Authors: Hanya Yanagihara
There’s nothing much to say about the new neighborhood, because it’s the same as the old neighborhood, more or less. The difference is that, here, the living-room windows look down onto a sanitation center across the street. You don’t have those yet, do you? You will. They’re abandoned storefronts (this one had been—irony of ironies—an ice-cream parlor) that the government’s taken over and fitted out with industrial-grade air-conditioning, as well as, typically, ten to twenty air showers, which is a new technology they’re testing out: You take off your clothes and go into the stall, which resembles an upright tubular coffin, and press a button and get blasted by powerful bursts of air. The concept is that you don’t need to use water, because the force of the air will blast away the
grime. It sort of works, I guess. At any rate, it’s better than nothing. Anyway, they’re opening these centers all over the city, and the idea is that you pay a monthly fee and can use them whenever you want; the really expensive ones, which are still federally regulated but privately owned, allow you to stay all day in the air-conditioning, and offer unlimited air shower time, and there are also work spaces and beds for people who need to spend the night because their building’s had a blackout. The one across the street from us, however, is an emergency center, which means that it’s for people whose buildings have lost water or electricity for an extended period (meaning more than ninety-six hours), or whose neighborhoods don’t have enough generators to go around. So, all day long, you have these miserable people, hundreds of them—lots of children, lots of old people, none of them white—standing in the sweltering heat for literally hours, waiting to get in. And because of last month’s scare, you’re not allowed to enter if you have a cough, and even if you don’t, you still have to submit to a temperature check, which is ridiculous because by that point you’ve been standing in the heat for so long that your body temperature will be naturally elevated. The city officials claim that the guards can tell the difference between a fever from infection and simple overheating, but I seriously doubt that. And to
complicate matters, you now also have to show your identity papers at the door: only U.S. citizens and permanent residents accepted.
One day last month, Nathaniel and I took over some of baby’s old clothes and toys to donate, standing for a few minutes in a separate, much shorter queue, and though I’m not shocked by much anymore in this shit-ass city, I was shocked by that center: There were probably a hundred adults and fifty kids in a space meant for maybe sixty people, and the stench—of vomit, of feces, of unwashed hair and skin—was so overpowering that you could almost see it, coloring the room a dull mustard. But the thing that
struck us was how quiet it was: Except for one baby, who cried and cried in a thin, helpless way, there was no sound. Everyone was standing mutely in lines for one of the seven air showers, and when one person exited, the next would silently enter the shower space and draw the curtain closed.
We navigated through the crowds, which parted, wordlessly, to
let us pass, and headed toward the back, where there was a plastic table, behind which stood a middle-aged woman. On the table was an enormous metal cauldron, and in front of the table was another queue of people, all holding ceramic mugs. When they reached the front of the line, they held out their cups, and the woman dipped a ladle into the pot and poured them a drink of cold water. Next to her were two more pots, their sides perspiring, and behind those pots was a guard, his arms crossed, a holster with a gun at his hip. We told the woman we’d brought some clothes for donation, and she told us we could put them in one of the bins beneath the windows, which we did. As we were leaving, she thanked us, and asked if we might have any liquid antibiotics at home, or diaper cream, or nutritional drinks. We had to say we didn’t, that our son had long outgrown all of these things, and she nodded again, wearily. “Thanks anyway,” she said.
We walked back across the street—the heat so thick and stunning it felt as if the air had been knitted from wool—and up to our apartment in silence, and once we were inside, Nathaniel turned to me and we put our arms around each other. It had been a long, long time since we’d held each other like that, and even though I knew he was clinging to me out of sorrow and fear more than affection, I was glad for it.
“Those poor people,” he said into my shoulder, and I sighed back. Then he pulled away from me, angry. “This is
” he said. “It’s 2049!
Christ!” Yes, I wanted to say, it’s New York. It’s 2049. That’s exactly the problem. But I didn’t.
