Authors: Emily St. John Mandel
In FCI Florence Medium 1 the lights go on, the alarm for the three a.m. count blaring, and he gets out of bed, neither awake nor asleep, putting on his slippers in an automatic movement, still halfway somewhere else, Hazelton stumbling out of bed across from him. In the counterlife, he is never arrested, let alone sentenced, let alone subject to head counts. (Guards yelling in the corridor—“get up get up get
”—and then one stops in the doorway with his little clicker, and after a few minutes the count is over and it’s possible to go back to bed.) In the counterlife, he transfers all his money into the secret offshore accounts, out of the hands of the American government. By the time his daughter calls the FBI, he’s out of reach. Dubai has no extradition treaty with the United States.
He has enough money to live in Dubai indefinitely, in tranquility, in the cool interiors and the brutal heat. Hotel, or villa? Hotel. He’ll live in a hotel and order room service forever. Villas are a staffing headache. He’s had enough of staff.
“I’d like to ask about your daughter,” Julie Freeman says at their second meeting.
“I’m sorry,” he says, “but I’d prefer not to talk about her. I think Claire deserves her privacy.”
“Fair enough. In that case, I’d like to ask you about your wife.”
“Do you mean Suzanne, or Vincent?”
“I thought I’d start with Vincent. Does she visit you here?”
“No. Actually, I…” He isn’t sure it’s wise to continue, but who else can he ask? His only visitors are journalists. “Would you stop taking notes, please, just for a moment?”
She sets her pen on the table.
“This is embarrassing,” he says, “and I’d appreciate it if you’d keep this off the record, but do you know where she is?”
“I’ve been looking for her myself. I’d love to talk to her, but wherever she is, she’s keeping a low profile.”
Maybe the descent down the tower with the window washers is a little overdramatic. He could just as easily have kissed Vincent good night after the holiday party, told her he had to go get drinks with an investor and that she shouldn’t wait up for him; he could’ve sent her home in a car while he fled the country. No, he would have had to go back to Greenwich for his passport. Well, if he can rewrite history so that he fled the country, surely the passport isn’t an impediment. In the counterlife, maybe he’s the kind of person who keeps his passport on his person at all times. He kisses Vincent good night and hails a taxi to the airport.
In the counterlife, Claire visits him in Dubai. She is happy to see him. She disapproves of his actions, but they can laugh about it. Their conversations are effortless. In the counterlife, Claire isn’t the one who called the FBI.
Claire has never visited him in prison and will not take his calls.
He wrote Claire a letter his first month in prison, but she responded only with two pages of trial transcript, from the initial hearing where he had to keep saying
over and over again. He remembers standing there and repeating the word, nauseous, sweat trickling down his back. On the page it looks strange and fragmented, like bad poetry or a script.
: How do you now plead to Count One of the information, guilty or not guilty?
: Mr. Alkaitis, please speak up so I can hear you.
: I’m sorry, Your Honor. I plead guilty.
: How do you now plead to Count Two of the information, guilty or not guilty?
: How do you now plead to Count Three of the information, guilty or not guilty?
: How do you now plead to Count Four of the information, guilty or not guilty?
: How do you now plead to Count Five of the information, guilty or not guilty?
: How do you now plead to Count Six of the information, guilty or not guilty?
: How do you now plead to Count Seven of the information, guilty or not guilty?
: How do you now plead to Count Eight of the information, guilty or not guilty?
: How do you now plead to Count Nine of the information, guilty or not guilty?
: How do you now plead to Count Ten of the information, guilty or not guilty?
: How do you now plead to Count Eleven of the information, guilty or not guilty?
: How do you now plead to Count Twelve of the information, guilty or not guilty?
