Authors: Hanya Yanagihara
That day, we walked back downhill, our shoes squelching in the mud, David between us holding on to one of each of our hands. Nathaniel had cut enough maile so that we could each wear a length of it around our necks, but David had wanted to wear his wound around his head like a crown. Nathaniel helped him, tying the vine around itself and settling it on his forehead.
“I’m a king!” David had said, and we had laughed back at him. “Yes, David,” we’d said, “you’re a king—King David.”
“King David,” he said. “That’s my name now.” And then he turned serious. “Don’t forget,” he said. “You have to call me that, okay? Do you promise?”
“Okay,” we said. “We won’t forget. We will.” It was a promise.
But we never did.
Over the following weeks, David and I discussed our plan. Or, rather, it was his plan, and it was being shared with me.
On October 12, I would leave Zone Eight. He wouldn’t tell me how, exactly, until just before. Until then, I was to do nothing out of the ordinary. I was to maintain all my daily rhythms: I was to go to work, I was to go to the grocery, I was to take the occasional walk. We would continue to meet every Saturday at the storyteller’s, and if David needed to communicate with me between those meetings, he would find a way to send me word. But if I didn’t hear from him, I wasn’t to worry. I was to prepare nothing, and pack nothing beyond what I could carry in my tote bag. I would not need to bring clothes, or food, or even my papers: New ones would be issued to me once I was in New Britain.
“I have a lot of extra chits I’ve saved up over the years,” I told David. “I could exchange them for coupons for extra water or even sugar—I could bring those.”
“You won’t need those, Charlie,” David said. “Bring only things that mean something to you.”
At the end of our first meeting after our talk on the benches, when I had begun to believe him, I had asked David what would happen to my husband. “Of course your husband can come,” he said. “We’ve prepared for him as well. But, Charlie—he may not want to.”
“Why not?” I had asked, but David hadn’t answered. “He loves to read,” I said. On that walk on the track, I had asked David lots of questions about New Britain, but he had said that he would tell me more about it on our travels—that it was too dangerous to share too
much now. But one thing he
said was that in New Britain you could read whatever you wanted, as much as you wanted. I thought of my husband, how he made himself read slowly, because you could only borrow one book every two weeks, and he had to make each one last. I thought of him sitting at our table, resting his right cheek in his right hand, completely still, a small smile on his face, even when the book was about the care and feeding of tropical water-grown edible plants.
“Yes,” David said, slowly, “but, Charlie—are you sure he’d want to leave?”
“Yes,” I said, although I wasn’t sure at all. “He could read any book he wanted, over there. Even the illegal ones.”
“That’s true,” said David. “But there might be other reasons he’d want to stay here, in the end.”
I considered this, but I couldn’t think of any. My husband had no family here except for me. There would be no other reason for him to stay. And yet, like David, I also somehow wasn’t confident that he would want to leave. “What do you mean?” I asked, but David didn’t answer.
At our next meeting, before the storyteller began, David asked me if I’d like his help in talking to my husband. “No,” I said. “I can do it myself.”
“Your husband knows how to be discreet,” David said, and I didn’t ask how he knew this. “So I know he’d be smart about this.” There seemed to be something else that he wanted to say, but he didn’t.
After the storyteller’s session, we walked. I had assumed our meetings would be complicated, full of information for me to memorize, but they were not. Mostly, they seemed to be opportunities for David to make sure I was remaining calm, that I was doing nothing, that I trusted him, although he never asked if I did.
“You know, Charlie,” he said, suddenly, “homosexuality is completely legal in New Britain.”
“Oh,” I said. I didn’t know what else I could say.
“Yes,” he said. Once again, he seemed to want to say something else, but once again, he didn’t.
That night, I thought about how much David already knew about
me. In some ways, it was disturbing, even frightening. But it was also relaxing, even comforting. He knew me the way Grandfather knew me, and that knowledge had of course come from Grandfather himself. David had not met Grandfather, but his employer had, and so in a small way it felt as if Grandfather were actually alive and with me still.
Yet there were certain things I did not want David to know. I had come to realize that he understood that my husband did not love me, and would never love me, not the way a husband is supposed to love his wife, and not the way that I had hoped I would be loved. It made me ashamed, because while loving someone is not shameful, it
shameful not to be loved at all.
