We were at the ferry terminal when the explosion went off. My spouse and I were on an anniversary trip to explore the San Juan Islands. We missed the early ferry, as we were catching up with our daughter, Fanny. She had recently moved to Singapore, and as we talked I could see that she had gone through some effort to make her apartment a home. There was a blue and white tapestry hanging on the wall behind her, and a shelf of knick-knacks, miniature painted vases with twigs arranged just so, succulents in glass bowls, a photo stream framed playfully with copper wire. There was even printed matter, a tiny dollhouse fashioned by glossy newsprint, and rarer – a book.
As usual, I drew the attention of fellow passengers by taking out my paperback, an anthology of poetry. We had a long wait for the next ferry, and I still kept the habit of carrying it with me when we traveled. My husband, Sutton, did not approve.
“People think you’re being reactionary. It makes them uncomfortable.”
“Nonsense,” I said, but I knew he was right, as evidenced by the looks that I did get. The book dated to the late century, and was passed down to me by my grandfather. The book’s cover and spine were creased, and its pages smudged and torn. Many of the poems I knew by heart, even the impenetrable ones. My face is my own/My hands are my own/My mouth is my own/but I am not.
I smiled benignly at the people sitting near us, wondering what they were reading on their portals. Their projected screens were always interesting, and for a few moments I looked at them. Autumnal valleys, tropical islands, snowy mountains, lush forests, space’s many wonders. Some were cloaked, blending in with the waiting room’s interior. A handful were more personal – smiling children, family vacations, lovers kissing in front of altars. These people I looked at more closely, as they were wielding their immunity. It wasn’t because they had nothing to hide; the opposite was often the case. Although their ages were elusive (my real age had also elicited curiosity), their behavior and dress provided clues. It was a bad habit, from before the old system, when the tally of our years did not equal the measure of our worth. Still, I couldn’t help it. One sat across from me. His screen showed him with a group of people posing around a booth at a restaurant, the table littered with plates of food, partially consumed, and emptied wine glasses. The man was sharing the contents of his projection with his husband, a man wearing a plaid cap, who seemed uninterested in whatever it was on the man’s screen, and turned his attention back to his own. By the way the man touched his husband, placing a hand on a shoulder, a knee, tucking a strand of hair, all the while not making eye contact, I surmised he was a good deal older. His casual dress, relative to his companion’s, suggested an upper-level state position. To the left was a woman whose oversized green glasses threatened to swallow her narrow face. The effect was comical, as if she was in poor disguise. She was dancing (sans specs) with a handsome, goateed man on her screen; from her white gown and his tuxedo it appeared to be their wedding. As if sensing that someone was watching her, the woman looked up at me. Her eyes– hazel, rimmed with gold – matched her frames, and they flickered as she considered me. I smiled. Her closed lips spread into a semblance of a smile before she looked back down. I reached over and patted Sutton’s arm. Now that the gulf between us had widened after so many years, it gave me a thrill to think that people could assume Sutton was my son. There were not many of us agers left, and now, with the new laws, we would soon be extinct.
“Are you hungry?” I asked. There was a concession stand at the other end of the terminal. The room was chilly, and I hadn’t had my morning coffee. Fanny had woken us up, and we talked to her from our hotel room. She was at the end of her day, and was wearing a suit. Her hair was swept back into a chignon. How did we create this being, I wondered, who lived in a brand new world, saving the planet, with her hair in a goddamn chignon? It was impossible to fathom. I was glad we couldn’t see ourselves as we spoke – I remembered the days when our faces floated, disembodied, on the bottom of the screen. We couldn’t see me unfiltered, unironed, an old witch sapping her loved ones’ youth.
“Mmm,” Sutton said, his eyes glued to his news. I tried to stay off these sites altogether. Sutton was looking for news about the markets in Singapore. Fanny had approached the protests with her usual equanimity, assuring us that she was safe, and that the firm had hired extra security onsite. When I asked about offsite security, she told us there was a night guard.
“No daytime security?”
“I’m not here during the day.”
“I don’t need to tell you that’s not a sufficient answer.”
