When the pandemic hit, I drove out of Seattle. I knew a guy who owed me a favor. He let me use his winter place, a cabin for all the things he did in snow.
I told a few friends I was leaving, put my dog in the front seat and a suitcase in the back. When I stopped for gas in Everett I felt like an extra in a zombie movie. The freeway was mostly empty, a few cars driving too fast or too slow, headlights piercing water-logged farmland. Nothing was open except gas stations, automated card readers still counting gallons. I got a can of soda from a vending machine and peed in the shrubbery beside a ball field. On the radio, announcers exhaled static, cutting news with upbeat music and pre-recorded interviews from The Before Times.
It took about three hours to get from Seattle to Alger. When I showed up at the cabin, the woods were dark, a thick velvety feeling weighed down at the edges. The key was hidden under a lawn ornament by the back door. A plastic deer, big weepy eyes. Inside was more what I’d expected, everything creamy white with dark gray accents, live edge wood furniture, a few throw pillows in muted blues. The kitchen gleamed silver, white subway tile on the backsplash. It was glossy and completely unrelated to the environment, to the greens and browns outside the door. Like my guy had picked up a condo on Capitol Hill and moved it to the woods. I wasn’t complaining. Not a bad place to live or die, whichever way this was going. I texted photos to friends as if beauty had brought me and might tempt me to stay.
I knew I wouldn’t go back to the city. This wasn’t a vacation, a getaway. This was the start of the collapse. There would be no end to this. The President was burning the country to the ground and the sense that anyone might die at any time stopped being an existential theory and became urgent reality. I figured I was lucky. My building was eight stories high, on a busy city street, surrounded by taller buildings, people moving in and out, touching things, exhaling steam. Surely this would be safer. I wouldn’t have to wipe the door handles, change my clothes every time I went in and out, make small talk that might kill me. If I got it, if I breathed glass, if my feet turned red and my eyes rimmed pink and my head split and I didn’t have the energy to stand up, well, then. I had friends who expected a text every three days. If four days went by, they’d come get the dog.
“Stay as long as you’d like,” my guy said. He was in Canada, safe side of the border. He had a house in Victoria, a flat in Vancouver. He was in a pandemic pod with two attractive strangers, each meeting different sexual proclivities and duties on a chore wheel. He had dual citizenship and wasn’t setting foot in the infection zone. When I asked if I could join the trio, his voice trailed off. Besides, they’d closed the border, Americans shut out from all the countries the President had insulted. I couldn’t cross over to Canada even if his pandemic pod voted me in. That was when he offered me his cabin.
“It’s close to Lake Whatcom but it feels like the middle of nowhere. Just don’t feed the deer,” he said. “They carry diseases.”
In April I was optimistic for about three days. Then the weight of knowing descended, fog that rolled across the lake. I understood that survival wasn’t just about not getting the virus. I needed to stay sane. I needed rituals, patterns I could follow. I needed a sense of structure.
Every day I cut something. A strand of hair, a fingernail, a fallen leaf in half at the ribs. I chopped wood. I cut potatoes from a sack I’d brought with me, dropped pale cubes into canned soup. Every day I walked the dog in figure eights up rural roads, through woods at the end of the last closed loop. Every day I worked, typing words and strings of numbers into my laptop.
Work was the one thing that stayed exactly the same. My job had always been work from home. We were over it by now: the accidental bathroom shots, the slips where someone’s naked lap flashed onscreen. We were over how it turned everyone into workaholics, how surveillance never stopped, how the absence of a commute simply translated into more time onscreen. How people answered messages at 3am expecting a reply. Getting a reply. Getting up, rolling over to the other side of the bed and calling it a desk. Honestly, it was a relief that suddenly the entire country was as miserable and burnt out as we were.
My job was mechanical engineering, specifically satellites. My job was making top secret fuel-filled silver stars that snapped photographs, stories people wanted outer space to tell. Everything piecemeal, compartmentalized. No one person had the big picture. The only big picture was the satellite’s eye. We knew what we were doing was sometimes good and sometimes wrong, but none of that was supposed to matter. We were simply the satellite’s handlers. If what we handled was unethical, how would we ever know if all we saw was a piece of the puzzle, the raw red edge of a frozen frame?
