Authors: Hanya Yanagihara
I opened it. Inside were three cards, of the sort that you have to give to a broker. Stiff pieces of paper, about seven inches square, with the applicant’s photo on one side and their data on the other.
I looked at them. All of them were sterile, of course, the red “S” debossed across their foreheads. The first man was in his fifties, thrice widowed, and the old illogical part of me—the part that remembered those Gothic television shows about men murdering their wives, disposing of their bodies, and eluding the law for decades—recoiled, and I turned his card facedown, rejecting him before I could read the rest of his data, which probably revealed that his wives had all died of the illness, not by his hand (and yet what kind of bad luck was that, to have three wives die, but a bad luck that bordered on criminality?). The second was a man in, I guessed, his late twenties, but with an expression so furious—his mouth a mean seam, his eyes astonished and bulging—that I had a vision, again from those old television shows I still sometimes watch late at night in the office, of him hitting Charlie, of him hurting her, as if I could read his potential for violence in his face. The third was a man in his early thirties, with a plain, placid face, but when I studied his information, I saw that he had been listed as “MI”: mentally incompetent. This is a broad designation, one that comprises all kinds of deficiencies of the sort that had once been known as mental disease, but also mental disability. Charlie does not have this designation. I had been willing to ask you to send money to bribe anyone I had to in order to prevent this, but I hadn’t needed to in the end—she had passed their tests; she had saved herself.
“What are these?” I asked, my voice shrill in the quiet.
“These are the three applicants I could find who would consider your granddaughter,” he said.
“Why were you looking for applicants before you even met her?” I asked, and as I did, I realized that he had determined who Charlie was from her files well before he had met her, probably well before he had even met me. Meeting her hadn’t changed his mind—it had confirmed the idea of her he’d already had.
“I think you should try someone else,” he repeated, and handed me another piece of paper, on which was typed three other brokers’ names, and I understood that he had known from even before this meeting that he wasn’t going to help me. “These people will have candidates that are more…in keeping with your needs.”
Thank god he didn’t smile, or I’d’ve done something stupid and male and animal: swung at him, spit at him, swept everything off his desk—the kind of things someone on one of those old television shows would have done. But now there was no one to perform for, no camera but the tiny blinking one I knew was secreted in the ceiling panels somewhere, dispassionately recording the scene below: two men, one elderly, one middle-aged, handing pieces of paper to each other.
I recomposed my face and left with Charlie. I held her as close to me as she’d allow. I told her I’d find someone for her, although something inside me was crumbling: What if no one wanted my little cat? Surely
would see how dear she is, how much she’s loved, how brave she is? She survived, and yet she is being punished for surviving. She wasn’t like those applicants—leftovers, dregs, the unwanted. I thought this even as I also understood that to someone, they too weren’t leftovers or unwanted, even—the heart ripping out again—that their someones might be looking at Charlie’s card and thinking, “
is what they expect him to settle for? Surely there’s someone better. Surely there’s someone more.”
What world is this? What world has she lived for? Tell me it’ll be okay, Peter. Tell me and I’ll believe you, this one last time.
Oh, dear Peter,
March 21, 2087
How I wish we could speak on the phone. I wish that often, but I wish it desperately tonight, so much so that before I sat down to write you, I spent the past half hour talking aloud to you, whispering under my breath so I wouldn’t wake Charlie, asleep in the other room.
I haven’t written about Charlie’s marriage prospects as much as I might have because I wanted to wait until I had something happier to say. But about a month ago, I found a new broker, Timothy, who was known to specialize in what a colleague of mine called “unusual cases.” He had used Timothy to find someone for his son after his son was declared MI. It had taken almost four years, but Timothy had found him a match.
