris, winding through the northern part of the city, a sprawl of industry. A woman plays guitar on the train, begs for money while the occupants stare forward pointedly.

At Charles de Gaulle they stumble blearily through lines. It is curious how actions repeated, locations revisited all pass in a blur. They might have spent a lifetime in Paris, the city prolonging their visit with novelties. Their second trip through the airport is a mirage and it is done before it is even realized.

Soon they are in the clouds.