“You just did.” Sutton interrupted us and I let it drop. The reason Fanny was calling us, she said, was to tell us she wasn’t coming home for the holidays. We were renting a cabin at Lake Chelan. We used to spend vacations on the Oregon coast when Fanny was little. Fanny peering over a tide pool in her rain boots, writing messages with sticks in the sand, videoing seal pups by the dunes.
“We made reservations in June. It will be four years since you’ve come home.”
“Mom…” Behind her, the city was lit up through the windows, skyscrapers carving the night with their blades of light.
“It’s okay honey, we understand,” said Sutton, our peacemaker.
“Did you get our package?” I asked. I bought Fanny an antique hairbrush I came across at an estate sale. It was a silver plated brush ornamented with a woman with flowers in her hair. I was going to wait to give it to her in person, but some second sense urged me not to. It would fit perfectly on her shelf of treasures. Fanny said no, she hadn’t gotten it yet. I hoped I hadn’t sent it to her last address by mistake. It was hard to keep up with my daughter’s whereabouts. Her job took her all over the world, to places far more dangerous than home. In darker moments I wondered if she was running away from me. I reminded her about the time we sent fresh food to her when she was in Minsk, and by the time she picked it up it had spoiled.
“If you sent it to the right address, it will come here.”
“If you sent us the right address, you mean.”
“All right, now,” Sutton said, and when we got off, “Damn it Lauren.”
There was no coffee at the concession stand, but they had tea and pastries. I bought two sweet rolls and a Danish, already breaking my promise to cut back on sugar. Lately, I was hungry all the time, craving foods I hadn’t eaten in years, rich creamy sauces, smoked meats, honeyed confections. The more I ate, the more I wanted to eat. My bag was a repository for crumbs. I took a bite of one of the sweet rolls, flecks of icing coating my lips. Two girls ran past me, almost toppling me, with their father in tow. They squealed in delight as he tried to corral them. When I came back Sutton was talking to a man sitting next to him. I had not noticed him when we sat down. They were talking about what islands the man had visited. Sutton asked him if it was true about the smell; the man laughed and said we’d get used to it. He said the kill pile at Deception Pass was worse, not for the odor, but for the gulls. One attacked a young girl.
“She was eating one of those caramel apples,” he said, by way of explanation. Were all little girls with caramel apples at risk? I wondered, imagining a field of them, sticks in hand, the sky teeming with grey and white wings. As I bit into my sweet roll, I longed for the luscious gooeyness of caramel and the crisp tang of apple. I wanted Sutton and the man to stop talking so that he could choose between the Danish and the sweet roll so that we could split the third, but of course I wanted the Danish. Meanwhile, a Canadian ferry came in and passengers disembarked. They formed a line at Customs and switched on their portals, a bright row of interpolations. I took out the Danish. I have eaten/the plums. Here’s to Sutton and me. Twenty-five years, I thought, biting into the soft ricotta.
Sutton had been dating my co-worker when we met. I would occasionally see him outside our building, sitting on a concrete wall that abutted a bamboo garden. I noticed him before I knew who he was, and tried to catch his eye. He was usually listening to something as he rubbed his thighs with his hands. One day my co-worker and I rode the elevator together after another analyst’s presentation, and were having some disagreement about it. We were typically on opposite sides, and things could get heated. She was trying to convince me that the basis of our colleague’s argument was sound. I had long deemed her a sentimentalist, and thought she was being lenient because he was a supporter of hers. In any case, we walked out together. Due to its proximity to the water, our courtyard was like a wind tunnel, and no sooner had we stepped outside than the scarf around my co-worker’s neck flew right off. In the elevator, she had draped it around her neck, cashmere in a pretty green shade, and the thought that she might lose it crossed my mind. She was a sharp dresser, but I didn’t like the drape around her neck. We both went after it as it twirled and dashed in the air. Sutton saw us and joined our pursuit. The three of us chased the scarf until it landed in the bamboo. We laughed as I retrieved it and held it out for her. Sutton took it from me and draped it around her neck. I was taken aback. Who the hell did this stranger think he was? But then my co-worker kissed him. I had to admit I was disappointed by the turn of events. I had enjoyed watching him from afar, fantasizing about what it would be like to undress him. Later, he told me that he knew his relationship with my co-worker was finished the moment he took the scarf from my hand. But it would be several months before that happened, and several more before my fantasies came true. He looked so robust – at the prime of his life – and this is how he would look on his deathbed. It was unlikely that I would get to see it, as the chances of Sutton outliving me by many moons were high.