With each broker I’d met, I had tried to act more confident than I’d felt. I’d admit I’d seen a few of their colleagues, but never specified just how many. Depending on the person, I would try to make Charlie sound choosy, mysterious, brilliant, aloof. But every relationship would end the same way, sometimes even before I had a chance to bring Charlie in to meet them; the same kinds of candidates would be presented to me, sometimes candidates I’d seen before. That pale and placid young man marked MI had been shown to me three times since I first was given his card, and each time I saw his face, I felt a mix of sorrow and relief: sorrow that he too was still unmatched; relief that it wasn’t just Charlie. I thought of her card, now foxed on the edges, being shown and reshown, of clients or their parents flicking it to the side. “Not her,” I imagined them saying, “we’ve seen her before.” And then, at night, to one another, “That poor girl, still on the market. At least our son isn’t that desperate.”
But this time, I was honest. I detailed exactly which brokers I’d seen. I told him about all the candidates I’d been presented or met with, on whom I’d taken notes. I was as honest as I could bear to be without crying or being disloyal to Charlie. And when Timothy said, “But beauty isn’t everything. Is she charming?” I waited until I was sure I could control my voice before I said she wasn’t.
At our second meeting, I was given five cards, none of which I’d seen before. Something unsettled me about each of the first four. But then there was the final card. He was a young man, only two years older than Charlie, with large dark eyes and a strong nose, looking straight into the camera. There was something inarguable about him—his handsomeness, for one, but also his steadiness, as if someone had tried to convince him to be ashamed of himself and he had chosen not to be. Over his picture were two stamps: one that declared him sterile, the other that declared him an enemy relation.
I looked up at Timothy, who was looking back at me. “What’s wrong with him?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Nothing,” he said. He paused. “He chose sterilization,” he added, and I shuddered a bit, as I always did when I learned that about someone: It meant that fertility hadn’t been taken from him by disease or medicine; it meant that he had chosen to be sterilized in order to keep from being sent to a reeducation center. You chose your body or your mind, and he had chosen his mind.
“Well, I’d like to arrange a meeting,” I said, and Timothy nodded, though as I was leaving he called me back.
“He’s a fine person,” he said, a strange turn of phrase these days. I had investigated Timothy before I made my first appointment—in his previous life, he had been a social worker. “Just have an open mind, all right?” I didn’t know what this meant, but I agreed, though having an open mind was also an anachronism, another concept of long ago.
The day of our meeting arrived and I was nervous again, uncommonly so. I had come to sense that, although Charlie was still young, she was nearing the end of her options. After this, I would have to expand my search beyond this municipality, beyond this prefecture. I would have to hope Wesley would grant me one more favor, after the previous favor he’d granted me, in which he’d given Charlie a job, a job she liked. I would have to wrest her from that job, and I would have to resettle her elsewhere, and then I would have to find a way to follow, and I would need Wesley’s help. I would do it, naturally, but it would be difficult.
The candidate was already there when I arrived, sitting in the
small, unadorned room that all brokers’ offices maintained for such meetings, and as I entered, he stood and we bowed. I looked at him as he settled back into his chair, and I into mine. I had assumed that Timothy’s entreaty meant that he would look significantly different, worse, than his photo, but this was not the case: He looked like his image, a trim, attractive young man, the same vivid dark eyes, the same unfrightened gaze. His father had been West African and Southern European; his mother had been South and East Asian—he resembled my son, just a bit, and I had to look away.
I knew the facts of him from his card, and yet I asked the same questions anyway: where he had grown up, what he had studied, what he did now. I knew his parents and sister had been declared enemies; I knew it had cost him the final years of his doctoral studies; I knew he was appealing the decision now that the Forgiveness Act had passed; I knew he had had a professor, a well-known microbiologist, who was helping support his case; I knew that if he agreed to the match, he wanted to delay the marriage by up to two years so he could try to finish his degree. He confirmed all this information; his account did not differ from what I knew.
I asked about his parents. He had no immediate living family. Most relatives of state enemies, when asked about their relations, became either angry or ashamed; you could see them swallowing something back, some surplus of feeling, you could see them practicing what they’d learned about keeping their emotions small.
