Authors: Hanya Yanagihara
I hadn’t been entirely sure who I had imagined Aubrey and Norris to be, other than people I needed to be suspicious of and whom I was already disinclined to like. Oh, and white—I had expected them to be white. But they weren’t. The door was opened by a very handsome blond man in his early fifties wearing a suit, and I blurted out, “You must be Aubrey,” only to hear Nathaniel’s hiss of embarrassed laughter beside me. The man smiled. “If only I could be so lucky!” he said. “No, I’m Adams, the butler. But come in: They’re waiting for you upstairs in the drawing room.”
Up a gleaming dark staircase we went, me seething at Nathaniel, who had been embarrassed by me, of me, and as Adams led us through a pair of half-open double doors made of that same satiny wood, the two men inside stood.
I knew from Nathaniel that Aubrey was sixty-five and Norris a few years younger, though they both had that kind of ageless, shiny face that the very rich have. Only their gums gave them away: Aubrey’s were a dark purple, and Norris’s were the gray-pink of a much-used eraser. But the other surprise was their skin: Aubrey was Black, and Norris was Asian…but also something else. He looked, in fact, a little like my grandfather, and before I could stop myself, I was once again blurting: “Are you from Hawai
i?” Again, there was Nathaniel’s uncomfortable titter, joined this time by Norris’s and Aubrey’s laughter. “Nathaniel asked me that same question when we met,” Norris said, unoffended. “But no, I’m afraid not. I hate to be such a disappointment, but I’m just a dark Asian.”
“Not just,” Aubrey said.
“Well, part Indian,” Norris said. “But that’s Asian, Aub.” And then to me: “Indian and English on my father’s side; my mother was Chinese.”
“So was mine,” I said, stupidly. “Chinese Hawaiian.”
He smiled. “I know,” he said. “Nathaniel said.”
“Why don’t you sit?” Aubrey said.
We did, obediently. Adams returned with drinks, and we talked about the baby for a while, until Adams reappeared and said dinner
was ready to be served, at which point we all stood again and went to the dining room, where there was a small round table covered with what I at first, heart-stoppingly, mistook for a piece of kapa cloth. I looked up to see Aubrey smiling at me. “It’s a contemporary weaving, inspired by the real thing,” he said. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” I swallowed, mumbled something vague.
We sat. Dinner—a “seasonal celebration” of sausage-and-pumpkin soup served from a massive, hollowed-out white squash; veal chops with buttery green beans; a tomato galette—was served. We ate. At some point, Norris and Nathaniel started talking, and I was left with Aubrey, who was sitting next to me. I had to speak. “So,” I began, and then I couldn’t think of a single thing to say. Or, rather, I could think of too many, but none of them seemed appropriate. I had, for example, been planning to try to pick a fight with Aubrey by subtly suggesting he was a cultural appropriator, but given the fact that he hadn’t, as I feared, made me take a tour of his collection, and by the fact of his Blackness (later, Nathaniel and I would have an argument about whether Black people could indeed be cultural appropriators), that idea no longer seemed quite as exciting or provocative as it might have been.
I was quiet for so long that Aubrey finally laughed. “Why don’t I start,” he said, and although he was kind, I could feel myself flushing regardless. “Nathaniel’s told us a little about what you do.”
“I tried to, anyway,” Nathaniel suddenly interjected from across the table, before turning back to Norris.
“He tried, and I tried to understand,” Aubrey said. “But I’d be honored to hear it from the source, as it were.”
So I gave him my short speech about infectious diseases and how I spent my days trying to anticipate the newest ones, playing up the statistics that civilians love hearing, because civilians love to panic: How the 1918 flu killed fifty million people, which led to additional, but less disastrous, pandemics in 1957, 1968, 2009, and 2022. How, since the 1970s, we’ve been living in an era of multiple pandemics, with a new one announcing itself at the rate of every five years. How viruses are never truly eliminated, only controlled. How decades of excessive and reckless prescribing of antibiotics had given
rise to a new Family of microbes, one more powerful and durable than any in human history. How habitat destruction and the growth of megacities has led to our living in closer proximity to animals than ever before, and therefore to a flourishing of zoonotic diseases. How we’re absolutely due for another catastrophic pandemic, one that this time will have the potential to eliminate up to a quarter of the global population, putting it on par with the Black Death of more than seven hundred years ago, and how everything in the past century, from the outbreak of 2030 through last year’s episode in Botswana, has been a series of tests that we’ve ultimately failed, because true victory would be treating not each outbreak individually but developing a comprehensive global plan, and because of that, we’re inevitably doomed.
