Authors: Hanya Yanagihara
On the way back uptown, I didn’t say anything to Nathaniel and he didn’t say anything to me. We didn’t say anything as we entered the apartment, and as we paid the babysitter, and as we went to check on the baby, and as we got ready for bed. It was only when we were lying next to each other in the dark that Nathaniel finally said, “You might as well say it.”
“What?” I said.
“Whatever it is you’re going to say,” he said.
“I’m not going to say anything,” I said. (A lie, obviously. I had spent the last thirty minutes composing a speech, and then thinking about how I could make it sound spontaneous.) He sighed. “I just think it’s a little odd,” I said. “Nate, you hate people like that!
Haven’t you always said that collecting native objects is a form of material colonization? Haven’t you always argued for their return to the Hawaiian state, or at the very least to a museum? And now you’re, what, best friends with this rich fuck and his weapons-dealing husband, and not only tolerating their trophy-collecting but complicit in it? Not to mention that he thinks the kingdom is a joke.”
He was still. “I never got that impression.”
“He called it
Nate. He corrected himself, but come on—we know the type.”
He was quiet for a long time. “I promised I wouldn’t get defensive,” he said at last. Then he was quiet again. “You make it sound like Norris is an arms dealer.”
“Well, isn’t he?”
“He defends them. It’s not the same thing.”
“Oh, come on, Natey.”
He shrugged: We weren’t looking at each other, but I could hear the blanket move up and down on his chest.
“Also,” I barreled on, “you never told me they weren’t white.”
He looked at me. “Yes, I did.”
“No, you didn’t.”
I did. You just weren’t listening to me. As usual. Anyway, why does it make a difference?”
“Oh, stop, Natey. You know why it does.”
He grunted. There wasn’t much he could say to that. Then—another silence. Finally, he said, “I know it seems strange. But—I like them. And I’m lonely. I can talk about home with them.”
You can talk about home with me,
I should have said. But I didn’t. Because I knew, and he knew, that
was the one who had taken us from home, and that it was because of me that he had left a job, a life, that he was proud of. And now he had become someone he didn’t recognize and didn’t like, and he was doing everything he could to not blame me, even up to and including denying what and who he was. I knew this, and he knew this.
So I didn’t say anything at all, and by the time I knew what to say, he was already asleep, or pretending to be, and I had once again failed him.
This was going to be our life, I realized. He would grow closer and closer to Aubrey and Norris, and I would have to encourage him, or else his resentment toward me would grow so large and unwieldy that he wouldn’t be able to pretend it didn’t exist. And then he would leave me, he and the baby, and I would be on my own, without my family.
So, that’s all. I know you have much bigger problems to deal with than your old friend’s, but I’d appreciate any words of comfort you might have. I can’t wait to see you. Tell me everything on your end, or as much as you can. I will be silent as the tomb, or the grave, or however the expression goes.
Love you. C.
My dear Peter,
March 29, 2046
Instead of apologizing at the end of this message for being so self-absorbed, I’m going to
with an apology for being so self-absorbed.
But on the other hand, I don’t feel I should have to be
apologetic, when last week was all about you, and gloriously so. It was such a beautiful wedding, Petey. Thank you so much for having us. I forgot to tell you that when we were leaving the temple, the baby looked up at me and said, solemnly, “Uncle Peter looked very happy.” He was right, of course. You were very happy—you are. And I am happy, so happy, for you.
Right now, you and Olivier are somewhere over India, I expect. As you know, Nathaniel and I never took our honeymoon. We were supposed to, and then I had the lab to set up, and we had the baby to settle, and, I don’t know, it just never happened. And then it kept not happening. (We had, as you remember, wanted to go to the Maldives. I have a way of picking them, don’t I.)
I’m writing you from Washington, D.C., where I’m attending a conference on zoonoses—N and the baby are back home.