All along the afternoon my neighbors’ kids flew kites on the banks of Lake Whatcom. Raced the hilly roads in wheelbarrows. On my walks in the woods everything fit together, fern fronds etching dirt pocked with deer scat. I rescued beetles overturned on gravel roads. Once, I saw a slug prickly with pine needles like a porcupine. I wondered if the needles hurt. While I watched, the slug slothed across the road to get to the other side, brown needles swaying as its long green body lugged the extra weight onward.
On another walk, I found a wooden arrow resting in a pile of leaves like sleep. The arrow was the first thing that scared me. The second was a gray-haired woman I never saw again calling to me from her front porch, “You look out for the cougar, now. She’s got her cubs. It’s not safe to be walking the way you do.” A small tenderness, her worry, but my world was so small already. Still, I found a ski pole and began carrying it on walks with the dog.
My days were lonely. Work expanded into moonlit hours that used to be mine. I thought of The Before Times, how I sat with my wife, touching her thigh, sliding my hand beneath her skirt until it felt so easy to raise her skirt and kneel, to put my mouth on her. How we couldn’t marry until suddenly the state rolled us over, made our domestic partnership a marriage by that time we didn’t want. She loved someone else. She thought I loved my satellites too much. Maybe I did. Now I loved slugs ferrying a forest of needles, soft deer riddled with ticks, a pile of pierced leaves.
Days slipped into weeks into months and I lost track of the calendar. My entire work life was now asynchronous, which meant that I worked seven days a week from morning to night and dreamed of shiny objects orbiting earth in outer space. My friends and I talked on the phone, and all our love for each other was there, but we had nothing to look forward to until the next call. My satellites provided a sense of adventure. I was working on Suomi NPP, imaging weather, a code I was born to decipher. Wind, rain, snow, floods, hurricanes, tornados spoke to outer space and outer space spoke back. When I closed my eyes, I saw the photographs we’d taken as if I was floating above my apocalyptic planet.
The call came in July. I knew it was July because the woods filled with fireworks. Setting fire to exploding sticks in a dry summer forest seemed unwise, especially with signs reading Burn Ban In Effect all along the roads leading to town. But one night the sky exploded, and my phone, when I checked, confirmed it was the Fourth. Burning sticks in a tinderbox, the country divided against itself. A few days later, the phone rang. No one ever called from work, so I thought it was a candidate asking for money. But when I answered, I recognized the voice: my boss. For a second I was scared I’d been fired.
I would no longer be working on Suomi, they said. Not because I hadn’t done a good job. My job, they said, had been too good. I was needed, they said, elsewhere. I would be contacted to begin high security clearance. If I had anything in my past that might need explaining, I should speak up now.
I said nothing.
The call ended with a click.
How do you mourn weather, its elegant math? I had images burned into my retina from working on the weather satellite. I was used to looking down, seeing the swirl of life on the planet below. What happened to my human body felt inconsequential compared to my spinning globe.
What would I work on now? What shiny flying object would I grow to love? My ex-wife was wrong; I didn’t love satellites more than I loved her. I just loved humans and objects differently. I loved waking up to her leg thrown carelessly over my leg. I loved her patterns, her routines. I loved the shape her mouth made when she was just about to speak and her gaze when she listened, taking something in. It was me she didn’t love. I was the eccentricity of an elliptical orbit. I was the outlier she couldn’t control.
The woman she left me for was loud, filled rooms with little imagination and endless jokes. Was predictable. They were clumsy and human together. Smoked too much pot and watched reality TV. What I missed about my wife was what we’d made together, a collaboration. But because we each saw only our orbit, the universe from our small point of view, we’d lost the big picture. I wondered if she sometimes thought of me. If she missed me. I invented great silver birds that flew. Secretly I named each satellite for her.
Now I was losing Suomi. Whatever they were moving me to would mean staring at a tiny corner of something I’d never understand. I’d get a raise, but my grasp of the world would dissolve. From here on out, everything would be abstract. I might not be working on satellites at all.
I passed the initial security clearance. In stages, they said. Be ready for a knock on your door. I wasn’t worried; there was the gay thing, but that wasn’t a secret these days. The company even had a networking group. I’d gone to a few lunches, a few talks in The Before Times, mostly to see who else was queer. But the group’s impulse was always to do queer things – softball games, a Pride float. I just wanted to feel safe at work. I just didn’t want to get fired because I had a wife instead of a husband, because I refused to wear heels or defer to men.