Vincent left land on a bright blue day with clouds like popcorn, in August 2013. Her first glimpse of the
was at Port Newark. She was escorted to the ship by port security, where she had to wait by the gangway stairs for what seemed like a long time. She was nervous and excited. There were other people around, but they were out of sight, either high overhead in the cabs of cranes or driving trucks laden with containers. She’d known where she was going, she’d studied the coursework and read the books, but the scale of this world was still astonishing to her. The hull of the
was a sheer wall of steel. The cranes were the size of Manhattan towers. She knew that the containers could weigh as much as sixty-seven thousand pounds, but the cranes plucked them from the flatbed trucks as if they were nothing, and there was an improbable grace in that illusion of weightlessness. She stood in a landscape of unadulterated industry and enormous machines, a port where humans had no place, feeling smaller and smaller, until her escorts appeared, two men descending the white steel steps from the deck. It took them a long time to reach her. They introduced themselves as they stepped down onto land: Geoffrey Bell and Felix Mendoza, third mate and steward, her colleague and her boss respectively.
“Welcome aboard,” Mendoza said.
“Yes, welcome,” said Bell. They shook her hand, and the port security guy got back in his car and drove off. Mendoza led the way and Bell followed with her suitcase, although she could easily have managed it herself.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Mendoza said. He kept up a running monologue all the way up the stairs. He’d specifically requested an assistant cook with experience in more than one restaurant, he said, because he’d been at sea for too long and frankly could use some new menu ideas. He hoped Vincent didn’t mind starting tonight. (She didn’t.) He was glad she was Canadian because several of his favorite colleagues over the years had been Canadian too. She let him talk, because all she wanted was to absorb this place, the deck high above the port, and she kept thinking,
I’m here, I’m actually here,
while Mendoza led the way into the accommodations house and down a narrow industrial corridor that reminded her of the interiors of the ferries that run from Vancouver to Vancouver Island.
“Take a little time to unpack,” Mendoza said, “and I’ll come back for you in a couple hours.” Bell, who hadn’t said anything since offering to take the suitcase, set it inside the threshold of the room with surprising gentleness and smiled as he closed the door.
The room was more or less what Vincent had expected, small and blandly utilitarian, all imitation-wood cabinetry and white walls. There was a narrow bed, a closet, a desk, a sofa, everything either built into a wall or bolted to the floor. She had her own small bathroom. There was a window, but she kept the curtain closed, because she wanted the ocean to be the first thing she saw through it. From outside there was a constant clanging and grinding and creaking, cranes lowering containers into the holds and stacking them high on the lashing bridges. She unpacked her possessions—clothes, a few books, her camera—and found as she did so that she was thinking of Bell. She’d never believed in love at first sight but she did believe in
at first sight, she believed in understanding upon meeting someone for the first time that they were going to be important in her life, a sensation like recognizing a familiar face in an old photograph: in a sea of faces that mean nothing, one comes into focus.
She zipped up the empty suitcase, stowed it in the closet, and turned to the stack of sheets and blankets and the well-used pillow on the bed. She made the bed and then sat on it for a while, acclimatizing herself to the room. It was impossible not to think in that moment of the master bedroom suite in Jonathan’s house in Greenwich, the wasteful acres of carpeting and empty space. Luxury is a weakness.
It had taken so much to come here, all the training and studying and certifications and hassle, and when Mendoza came to collect her, when she was shown the galley where she’d spend her working life, it seemed improbable that she was actually here, on board, that she’d successfully left land, and it was all she could do to refrain from grinning like an idiot while he kept up a running monologue about his meal plans—French fries with almost every meal as a matter of policy, say four dinners out of five, because the guys liked them and potatoes were cheap so it helped keep the budget under control; rice biryani twice a week for the same reason—and the first shift was such a blur of information and French fries that she didn’t realize the ship had left Newark until later that night, after the cleanup, when she stumbled grimy and exhausted out onto the deck, a constellation of tiny burns stinging on her forearms from the deep-fat fryer, and found that the air had changed, the humidity broken by a cool breeze that carried no scent of land. They were traveling south toward Charleston, the East Coast of the United States marked by a string of lights on the starboard horizon. She walked to the other side of the ship to look out at the Atlantic, its darkness broken only by the far lights of a distant ship and by airplanes beginning their descents into the eastern cities, and her thought at that moment was that she never wanted to live on land again.
