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Authors: Hanya Yanagihara

To Paradise (82 page)

BOOK: To Paradise
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Last night I dreamed of Hawai

i. The night before, I had been in my favored house of ill repute, sleeping alongside A., when the sirens began to wail.

“Jesus, Jesus,” said A., scrabbling for his clothes, his shoes. “It’s a raid.”

Men began crowding in doorways, buttoning their shirts and buckling their belts as they did, their faces blank or terrified. It was safer to be silent in these raids, and yet someone—a young man who
does something in Justice—kept repeating, “What we’re doing isn’t illegal; what we’re doing isn’t illegal,” until someone else hissed at him to shut up, that we already knew that.

We stood there, waiting, about thirty of us across four floors. Whoever they were trying to find wasn’t guilty of homosexuality—the person might be under suspicion for smuggling, or forgery, or theft—and although they couldn’t charge us for who we are, they
could
humiliate us for it. Why else, then, would they arrest this person when they knew he was here, instead of quietly, at his residence? It was for the spectacle of leading us, single file, out of the house, our hands raised above our heads like criminals, for the mortifying pleasure of tying our hands and having us kneel on the curb, for the sadism of asking us to repeat our names—
Louder, please, I didn’t hear you
—and shouting it to their colleague to run through the database:
Charles Griffith. Thirteen Washington Square North. Says he’s a scientist at RU. Age: Eighty in October.
(And then a smirk:
Eighty? You’re still doing this at
eighty
?
As if it were absurd, obscene, that someone so old should still want to be touched, when really, it is the sensation you come to crave the most.) And then there was the discomfort of the hours spent in a crouch in the street, your head bent as if in shame, the suspect long since removed, waiting for the theater to end, for one of them to get bored and release us, the sound of his fellow soldiers’ laughter as they climbed back into their cars. They were never physically abusive with us, they never called us names—they couldn’t; too many of us had too much power—but it was clear they disdained us, and when we finally stood and turned for the house, you could see the street darkening again, the neighbors who had watched us through their windows, never saying a word, returning to bed now that the show had concluded. “I wish they’d just make us illegal,” someone, a young man, had grumbled after the last raid, and a number of people had begun shouting at him, asking him how he could be so ignorant and stupid, but I understood what he was trying to express: If we were illegal, we would know our position. As it was, we were nothing—we were known but not named, tolerated but not recognized. We lived in a constant state of uncertainty, waiting for the day we would be declared enemies,
waiting for the night when what we did would, in the space of an hour, a single signed document, be transformed from regrettable to criminal. The very word for what we were had somehow, at some point, disappeared from the vernacular—to us, we were only “people like us”: “Do you know Charles? He’s one of us.” Even we had become euphemistic, unable to say what we are.

They almost never raided the inside—as I said, too many of us had too much power, and it was like they knew that the amount of contraband they’d find inside would entail so much processing that they’d be able to do little else for the following week—but there were chutes in each room that you could toss your possessions down, and the first place we went after going back indoors was the safe box in the basement, where we’d retrieve our books and wallets and devices and whatever else we had dropped, and then we would leave, probably without even saying goodbye to the person we’d been with, and the next time we came, neither of us would mention it, we would pretend it had never happened.

Two nights ago, we had been waiting three minutes for the bang on the door, for the loudspeaker announcing one of our names, when we realized that the sirens weren’t for us after all. Again, there was a soundless exchange of glances—the people on the first and second floors looking up to us on the third and fourth, all of us wondering—when, finally, a young man on the first floor cautiously unlocked the door and then, after a pause, dramatically flung it open, standing in the center of the frame.

He shouted, and we came rushing downstairs to see that Bank Street had become a river, the water racing east. “The Hudson River’s flooded,” I heard someone say, in a quiet, awestruck voice, and then, right after, someone else said, “The safe box!” and there was a hustle down to the basement, which was already filling with water. A chain was formed to move the books and equipment we’d stored there to the attic, and after, we stood at the first-floor windows, watching the water rise. A. had a communication device, a kind I had never seen before, one different from my own—I never asked what he did, and he never told me—and he spoke into it, a few terse words, and ten minutes later, a flotilla of plastic dinghies appeared.