I did have secrets, but so did everyone. The security clearance process was only interested in particular secrets. I didn’t owe money to a foreign government. I didn’t do drugs I couldn’t buy in a shop. If I had dangerous secrets, I’d kept them tight enough that there was no one left to tell. Still, the process moved so quickly. Just like that, no more Suomi.
In my new job I was one week on, two weeks off. The week I worked I was on call 24/7. Off meant off, like flipping off a switch. There were three teams working on the Elliptical polar orbit. Spy satellites. I knew nothing else, because my job was so tightly tangled in the machinery of it all that what I was actually doing was never apparent. All I had to do was let the numbers and designs become beautiful to me. The machines did what we told them to do, arrows nesting in soft things.
One early evening my dog pulled me uphill, stopped to smell the trampled grass, fresh kill. That night I let him out the back door, but he wouldn’t wander. Stood on the back stoop shivering, pawing the door while something yowled up in the tangle.
Cougar see prey in everything. I learned their sounds from YouTube videos. I’d never been afraid of ghosts, but I knew enough to feel afraid of a big cat’s teeth and claws. I took the dog behind the house and banged a pot to ward off yowls. Rattled keys while he sniffed straggly bushes around the fence. In the morning, he pawed through underbrush, traced the hollow mouth of drainage pipe beneath the hill. He just liked the smell of death that wasn’t his. From videos, I learned a winter need for listening.
When a big cat comes for you, you’ll know.
Stare into her eyes. Don’t turn your back; don’t run or scream.
You can’t be catlike, only human: plainspoken, righteous, frozen.
All January I’d worn a rash like a stain, blood-colored dots around my stomach, my breasts. This was before the first Seattle cases made big news around the world. Before the pandemic had a name, when it was just symptoms showing up in doctor’s offices, in urgent care, in drug stores like the one where I bought tubes of cream to stop the itching, even though it was coming from inside. Doctors didn’t know what caused the pocks or why. I had headaches that pulled my thoughts out of myself and into wilder realms of pain. I felt so tired I could barely walk. I’d take the dog outside to pee, then climb up the stairs and collapse. More than once I lay down on the rug in my hallway after unlatching my dog’s leash. I’d close my eyes, stare up at the ceiling, fall asleep. Wake up when the itching became unbearable. It hit me out of nowhere and two weeks later it was nearly gone, stray red marks at my waist. I got better. Then it hit again, the same thing, slightly less intense, in February. Again in March. By then the word pandemic was in the public discourse; by the end of March in Seattle we were supposed to stay home. Still I didn’t think, and my doctor didn’t think, I’d had it. Because my breathing didn’t change. Because we didn’t understand its mutability, its capacity to show itself in wholly different guises from person to person. My symptoms recurred, fainter each time, until they seemed to stop at the end of the blazing hot summer of wildfires.
Not until September did my body make sense again, the stain gone, my stomach sticking out from no more gym but white skinned like dead meat as I’d been born with. I didn’t fit the pattern. I didn’t stop breathing, didn’t feel my lungs fill with broken glass, with water, with words I couldn’t say. But slowly the doctors worked around the president’s disinformation campaign, worked around the lies he’d spread, his injunction to inject ourselves with disinfectant, to binge on hydroxychloroquine. Slowly doctors whispered what they knew, and it seemed I’d had the sickness all along, an early case, not unexpected given how the unknown illness spread in Seattle before we knew, when we were still eating in restaurants, drinking in bars, fucking on the bed, on the sofa, on the floor in front of the sliding glass door that led to my balcony. My last lover’s name was Jessie. It didn’t last; we had nothing to talk about. We stopped sleeping together before the stay at home orders. By that time, I was really alone.
I always thought she’d come back, my wife. Still I said my wife, as if she was. As if the word ex would change the past as well as the future. I thought we’d come back simultaneously, like orgasms but cooking dinner together. Suddenly Ada and I would be married again.
Instead I got an invitation. It was August, or at least it wasn’t September. Ada sent it to my Seattle address; it was forwarded to the cabin. The envelope was pale yellow, not lemon but a sugary dry color. I knew right away. How could she, I thought, which was stupid. How could she not? My friends said the pandemic was rushing everyone toward something they maybe didn’t really want. Here I was in the woods, worrying about being mauled by a cougar, worrying a tree would crush me in my sleep, eating canned soup from someone else’s kitchen, talking earnestly to my dog about the political situation while my ex-wife was running around Seattle trying on engagement rings with her very loud and not particularly funny paramour grabbing her elbow through the plaid of her sleeve.
