Steadfastedly, Elana has refused her children’s attempts to move her out of the beautiful, rural, clear-water-flowing-down-mountain Wyoming, where she has lived all her life. Consequently, as virtual reality and internetspace has become the norm in the past two decades, Elana’s raggedy satellite internet connection has become more of a liability. At work, during her daily standups, she has to lower her avatar’s resolution (optical) so that her colleagues can hear her voice emanate from a few Elana-shaped voxels. After work, when she’s grinding through her MMORPG, she has to lower the NPC AI’s resolution (emotional) just to progress through the randomly generated plotlines.
Before there were five boroughs, there were seven. Alas, we lack the space here to tell the story of how the seventh borough was lost on a particularly foggy day. But we have just space enough now to recount what happened to the sixth…
It began at breakfast, when a group of three was halfway through their eggs michel. One of them, a still-single man in his forties, put down his fork when he realized what had happened. None of them had made anything but perfunctory comments about the meal, the weather, and the time for the entirety of the meal. In fact, he couldn’t remember a single substantive topic of discussion since they first said hello to one another. He looked around the dining room. Many others were like him: chewing their food, looking slowly off into the distance, and waiting for someone to break the silence.
“Waiter,” he said, summoning the waiter, a tall woman with long curly hair and bangs. “Waiter, I think there’s something wrong with all of us. We’ve all run out of things to talk about.”
After making their way through the entrées and the discussion of the most pressing item of the day (the successful, ongoing Israel-Palestine unification), there is a lull in the conversation. A synth-heavy pop song from the late twenties comes on, whose chorus is some paean to doing cocaine in the bathroom of a used Tesla dealership as a teenager. One of the members of the dining party, a woman with fading purple streaks in her hair, who stores all her cheap, broken umbrellas in the storage unit space that came with her apartment, takes a sip of wine and announces to the table, “I didn’t even really do coke until after college,” to which everybody nods and murmurs.
After the early winter sunset, the castle is lit up by the arrival of the messenger — news comes once a season here, at the halfway point between the capital and the border. The messenger’s horse must be stabled, the messenger must be fed, the kingdom’s goings-ons must be relayed aloud to the duke and duchess. The feast must be apportioned onto plates, the plates then have to be cleaned at the end of the night, and the fiddle needs fiddling before people dance their way to tiredness, sleep. At the end of it, the messenger’s wife pulls him to bed and holds him and looks at him. “Were you scared,” she says, low and into his chest, “riding through the dark?”
“No,” he says, holding her. “There was a light.”
At some party in some loft in some part of downtown, you wander around looking for your girlfriend, drifting from room to room in the massive penthouse suite that someone told you was purchased by “oil scion money.” There’s the main living room, packed to the gills with extroverts; there’s stoners, who have camped out in the bedroom of the roommate who’s working a shift tonight, and even made sure to have the other roommate promise her that nobody would sit on her bed, let alone spill kief; and then there are the rooms that seem to defy categorization, like the one you’re in now. A half dozen people are standing in a circle, watching a young woman try and attempt a headstand next to a red Solo cup, which you assume is her drink. When people talk, they murmur, and it gives the room (with the music and the dialogue from the extroverts leaking in through the cracks around the door) a pleasant, unexpected feeling of solemnity. You tap the shoulder of the man closest to you. “What’s going on?” you ask.
“Shh. We’re watching her,” he says, indicating to the headstand girl, “seize the day.”
The Lunch Drive was a straggly group of outlaws and misfits who went into the Grocery Forest to gather all the supplies needed for a year’s worth of lunches. Upon becoming a member of the Lunch Drive, the group would chose a lunch name for you. It was all anybody called you afterwards. Some, after having done the Lunch Drive for five, ten years, no longer remembered their real identity. Others never had one to begin with.
It was noon on Provisions Island, and water was running low.
“Sometimes,” the mouse says, “most of the time, life doesn’t work out the way you think it will, and, then, you get stuck in one place for too long. You worry that things are getting worse, so you panic and either try to fight against it or run away from it. Either way you’re defined by your stuckness.”
“Please,” says the cat, sharpening its knife. “I’m trying to eat here”.
During the her version of the pandemic, my paternal grandmother — my Nana — decided to stop eating. It was, to the best of our knowledge, not related to COVID, as case numbers and deaths were long under control where she lived (China). One day, she could eat. The next day, she couldn’t keep anything down without throwing up. The day after that, she decided to stop eating. She was sharp, even in the end; she had lost hearing in one ear, all of her teeth except one, and most of her mobility, but she kept her wits about her. Her youngest daughter (my fourth aunt) was taking care of her at the time. She called my dad and told him that his mother had decided to stop eat eating. It was time, Nana had said.