“But why?” Aubrey asked. “We have immeasurably better public health systems, not to mention medications and sanitation, than in 1918, not to mention than we did just twenty years ago.”
“That’s true,” I said. “But the only thing that ended up making the 1918 flu less disastrous than it should’ve been was the rate at which the infection was able to spread: The microbe traveled among continents by boat, and back then, it took a week, if you hurried, to get from Europe to America. The mortality rate of the infected on that journey was so great that you had far fewer carriers who were able to spread the illness on the other shore. But that’s not true any longer, and hasn’t been for more than a century. The only thing that contains a potentially rampant infectious disease now—and they are all potentially rampant, as far as we’re concerned—is less technology than the swift segregation and isolation of the affected area, and
depends upon the local authorities reporting it to their national or local epidemiological center, which should in turn trigger an immediate lockdown of the site.
“The problem, of course, is that municipalities are reluctant to report new diseases. Besides the immediate overreaction and loss of business, a stigma attaches itself to the place, one that in many cases far outlasts the successful containment of the disease. For example: Would you go to Seoul now?”
“Exactly. And yet it’s been four years since the threat of EARS was for all purposes eradicated. And we were lucky there: The mayor was informed by a local councilperson after the third death, and after the fifth death, he’d contacted the National Health Services, and within twelve hours, they had tented the entirety of Samcheong-dong, and managed to contain fatalities to that neighborhood alone.”
“But there were so many.”
“Yes. And it was unfortunate. But there would have been far more had they not done what they did.”
“But they killed those people!”
“No. They didn’t. They just didn’t let them leave.”
“But the result ended up being the same!”
“No—the result ended up being
fewer deaths than there would have been otherwise: nine thousand deaths instead of, potentially, fourteen million. That, and the containment of a particularly pathogenic microbe.”
“But what about the argument that isolating the district doomed them rather than helped them? That if they’d opened the area to international assistance, they could’ve saved them?”
“You’re talking about the globalist argument, and in many cases, that’s correct,” I said. “Nationalism means that there’s less exchange of information between scientists, and that’s extremely dangerous. But that wasn’t the case here. Korea isn’t a hostile government; they didn’t try to conceal anything; they freely and honestly shared what they were learning with the international scientific community, not to mention other governments: They behaved perfectly, exactly how a country should. What looked like a unilateral choice, to isolate the neighborhood, was in reality a selfless one—they prevented a potential pandemic by sacrificing a relatively small number of their own people. That’s exactly the kind of calculation that we need any community to make if we’re to contain,
contain, a virus.”
Aubrey shook his head. “I suppose I’m too old-fashioned to view nine thousand deaths as a happy outcome. And I also suppose that’s why I’ve never been back: I can’t unsee those pictures—those black plastic tents covering the whole neighborhood, and beneath them,
you knew people were just waiting to die. You never saw them. But you knew they were.”
There wasn’t anything I could say to this without sounding callous, so I just drank my wine and said nothing.
There was a silence, and Aubrey shook his head again, quickly, as if collecting himself. “How did you get interested in Hawaiian antiquities?” I asked him, for I felt I must.
He smiled then. “I’d been visiting for decades,” he said. “I love it there. I have some family history there, actually: My great-great-grandfather was stationed on Kaho
olawe, when it was a U.S. military base, just before secession.” He caught himself. “I mean Restoration,” he said.
“It’s okay,” I said. “Nathaniel says you have an impressive collection.”