I sent the RSVP card back right away. It was shaped like a mask. You could check I will attend and stand 6 feet away or I can’t make it but I’m sending a gift. I checked nothing, just wrote STAY SAFE in red marker at the bottom of the card.
The red marker dripped a little on the E.
I took my ski pole off its hat hook by the door. I leashed the dog and masked up. I set out. I walked until I saw a doe and two new baby deer, small as puppies, fuzzy and spotted.
Then nothing happened for a few days and I ran out of soup.
I drove into town. I had two masks, one the cute fabric kind and one the ugly surgery kind. I put the cute mask over the ugly mask. I had hand sanitizer, but not the lotion kind, because it didn’t work as well. I had hot tea in a thermos because supposedly if you drank hot liquid after getting the virus in your mouth, the hot liquid would wash the virus down your throat and the way your throat skin or blood or whatever worked would kill the virus but not kill you. Also I liked tea.
The parking lot felt strange, like going home after moving away forever. I expected to see my parents in the grocery store, sitting together on apple crates, holding hands and selling candy apples. Instead there was a teenager sanitizing shopping carts, spraying them with abandon, polishing them like he’d polish a car, and another teenager handing out masks to people who’d forgotten or refused to wear them. Someone tried to argue with the mask up teenager. Something about conspiracy theories and the president’s red hat. I’d had it already and I hadn’t even made it into the store. Got in a fight with conspiracy dude. We were both thrown out. I still needed soup, so I walked a few blocks to the other grocery store, the expensive one bought out by the big corporation.
Everyone there was wearing a mask, moving in cautious circles around the store, giving each other space. Whispering, “Thank you” to employees. One white woman bowed and made prayer hands at a man who was stacking bunches of carrots next to parsnips. He ignored her. She edged over and tried to thank him in the face and he just stepped away, afraid. It was so clear that no one knew what the fuck to do with themselves. I bought a can of expensive soup and a slice of non-dairy cake because I’d spent so much time researching factory farming that now I could only eat plant-based food without weeping for the baby cows.
Then I switched my masks around and went back to the normal grocery store I’d been 86’d from. They let me in. Our memories weren’t working the way they used to. They thought I was someone new, someone in a surgery mask. Or maybe they were secretly glad I’d shouted at the red hat dude. I filled my basket with soup and pasta and coffee and cereal and apples and bags of frozen vegetables. I bought pickled vegetables labeled RAW PROBIOTIC because I liked the word BIOTIC. It reminded me of The Bionic Man and The Bionic Woman. For a moment I got lost in childhood, orange shag carpeting, rec rooms, striped shirts, and Zoom the TV show. I could still do the weird little thing with my arms. I hummed the Zoom song under my breath. An attractive white man-woman couple looked at me, maskless faces crinkled up, like I smelled bad, which maybe I did.
Days went by, and nothing happened. It was one of my off weeks. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I wrote long texts to my ex-wife, demanding an explanation, reminding her that she’d told me herself that her now new wife wasn’t nearly as good in bed as I was and that she faked it when they used the strap on. I sent the texts to myself, a trick my therapist had invited me to try, except maybe once I messed up and actually sent it. Well, maybe twice. When I told this to my therapist a few days later in our Zoom therapy session, she laughed, a thing I liked about her: that she could laugh with me. Only then something weird happened. I realized she wasn’t laughing. No sound came out of her mouth. She shook.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
She petted her therapy dog, Demon. He’d tried to bite me once, in The Before Times. She was crying, but keeping it very close to laughing, and I knew if I left her alone for a minute, she’d rein it all back in.
We both pretended to be looking at ourselves onscreen. Really I was looking at her. She was so pretty, a straight lady. I’d picked her because she was so married and straight, and I knew no matter how hard I turned on my charms, no matter how much I projected out or in, it wouldn’t matter. But now I just wanted her to feel better.