But he was neither angry nor ashamed. “My father was a physicist; my mother was a political scientist,” he said. He named the university where they had taught, a once-prestigious place before it had been subsumed by the state. His sister had been an English-literature professor. They had all joined the insurgents, but he had not. I asked him why, and for the first time, he looked troubled, though I couldn’t tell whether it was because he was thinking about the camera hidden in the ceiling or about his family. “I said it was because I wanted to be a scientist,” he said, after a pause, “because I thought—I thought that I could do more by becoming a scientist, by trying to help that way. But in the end—” And here he stopped again, and this time, I knew it was because of the camera and recorder.
“But in the end, you were wrong,” I finished for him, and he looked at me and then to the door, quickly, like it was about to be broken down by a squad of officers, ready to drag us off to a Ceremony. “It’s all right,” I said, “I’m old enough to say what I want,” even though I knew that wasn’t true. He knew, too, but he didn’t correct me.
We kept talking, now about his aborted dissertation, about the job he hoped to secure at the Pond as he appealed his case. We talked about Charlie, about who she was, about what she needed. I was—I didn’t know why, at the time—honest with him, more honest even than I’d been with Timothy. But nothing seemed to surprise him; it was as if he had already met her; it was as if he already knew her. “You must always take care of her,” I heard myself saying, again and again, and he nodded back to me, and as he did, I understood that he was agreeing to the marriage, that I had found someone for her after all. And at some point, somehow, I had another realization. I realized what it was that Timothy had tried to communicate to me about him; I realized what it was I recognized in him—I realized why he would be willing to marry Charlie. It was obvious, once I knew—I had known it since before I met him.
I interrupted him as he was mid-sentence. “I know who you are,” I said, and when he didn’t react, I said, “I know what you are,” and then his mouth opened, just slightly, and there was a silence.
“Is it obvious?” he asked, quietly.
“No,” I said. “I only know because I’m one, too,” and now he sat back in his seat, and I could see something in his gaze change, could see him look at me again, differently.
“Can I ask you to stop?” I asked, and he looked at me, that determined, defiant, brave, foolish boy. “No,” he said, softly. “I promise you I’ll always take care of her. But I cannot stop.” There was a silence.
“Promise me you’ll never do anything that will get her in trouble,” I said, and he nodded. “I won’t,” he said. “I know how to be discreet.”
—what a depressing word to hear used by someone so young. It was a word from before my grandfather’s time, not a word that should have had to make a reappearance in our lexicon.
My disgust must have shown on my face, for his own became worried. “Sir?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I said. Then I asked, “Where do you go?”
He was quiet. “Go?” he echoed.
“Yes,” I said, and I’m afraid I sounded impatient. “Where do you go?”
“I don’t understand,” he said.
“Yes, you do,” I said. “Jane Street? Horatio? Perry? Bethune? Barrow? Gansevoort? Which one?” He swallowed. “I’m going to find out anyway,” I reminded him.
“Bethune,” he said.
“Ah,” I said. That made sense. Bethune attracted a more bookish sort. The man who ran it, Harry, a fussy queen who was very high up in Health, had dedicated two of the floors to libraries that looked like they were from an old-fashioned drawing-room comedy; the bedrooms were above. There were also rumors of a dungeon, but frankly, I think those were begun by Harry himself, to make the whole operation sound more exciting than it was. I had begun frequenting Jane Street, which was much more businesslike: You came in, you had your fun, you left. Anyway, it was a relief—I did not relish the thought of looking up only to see my granddaughter’s husband peering down at me.
“Do you have someone?” I asked.
Another swallow. “Yes,” he said, quietly.
“Do you love him?”
This time, there was no hesitation. He looked directly at me. “Yes,” he said, and his voice was steady.
Suddenly I was very sad. My poor granddaughter, whom I was marrying to a man who would protect her but would never love her, at least not in the way we all need to be loved; this poor boy, who would never be able to have the life he should. He was only twenty-four, and when you’re twenty-four, your body is for pleasure and you’re constantly in love. I saw, suddenly, Nathaniel’s face when I had first met him, his rich dark skin, his open mouth, and I turned away, because I feared I might cry.