Authors: Hanya Yanagihara
You can imagine how I felt. But my first questions were practical ones: How had he known about such a site? How had he breached the security walls in order to access it? How had he known what to order? Who had given him the idea?
Was this normal for a child his age?
Was there something wrong with him?
I looked at him. “David,” I began, though I had no idea what I was going to say next.
He wouldn’t look up, not even when I repeated his name. “David,” I said, for a third time, “I’m not angry”—which wasn’t exactly true, but what I was, I couldn’t identify—“I just need you to look at me,” and when he finally did, I saw from his face that he was scared.
And then—I don’t know why, I don’t—I hit him: with the flat of my palm, across his face. He yelped and fell backward, and I jerked him upright and hit him again, this time on his left cheek, and he burst into tears. It relieved me, somehow, that he was still capable of being frightened, of being frightened by me; it reminded me that he was still a child after all, that there was hope for him, that he wasn’t wrong or bad or evil. But I would only be able to articulate this to myself later—in that moment, I was only scared: scared for him, and also scared of him. I was about to hit him again when, suddenly, there was Nathaniel, pulling me off of him and shouting. “What the
are you doing, Charles?” he yelled at me. “You
what the fuck are you doing?” He pushed me, hard, and I fell and hit my face on the floor, and then he took the baby, now sobbing, into his arms, consoling him. “Shh,” he murmured. “It’s okay, David, it’s okay, sweetheart, I’m here, I’m here, I’m here.”
“He’s hurting people,” I said, quietly, but my nose was bleeding so badly that my speech was garbled. “He was trying to hurt people.”
But Nathaniel didn’t answer me. He took off his shirt and pressed it against the baby’s own bleeding nose, and then they stood and left, Nathaniel’s arm around our son’s shoulders. He never looked back at me.
All of this is a long way of saying: I’m in our new apartment. I’m writing you from the study, where I have been banished for the foreseeable future. Nathaniel still hasn’t said a word to me, and neither has the baby. Yesterday I delivered my laptop to the head of technological security and explained what had happened—he seemed less shocked than I had anticipated, which made me think that there was less of a reason to be worried than I had feared. But as he was issuing me a new computer, he asked, “How old is your son, again?”
“Almost ten,” I said.
He shook his head. “And you’re foreign nationals, am I correct?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Dr. Griffith, I know you know this, but—you have to be careful,” he said. “If your son had accessed that site and you hadn’t had the security clearances that you do—”
“I know,” I said.
“No,” he said, looking at me, “you don’t. Be careful, Dr. Griffith. There’s only so much the institute could do to protect your son if this happens again.”
Suddenly I wanted to be far away from him. And not just him but all of it: Rockefeller, my lab, New York, America, even Nathaniel and David. I wanted to be back home, on my grandparents’ farm, as miserable as I had been there, long before any of this—all of this—had ever happened. But I can never go home again. My grandparents and I don’t speak, the farm is flooded, and this is my life now. I have to make the best of it. And I will.
But sometimes, I worry that I won’t.
I love you—Charles
One nice memory I have is of Grandfather brushing my hair. I liked to sit in the corner of his study and watch him work; I could stay there for hours, drawing or playing, and rarely make a sound. Once, one of Grandfather’s research assistants had come in and had seen me there, and I could see he was surprised. “I can take her away if she’s bothering you,” said the research assistant, quietly. Then it was Grandfather who was surprised. “My little one?” he asked. “She’s no bother to anyone, especially to me.” Hearing that, I had felt proud, like I had done something correct.
I had a cushion I sat on while Grandfather read or typed or wrote, and when I wasn’t watching him, I had a set of wooden blocks I would play with. The wooden blocks were all painted white, and I was careful not to stack them too high, so they wouldn’t topple over and make a noise.
But sometimes, Grandfather would stop what he was doing and turn around in his chair. “Come here, little one,” he’d say, and I’d take my cushion and put it on the floor between his knees, and he’d take the big, flat-backed brush from his drawer and start stroking my hair with it. “What beautiful hair you have,” he’d say. “Who gave you this beautiful hair?” But that was what is called a rhetorical question, which means I didn’t have to answer it, and I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t have to say anything at all. I always waited for those times when Grandfather would brush my hair. It felt so good, so relaxing, like I was falling slowly down a long, cool tunnel.
After my illness, though, I no longer had beautiful hair. None of us who survived it do. It was because of the drugs we had to take:
First all our hair fell out, and when it grew back, it was wispy and thin and dust-colored, and you couldn’t grow it past your chin or it would break off. Most people cut it very short, so that it just covered the scalp. The same thing had happened to many of the survivors of the sicknesses of ’50 and ’56, but it was more severe for us survivors of ’70. For a while, that was how you could tell who had survived the illness, but then a variation of the same drug was prescribed for the illness of ’72, and then it got harder to tell, and having short hair was just more practical: It was less hot, and it took less water and soap to clean. So now lots of people have short hair—you need money if you want to keep it long. That’s one way you can tell who lives in Zone Fourteen; all of them have long hair, because everyone knows that Zone Fourteen gets three times as much water as the second-highest water allotment zone, which is our zone, Zone Eight.