It was a thing that kept happening. I’d go somewhere necessary, like the gas station or the grocery store, or I’d log onto a Zoom meeting or a work call, and inevitably someone, sometimes someone strong, would crack. I came to recognize the silence, the tilt of the head. If it was a busy Zoom call, the person would just disappear, leaving their avatar sipping coffee, kayaking, or smiling blandly in front of a bookcase. Some people had photos of their pets. The more pet photos I saw in a meeting, the worse things were.
The rains returned overnight in September. When I walked by the lake, Theo dug up the same sticks he’d buried days earlier. Geese honked, flying in perfect formation over the water, swooping in unison. At the far edge of the lake was a golf course, the landscape’s one unchanging world. White men in pastel shirts, golf carts, silver clubs, balls that inevitably flew into the water. Occasionally deer high-stepped it across the green, holding up the game as if they knew exactly what they were doing.
One off-week afternoon I let Theo run free. He disappeared into the woods after a squirrel. I stumbled through brush, calling Theo! Theodore Henry! Through the forest, onto a road I hadn’t realized existed. There was Theo, looking pleased with himself for running his own adventure. Behind him was a house, no neighbors, no street signs. Two stories, modern, white and gray. It fit perfectly within the trees, against the sky, against the ravine on one side and the hill on the other. I stared up at the window and that was when I saw the man.
The man saw me and waved.
I waved back.
Then I called to Theo, and we walked away from the house, up a dirt road covered with stones. I realized I’d passed it before, not realizing it was a road. It didn’t seem to have a name. We walked back along the lake while the golfers golfed and a heron stood silently among the reeds.
I felt my restlessness returning. I texted a few friends to ask if anyone was dating. Their answers were: Yes. Strange. Chaste. Phone dates, Zoom dates, dates standing far apart in parks. I downloaded an app and swiped. I chatted. I met up.
Her name was Shantifa and she was a professor at the university in town. We met in a park, both masked, wearing thick coats because of the chill. The wind blew her skirt lightly around her ankles. When she talked about teaching, I could see that thing some teachers have for their students: a core compassion and concern.
“But I’m not a pushover,” she said. “I’m a tough grader.”
“Do I get an A?”
“You? We just met.”
Before the pandemic hit, she’d been midway through writing a book about the impact of social media on social justice movements.
“Now I need to add a chapter on Zoom.”
“Do people actually use Zoom for activism?”
She shook her head. “It’s not that Zoom is a distribution tool the way Facebook and Twitter are. It’s that the way people talk to other people on Zoom – controlling privacy settings, for example, or using an avatar instead of a live feed – impacts their social media use.”
“So it’s happening in reverse?”
“Yeah. Social media impacts activism, but the way people are using social media is starting to change. So I’m wondering how that will impact activism and looking at Zoom lets me make predictions.”
All this talking was a turn on for me. It was the first face-to-face intellectual conversation I’d had in months.
“Can I hug you?” I said.
She looked taken aback.
“I’m sorry. That was probably inappropriate.” I shifted from foot to foot nervously.
She bit her lip and stared into the distance. The park where we were walking was close to the water, near a sewage treatment plant. People called it the Sewage Treatment Plant neighborhood. It was really nice. The houses all had little gardens. There were lots of rainbow flags and Black Lives Matter signs and bumper stickers for non-fascist political candidates.
“I’d like that,” she said.
Neither one of us moved.
Finally, I gestured for her to step toward me, and she did. I wrapped my arms around her puffy coat. I could feel the small of her back through fabric. I closed my eyes. I thought she closed hers, but her face was buried against my shoulder. My face mask got damp and stuck to my mouth. It felt like the most forbidden thing I could image.
Suddenly a dog barked, and its person shouted, “Scooby,” in a way that let us know someone had seen us and was approaching. The person looked so apologetic, or at least, their eyes did, and the wide circle they made around us, twenty feet at least.
Shantifa stepped back.
“Thank you,” I said, because I didn’t know what else to say.
She looked like she might cry. “Can I see your whole face? If we back up and stand at least twelve feet away?”
I nodded. We walked backwards, as if we were in a duel or trying not to startle an animal. “Tell me when,” I said, and she did, and when I saw her mouth, I thought no one could ever be more beautiful.
That night I texted her:
I’d really like to see you again.
I watched while bubbles percolated:
I’ll keep your number if you keep mine.
