Authors: Hanya Yanagihara
“Sir?” I heard him ask, his voice soft. “Dr. Griffith?” This was the
voice he would use to speak to Charlie, I thought, and I made myself smile and turned back to him.
We came to terms that afternoon. He didn’t seem to care much about the dowry, and after we’d signed the papers of intention, we walked downstairs together, his marriage card in my briefcase.
On the sidewalk, we bowed again. “I’m looking forward to meeting Charlie,” he said, and I said I was sure Charlie would be excited to meet him, too.
He was leaving when I called out his name, and he turned and walked back to me. For a while, I didn’t know how to begin. “Tell me,” I began, and then I paused. Then I knew what I wanted to say. “You’re a young man,” I said. “You’re handsome. You’re bright.” I lowered my voice. “You’re in love. Why are you doing this now, so young? Don’t mistake me—I’m glad you are,” I added, quickly, although his face hadn’t changed. “For Charlie’s sake. But why?”
He stepped closer to me. He was tall, but I was taller still, and for a second, I thought, ridiculously, that he might kiss me, that I would feel the brush of his lips against mine, and I closed my eyes, just for a moment, as if doing so would make it happen. “I want to be safe, too, Dr. Griffith,” he said, just louder than a whisper. He stepped back then. “I have to keep myself safe,” he said. “I don’t know what I’ll do otherwise.”
It wasn’t until I got home that I cried. Charlie was still at work, thank goodness, and so I was alone. I cried for Charlie, for how much I loved her, and for how I hoped she would know that I did what I thought best for her, how I had chosen her safety over her fulfillment. I cried for her perhaps-husband, for his need to protect himself, for how limited this country had made his life. I cried for the man he loved, who would never be able to make a life with him. I cried for the men in the cards I’d seen and rejected on Charlie’s behalf. I cried for Nathaniel, and David, and even Eden, all of them long disappeared, none of whom Charlie remembered. I cried for my grandparents and for Aubrey and Norris and for Hawai
i. But mostly, I cried for myself, for my loneliness, and for this world I’d helped make, and for all these years: all the dead, all the lost, all the vanished.
I don’t often cry, and I had forgotten how, beneath the physical discomfort, there was something exhilarating about it as well, every part of the body participating, the machinery of its various systems lurching into movement, plumping the ducts with liquids, pumping the lungs with air, the eyes growing shiny, the skin thickening with blood. I found myself thinking that this was the end of my life, that if Charlie accepted this boy, I would have discharged my final duty—I had protected her from harm, I had seen her to adulthood, I had found her a job and a companion. There was nothing else I could do, nothing else I could hope to do. Any life I had beyond this point would be welcome, but unnecessary.
Not too many years ago, Peter, I thought for certain that I’d be able to see you again. We’d have lunch together, you and me and Charlie and Olivier, and then maybe the two of them would go somewhere, to a museum or a play (we’d be in London, of course, not here), and then you and I would spend the afternoon together, doing something you did every day but which had become exotic to me—a trip to a bookstore, for example, or a café, or a boutique, where I’d buy something frivolous for Charlie: a necklace, maybe, or a pair of sandals. As the afternoon grew long, we’d go back to your house, the one I will never see with my own eyes, where Olivier and Charlie would be making dinner, and where I’d have to explain some of the ingredients to her:
This is shrimp; this is sea urchin; these are figs.
For dessert, there’d be chocolate cake, and the three of us would watch her eat it for the first time, watch as an expression I hadn’t seen since before she got sick bloomed across her face as we laughed and applauded, as if she’d done something marvelous. We’d have our own rooms, but she’d come into mine because she would be unable to sleep that night, so overwhelmed would she be by all she’d seen and heard and smelled and tasted, and I’d hold her as I had when she was a little girl, feel her body twitch with electricity. And the next day we’d get up and do it again, and then the next, and the next, and although much of her new life would eventually become familiar to her—I falling back into it within days, the old memories reasserting themselves—she would never lose her new expression of awe, she would look about her with her mouth always
slightly open, her face pitched to the sky. We would smile to see it; anyone would. “Charlie!” we’d call, when she got into one of her trances, to wake her up, to remind her of where and who she was. “Charlie! All of this is yours.”