Actually, they’re not home at all: They’re out with Aubrey and Norris at Frog’s Pond Way. It’s the first weekend it’s warm enough to swim, and Nathaniel’s trying to teach the baby how to surf. He had planned to teach him in January, when we were back in Honolulu, but there were so many jellyfish that we ended up avoiding the beaches altogether. But things are a little better between us, thank you for asking. I’ve been feeling a bit more connected to both of them—though, well, that could’ve just been because you and Olivier needed receptacles to catch the overflow of love you have, and the three of us were there to do just that. So we’ll see. I think part of our renewed semi-closeness is because, as you observed, I’m trying to get used to the fact of Aubrey and Norris. They’re in our lives for good, or so it seems. For months, I fought against it. Then I resigned myself. Now? Well. I suppose they’re fine. They’ve been very generous with us, that’s for sure. Nathaniel’s formal consulting work with Aubrey is long over, but he’s down there at least a couple of times a month. And the baby likes them a lot, Aubrey in particular.
The mood here is grim. First, the rations are much more stringent than they are in New York—last night the hotel lost water completely. It was just for an hour, but still. Second, and more worrisome, everyone’s funding has been cut—again. Our third round is probably going to be announced next week. My lab is less exposed than some of the others—we only get thirty percent of our funding from the government, and the Howard Hughes Institute is making up some of the shortfall—but I’m anxious. All the Americans are talking about it between sessions: How much have you lost? Who’s stepping in to make up the difference? What’s been imperiled, or is about to be?
But the mood is grim for other, more alarming reasons, far beyond the Americans’ administrative struggles and our collective discomfort. The keynote was by two scientists from Erasmus University in Rotterdam, who had done early work on the Venice outbreak of ’39, which as you know was attributed to a mutation of the Nipah virus. Their session was unusual for a number of reasons, primarily because it was more speculative than these speeches usually are. On the other hand, this has been happening with increasing frequency—when I was a doctoral student, these sorts of
presentations would largely concern lab findings and would usually address a second- or third-generation mutation of one virus or another. But now there are so many new viruses that these conferences have become opportunities to elucidate reports we’ve read about on our institutions’ private networks, to which any scientist at an accredited university can upload their findings or questions. The absence of China from this network (and from the conference at large) is one of the international community’s most pressing problems, and one of the revelations from this conference—whispered from one scientist to the next—is that a group of researchers within mainland China have created a secret portal, one to which they’re uploading their own findings. My feeling is that if
know about it, so must their government, and so the information on it cannot be totally trustworthy—and yet not to take these reports seriously might lead to catastrophe.
Anyway. The Erasmus team claims to have discovered a new virus, which they claim once again originated in bats. It too is being classified as a Henipavirus, which means it’s an RNA virus that mutates at a high rate. Back in the 20th century, this Family of viruses was thought to be endemic only in Africa and Asia—though, as the ’39 outbreak proves, Nipah in particular has proven to be capable of frequent reemergence, and has inspired a good deal of research in the last seven years about its ability not only to withstand climatic changes but to adapt zoonotically in hosts—dogs, in the Italian case—it had never before infected. Though it had decimated livestock and other domesticated animals, Nipah had never been too serious a threat to us previously because it was a notably non-transmissible disease among humans, one unable to exist for more than a few days without a receptive host. By the time it
infect humans, it quickly lost steam: Transmission rates were poor, and the virus proved unable to transmit itself onward. After Venice eradicated its dog population, for example, the disease vanished as well.
But now the Erasmus team is suggesting that this new strain, which they’re calling Nipah-45, is capable not just of infecting humans but is both highly contagious and extremely fatal. Like its parent virus, it can be transmitted through contaminated food as
well as by the airborne route, and unlike its evolutionary ancestor, it can exist in the host for perhaps months. Their study was of a group of small villages north of Luang Prabang, where the government has been relocating Muslim minorities who come over the border from China. According to them, six months ago the virus was responsible for the decimation of this community: almost seven thousand people dead within eight weeks. The virus switched from bat to water buffalo, and from there into the food supply. The disease manifests itself in humans as a cough, which rapidly leads to full-blown respiratory failure, followed by organ failure—patients were dead within eleven days, on average, after diagnosis. And as shocking as the death rate is, the Erasmus team said that the community’s isolation and inability to travel within the country (the group is denied movement by law) prevented widespread dissemination.