I knew I would need to ask my husband if he wanted to come with me. But the days passed and I did not. “Did you ask him?” David asked at our next meeting, and I shook my head. “Charlie,” he said, not meanly but not gently, either, “I need to know if he’s going to come. It affects things. Do you want me to help you?”
“No, thank you,” I said. My husband may not have loved me, but he was still my husband, and it was my responsibility to talk to him.
“Then do you promise you’ll ask him tonight? We only have four weeks left.”
“Yes,” I said. “I know.”
But I didn’t ask him. That night, as I lay in bed, I clenched Grandfather’s ring, which I kept under my pillow, where I knew it’d be safe. In the other bed, my husband slept. He had been tired again, tired and breathless, and on his way to the kitchen with our dishes, he had stumbled, although he caught himself on the table before he dropped anything. “It’s nothing,” he’d said to me. “Just a long day.” I had told him to go to bed, that I would do the dishes, and he had argued with me a little, but then had left.
All I had to do was say his name, and he would wake, and I would ask him. But what if I asked him, and his answer was no? What if he said he wanted to stay here instead? “He will always take care of you,” Grandfather had said. But if I left, it would be the end of always, and then I would be alone, all alone, with no one but David to protect me, and no one who remembered me, and who I was, and
where I had once lived, and who I had been. It was safer not to ask at all—if I didn’t ask, I was both here, in Zone Eight, and also not, and as October 12 drew closer and closer, that seemed like the best place to be. It was like being a child, when all I had to do was follow directions, and I never had to think about what might happen next, because I knew that Grandfather had already thought of everything for me.
For many weeks, I had been keeping two things secret: The first was knowledge of the new illness. The second was knowledge of my departure. But while only one other person knew the second thing, many people—all of the people in my lab; many of the people at RU; various employees of the state; generals and colonels; unseen people in Beijing and Municipality One whose faces I couldn’t even imagine—knew the first.
And now more people were learning of it as well. There had been no official announcement in the various zones’ newsletters, no radio bulletin, yet everyone knew that something was happening. One day at the end of September, I walked outside to discover that the Square was completely empty. Gone were the vendors, their tents, even the fire that constantly burned. And it was not just empty but clean: There were no wood shavings on the ground, no bits of metal, no snippets of thread blowing through the air. It had all vanished, and yet I had heard nothing during the night, no sound of bulldozers, no industrial scrubbers or sweepers. The cooling stations were gone as well, and the gates to each of the four entrances, which had been removed long ago, had been replaced, and locked.
The mood on the shuttle that morning was very tense, less of a silence than a complete absence of sound. There was no recognizable protocol for disease preparedness, because the state had changed so much since ’70, but it was as if everyone already knew what was happening, and no one wanted to hear their suspicions confirmed.
At work, there was a note waiting for me beneath one of the
mouse cages, the first since David and I had begun meeting at the storyteller’s. “Rooftop greenhouse, 13:00,” it said, and at 13:00, I went to the roof. There was no one there but a gardener in his green cotton suit, watering the specimens, and before I could wonder how I was going to search for David’s next note in the greenhouse if the gardener wouldn’t leave, he turned and I saw it was David.
He quickly raised his finger to his mouth, gesturing me to be silent, but I was already weeping. “Who are you?” I asked. “Who are you?”
“Charlie, quiet,” he said, and came over and sat down next to where I had fallen to the ground, and put his arm around my shoulder. “It’s all right, Charlie,” he said. “It’s all right.” He held me and rocked me, and eventually I was quiet. “I disabled the cameras and microphones, and we have until 13:30 before the Flies return,” he said. “You saw what happened today,” he continued, and I nodded. “The illness is all over Prefecture Four now, and it’ll be here soon as well. The worse it gets, the harder it’s going to be for us to leave,” he said. “So the date’s been moved up: October 2. The state will make an official announcement the next day; testing and evacuations to the relocation centers will begin that evening. They’ll instate a curfew the following day. It’s cutting it too close for my taste, but there was so much rearranging that this was the best I could do. Do you understand me, Charlie? You have to be ready to leave on October 2.”
“But that’s this Saturday!” I said.
“Yes, and I apologize,” he said. “I miscalculated—I was told the state wouldn’t announce until October 20 at the earliest. But I was wrong.” He took a breath. “Charlie,” he said, “have you talked to your husband?” And, when I didn’t say anything, he turned me by my shoulders to look at him. “Listen to me, Charlie,” he said, his voice stern. “You
tell him. Tonight. If you don’t, I’ll assume you’re going to leave without him.”
