Authors: Hanya Yanagihara
And now the illness is under control, and we are back to considering the incidentals of life once more: whether we might be able to find chicken rather than tofu at the grocery; or whether our children
might be admitted into this college versus that one; or whether we might be lucky in this year’s housing lottery, and move from Zone Seventeen to Zone Eight, or Zone Eight to Zone Fourteen.
But behind all these concerns and minor anxieties is something deeper: the truth of who we are, our essential selves, the thing that emerges when everything else has been burned away. We have learned to accommodate that person as much as we can, to ignore who we know ourselves to be. Most of the time, we’re successful. We must be: Pretending is the cost of sanity. But we all know who we really are. If we have lived, it is because we are
than we ever believed ourselves to be, not better. Indeed, it feels at times as if all who remain are those who were wily or tenacious or scheming enough to survive. I know that this belief is its own kind of romance, but in my more fanciful moments, it makes perfect sense—we are the left-behind, the dregs, the rats fighting for bits of rotten food, the people who chose to stay on earth, while those better and smarter than we are have left for some other realm we can only dream of, the door to which we’re too frightened to open, even to peek inside.
September 15, 2081
Thank you, as always, for Charlie’s birthday gifts, which are especially welcome this year. The rationing has been so severe that it’s been fourteen months since she’s had any new clothes, much less a dress. Thank you too for letting me take credit for them with her. I wished, as I often do, that I could tell her about you, that I could tell her that somebody else, somebody far away, cares about her as well. But I know it’s not safe to do so.
Today I went in to speak with the dean at her school. Last year, when she was in eleventh grade, I started getting suspicious that the school would discourage her from attending university, despite the fact that all her teachers have been supportive, and even if they
hadn’t, Charlie’s math and physics scores would guarantee her acceptance to a technical college at the very least.
I’ve been trying for years to articulate to myself the scope of Charlie’s deficiencies. As you know, there still remains so little research on the long-term effects of Xychor on those children who received the drug in ’70, in part because, obviously, there are relatively few survivors, and in part because the guardians and parents of those who
survived have been reluctant to subject their children to further research and testing. (I myself am one of those selfish people who are inhibiting greater scientific understanding by withholding permission for my child to be studied.) But the papers that have been published, from here and various institutes in Old Europe, which are better funded, have been unhelpful, and I’ve yet to see my Charlie reflected in any of the descriptions I’ve read. I want to clarify, though, that I haven’t sought an explanation because I feel I need to understand her any better than I do in order to love her more. But some part of me is always hoping that, if there are others like her, then she will someday see someone she recognizes, someone who feels like home. She has never had a friend. I don’t know how deeply she feels loneliness, or even if—unlike her poor father—she has the capacity to recognize it. But my dearest wish is that someone will someday take that loneliness from her, preferably before she’s able to identify the sensation for what it is.
So far, though, there’s been no one. I still can’t tell how much she comprehends about what she doesn’t comprehend, if you know what I mean. Sometimes I fear that I’ve been fooling myself, that I’m searching for a humanity within her that’s been wiped out entirely. Then she’ll say something astonishingly perceptive, so insightful that I become horrified that she might have sensed I ever doubted her humanness. Once, she asked me if I had liked her better before she got sick, and I felt as if someone had socked me in my solar plexus, and had to grab her and hold her to me so she couldn’t see my expression. “No,” I told her. “I have always loved you just the same since the day you were born. I wouldn’t want my little cat any other way.” What I couldn’t say, because it would confuse her, or sound too much like an insult, is that I loved her now
I had; that my love for her was terrible because it was more ferocious, that it was something dark and seething, a misshapen mass of energy.
At the school, the dean reviewed with me a list of three math-and-sciences colleges she thought might be appropriate for Charlie: all within two hours of the city, all small and well-defended. All three guaranteed their graduates employment in a Grade Three or higher facility. The most expensive of these colleges was for females only, and this was the one I chose for Charlie.
The dean made a note. Then she paused. “Most Grade One state employees opt for twenty-four-hour security for their children,” she said. “Would you like to use the college’s service, or continue your own?”
“I’ll continue with my own,” I said. The state, at least, would pay for that.
We discussed a few more details, and then the dean stood. “Charlie will be finished with her last class,” she said. “Shall I get her and you two can go home together?” I told her I’d like that, and she left her office to tell her assistant.
As she did, I stood and looked at the photographs of her students which hung on her wall. There are four all-girl private schools left in the city; this one is the smallest, and attracts what the school calls “studious” girls, though the word is a euphemism, as not all of them are especially academically gifted. Rather, the word is meant to convey their charges’ fundamental shyness, their “delayed sociability,” as the school calls it.
The dean returned with Charlie, and we said goodbye and walked out. “Home?” I asked, once we were in the car, “Or a treat?”
She thought. “Home,” she said. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, she has an additional life-skills tutorial class, where she works with a psychologist on verbal and nonverbal communication. This always leaves her tired, and she leaned her head against the seat and closed her eyes, both because she was genuinely depleted and, I think, because she wanted to avoid the questions she knew I’d ask and which she would struggle to answer: What happened in school today? How was music class? What did you listen to? How did the
music make you feel? What do you think the musician was trying to say? What was your favorite part of the composition, and why?
“Grandfather,” she’d say, frustrated, “I don’t know how to answer you.”
know, little cat,” I’d say. “And you’re doing so well.”