After I was gone, Sutton could have another life with someone else. Our daughter would not know what it is like to see her youth part ways, leaving her to grieve its infidelities and accept its loss. I did not foresee how it felt to watch my face, my body deteriorate while others did not. Once and a while I will see something pass over Sutton’s face while making love that wasn’t doubt, or revulsion, or pity, or fear, but rather a shadow of a deeper, truer reckoning. In someone less full of hope and idealism, my visible age would probably not cause much distress. But for Sutton, whose faith in humankind’s purpose in the world was steadfast, I was a daily reminder of our inevitable annihilation. Even if I could not accept it as anything but magical thinking I was attracted to his point of view. Still, this morning, after we left a half an hour late and our cab got tangled in traffic, Sutton believed we would make our ferry.
“We won’t get a window seat, but that’s all right,” he had said, but when we ascended a hill that overlooked the bay, there was our ferry making its slow, lumbering departure. On the deck there were figures waving goodbye to their friends and family, but it felt like they were waving to us. Goodbye! The scene reminded me of taking the ferry to see our grandfather on Owl Landing a year before it was wiped out in a tsunami, my sister Elliott and I in identical tops and shorts that our dad sewed for us. My father on the dock, sunglasses perched on top of his head. We were supposed to do as we were told, to be polite and not talk back, to clean up after ourselves and make our bed, to brush our teeth and go to sleep. We were prepared to handle our duties, but our father did not tell us that our grandfather was deaf, and that Owl Landing, was, in fact, one of just a handful of Deaf communities left. We would have noticed people talking with their hands on the ferry, but we were too excited to pay attention. We fell in love with Arthur (he insisted we use his first name) and Owl Landing, an enchanted landscape of steep, jagged cliffs and rugged hillsides. According to our father, Owl Landing was founded by a princess.
“Was she beautiful?” Elliott wanted to know.
“She was brilliant,” he told us, “and very brave.” We were at the age where we were starting to question our father’s stories, and believed he was trying to alleviate some of our anxiety. This was a big journey, and we were nervous about it, about meeting our grandfather. But Arthur bewitched us with his laboratory and floating specimens. We loved his glass house and surrounding garden, home to deer and rabbit and fox. We wanted to live there forever.
When we arrived at the terminal, the automaton was out of commission and another ager had checked our luggage instead. I could tell by the ridges in his neck and the folds around his jaw, though it seemed he was younger. I asked how his day was going to make small talk. “Good,” he said, without looking up from his screen. Undeterred, I asked if this was the start or the end of his shift. I was still getting used to being retired; I found myself being overly solicitous with strangers, especially ones like me. Our attendant looked up and there it was. Suspicion. We were species running into one another in the wild, mindful of our territory, protective of our resources.
“The start,” he said.
“Well,” I said, punching in an extra tip. “I hope you have a great day.”
“Safe travels,” he said without enthusiasm.
Sutton got us seats while I checked us in. A man in line behind me was talking to someone. He had flown in from New York, and had also missed the early morning ferry. He was on his way to a family reunion. Yesterday we had taken the train to the city, and had spent the afternoon visiting friends at their houseboat. We had dinner at one of our favorite restaurants in the city, near our old place by the university. I had been looking forward to coming back, but felt disappointed by our visit. I tried to steer the conversation away from my retirement, but they wanted to know how I was taking my sudden departure. My status as an ager had been, for years, an advantage. My experience could not be questioned. But in recent months the papers would come in and I had a hard time reading them. I missed some things I shouldn’t have, sending an erroneous report got sent to our satellite office in Dayton, which was a costly setback.
The man was complaining about being stuck at the terminal. He didn’t understand why he couldn’t check in and take in the sights. There had been increased security all over the country since the last bombings. In all our years living in the Northwest, we had never been to the San Juans. We had taken the ferry over to Victoria after we were married, before the terminal was renamed to memorialize the whale. There was an adjacent museum dedicated to the mammal, with films depicting its heyday in these waters.