The reason I started thinking about this is because last week I was waiting for the shuttle, and a man I had never seen before joined the queue. I was near the end of the queue, and so I was able to get a good look at him. He was dressed in a gray jumpsuit of the kind my husband wore, which meant he was some sort of service technician at the Farm, maybe even at the Pond, and over his jumpsuit he was wearing a lightweight nylon jacket, also gray, and a cap with a wide brim.
I had been feeling strange for the past few weeks. On the one hand, I was happy, because it would soon be December, and December was the best time of year: The weather sometimes grew cool enough for us to even wear an anorak at night, and although there were no rains, the smog that hung over the city lifted, and the store began stocking produce that only grew in the cold season, like apples and pears. In January, the storms would come, and then in February, it would be the Lunar New Year, and everyone who worked on a state site or for a state institution would get four extra grain coupons and either two extra dairy coupons or two extra produce coupons for the month, whichever you wanted. My husband and I would usually split our extra coupons, so between us, we would have eight extra grain coupons and two extra dairy coupons and two extra produce coupons. The year after we got married, which was also the first
year my husband worked on the Farm, we had bought a wedge of hard cheese with our surplus coupons: He had wrapped it in paper and put it in the far back corner of our hallway closet, which he said was the coolest place in the apartment, and it had kept for a long time. This year, there was a rumor that we might get an extra day that week for bathing and laundry, which we had gotten two years ago, but not last year, because there had been a drought.
But on the other hand, despite everything I had to look forward to, I also found myself thinking about the notes. Every week on my husband’s free night, I emptied out the box again to check if they were still there, which they always were. I would read all of them again, turning the scraps of paper in my hand and holding them up to the lamplight, and then I would replace them all in the envelope and put the box back in the closet.
I was puzzling over the notes the morning I saw the man in the gray jumpsuit join the queue. His presence meant that someone in the zone must have died or been taken, because the only way to get a housing assignment in Zone Eight was to wait for someone to leave it, and no one left Zone Eight willingly. And then something strange happened: The man adjusted his hat, and as he did, a long piece of hair fell loose, brushing against his cheek. He swiftly pushed it back under his hat, and looked around, quickly, to make sure no one had seen, but everyone was staring straight ahead, as was considered polite. Only I had seen him, because I had turned around, though he hadn’t seen me looking at him. I had never seen a man with long hair before. The thing that interested me most, however, was how much the man resembled my husband—they had the same color skin, the same color eyes, the same color hair, although my husband’s hair is short, like mine.
I have never liked it when new things happened, not even when I was a child, and I have never liked it when things aren’t as they’re supposed to be. When I was young, Grandfather would read mysteries to me, but they always made me anxious—I liked to know what was happening; I liked things to be the same. I didn’t tell Grandfather this, however, because it was clear that
liked them, and I wanted to try to enjoy something he enjoyed. But then we
weren’t allowed to read mysteries anymore, and so I was able to stop pretending.
Now, though, I had two mysteries of my own: The notes were the first. And this man, with his long hair, living in Zone Eight, was the second. It made me feel like something had happened and no one had told me, and that there was a secret that everyone knew but that I couldn’t figure out on my own. This happened at work every day, but that was fine, because I wasn’t a scientist, and it wasn’t my right to know what was happening—I wasn’t educated enough, and I wouldn’t have understood anyway. But I had always thought that I understood where I lived, and now I was beginning to worry I was wrong about that after all.
It was Grandfather who explained free nights to me.
When he told me I was going to be married, I was excited but also scared, and I started walking around in circles, which is something I do only when I’m very happy or very nervous. Other people get uncomfortable when I do this, but all Grandfather said was “I know how you feel, little cat.”
Later, he came to tuck me into bed, and to give me the photograph of my husband to keep, which I hadn’t thought to ask for earlier. I looked and looked at that picture, touching it as if I could actually feel his face. When I tried to return it to Grandfather, he shook his head. “It’s yours,” he said.
“When is it going to happen?” I asked him.
“In a year,” he said. “So, for the next year, I’ll tell you everything you need to know about being married.”
This made me feel a lot calmer—Grandfather always knew what to say, even when I didn’t know it myself. “We’ll start tomorrow,” he promised me, and then he kissed me on the forehead before turning off the light and going to the main room, where he slept.
The next day, Grandfather began his lessons. He had a piece of paper on which he had written a long list, and every month, he would pick three topics for us to discuss. We practiced
conversation, and being helpful, and he taught me different circumstances in which I might have to ask for help, and how I should phrase it, and what I should do in the case of an emergency. We also discussed how I might come to trust my husband, and what I could do to be a good spouse to him, and what it was like to live with another person, and what I should do if my husband ever did anything that made me feel frightened.