He beamed at this, and babbled on for some time about his various holdings, and their provenances, and how he’d built a special climate-controlled room for some of them in the basement, which, were he to do it over, he would have instead put on the fourth floor, as basements are always inclined to be damp, and although he and his air-conditioning guy had managed to maintain a steady temperature of seventy degrees, they couldn’t stabilize the humidity, which should be forty percent but was always creeping upward to fifty no matter what they did. Listening to him, I realized two things: first, that I had learned more by osmosis about 18th- and 19th-century Hawaiian weaponry, textiles, and objects than I had known I had; and second, that I would never understand the pleasure of collecting—all that hunting, all that dust, all that trouble, all that maintenance. And for what?
It was his tone—confiding, shyly proud—that made me look up at him again. “But my biggest treasure,” he continued, “my biggest treasure never leaves my hand.” He held up his right hand, and I saw that on his pinkie he wore a thick band of dark, battered gold. Now he turned the band, and I could see that he had kept facing toward his palm the band’s stone, a clouded, opaque, inexpertly cut pearl. I already knew what he would do next, but I watched anyway as he squeezed the small latches at either side of the ring and the pearl
hinged open, a little door, to reveal a tiny compartment. He angled it toward me, and I looked: empty. This was exactly the kind of ring my great-great-grandmother had once worn, the kind that hundreds of women had sold off to treasure hunters in their attempts to raise funds for their campaign to restore the sovereign. They had kept a few grains of arsenic in the chamber, a symbolic declaration of their willingness to commit suicide unless their queen was returned to her throne. And now here it was on this man’s hand. For a moment, I was unable to speak.
“Nathaniel says you yourselves don’t collect,” Aubrey was saying.
“We don’t need to
Hawaiiana,” I said. “We
Hawaiiana.” I had spoken more fiercely than I knew I would, and for a moment, there was another silence. (Note: This sounded less pretentious in the moment than it does here.)
But the uncomfortable aftermath of my gaffe (though
it a gaffe, really?) was interrupted by the arrival of the cook, who was offering me a platter of blackberry cake. “Fresh from the farmers’ market,” he said, like he had invented the very idea of the farmers’ market, and I thanked him and took a slice. And from here the conversation turned to the subjects that every conversation between friendly, like-minded people inevitably did: the weather (bad), the sunken boat of Filipino refugees off the coast of Texas (also bad), the economy (bad as well, but not as bad as it was going to get; like most money people, Aubrey was slightly gleeful about this, as, to be fair, am I when talking about the next big pandemic), the coming war with China (very bad, but would be over “within a year,” according to Norris who, it turned out, was a litigator and had a client who “sold military equipment,” i.e., an arms dealer), the latest news about the environment and the predicted onslaught of climatic refugees (extremely bad). I wanted to say, “My best friend, Peter, is very high up in the British government, and he says that the war with China is going to last three years minimum and is going to cause a global migration crisis that will number in the millions,” but I didn’t. I just sat there and said nothing, and Nathaniel didn’t look at me, and I didn’t look at him.
“This is quite a house,” I said at one point, and although it wasn’t
quite a compliment, or meant as one (I could feel Nathaniel staring at me, hard), Aubrey smiled. “Thank you,” he said. Then there was a long story about how he’d bought it from the scion of a supposedly storied banking family I’d never heard of, and how the man had been nearly destitute, full of tales about his family’s lost wealth, and how it had been such a thrill to be a Black man, buying a house like this from a white man who’d assumed he’d have it forever. “Look at you,” I heard my grandfather saying, “bunch of dark-skinned men trying to be white,” although he wouldn’t have said “white” but “haole.” Anything I did that was foreign to him was haole: reading books, going to grad school, moving to New York. He saw my life as an indictment of his simply because it was different.
By then it was late enough to make a polite escape, and after sitting for what I judged to be about twenty minutes with my coffee, I made a big show of stretching and saying we had to get home to the baby: I had the sense, as one does about the person one’s lived with for fifteen years, that Nathaniel was about to suggest we go see Aubrey’s collection, and I had zero interest in that. I could also feel Nathaniel about to protest, but then I suppose he figured that he’d put me through enough (or that it was only a matter of time before I said something truly inappropriate), and we all stood and said our goodbyes, and Aubrey said we should get together again so I could see the collection, and I said I’d be honored, even though I have no intention of doing so.