More and more, I wonder what her adulthood will be like. For the first three years after she recovered from the illness, my only concern was keeping her alive: I monitored how much she ate, how much she slept, the whites of her eyes, the pink of her tongue. Then, after the first incident with the boys, I thought mostly of protecting her, though that surveillance was more complicated, since it relied as much on my oversight as it did on hoping she understood whom she could trust, and whom she couldn’t. Obedience would ensure her survival, but had I trained her to be
Then, after the second incident, I began to think about how she would continue through her life—how I could defend her from people who tried to take advantage of her; how she might live after I die. I had always assumed that she would be with me for her entire life, even as I always knew as well that it wouldn’t be the entirety of
life that she would be with me but the entirety of mine. Now I am nearly seventy-seven, and she is seventeen, and even if I live another ten years—if I don’t die myself, or if I’m not disappeared, like C.—I’ll still leave her with decades of her own to contend with.
But on the one hand, maybe the society that is coming will be easier for her in certain aspects. There are marriage brokers (all state-licensed) opening up offices, promising they can find a spouse for anyone. Wesley will guarantee her a job, and the points system will guarantee that she will always have food, always have shelter. I would prefer to stay alive to watch over her as she enters middle age, but I only
to stay alive to make sure I can settle her with someone who will take care of her, that I can secure her a position someplace where I know she’ll be well-treated. This knowledge makes doing the work I do easier. I had long ago stopped believing I was doing anything to help science, or humanity, or this country or city, but knowing that I’m doing it to help her, to safeguard her, makes life bearable.
Or at least that’s what I’m able to believe—some days more than others.
Love to you and Olivier. Charles
My dear Peter,
December 1, 2083
Happy birthday! Seventy-five. Practically a baby, still. I wish I had something to send you, but instead, you’re the one sending me presents, if a picture of you and Olivier on vacation can really be considered a present. And thank you for the beautiful shawl, which I’m going to give Charlie when she comes home for the holidays in two weeks. The new courier’s working out wonderfully, by the way—even more discreet than the last one, and a lot faster, too.
The house is almost fully converted. Although there have now been two speeches in Committee meetings about my generosity, it wasn’t as if I really had a choice—when the military asks to commission a private house, they’re not asking: They’re ordering. Anyway, I was lucky to hold on to it as long as I did, especially in wartime. I
ask for the unit of my choice, which they granted: They’ve carved out eight apartments, and ours is on the third floor, facing north, consisting of what used to be Charlie’s bedroom and playroom, which is now the living room. I’m sleeping in the bedroom until she gets home, after which I’ll move to the living room. As the house was in her name to begin with, she’ll keep the apartment once she marries, and I’ll be relocated to another flat in the zone, which was also part of the compromise.
Despite the fact that I’m now living in what is, technically, military barracks, there are no attractive soldiers strutting about. The other apartments have instead been given to various operations technicians, beetley men who look away when I pass them on the staircase, and from whose apartments I sometimes hear the shrill of distorted radio-wave messages.
You mentioned in your last letter that I sounded sanguine about
the whole situation. I think the better word is probably “resigned”: The proud part of me was appeased by the fact that I was among the last three people on the Committee to have his house commissioned, and the practical part knew that, with Charlie off in college, I didn’t need this large a residence anyway. Also, the house was never truly mine: It was Aubrey and Norris’s, and then it was Nathaniel’s. But I—like Aubrey’s collection, the final pieces of which I donated one by one to the Metropolitan and then, when the museum was closed down, to various private organizations—could only be said to have occupied the place, never to have possessed it. Over the years, this house, which had once been so symbolic to me—a repository of my resentments; a projection of my fears—had become, finally, just a house: a shelter, not a metaphor.
concerned about how Charlie will react. She knows it happened; I went up to visit her at school a few weeks ago, and when I asked if she had any questions, she shook her head. I’m trying to make it easy for her, as easy as I can. For example, there aren’t a huge number of paint colors to choose from these days, but I told her she could pick whichever she liked, and perhaps we could even draw a pattern on the bedroom wall, even though neither of us is very good at drawing. “Whatever you want,” I tell her. “This is your apartment.” Sometimes she nods and says, “I know,” but other times, she shakes her head. “It’s not mine,” she says, “it’s ours. Yours and mine, Grandfather,” and then I know that, despite her best efforts, she’s been thinking of her future, and that it scares her. I change the subject then, and we speak of something else.
C. had always been convinced that there were more of us working at high levels in the state than we even knew, which he said made things more dangerous for us, not less, as those people would seek to make examples out of anyone who flagrantly disobeyed the laws in order to protect themselves, as happens in the irrational logic of the vulnerable. He had argued that the Marriage Act could never have passed without a plurality of us on the Committee and beyond, and that our internalized shame and guilt at being unable to reproduce had led to a dangerous kind of compensatory patriotism, the kind that drove us to create laws that ultimately endangered us. “But,” he
had said, “no matter how bad it gets, there will always be loopholes for us, as long as we follow the rules in public.” This was shortly before he was disappeared. A year later, as you know, I began going to one of the safe houses he’d told me about, and which still endure, intact, while so many other things have been destroyed or co-opted or reinvented. With Charlie away at college, I go more and more frequently, and now that the house has been converted, I suspect I’ll go still more.
The changes have also made me think about Aubrey and Norris. It’s been years since I’ve thought of them, but recently, I’ve found myself talking aloud to Aubrey in particular. This house still feels like his, even for as long as I’ve lived in it—now almost as long as Aubrey himself. In my conversations with him, he’s angry, angry but trying to conceal it. But eventually, he no longer can. “What have you fucking done, Charles?” he asks me, in a way he never would have in life. “What have you done to my house?” And although I tell myself I’ve never cared about Aubrey’s opinion, I never have anything to say in response.
“What have you done, Charles?” he keeps asking, again and again. “What have you done?” But every time I open my mouth to answer, nothing comes out.
Love to you and O.—Charles
July 12, 2084