Half a year later, these villages remain isolated. Still, the Laotian government, abetted by the American one, is desperately trying to keep the story out of the news, because, along with the spread of disease, the gravest concerns are (1) the all-but-inevitable stigmatization of these poor people, which might easily lead to their mass murder, as we saw in Malaysia in ’40; and (2) another refugee crisis. Hong Kong’s borders are protected; so are Singapore’s, India’s, China’s, Japan’s, Korea’s, and Thailand’s. So, if there’s another large-scale population shift, it seems inevitable that the refugees will attempt to make their way across the Pacific. Those who aren’t shot on sight off the Philippine, Australian, New Zealand, Hawaiian, or American coasts will (the thinking goes) try to make their way to Oregon or Washington or Texas, and from those countries, over the border to the U.S.
Not surprisingly, the report kicked off a furor. Not about the team’s findings—those were incontrovertible—but about their suggestion, never actually stated but heavily implied, that this virus might be the one we had all been waiting and preparing for. Mingled with the fear was a certain amount of professional jealousy, along with resentment (if
had governments as dedicated to funding our research as the Netherlands’ is, then
have been the ones to discover this), as well as a certain amount of excitement. Someone
on one of the bulletin boards had compared speculative virology to being an understudy in a long-running Broadway show: You wait and wait for the chance to go on, and most of the time it never happens, but you have to stay alert regardless, because what if someday it’s your turn?
Now, because I know you’ll ask: The answer is that I don’t know.
this be the one? I can’t say. My sense is it won’t be, that if Nipah-45 had the potential to be truly devastating we would have known about it far earlier.
would have known about it far earlier. It would have spread far beyond this network of villages. The fact that it hasn’t should be comforting. But, then again, a lot of things should be comforting these days.
I’ll keep you updated. You keep me updated, too. It seems remarkable that a deputy minister of the interior should increasingly have more information about global outbreaks than I do, but here we are. In the meantime: My love to you, always, and to Olivier as well. Stay out of trouble and keep away from bats.
My dearest Peter,
January 6, 2048
We are all transfixed with horror by what’s happening over there. The labs more or less ceased operations today because everyone was watching the news, and when the bridge exploded, there was an audible gasp, not just in our lab but throughout the floor. That astonishing scene, of London Bridge collapsing, of those people and cars falling through the air—in the report we were watching, the newscaster cried out: no words, just a sound, and then was quiet, and all you could hear were the helicopters flying overhead. After, we sat around talking about who might be responsible, and one of my Ph.D.s said we should be thinking instead of who we hoped it
be, because there were so many possible culprits. Do
think it was an attack on the refugee camp? Or something else?
But mostly, Peter, I was so, so sorry to hear that Alice is one of the dead. I know how close you two were, and how long you’d worked together, and I can only imagine what you and your colleagues must be feeling right now.
Nathaniel and the baby join me in sending you love. Olivier is taking good care of you, I know, but text or just call me if you want to talk.
I love you. C.
March 14, 2049
I’m writing you from our new apartment. Yes, the rumors are true: We’ve moved. Not far, and not really up—the new place, a two-bedroom, is on 70th and Second, on the fourth floor of a 1980s-era building—but we had to, for Nathaniel’s happiness and therefore my sanity. It was, however, fairly cheap, and this is only because there are reports that the East River will finally flood the dams sometime between next year and never. (Of course, this is also why we should’ve stayed in RU housing, which is even more likely to be flooded than this new place, and therefore even less expensive, but Nathaniel had had it and there was no arguing with him.)