“Why did you want to go to sea?” Geoffrey Bell asked her, the first time they talked. She’d been at sea for a week by then, give or take. The ship had just left the Bahamas and had begun the long Atlantic crossing, toward Port Elizabeth in South Africa. Geoffrey had come to the galley at the end of her shift and had asked if she might like to go for a walk with him. He’d taken her to his favorite place on the ship, a corner of the deck on C level that he liked because it was out of sight of the security cameras, “which I realize sounds sinister,” he said, “now that I’m actually saying it aloud, but the trouble with being on a ship is the lack of privacy, don’t you find?”
“I don’t disagree,” Vincent said. “Is that a barbecue?” There was a strange tubular contraption with four legs chained to a railing.
“Oh, it is,” he said, “but I haven’t seen it used in years.” Onboard barbecues were dismal, he explained. Picture twenty men standing around on a steel deck, trying to make conversation in the wind while they eat hot dogs and chicken, a wall of containers rising up behind them. No, he’s not explaining it right. Not twenty men, twenty
, twenty colleagues who’ve been stuck at sea together for months and are fairly sick of one another’s company, and not a single solitary beer for lubrication, because of the no-alcohol rule. Still, he liked this deck, he said.
Vincent liked it too. It was quiet, except for the ever-present hum of the engines. She leaned over the railing to look down at the ocean.
“It’s a pleasure to be out of sight of land,” she said. The horizons were uninterrupted on all sides.
“I notice you didn’t answer my question.”
“Right, you asked why I went to sea.”
“It’s not my best conversational opener,” he said. “Maybe even kind of overly obvious, since here we are, standing on a ship. But one has to start somewhere.”
“It’s a strange story,” Vincent said.
“Thank god. I haven’t heard a decent story in months.”
“Well,” Vincent said. “I was with a man for a while. It ended in a complicated way.”
“I see,” he said. “I don’t mean to pry, if it’s something you’d prefer not to talk about.”
She could see that he perceived the outlines of a story, lurking under the surface like an iceberg, and two possibilities opened before her, two variations: she could tell him that she’d been affiliated with a criminal and risk his contempt, or she could be one of those exhaustingly mysterious people whom no one wants to talk to because they can’t open their mouths without hinting at dark secrets that they can’t quite bring themselves to reveal. “No, it’s fine. Actually, it wasn’t quite…I didn’t leave land because of what he did, specifically,” she said. “I left land because I kept running into the wrong people.”
“That’s the trouble with land,” Geoffrey said. “It’s got too many people on it.”
At first, it seemed there would be a way to withstand the collapse of the kingdom of money, to remain in the city that she loved and find a new life there. The morning after Jonathan’s last holiday party, she’d woken alone and shivering in the pied-à-terre in Manhattan. The duvet had slipped to the floor. She rose, showered, made some coffee, and spent a few minutes looking out at the view of Central Park. She knew by then that Jonathan was going to be arrested, and knew this was the last time she’d admire this view. Jonathan had left a beautiful little duffel bag in the pied-à-terre, creamy white with brown leather accents. Her side of the closet held two gowns, which she thought might have some resale value, and there were also five thousand dollars in cash and some jewelry in the safe. She put the cash and the jewelry in the bag and in her jacket, rolled the dresses carefully into the duffel bag along with a couple changes of clothes.
She brought her coffee to the bathroom, where she reached for the lacquered box where she kept her makeup here, and then stopped. In all of her time with Jonathan, she had never failed to put on makeup. She thought her face looked strange without it, but now, on this particular morning, with her pretend husband either on the verge of arrest or in police custody, there was some appeal in the thought of not looking like herself. Vincent studied her face in the mirror while she drank her coffee. She saw that at some point in the near past she had slipped over a border, into the era of her life where when she was tired she looked not just tired but slightly older. She was almost twenty-eight years old.