We took a long shower then, which was a grotesque thing to do, given what we’d just seen, but there was something delicious about it, and defiant, too—a way of telling ourselves that we could get clean whenever we wanted, that we weren’t those people, that we never would be. Or at least that’s what I said as we lay there in bed, after. “Tell me that won’t happen to us,” Nathaniel said. “That will never happen to us,” I said. “Promise me,” he said. “I promise you,” I told him. Though I couldn’t promise. But what else was I going to say? Then we lay there for a while, listening to the purr of the air conditioner, and then he left to pick the baby up from swimming lessons.
I know I mentioned this briefly in my last communiqué, but aside from finances, the baby is the other reason we had to stay in this neighborhood, because we’re trying to keep things as normal as possible for him. I told you about that incident on the basketball court last year, and two days ago, there was another: They called me at the lab (Nathaniel was upstate with his students on a field trip) and I had to hurry over to the school, where I found the baby sitting in the principal’s office. He had clearly been crying but was pretending he hadn’t, and I was so overcome—angry and afraid and helpless—that I think I probably just stood there for a moment, stupidly staring at him, before I ordered him out, and he left, feigning a kick toward the doorframe as he left.
have done, though, is hugged him and told him everything was going to be okay. Increasingly, all of my human interactions seem to follow this pattern—I see a problem, I get overwhelmed, I don’t offer compassion when I should, and the other person storms off.
The principal is this tough middle-aged dyke named Eliza, and I like her—she’s the kind of person who’s unimpressed by all adults and interested in all kids—but when she set the syringe down on the desk between us, I had to grip the sides of my chair to keep from slapping her: I hated the dramatics of it, the staginess of the presentation.
“I’ve worked at this school a long time, Dr. Griffith,” she began. “My father was a scientist, too. So I don’t need to ask where your son got this from. But I have never seen a child try to use a needle as a weapon.” To which I thought: Really?
What’s wrong with kids’ imagination these days? I didn’t say this, though—I just apologized on the baby’s behalf, said he had an overactive imagination, and that he’d had a difficult time adjusting to America. All of which was true. I didn’t say how shocked I was, though that was true, too.
“But you’ve been living in America, what”—she glanced at her computer screen—“almost six years now, am I right?”
“It’s still hard for him,” I said. “A different language, a different environment, different customs—”
“I hate to interrupt you, Dr. Griffith,” she interrupted me. “I don’t need to tell you that David is very, very bright.” She looked at me sternly, as if the baby’s brightness were somehow my fault. “But he’s had consistent problems with impulse control—this isn’t the first time we’ve had this conversation. And he’s had some…challenges with socialization. He has difficulty comprehending social cues.”
“So did I, when I was his age,” I said. “My husband would say that I still do.” I smiled, but she didn’t smile back.
Then she sighed, and leaned forward in her chair, and something in her face—some veneer of professionalism—dropped. “Dr. Griffith,” she said, “I’m worried about David. He’ll be ten in November: He understands the consequences of what he’s doing. He only has four more years here, and then he’s off to high school, and if he doesn’t learn lessons now, this year, about how to interact with kids his own age…” She stopped. “Did his teacher tell you what happened?”
“No,” I admitted.
And out came the story. In brief: There’s a clique of boys—not athletic, not good-looking: these are kids of scientists, after all—who’re considered “popular” because they make robots. The baby wanted to join them, and had been trying to hang out with them at lunch. But they rebuffed him, multiple times (“Respectfully, I can assure you. We don’t tolerate bullying or unkindness here”), and then I guess the baby brought in the syringe and told the head of the pack that he was going to give him a virus if he didn’t let him join. The entire class witnessed this exchange.
Hearing this, I felt two competing sensations: First, I was horrified that my child was threatening another child, and not just threatening him but threatening him with what he claimed was a disease. And second, I was heartbroken for him. I have blamed and do blame the baby’s loneliness on his homesickness, but the truth is that, even in Hawai
i, he never had many companions. I don’t think I’ve ever told you this, but once, when he was about three, I saw him go over to some other kids on the playground who were playing in the sandbox and ask if he could join them. They said yes, and he got in, but as he did, they all got up and ran over to the jungle gym and left him
there alone. They didn’t say anything, they didn’t call him names, but how could he see their departure as anything other than what it was—a rejection?