I thought I’d text Shantifa. I thought she’d text me. But things kept getting worse out in the real world, spiraling, and I guess we both forgot. As the days passed I felt trapped in some forgotten myth, as if I might turn to salt if I looked back, if I let myself remember.
One night while I was boiling water for pasta my phone rang. I answered without checking to see who was calling.
“Hi. How are you doing?” It was Ada. Before I could answer, she launched into a gushy speech, thanking me for sending monogrammed organic cotton bathrobes as a wedding gift.
“I didn’t, though.”
She just kept talking about the wedding, the gifts, everything so perfect, so wonderful. What a shame I couldn’t make it. How much I would’ve enjoyed the location, waterfront, the tide nearly splashing the floral arbor. The flower girls and their pastel dresses. The ringbearer dog. Sunset over the sea.
“I didn’t send you bathrobes. That’s not a thing I would do.”
“Oh.” There was a pause. She said my name – “Quinn” – and for a split second I thought I heard affection. Then the tone I’d grown used to, a different voice, not the voice of the woman I’d married in Canada, before it was legal here, and then remarried when it finally was. Now all of that was up in the air, the government turning against its people once more, history reeling its cinematic landscape backward, my wife’s voice disappearing into the voice of a woman who asked, “What did you send us?”
I’d sent coffee cups. She drank coffee all day long, using a new cup every time. I started to say that, then thought better of it.
“I made a donation in your name.”
Disappointment rang through her voice. “I see.”
“You know we’re going to have human composting soon, right? The Governor signed the bill and everything. So I made a donation to a human composting science center in Seattle.”
“I thought you’d be honored to contribute to scientific research. They’re studying corpses at the Body Farm. Bringing the technology here to Seattle.”
“It’s science, Ada. You’ll always be a part of it now.”
“You ruin everything, Quinn. I’m finally in love and you want to talk about corpses at some farm? Why can’t you just be happy for me?”
“The Body Farm. It’s a specific place. They let bodies decompose there. To study them.”
“I hate you.”
“You married me.”
“I don’t even remember you. It’s like it never happened.”
“You’re the one who called to thank me for buying you a wedding gift. And got it wrong, Ada.”
“Because I thought you bought us something nice. Cute monogrammed bathrobes.”
“Science is nice. Human composting is nice. I bet you two want to be buried, don’t you? Do you know how wasteful that is?”
“You’re the worst, Quinn. You compartmentalize everything. Just like your job. You want to pretend all you’re doing is math, but the big picture is drones and surveillance and missiles and assassinations and God knows what else. It’s not science. It’s murder.”
“I bought you coffee cups.”
She hung up.
I was tired and decided it was time to turn into a tree.
Wasn’t this how it happened in myths, in fairy tales? I’d go into the forest and come back changed. I’d find a wolf, a huntsman, a magic chalice, a ring. I’d stand still for so long that my limbs sprouted greenery and I swayed in sync with roots wrapped round my ankles, pulsing for water, until I was that thirsty tree.
I stood next to a pine. I stood next to a birch. I lay down under an oak. Two squirrels fought their way around a mossy log. I heard birds calling to each other or talking about me. Or maybe talking to themselves the way I’d started to do, first occasionally, now full-blown paragraphs, commenting on everything I did, chatting myself up, narrating a life no one else was close to. As if speaking the words in my head would connect me to some human story. As if it might ward off disease or the loneliness I was starting to think might be much, much worse.
Without meaning to, Theo and I found ourselves back in front of the hidden house, waving again at the man inside. He looked pleasantly amused, glancing up from a laptop positioned so he could see out into the woods. As I turned to hike back home, I noticed a hornet’s nest nearly hidden beneath the eaves. I hesitated, then doubled back, masked up, and knocked on his door.
“There’s a hornet’s nest,” I said. “Up there, under your roof.”
He nodded. “I called the Department of Agriculture. In case it’s murder hornets.”
I’d forgotten the murder hornets. There were so many ways for things to spiral out of control. “Good luck with all that.”
“Thank you. And thank you, Theo.” He shut the door.
I walked home along the lake. Not until I got home did I realize I’d never told him my dog’s name.
I spent much of my time thinking about surveillance. I knew that the technology I worked on could be used to do great things, like help people evacuate before a hurricane hit; or terrible things, like pinpoint people in precise locations and bomb them to smithereens. It felt like the price of admission, not just for my job, but for moving through the world as it was now: cameras and mics on our phones and in our houses, all the tech companies offering us new landscapes of knowledge and communication, while simultaneously monitoring our every move.