“We’re all set,” Sutton said.
“Did you think the man checking our luggage was rude?” I asked.
“No, but it must be a bit of a challenge in his position, dealing with people staring and such.” I loved the way Sutton talked, peppering his speech with quaint syntax. A bit, and such. In some ways, he and my co-worker must have been a striking pair. Sutton was refined, elegant in his manner and my colleague had been so stylish and romantic. Sometimes I had dreams of Sutton going back to her. In them, I would make a list of all that needed to be done in preparation. Call Fanny. Iron shirts. Cancel meetings. I wanted to be ready for it, but when he left I realized I had done none of things on my list, which kept getting longer – Contact lawyer, put house on market, transfer funds, buy plane tickets – and nonsensical; Elk magnolia, treble drive, skull bourbon, gum prism. When I woke up to Sutton beside me, sleeping with his arms flung above his head, I would feel a wave of relief and gratitude, for Sutton not leaving me, obviously (she was just a bit player in our story after all), but also for not having to do the tasks on that list.
At home Sutton was the one to make sure our bills were paid and our house was in running order. Before Sutton things either got done late or not at all. But before Sutton was so long ago, it might as well have not existed at all. Here is where I am in space. I flipped to the page of this poem and reread it. Its association with Arthur and Owl Landing tugged at me. Arthur had pointed the poem out to me when he gave me the book. I read it without understanding, and bombarded him with questions. Who was Andre Breton? What is surrealism? He withdrew a red object from a cabinet, placed it on the ground, and gave it a spin. The object whirled around and around before clanking to a stop. I felt I was being tricked and put the book aside without another glance. Elliott’s gift, on the other hand, was far better – a slide collection of bees. We pored over the insects. Our favorite was the bumblebee for its furry cuteness, but Elliott didn’t have the collection long, as she forgot it on the ferry home. For me the book had a subtler effect, and it was not until I was older that I understood why Arthur showed me that particular poem. He saw that I was a drifter, a daydreamer, and the poem was a reminder to come back to the present.
I put away my poetry book, and checked the time. The woman in her bountiful glasses was inputting data, fingers leisurely tapping her screen. I was worrying what Sutton had said but didn’t know why. It was spooling and unspooling in my head like a bobbin. The goateed man on the woman’s screen had long eyelashes and a cancerous-looking mole on his right cheek. He wore a gold lower case q pin on his lapel. I recognized the symbol, periapsis, from astronomy. The point of closest approach. It was associated with a far-right syndicate that Fanny once mentioned in passing. She didn’t like to go into much detail about work with me. I thought about not waiting until the hotel to write to her, and began to compose a note in my head. I would tell her about Arthur and Owl Landing. I would tell her who Andre Breton was. I would describe the varieties of bees.
A large group entered the terminal. One of them was my former colleague and Sutton’s ex-girlfriend. She had left our firm not long after Sutton and I were married. She was as smartly dressed as ever in wide-legged cream pants and matching blouse, and her hair was tied in an elaborate bun that reminded me of Osiris’s crown. In contrast, her companions donned utilitarian khaki ensembles with more pockets that any one person could possibly need, and sported baseball caps with Vade Mecum printed across them. Vade Mecum had been one of those flash in the pan tea-leaf outfits, long since defunct, but remembered for their “readings” that allegedly sickened participants. She spotted us immediately.
“Lauren, Sutton, oh my!” she said, embracing us as we dutifully stood to greet her. She was fresh-faced and girlish, and talked excitedly about our happy reunion as her bright eyes appraised us. Before we could catch her up on the past twenty years, she did it for us, relating our family’s milestones as if they belonged to her, claiming them with her typical melodrama that was not without charm: Sutton’s return to teaching and writing, Fanny’s new move to Singapore by way of London, my various endeavors (making them sound far more fruitful than they actually were, dear girl) and recent retirement. The spectacle was impressive. We waited for her to tell us about the anniversary trip we were embarking on, our happy union, the sex we had last night after sharing a bottle of wine. Then again maybe there was no charm in it at all. She told us she was working as a researcher on anarchist factions. She was on an expedition (calling it a “pilgrimage”) to reclaim the remains of a long-time radical, which were discovered on San Juan Island.