I know it seems strange, but after my initial anxiety, I was less nervous about getting married than I think Grandfather thought I might be. After all, aside from Grandfather, I had never lived with anybody else. Well, that isn’t completely true—I had lived with my other grandfather and my father, once, but only when I was a baby; I couldn’t even really remember what they looked like. I suppose I assumed that living with my husband would be like living with Grandfather.
It was toward the end of the sixth month of my training that Grandfather told me about free nights: Every week, my husband would leave the apartment and I would have a night all to myself. And then, another night, I could leave the apartment and be by myself, and do whatever I wanted. He watched me closely as he told me this, and then waited as I thought.
“What night of the week will it be?” I asked him.
“Whichever you and your husband decide,” he said.
I thought some more. “What am I supposed to do on my night?” I asked him.
“Whatever you want,” Grandfather said. “Maybe you’ll want to take a walk, for example, or maybe you’ll want to go to the Square. Or maybe you’ll want to go to the Recreation Center and play a game of ping-pong with someone.”
“Maybe I can come visit you,” I said. The one thing I had learned that had surprised me the most was that Grandfather wouldn’t be living with us; once I was married, I would remain with my husband in our apartment, and Grandfather would move someplace else.
“I always love spending time with you, little cat,” said Grandfather, slowly. “But you need to get used to being with your husband; you shouldn’t begin your new life thinking about how often you’re
going to see me.” I was quiet then, because I felt that Grandfather was trying to say something else to me without quite saying it, and I didn’t know what it was, but knew that it was something I didn’t want to hear. “Come on, little cat,” said Grandfather at last, and he smiled and patted my hand. “Don’t be upset. This is an exciting time—you’re getting married, and I’m so proud of you. My little cat, all grown up and about to start a household of her own.”
In the years since my husband and I were married, I have had to make use of very few of Grandfather’s lessons. I have never had to go to the police because my husband hit me, for example, and I have never had to ask my husband for help with the chores, and I have never had to worry about him withholding his food coupons from me, and I have never had to pound on a neighbor’s door because my husband was yelling at me. But I wish I had known that I should have asked Grandfather more questions about free nights, and how they would make me feel.
Shortly after we were married, my husband and I decided that Thursday would be his free night, and Tuesday would be mine. Or, rather, my husband had decided, and I had agreed. “Are you sure you don’t mind Tuesday?” he had asked me, and he sounded concerned, as if I could say, “No, I’d rather have Thursday after all,” and he would switch with me. But it was fine with me, because it didn’t matter which night I had.
At first, I tried to spend my free night elsewhere. Unlike my husband, I would come home from work and have dinner with him first, and then I would change into my casual clothes and leave. It was strange being outside the apartment at night after all those years of Grandfather’s reminding me that I was never to leave the house by myself, and absolutely never when it was dark. But that was when things were bad, and it was dangerous, before the second uprising.
For those first few months, I did what Grandfather had suggested and went to the Recreation Center. The center was on Fourteenth Street, just west of Sixth Avenue, and because it was already June, I had to wear my cooling suit so I wouldn’t overheat. Up Fifth Avenue I walked, and then west on Twelfth Street, because I liked the old buildings on that block, which looked like versions of the building
my husband and I lived in. Some of buildings’ windows were lit up, but most of them were dark, and there were only a few other people in the street, also walking toward the center.
The center was open between 06:00 and 22:00, and only to residents of Zone Eight. Everyone was allowed twenty hours of time at the center per month for free, and you had to thumbprint in and then thumbprint out when you left. You could take a class in cooking at the center, or sewing, or tai chi or yoga, or you could join one of the clubs: There were clubs for people who liked to play chess, or badminton, or ping-pong, or checkers. Or you could do volunteer work, making bundles of sanitary supplies for people in the relocation centers. One of the best things about the center was that it was always cool, because it had a big generator, and during the temperate months, people would stay home and conserve their hours so they could spend more of the long summer days in the air-conditioning, rather than in their apartments. You could take an air shower here as well, and sometimes, when I was desperate to be clean and it wasn’t yet a water day, I would use some of my time at the center for an air shower. You also came to the center for your annual vaccinations, and your biweekly blood work and mucus smears, and to claim your monthly food coupons and allowances, and, from May through September, the three kilos of ice per month that every resident was entitled to buy at a subsidized rate.
But until my first free nights, I had never been to the center for recreation, even though that was one of the things the center was for. Grandfather had brought me once, after the center had opened, and we had stood and watched a game of ping-pong. The center had two tables, and while people played, other people sat in chairs around the perimeter of the room and watched them, and clapped when someone scored a point. I remember thinking that it looked like fun, and it sounded like fun, too, the bright, sharp tap that the ball made as it struck the table, and I stood there for a long time.