My dearest Peter,
June 5, 2088
Well, it’s official. My little cat is married. It was, as you can imagine, an emotionally complicated day: As I stood and watched the two of them, I experienced an unusually vivid bout of one of those time jumps I’ve been having more and more frequently—I was back in Hawai
i, I was holding hands with Nathaniel, we were looking toward the sea, in front of which Matthew and John had positioned that bamboo chuppah. I must have looked strange, because at some point my now grandson-in-law glanced over at me and asked if anything was wrong. “Just old age,” I said, which he accepted; to the young, anything unpleasant can be blamed on or attributed to old age. Outside, we heard troops marching by, the shouts of the insurgents in the distance. After they had signed their papers, we returned together to what is now their home and had some cake made with real honey that I had bought them as a special treat. None of us had had cake in months, and although I had feared conversation might be stilted, I needn’t have worried, because all of us were so focused on eating that there was little need to speak at all.
The insurgents have now taken the Square, and although the apartment faces north, we could still hear them chanting, and then the loudspeakers blaring above them, reminding everyone of the 23:00 curfew, warning that anyone who failed to obey the order would be arrested immediately. That was my cue to go home to my new apartment, a single room in an old building on 10th and University, just four blocks from Charlie: I moved in last week. She had wanted me to stay with them, just for another week, but I had
reminded her that she’s an adult now, a married adult, and that I would come see her and her husband for dinner the next day, as we’d agreed. “Oh,” she had said, and for a moment, I thought she might cry, my brave Charlie who never cries, and I had almost changed my mind.
It’s been many years since I’ve slept in a place alone. As I lay there, I thought of Charlie, her first night as a spouse. For now, there’s only a single, narrow bed, the one Charlie slept on, and the sofa in the living room. I don’t know what they’ll do, if they’ll get a double bed, or if he’ll want to simply sleep apart—I couldn’t bring myself to ask. I instead tried to concentrate on the image of the two of them standing at the open door of their apartment, waving at me as I walked down the stairs. I had at one point looked up and had seen him put his hand on Charlie’s shoulder, just lightly, so lightly that she might not even have felt it. I had talked to her beforehand; I had told her what to expect—or, rather, what not to expect. But would this be enough of an explanation for her? Would she still hope her husband might come to love her in a different way? Would she hope to be touched? Would she blame herself when she was not? Had I made the wrong decision for her? I had spared her pain, but had I also denied her ecstasy?
But—I have to remind myself—at least she will have someone. I don’t only mean someone to look after her, to stand in front of her against the world, to explain things that to her are indecipherable. I mean that she is now part of a unit, the way she and I were once a unit, the way that Nathaniel and David and I were. This is not a society made for the single and unattached—not that the old society was, either, as much as we all pretended otherwise.
When I was Charlie’s age, I scoffed at marriage, thinking it an oppressive construction; I didn’t believe in a relationship legislated by the state. I had always thought that I didn’t view an unpaired life as a lesser one.
And then, one day, I realized that it was. This was during the third quarantine of ’50, and in retrospect, I can see that that was one of the happiest times of my life. Yes, it was anxious, and dangerous, and, yes, everyone was frightened. But it was the last time we were
all together, as a family. Outside was the virus, and the containment centers, and people dying; inside was Nathaniel and David and I. For forty days, and then eighty days, and then a hundred and twenty days, we never left the apartment. In those months, David became softer, and we were able to become close again. He was eleven, and I can look back now and understand that he was trying to make a choice about the person he would become: Would he choose to be someone who once more tried to have the kind of life his parents led, the kind of life we expected he would lead? Or would he choose to become someone else, finding another template for who and how he could be? Who would he be? The boy of the year before, the one who threatened his classmates with a syringe—or a boy who might one day use a syringe in a different way, in the way a syringe is meant to be used, in a laboratory or hospital? In later years, I would think: If only we had had a few more weeks with him close to our side, away from the world; if only we could have convinced him that safety was valuable, and that we could be the ones to provide it to him. But we hadn’t had a few more weeks, and we hadn’t been able to convince him.