“Get out,” said A., whom I had known only to be passive and somewhat whiny, but who had suddenly transformed into someone declarative and stern: his work persona, I assumed. “Everyone, queue up for the boats.” The water was now lapping up the front steps.

“What about the house?” someone asked, and we all knew he was asking about the books in the attic.

“I’ll handle them,” said a youngish man, whom I had never met, but who I knew to be the house’s owner, or manager, or keeper—it was never clear which, but I knew he was responsible. “Go.”

So we did. This time, whether because of who A. was, or because of the equalizing nature of the crisis, there were no jokes from the soldiers, no sneers: They held out their hands, and we grabbed them and were lowered into the rafts, and the whole exchange was so matter-of-fact, so collegial—we needed saving, and they were here to save us—that you could almost believe that their disgust for us was an act, that they respected us as much as they did anyone. Behind us, another fleet of boats was arriving, and now there was a loudspeaker announcement: “Residents of Zone Eight! Evacuate your units! Descend to your front doors and wait for help!”

By now the water was rising so rapidly that the boat was actually bobbing on the water, as if atop a wave, and the puny motor was becoming choked with leaves and twigs. A block east, on Greenwich Street, we were joined by other motorized rafts moving east, from Jane and West 12th Streets, all of us making our slow way to Hudson Street, where corps of soldiers were stacking sandbags, trying to hold the river back.

Here there were emergency vehicles, and ambulances, but I climbed out of the raft and left, walking east, never looking behind me: It was best not to get involved where you didn’t need to; there was no honor, no use in it. I hadn’t gotten too wet, but my socks squished as I walked, and I was glad I hadn’t worn my cooling suit, despite the heat. At West 10th and Sixth Avenue, a platoon of soldiers jogged by me, groups of four each holding aloft a plastic raft. They looked weary, I thought, and why wouldn’t they be? Two months ago, the fires; last month, the rains; this month, the floods.
When I finally got home, everything was quiet, though whether that was because of the hour or because some of the inhabitants had been conscripted to help with the efforts, I didn’t know.

The next day—Tuesday: yesterday—I went to work and did little but listen to radio reports of the flood, which had consumed a significant part of Zone Eight and all of Zones Seven and Twenty-one, from what had been the highway all the way east to, in some instances, Hudson Street. The Bank Street house had, presumably, been ruined; someone will let me know for sure one way or another. Two people had died: An elderly lady had fallen down the stairs of her house on West 11th Street trying to reach the boat and had broken her neck; a man on Perry Street had refused to vacate his basement apartment and had drowned. Two streets had been somewhat spared, purely from happenstance: The army had felled three massive, diseased trees on Bethune and Washington early Monday morning, which had mitigated the flooding there. And on Gansevoort, the army had been digging a trench on Greenwich to reroute a deteriorating sanitation pipe, and this too had minimized the damage. Whereas, a few years ago, I would have been outraged by the flood—its inevitability the result of years of governmental inaction and arrogance—I found that this time I could summon little of anything. Indeed, I felt nothing but a kind of weariness, and even that I experienced not as a sensation but as an absence of one. I listened to the radio and yawned and yawned, staring out my office window at the East River, which David had always said looked like chocolate milk, watching a small vessel inch its way north: maybe to Davids Island, maybe not.

But if I could not find it in myself to feel anything about the flood, there would be others who would: the protestors who gathered each day in the Square and were removed each night. I had expected a surfeit of them when I returned home—they had long ago discovered who among us were on the Committee, and they had an unerring sense of when we’d arrive home each night. It didn’t matter how often we changed drivers, or how much we tried to upend our schedules—the car would approach home, and there they’d be, with their signs and slogans. They’re allowed to do this;
they cannot congregate outside state buildings, but they can outside of ours, which I suppose is more apt—it’s the architects they hate even more than what we’ve built.