Nana reported feeling no pain. She drank water and napped in bed. On the fifth day, my dad awoke to a text from Fourth Aunt, which read that Nana had left. My dad stayed in bed and cried. Later, he realized that Fourth Aunt had garbled her text — Nana had left her bedroom to use the bathroom.
On the seventh day, Nana passed away. She lived through World War II, the Vietnam War, the Korean War, the War in Afghanistan, Mao, Nixon, television, and five versions of HTML. She was a nurse, and worked in hospitals, until she had children. What did it all mean?
During my version of the pandemic, I went on long walks through Brooklyn after work, braving the February winters and the shitty snow that piled on the sides of sidewalks for months on end without melting. Always in Brooklyn, at all hours, there are people out on the sidewalks, walking their dogs, talking to other people in line for tacos at the taco truck, and loitering. So many little restaurants and shops closed in my neighborhood. Besides the streetlights, the luminous Foodtown of Prospect Heights was the only thing that lit up Vanderbilt Avenue in the winter, like some great beacon of B-grade produce. Going through the pandemic alone, a single man in his thirties, I realized I was being given a test. If I could survive this year by myself, I could probably survive any year by myself. I survived. I’m not sure I was elegantly fabulous in my survival, the way some other people experienced the pandemic (weddings, births), went but I survived. What did it all mean?
The last time my Nana and I talked in person, it was 2019. I had taken a twenty-one hour flight and a forty-five minute taxi ride to my Fourth Aunt’s apartment complex. That’s how addresses worked in Taiyuan: country, province, city, cross street, apartment complex, building, building unit. Long. For whatever reason, there was concrete rubble everywhere, as if the construction people left one day too early. We waited in a completely dark hallway on the first floor of Fourth Aunt’s building for the elevator. Architecture in Taiyuan is wanting: everything is covered in a layer of dirt, nothing feel safe, and all overhead fluorescent lights come from the same catalog that the military uses to furnish an interrogation room.
The apartment was clean, and filled with sunlight, not unlike a south-facing two-bedroom condo unit in Prospect Heights. Fourth Aunt had cooked a multi-course meal, with dumplings being the star entree. All throughout the afternoon, Nana’s little dog yipped and jumped on everybody. Nana came out to talk. We yelled short phrases at her, and she would tell us stories in a normal tone of voice. Like a monster, I was afraid of how she would smell, but she sat right next to me and she smelled OK. She showed me pictures of her husband, my Ye Ye, whom I never really knew. He had a stroke shortly after I was born, and was bedridden when I said goodbye to him in 1995. She showed me pictures of me — pictures of living rooms and lakes and gardens I couldn’t remember. I told her I couldn’t remember anything, and she laughed, and she handed me the next photo. After lunch, she grew tired and retired to bed.
The rest of us stayed and talked. Fourth Aunt’s husband (my uncle), propped a window open in the kitchen to smoke a cigarette, before coming back, before going back to smoke another, before coming back. There was apples served for dessert, and beer. Like most houses in China, there was no coffee, which I would have killed for. I could not get over how similar the apartment was to a Brooklyn apartment, right down to the small kitchen that could barely fit two people, with the refrigerator that was awkwardly one size too small for the cabinetry around it, and the white stovetop with burns that would never come out. What did it all mean?
The last time my Nana and I ever talked, we “Sametimed,” which is the verb my Mom uses for any form of video communication. My Nana called my Mom’s iPad over WeChat, and I called my Mom’s iPhone over FaceTime. My Mom held the two devices so that we faced each other. Over approximately ten frames of video per second, I told my Nana that I loved her and I hoped she was happy. She seemed happy to see me. This was the second day of her fast, when her children were already rushing to take the express trains back home to Taiyuan. Though, if they were like me, they likely felt complicated about calling their hometown home. At some point, home is the apartment that you rent in the new city you live in, even though maybe it never really feels like home because you’re the only person who lives in it. Can a home just be one person? Maybe if the person was rich, and the home had a huge balcony, and the person had great-looking friends over each night. But an apartment with clothes on the floor? My Nana said she loved me too, and then I was told by my Mom that she had to hang up on me. My Dad was going to keep talking to Nana for a while. Bye, Nana, I said. I love you. In Mandarin, and (I suspect) other dialects of Chinese, you don’t say “I love you” to end conversations, the way you might in English, but what else are you supposed to say? We hung up, and I laced up my boots, and I put on my big, blue coat, and I went out. What did it all mean?