She found a pair of nail scissors in a drawer and began methodically cutting off her hair. Her head felt immediately lighter, and a little cold. A half hour later, when she left the building for the last time, the concierge in the lobby did a double take before his smile snapped into place. She got her hair recut at the first salon she passed—“Did your kid cut your hair while you were sleeping?” the stylist asked, concerned—and then stopped into a drugstore, where she bought a pair of minimum-strength reading glasses, although her eyes were fine. Vincent examined herself in a drugstore mirror. In glasses, without makeup, her hair cut short, she thought she looked like a very different person.
Within a week she’d found a place to live in a satellite town a few stops up the Hudson Line from Grand Central, an au pair’s suite that was really just a room above a garage, with a bathroom carved out of one corner and a kitchenette in another. She slept on a mattress on the floor and had a dresser that she’d purchased from Goodwill for $40, a card table that her landlord had given her, and a single chair that she’d found on the street on garbage day. It was enough. Within three weeks of Jonathan’s arrest, she’d found a job bartending in Chelsea. The hours weren’t enough, so she was also a kitchen trainee at a restaurant on the Lower East Side. She preferred the kitchen, because bartending is a performance. The public streams through your workplace and watches your every move. Every time she looked up and saw a new face at the bar, there was a moment of terror when she thought it was going to be an investor.
She saw Mirella again, just once, a year and a half later. In the spring of 2010, Vincent was tending bar in Chelsea when Mirella came in with a group of people, six or seven of them. Mirella’s hair was teased into a magnificent Afro. Her lipstick was fire-engine red. She was dressed in one of those outfits that look casual at first glance but are in fact comprised entirely of coded signals—the sweatshirt that cost $700, the jeans whose rips were carefully executed by artisans in Detroit, the scuffed boots that retailed for a thousand dollars, etc. She looked spectacular.
“Regulars,” Ned said, following the direction of Vincent’s gaze. He was her best friend at work, a mild sort of person who was pursuing an MFA in poetry that he didn’t want to talk about. They were both working the bar that night, although the place wasn’t crowded enough to justify both of them.
“Really? I’ve never seen them here.” The hostess was leading Mirella’s group to a booth in the back corner.
“Only because you never work Thursdays.”
A man in a shiny blue blazer had his arm draped over Mirella’s shoulders. Vincent’s desire to be seen by her was matched only by her desire to hide. She had tried to call Mirella three times: once the day after Jonathan was arrested, then twice when she learned that Faisal had died. All three calls went to voicemail.
“You okay?” Ned asked.
“Not at all,” Vincent said. “You mind if I take five?”
“No, go ahead.”
Vincent slipped out through the kitchen door and walked down the block a little. Cherry blossoms had appeared almost overnight on the trees across the street, and the flowers looked like an explosion, like fireworks suspended in the dark. The cigarette couldn’t last forever, and when she came back in, Mirella and one of her friends had left the group at the table and moved to the bar. Whatever Mirella had to say, whatever accusations and condemnations she’d been rehearsing these past two years, she could say them now, and Vincent could tell her that words couldn’t express how sorry she was, and that if she’d known—if she’d even suspected—then of course she would have said something, she would have told Mirella immediately, she would have called the FBI herself.
I didn’t know,
Vincent wanted to tell her,
I didn’t know anything, but I am so sorry.
Then they could go their separate ways with nominally lighter burdens, or something like that.
“Hello,” Mirella said, smiling politely at Vincent, “do you have any bar snacks?”
“Oh, that’s the best idea ever,” her friend said. She was about Vincent and Mirella’s age, at some indeterminate point in her thirties, with aggressively bleached hair cut in a squared-off bob like a 1920s flapper.
“Bar snacks,” Vincent repeated. “Um, yes, mixed nuts or pretzels?”