It was in the middle of the second forty days that I got an email from a long-ago friend from medical school, a woman named Rosemary who had moved to California for her postdoc when I had returned to Hawai
i. Rosemary was brilliant and funny and had been single for as long as I had known her. We began a correspondence, our messages part workaday matters and part sweeping updates from the past twenty years. Two members of her staff had gotten sick, she wrote; her parents and closest friend had died. I told her about my life, about Nathaniel and David, about how we were together in our small apartment. I realized, I wrote her, that it had been almost eighty days since I had seen another person, and although that realization had been astonishing, what had been more so is that I had yearned for no one. David and Nathaniel were the only people I wanted to see.
She responded the next day. Wasn’t there anyone I really missed, she asked; wasn’t there anyone I couldn’t wait to see when the strictures had been lifted? No, I wrote back, there wasn’t. I meant it.
She never wrote again. Two years later, I heard from a mutual acquaintance that she’d died the year before, during one of the illness’s rebounds.
I have thought about her often since then. I came to understand that she was lonely. And although I cannot have been the only person she attempted to find who was as lonely as she was—we had spoken so infrequently that she must have tried a dozen others before she reached out to me—I wished that I had lied to her: I wished I had told her that I
miss my friends, that my family
enough. I wished I had thought to find her before she was driven to find me. I wished I hadn’t, subsequent to her death, been so grateful that I hadn’t had to live her life, that I had my husband and my son, that I would never be that alone. Thank goodness, I had thought, thank goodness that isn’t me. That pretty fiction we told ourselves when we were younger, that our friends were our family, as good as our spouses and children, was revealed in that first pandemic to be a lie: The people you loved the most were in fact the people you had chosen to live with—friends were an indulgence, a luxury, and if discarding them meant you might better protect your family, then you discarded them quickly. In the end, you chose, and you never chose your friends, not if you had a partner or a child. You moved on, and you forgot them, and your life was no poorer for it. As Charlie got older, I’m ashamed to say I thought of Rosemary more still. I would spare her that fate, I told myself—I would make sure she wasn’t pitied as I had come to pity Rosemary.
And now I have. I know that loneliness cannot be fully eradicated by the presence of another; but I also know that a companion is a shield, and without another person, loneliness steals in, a phantom seeping through the windows and down your throat, filling you with a sorrow nothing can answer. I cannot promise that my granddaughter won’t be lonely, but I have prevented her from being alone. I have made certain her life will have a witness.
Before we left for the courthouse yesterday, I had looked at her birth certificate, which we had to bring as proof of her identity. This was the new birth certificate, the one issued to me by the interior
minister in ’66, the one that disavowed her father—it had protected her for a while, and then no longer.
When Charlie’s parentage had been erased, so too had her name: Charlie Keonaonamaile Bingham-Griffith, a beautiful name, bestowed with love and diminished by the state to Charlie Griffith. It was a reduction of who she was, because in this world, the world I had helped make, there was no intentional excess of beauty. The beauty that remained was incidental, accidental, the things that nothing could vanquish: the color of the sky before it rained, the first green leaves on the acacia tree on Fifth Avenue before they were picked.
It had been Nathaniel’s mother’s name: Keonaonamaile, the fragrant maile. I gave some to you once—a vine whose leaves smelled of pepper and lemons. We wore leis of them for our wedding—the day before, we had hiked into the mountains, David between us, the air around us wet, and had cut a rope of it that was growing between two koa trees. It was a lei you wore for weddings, but also for graduations and anniversaries: a special-occasion plant, back when there were so many plants that some were considered special and some were not, and you could just take them from the tree, and then the next day you would throw them away.