“How very fascinating!” Sutton said, sweet man. But then he asked if she was talking about Kay Tepper.
“My goodness, yes!” She exclaimed. She couldn’t believe he knew her name. I believed it. My husband could tell you the number of exoplanets there were or the outcome of the Second Punic War. They both turned to me as she told me all about this woman. Her crown of hair swayed precariously as she spoke; I feared it could topple over at any moment. My focus wavered between her mop and figuring out her connection to Vade Mecum, but got the gist of her tale. Kay Tepper had been a May 19th member, and disappeared, along with two other women, decades ago. The discovery of her remains was a major breakthrough, and my old associate was being sent to investigate. Here she signaled to the crew behind her with a flourish of her hand. I was conscious of Sutton looking at me, and was summoning an appropriate response when Sutton’s portal beeped.
“Fanny,” Sutton said. “Hi Honey.” He excused himself, giving his one-time love’s arm a squeeze as he got up and walked to the window. His sudden departure left her looking wounded, but she recovered nicely by wishing us both well, and gave me (or the general population around me) a slight bow with her glorious bun.
I watched our friend rejoin her party, her loose pants and blouse flowing like ceremonial robes. I half-expected the crew to kneel before her or lift her up on their shoulders, and had the sinking realization that we’d be seeing more of her on the ferry. I wasn’t the only one who was taken by her. The woman with the goateed husband was watching her, too, her goofy frames sliding down her nose. After a minute, she turned off her portal, stood, and headed for the concession stand. Sutton was pacing a narrow swath of carpet. Meanwhile people were crossing and recrossing their legs, making makeshift pillows with their jackets, as their eyes darted from screen to water to screen again. The wait seemed to be catching up with us. The room was warm and damp, and the sound of flushing toilets and clicking screens created an agitated and claustrophobic atmosphere.
“What is it?” I asked Sutton when he came back.
“I don’t know, I lost the signal.”
“Here,” I said, handing him his sweet roll. Sutton bit into it.
“I want her to come home too,” he said. He was growing a beard that couldn’t decide what color it wanted to be. His chin and sideburns were dark, like his hair, but his jaw and mustache were red. Bits of sweet roll nestled into it; I resisted the urge to tell him.
What had Sutton said about the ager? In his position. It was not typical to see an ager, whose very situation indicated privilege, substituting for an inoperative droid. Some, like myself, were exempt because of our professional status. Others had political ties. People were circumspect around us – we were artifacts, of course, and as such, valued for what we symbolized. At the same time the new laws had answered that lingering, nagging question of where we did, or rather didn’t, belong.
Passengers continued to stream in and out, checking in at the counter, talking to one another or to the disembodied buzzing in their ears. Talking or not talking, eating or not eating, watching or not watching. But everyone was watching. Our friend was watching, her crown miraculously in place. Her minions, too, were watching. What were they looking for? What did they see? Were they watching pornography? Reading poetry?
I came back to the row in front of me, to the May-December couple, though no one could tell, as their faces bore the shiny newness of morning dew. On Owl Landing we woke early to see the deer grazing on the shimmery grass, their white tails twitching in soft light. Sometimes some sound, the turn of an engine, the flapping of a wing, would startle them and they would dart away, disappearing over the craggy hill. The men were each engrossed in their own portal, and their surveillance lights, signaled by a tiny red dot on the top of their screens, were turned off. I looked at the people sitting next to them. The same. The unduly bespectacled woman and the ager were making their way toward the exit. My portal blinked. It was a text from Fanny, a warning. I read it, considering.
“What is it?” Sutton asked, putting down his half-eaten sweet roll. I turned off my phone.
“The brush came,” I said. “She loves it.” The roll’s layers unspooled on his lap. The light outside was flat, the sound and sky one canvas. I took Sutton’s hand, smooth, plump, the tips of his fingers sticky from sugar, in my own gnarled and veiny one. A form emerged in the water. Before the light and the roar, and the fire and the ash, and the blackout and silence, I saw our ferry coming for us. But it could have been a pod of orcas, their black and white bodies rising from the depths, to reclaim the sea.