Jessie texted me. It was the exact moment when every single person’s last lover texted them out of loneliness. I knew this because it was all over Twitter, where things seemed to happen in sync, maybe because I’d curated my feed to reflect my chaotic reality. Jessie and I hadn’t talked since we broke up, since I found out she was running a live cam empire out of her studio apartment in Ballard.
“You said you worked in tech.”
“You get paid to live stream naked women.”
“And you think that’s separate from tech?”
“Why didn’t you just tell me you were running a live cam operation? Did you think I would judge?”
“You’re judging me now. Look, everything has its moment. The moment you share your childhood secrets, the moment you talk about food allergies, the moment you open up about kinks. I wasn’t withholding; I was just waiting for moments that never came.”
After the pandemic hit and everyone was trapped inside, not touching, I figured one of us would break and suggest a little friends with benefits situation. But it wasn’t going to be me. I was friends with benefits with trees. I loved slugs now. I was different.
What’s up? Jessie texted.
Not much. Still breathing.
Want to hang out?
There’s a deadly disease we could give each other if we stand closer than six feet apart.
I know. I’m just lonely.
We could risk it. I mean, we’re both careful people.
Sorry, Jessie. Call me sometime?
Of course she never did. Talking on the phone had become strangely intimate, like sending long emails. She wasn’t looking for intimacy. I just knew the thought of more cameras, more bodies onscreen, more images burned into my retina wasn’t what I needed. I kept trying to imagine a landscape without a lens, my body touching another body that wasn’t for the camera. The pandemic had broken the last few barriers we had between surveillance and domestic space. All day long I spoke into a screen, exercised from a screen, watching faces onscreen. The camera followed me everywhere. I wanted something real. But who was I, with my job a giant spinning eye, to ask for privacy?
A few days later I was reading on the sofa, Theo curled up beside me. It was morning, sunny and cold outside. I was finishing my coffee when a knock startled us both. Theo ran to the door and barked. I picked up the heavy flashlight I kept by the door.
“Who’s there?” I asked, pulling back the curtains slightly.
A tall white man stood on the doorstep. It was the man from the hidden house, the man who waved. I felt confused. How did he know where I lived? Did I know him from somewhere else?
“Sorry, I’m busy,” I said through the door. “You’ll have to come back later.”
“I can’t,” he said.
“Please leave. I’m not letting you in.”
“Your boss sent me.”
That did not sound good. “Prove it.”
He began reciting things about me only my employer knew. As I listened to the list, I felt myself shrinking. A list of facts, dates, projects I’d worked on. Code names, acronyms, salary, perks.
“Put on your mask,” and we both did. Then I opened the door and stepped outside.
“I was just sent to give you this,” handing me a sheet of paper. “It’s your security clearance. You’ll get a badge in the mail in a few weeks, but they wanted you to know you’d passed. Soon you can start working on the real project.”
“No idea.” He shrugged, and I knew he was telling the truth. “This is all I do. This part. I’m just the man in the window. I wave. My wave sets everything in motion. It’s an important job and I’m well compensated. Sometimes I get lonely but they send me books to read each week. You’re lucky they let you have a dog. I asked for a cat, but they sent me a cactus. It is sad, though. About your wife.”
“My ex-wife. I’m divorced.”
“You don’t know?”
I stared at him and shook my head.
He moved slightly to the right. Made an almost imperceptible gesture and I stepped away from the door. We walked into the yard and stood beside a tree.
“They created the divorce.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Nothing that’s happened to you or me was left to chance.” He turned, motioned toward the house. “See the hornet’s nest?”
I had one, too.
“The camera is in the nest. There are cameras inside the cabin, too. Try to understand. You’re not making choices. You think you are, but you’re not. They’re in charge of everything. And once you’re in, you’re in. You can’t leave. The best you can hope for is to ask for things. Like a house. I wanted a dog, a cat. I wanted a lover. But they gave me a house and it’s something. They send me books every week. Not the books I ask for, but books just the same.”
I thought of my Canadian friend. “The friend who’s letting me stay in his cabin. Is he in on it?”
The man laughed, but not because anything was funny. His laughter reminded me of my therapist, shaking on our Zoom call, petting her dog.