“Mixed nuts!” the flapper said. “God yes, that’s exactly what I need. This martini’s super-sweet.”
“Actually,” Mirella said, holding Vincent’s gaze, “could we possibly have both?”
“Of course. Mixed nuts and pretzels, coming right up.” This was a dream, wasn’t it?
“I haven’t had mixed nuts in like a million years,” the flapper said to Mirella.
“I’d say you’ve been missing out,” Mirella said.
Vincent felt strangely outside of herself. She observed her hands as she poured mixed nuts and pretzels into little steel bowls.
I dreamed you came into my bar and didn’t know me.
She set the bowls gently on the bar before her former best friend, who said thanks without looking at Vincent and returned to her conversation. “The thing with New York,” Mirella’s friend was saying as Vincent turned away, “is everybody leaves. I really thought I’d be the exception.”
“Everyone thinks they’re the exception.”
“You’re probably right. It’s just, my friends started taking off ten years ago, going to Atlanta or Minneapolis or wherever, and I guess I thought I’d be the one to stay and make a go of it.”
“But it’s a better job in Milwaukee, isn’t it?”
“I could afford a huge apartment there,” the flapper said. “Probably actually a whole house. I don’t know, it just seems like such a cliché, living in New York City for your twenties and then leaving.”
“Yeah, but people do that for a reason,” Mirella said. “Don’t you ever get the impression that it’s easier to live pretty much everywhere else?”
Look at me,
notice me, say my name,
but Mirella ignored Vincent as completely as if she were a stranger.
“Hey, excuse me,” Mirella said.
Vincent took off her glasses before she turned to face her.
“Mirella,” she said.
“Could I get another martini?” As though she hadn’t heard her name.
“Of course. What’s that you were drinking, Mirella, a Sunday Morning?”
“No, just a plain old Cosmo.”
“I thought you didn’t like Cosmos,” Vincent said.
“Oh, I’ll take another Midnight in Saigon, please,” the flapper said.
“Coming right up,” Vincent said. Was it possible that she was actually unrecognizable to someone who’d once been her dearest friend? A more likely possibility was that this was Mirella’s revenge, pretending not to know Vincent, or perhaps she was playing the same game Vincent was, living in disguise, except that Mirella’s disguise was more comprehensive and included pointedly not recognizing anyone from her previous life, or alternatively, possibly Vincent was losing her mind and maybe none of her memories were real.
“One Cosmopolitan, one Midnight in Saigon.” Vincent set the drinks on the bar.
“Thanks so much,” Mirella said, and Vincent heard the glasses clink as she turned away. She emptied the tip jar on the counter.
“Little early to count out, isn’t it?” Ned was looking at her curiously. There was no one at the bar now except Mirella and her friend, deep in conversation.
“Ned, I’m sorry about this, but you’re going to have to close up on your own tonight.” Vincent divided the tip money into two piles and pocketed one of them.
“What’s going on? Are you sick?”
“No, I’m walking off the job. I apologize.”
“Vincent, you can’t just—”
“I can, though,” Vincent said, and left him there. She was much more ruthless after Alkaitis than before. She exited via the kitchen door. Mirella didn’t look at her as she left. She wouldn’t have imagined that Mirella could be so cold, but what were they if not actors?
You didn’t come from money,
Mirella had said to Vincent once, in a different, unimaginable life. If they were plausible in the age of money because they could disguise their origins, why should it be surprising that Mirella was capable of pretending they’d never met? Pretending was their area of mutual expertise.
That night she walked down to lower Manhattan, to the Russian Café, a place she’d frequented during her years with Alkaitis, although if anyone recognized her from that time, they never let on. Her favorite manager was working that night, a woman in her thirties named Ilieva who spoke with a slight Russian accent and had once let slip that she’d acquired her green card in exchange for testimony in a criminal case.
“You have no coat?” Ilieva asked when she came to Vincent’s table. “You’ll freeze to death.”
“I just quit my job,” Vincent said. “I forgot my coat in the break room.”