But the worst thing is what happened after: He sat there in the sandbox, looking at them, and then he slowly began playing by himself. Every few seconds he’d look over at them, waiting for them to come back, but they never did. After five or so minutes, I couldn’t take it any longer, and I went and gathered him up and told him we could have ice cream but he wasn’t to tattle on me to Daddy.
That night, though, I didn’t tell Nathaniel what had happened in the sandbox. I felt ashamed, somehow, implicated in the baby’s sorrow. He had failed, and I had failed to help him. He had been rejected, and I was somehow responsible for that rejection, if only because I had seen it and been unable to repair it. The next day, when we were walking to the playground again, he pulled on my hand and asked if we had to go. I told him no, we didn’t, and instead we went to get another illicit ice cream. We never went back to that playground. But now I think we should have. I should have told him that those other children had been unkind, and that it had nothing to do with him, and that he would find other friends, people who really loved and appreciated him, and that anyone who didn’t wasn’t someone who deserved his attention anyway.
But I didn’t. Instead, we never spoke of it. And over the years, the baby has become more and more withdrawn. Not necessarily with Nathaniel, maybe, but—well, maybe even with him. I just don’t know if Nathaniel sees it. It’s not something I could even accurately describe. But I increasingly feel as if he’s not quite present, even when he is, as if he’s already detaching himself from us. He has a couple of friends here, quiet, earnest boys, but they rarely come over to our apartment, and he’s rarely invited to theirs. Nathaniel always says he’s mature for his age, which is one of those things worried parents say about their children when their children baffle them, but I think what he’s mature in is his loneliness. A child can be alone. But he shouldn’t be lonely. And our child is.
Eliza recommended handwritten letters of apology, a two-week suspension, weekly counseling, an organized sport or two—“to
challenge him, let him burn off some resentment”—and “greater participation from both of his parents,” which was meant for me, because Nathaniel attends every school meeting, game, event, and play. “I know it’s hard for you, Dr. Griffith,” she said, and before I could protest or make some defensive remark, she continued, more gently, “I
it is. I don’t mean that sarcastically. We’re all proud of the work you’re doing, Charles.” Suddenly I could feel my eyes fill, stupidly, with tears, and mumbled, “I’ll bet you say that to all the virologists,” and left, grabbing the baby by his shoulder and steering him out.
The baby and I walked back to the apartment in silence, but once we were inside, I turned on him. “What the hell were you thinking, David?” I yelled. “You realize the school could’ve expelled you, could’ve had you arrested? We’re guests in this country—don’t you know you could’ve been taken from us, been sent to a state institution? You know kids have been sent away for less?” I was about to continue when I saw the baby was crying, and that made me stop, because the baby rarely cries. “I’m sorry,” he was saying, “I’m sorry.”
“David,” I groaned, and I sat down next to him and pulled him into my lap like I used to when he was in fact a baby, and rocked him, also as I had done when he was a baby. For a while we were silent.
“Nobody likes me,” he said, quietly, and I said the only thing I could, which was “Of course they do, David.” But really, what I
have said is “No one liked me when I was your age either, David. But then I grew up, and people
like me, and I found your daddy, and we had you, and now I’m the luckiest person I know.”
We sat there a while longer. It had been a long, long time—years—since I had held the baby like this. Finally, he spoke. “Don’t tell him,” he said.
“Daddy?” I asked. “I have to tell him, David, you know that.”
He seemed resigned to this, and stood up to leave. But one thing had been troubling me. “David,” I said, “where did you get the syringe?”
I thought I might get some evasive answer, like “some kids” or “I dunno” or “I found it.” But instead he said, “I ordered it.”
“Show me,” I said.
And so he walked me over to the study, where I watched him log on to my computer—bypassing the retinal scan by tapping in my
password with a deftness that proved this wasn’t the first time he’d done so—and then onto a site so illegal that I would be forced to file a report explaining what had happened and requesting a new laptop. He stood back from my chair and dropped his hand by his side, and for a while we both stared at the screen, on which a graphic of an atom whirred. Every few revolutions, the atom would halt, and a new category of offerings would appear above it: “Viral Agents.” “Needles and Syringes.” “Antibodies.” “Toxins and Antitoxins.”