“I take it the answer is yes.”
“There’s nothing outside of this.” His voice caught in his throat. “The one thing they didn’t count on was the pandemic. It’s the wrench in their plans. So they’ve gotten a little sloppy about the details. Like your friend loaning you his cabin. Like you meeting me by chance in the woods.”
“What do we do?”
“Now that we know. Now that both of us are in on the secret.”
His face changed. “There’s no we here. There’s just you in your house and me in mine. We never had this conversation.” He stepped back in front of the hornet’s nest.
“Is it fake? I mean, are there real hornets?”
“What do you think?” He got into his car and drove away.
I went inside and checked every lock on every door and window. Then I looked down at the piece of paper he’d given me, my security clearance. It was blank.
After he left, I made lunch, cutting carrots to put in the soup. I realized I’d stopped my patterns, stopped the few things I’d tried to hold onto. Had I texted my friends every three days? Were they still receiving my texts? Were my friends still alive?
I put the pan of soup in the sink and turned off the burner. Drank two glasses of water. Polished my glasses with spit on my sleeve. Then I threw a few things in a bag, as if I might be going hiking. I put Theo in the car and we drove the winding roads towards town. I filled up the tank. I masked up and bought a backpack full of groceries. Leaning against the car I ate an apple and a handful of pumpkin seeds.
When I started the ignition, for a split second I imagined the car blowing up, like on TV when the hero is just about to make her escape. Instead the last song I’d listened to blared from the speakers. I turned the car onto the highway and drove toward Canada.
When I got close to the border, I called my friend. The phone rang and rang. Finally he answered.
“Thanks so much for letting me use the cabin,” I said. “I love it here. I think I’m going to stay awhile. Probably months. Maybe another year.”
“That’s a great idea,” he said.
“How are things over the border? How’s the polycule?”
He talked for a little while. I listened for clues, clicks, shifts in his tone, a rasp in his breathing, anything. Our conversation was ordinary. We hung up.
I turned onto a rural road when I got to Blaine. Pulled off on the shoulder, tried to think what I should do next. Then the phone rang, a number I didn’t recognize.
I answered. It was my friend the Canadian. His voice was quiet. “The border crossing you want is the truck crossing. It’s in Lynden.” He hung up.
My car was pointed toward Lynden. I had enough gas to make it to the crossing. If I was right about my friend, my story would begin there. Something would happen. They couldn’t see everything, they couldn’t hear everything, they couldn’t control every single breath I took. But if I was wrong? If I got caught trying to flee the country, with all the knowledge I had?
I let the dog out for a moment. Let him sniff, pee, get excited about a squirrel. I stood in trees at the edge of a field. Then I opened the trunk, slung my bags over my shoulders, and started walking away from the car. Theo and I walked fast, sticking to the tree line, until the car disappeared, and we were thick with shadow. Then I turned on the burner phone I’d kept for just this moment and dialed the woman I knew would answer.
Shantifa sounded sleepy.
“Did I wake you up?”
“No, I was grading papers and sort of losing steam. It’s nice to hear from you. We dropped the ball, didn’t we Quinn?”
I had to trust somebody. If I was wrong, I’d get myself out of whatever corner I’d gotten myself into. But going it completely alone wasn’t an option.
“Any interest in a second date?”
“Sure. I’d like that.”
“It’ll be an adventure.”
“I’m up for it.”
Later, when she asked me how I knew I could trust her, I explained it was her sadness. The thing no one else seemed willing to show. She asked how I knew where to cross the border, how I got us under the radar and over to the other side. I explained about the satellites, how I’d helped make them. How they did good things and terrible things, too. How all along I’d been tracking, not just the weather.
We stood in a field on the other side. Theo tugged a little on the leash. Shantifa and I could see the lights of the boardwalk by the bay in White Rock. It was dark and we started walking. She didn’t have to tell me not to stop. I didn’t have to tell her not to turn around, not to look back.
Carol Guess is the author of twenty books of poetry and prose, including Doll Studies: Forensics, Girl Zoo, and Tinderbox Lawn. A frequent collaborator, she writes across genres and illuminates historically marginalized material. In 2014 she was awarded the Philolexian Award for Distinguished Literary Achievement by Columbia University. Her short story collection Sleep Tight Satellite will be published by Tupelo Press in 2023.