Last evening, though, there was no one, just the Square with its vendors and people shopping its stalls. This meant that the floods had given the state a reason to conduct a roundup of the protestors, and for a moment, I dawdled in the street despite the heat, watching regular people doing regular things, before going into the house and up to the apartment.

That night, I dreamed of when I was a teenager at my grandparents’ farm in L
ā

ie. It was the year of the first tsunami, and although we had been (just) far enough inland to not be directly hit, they had always said that they wish we had been, for then we could have collected the insurance money and begun anew, or not at all. As it was, the farm was too intact to be forsaken, but also too damaged ever to be productive again. The hill that had provided shade for my grandmother’s herb garden had been destroyed, and the irrigation channels were filled with seawater—you would pump it away and then it would return, for months. Salt had affixed itself to every surface: The trees, the animals, the vegetables, the sides of the house were all streaky with white. The salt made the air sticky, and when the trees fruited that spring, the mangoes, the lychees, the papayas all tasted of salt.

They had never been happy people, my grandparents: They had bought the farm in a rare romantic moment, but romance is ephemeral. Yet they kept working at it long past the point when it ceased to be enjoyable, partly because they were too proud to admit they’d failed, and partly because they had limited imaginations, and couldn’t think of what else they might want to do. They had wanted to live as their own grandparents had dreamed of living, before Restoration, and yet doing anything because your ancestors wanted to do it—fulfilling someone else’s ambition—is a poor motivation. They had berated my mother for not being Hawaiian enough, and then she left, and they had had to raise me. They had berated me for not being Hawaiian enough, too, while at the same time assuring me I never would be, and yet when I left as well—for why would I stay
someplace I had been told I would never belong?—they resented that just as much.

But the dream was not so much about them as it was a story my grandmother had told me when I was a child, about a hungry lizard. All day, the lizard would stalk across the land, grazing. He ate fruit and grass, insects and fish. When the moon rose, the lizard would go to sleep and dream of eating. Then the moon would set and the lizard would wake and begin eating again. The lizard’s curse was that he would never be full, although the lizard didn’t know this was a curse: He wasn’t that intelligent.

One day, after many thousands of years had passed, the lizard woke, as usual, and began looking for food, as usual. But something was wrong. Then the lizard realized: There was nothing left for him to eat. There were no more plants, no more birds, no more grasses or flowers or flies. He had eaten everything; he had eaten the stones, the mountains, the sand, and the soil. (Here my grandmother would sing a lyric from an old Hawaiian protest song:
Ua lawa m
ā
kou i ka p
ō
haku / I ka
ʻ
ai kamaha
ʻ
o o ka

ā
ina.
) All that was left was a thin layer of ash, and beneath that ash—the lizard knew—was the core of the earth, which was fire, and although the lizard could eat many things, he could not eat that.

So the lizard did the only thing he could. He lay in the sun and waited, dozing and saving his strength. And that night, as the moon was rising, he drew himself up on his tail and swallowed the moon.

For a moment, he felt wonderful. He’d had no water all day, and the moon was so cool and smooth in his stomach, as if he’d swallowed an enormous egg. But as he was relishing the feeling, something changed: The moon was rising still, trying to escape him so it could continue its path in the sky.

This must not happen, the lizard thought, and he quickly dug a hole, narrow but deep, or as deep as he could before he reached the fire at the earth’s center, and stuck his entire snout inside of it. This will keep the moon from going anywhere, he thought.

But he was wrong. For just as it was the lizard’s nature to eat, it was the moon’s nature to rise, and no matter how tightly the lizard
clamped its mouth, the moon rose still. But so tight was the hole in the earth where the lizard had stuck its snout that the moon was unable to exit his mouth.

And so the lizard exploded, and the moon burst forth from the earth and continued its path.

For many thousands of years after that, nothing happened. Well, I say nothing happened, but in those years, everything that the lizard had eaten returned. Back came the stones and the soil. Back came the grasses and the flowers and the plants and the trees; back came the birds and the insects and the fish and the lakes. Overseeing it all was the moon, which rose and sank each night.

BOOK: To Paradise
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