“I can’t leave without him,” I said, and I began crying again. “I won’t.”
“Then you must tell him,” said David. Then he looked at his watch. “We have to leave,” he said. “You go first.”
“What about you?” I asked.
“Don’t worry about me,” he said.
“How did you get in here?” I asked.
“Charlie,” he said, impatiently, “I’ll tell you later. Now go. And talk to your husband. Promise me.”
“I promise,” I said.
But I didn’t. The next day, there was another note waiting for me:
But I crushed it into a ball and burned it in a Bunsen burner.
That was Tuesday. On Wednesday, the same thing happened. Then it was Thursday, three days before we were to leave, my husband’s free night.
And that night, my husband didn’t come home.
Now, if I was asked, I could not say why I decided to trust David. The truth was that I did not in fact trust him, or at least not completely. This David was different from the David I had known: He was more serious, less surprising, scarier. Yet the other David had been scary, too; he had been so reckless, so unusual. In some ways, this David was easier for me to accept, even as I felt that with each day I knew him less. Sometimes I would hold Grandfather’s ring and think of all David knew about me, and tell myself that David was someone I could believe in, that he was someone who would protect me, that he had been sent by someone Grandfather had trusted. Other times, I examined the ring, holding the flashlight beneath the covers as my husband slept, wondering if it was Grandfather’s after all. Hadn’t his been bigger? Had the gold been dented on the right side? Was it real, or a copy? And what if he hadn’t sent it to this friend after all? What if it had been stolen from him? Then I would think: It wasn’t worth his lying—I wasn’t worth kidnapping. No ransom would be paid for me; no one would miss me. There was no reason for David to want to take me.
And yet there was no reason for him to want to save me, either. If I was not worth taking, I was also not worth saving.
And so I cannot say why I decided to go, or even that I had really decided. It seemed too far off, so unlikely, like a make-believe story. All I knew was that I was going somewhere better, somewhere Grandfather wanted me to go. But I knew nothing about New Britain, other than it was a country, and it had once had a queen, and then a king, and that they spoke English there, too, and that the state had ceased relations with them back in the late ’70s. I suppose it seemed a bit like a game, like the kind I had played with Grandfather in which we pretended to have conversations—this was a pretend conversation, too, and my leaving would be pretend as well. At our last meeting, I had argued with David again about leaving the extra chits behind, for what if I needed them later, when I returned, when David interrupted me. “Charlie, you’re never coming back,” he said. “Once you leave this place, you will never return. Do you understand me?”
“What if I want to?” I said.
“I don’t think you will,” he said, slowly. “But at any rate, you can’t. You would be captured and killed in a Ceremony if you tried, Charlie.”
I said I understood, and I thought I did, but maybe I didn’t. One Saturday, I had asked David what would happen to the pinkies, and he had said I couldn’t think about the pinkies, and that they would be fine: Another tech would take care of them. And then I got upset, because although I knew I wasn’t the only one who could handle the pinkies, I sometimes liked to pretend I was. I liked to pretend that I was the best at preparing them, the most careful, the most thorough, that no one else could be as good as I was. “You’re right, Charlie, you’re right,” he’d said, and after a while, I calmed down.
That Thursday, as I waited for my husband, I thought about the pinkies. They were such an important part of my life here, and I decided that when I went in to work tomorrow, on what David had reminded me would be my last day at Rockefeller University, ever, I should steal a petri dish of them. Just one dish, with just a few pinkies in just a little saline. David had said I should bring only what was personally meaningful to me, and the pinkies were meaningful.
I had lots of room in my bag. The only things I had packed
were half of the gold coins we kept under my bed, and four pairs of underwear, and Grandfather’s ring, as well as the three photographs of him. David had said not to bring clothes, or food, or even water—all those would be provided to me. As I was packing, I had suddenly thought I might pack the notes my husband had kept, but then I had changed my mind, just as I had changed my mind about taking all of the gold coins. I told myself that, when my husband decided to come with me, he would carry the other half. Once packed, the bag was still so small and light that I could roll it into a tube and stuff it into the pocket of my cooling suit, which was now hanging in the closet.