“You just walked off the job?”
“Glass of red on the house?”
“Thank you,” Vincent said, although the wine here was terrible. The point of this place wasn’t the wine, the point was the atmosphere. Here in the warmth and dim lighting, with scents of coffee and cheesecake in the air, Nina Simone on the sound system, the gripped feeling in her chest was beginning to subside. This place was the one constant between the kingdom of money and her current life.
“So,” Ilieva said when she came back with the wine, “what next? Another bartending job?”
“No, I have my second job, in the other place,” Vincent said. “I’m going to try to get more hours.”
“It’s a kitchen job, isn’t it? What, you want to be a chef, open your own restaurant?”
“No,” Vincent said. “I think I’d like to go to sea.”
Vincent’s mother went to sea in her early twenties. Vincent had always pressed her for stories from when she was young, because while the contours of Vincent’s father’s life were fairly straightforward—an undramatic childhood in the Seattle suburbs, a brief stint studying philosophy before he dropped out and found work as a tree planter—Vincent’s mother’s past held a certain mystery. Vincent’s mother had survived a miserable childhood in a small town in the Prairies—there were aunts, an uncle, and even a set of grandparents whom Vincent had been given to understand she would never meet—and gone east when she was seventeen, to Nova Scotia, where she worked as a waitress and wrote poetry, then at nineteen she got a job as a steward on a Canadian Coast Guard vessel that maintained navigational aids in the shipping lanes. She loved it and hated it in equal measure. She saw the northern lights and sailed past icebergs, but also she was always cold and thought she might actually die of claustrophobia, so she quit after two rotations and drove across the country with a new boyfriend. She was a restless person. Within a year the boyfriend was going to medical school in Vancouver and Vincent’s mother was living precariously in Caiette, writing poetry that was sometimes accepted for publication in obscure literary journals, commuting back and forth on the mail boat and hitchhiking into Port Hardy for a job cleaning houses, until she fell in love with a married man down the road—Vincent’s father—and got pregnant with Vincent. She was still only twenty-three years old.
Vincent’s mother would not talk about her family. “They’re not nice people,” she’d say. “They’re not worth talking about, sweetie, so please don’t ask.” But of the stories she was willing to tell, what Vincent most wanted to hear about was the time on the coast guard vessel, and she pressed her mother for those stories so many times that they began to seem like Vincent’s own memories: she’d never been to that coast but held mental images of the northern lights shifting over a winter sky, the silent towers of icebergs in a dark gray sea. And then after her mother was gone, Vincent started trying to place her mother in the picture—her mother gazing at the iceberg, her mother’s face tilted toward the aurora borealis—but who was her mother at twenty, at twenty-one? It’s so difficult to picture your parents in the time before you existed. In memory her mother was stranded forever at thirty-six, the age she’d been when she came into thirteen-year-old Vincent’s bedroom, kissed her on the top of the head—Vincent barely looked up from her book—and said, “I’m just taking the canoe out for a bit, sweetie, I’ll see you later”—before she descended the stairs for the last time.
The day after she saw Mirella, Vincent took the train back into the city and then boarded a southbound subway and rode it to its terminal point, to stand for a while on a white-sand beach at the edge of the city, filming the waves. A cold gray day, but the cold was bracing. A containership was passing on the far horizon. She was thinking of her mother, and then, watching the ship, she found herself thinking of one of her last nights at the Hotel Caiette, a day or two after she first met Jonathan. He’d been eating dinner at the bar that night, and she’d been talking to him, when another guest arrived, a man staying in the hotel with his wife. She couldn’t remember his name, but she remembered a detail of the conversation: “I’m in shipping,” he’d said to Jonathan when the subject of work came up, and this was memorable because he was someone who clearly loved his job, she could see that immediately, the way he lit up when the topic was introduced. Years later, standing by the ocean on a cold spring day, she lowered her camera to watch the passing ship. How difficult would it be to get a job at sea?