Noah Bogdonoff is a social work student from Providence, RI. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Catapult and Passages North, and he won the 2018 Kurt Brown Prize in Fiction. He has a degree in Environmental Studies and a cat named Alaska.
“I’m going to live to be 200,” said Riz on our first date.
I nodded. “I’m going to die at fifty-four of congenital lung cancer.”
“Why?” said Riz, like it was a choice.
I periodically reminded Riz that it was a stupid move for a determined bicentenarian to shack up with someone who barely hoped to scrape past a half-century. Riz maintained that I was incorrect about both the timing and mode of my death. When I asked how he was so certain, he said it just didn’t seem very realistic.
“But—” I said, and he walked out of the room.
I made careful plans for my death, in case he was wrong. There was a company in Seattle called EarthBound that could take my body and turn it into compost. The pricing scheme was such that the more you paid, the faster they could compost you. “But the lower-priced options have the added benefit of being carbon-neutral, since they just let nature take its course,” said the woman on the phone. I asked how long the cheapest option took. “Fifteen to thirty years, depending on a number of factors. Good for premature deaths or people who don’t care if their loved ones are around to use the final product,” she said, pluckily.
“Ha, ha,” I said. I committed to the lowest-priced and longest option and put down a security deposit in exchange for a ten percent discount. Then I hung up and strolled into the living room, where Riz was stripping paint off of the moldings. “Grow broccoli with my remains,” I told him. He reached over and pinched my butt, and then went back to work. He had an obsession with unpainted wood. He wanted to live in a tree house.
I was thirty-six and he was almost forty. Exactly two-thirds through my promised life; barely a fifth through his. It seemed like our expectations with respect to longevity might prove correct. People still carded him when we went out for drinks; I was beginning to show signs of age. “The good ones,” he assured me, the only time I brought it up.
“And what are those?” I said.
“Laugh-lines, which are sexy. Salt and pepper hair, which is sexy. Complete disregard for what strangers think of you, which is sometimes not sexy but is probably good for your mental health.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’m turning into a sexy old man.”
“Yum,” he said.
. . .
It is already blazingly hot when the protesters arrive. I spot the first car about a quarter-mile away, kicking up dust on the county road, as I’m cleaning up from breakfast. I can tell by the way it moves that the person inside is steering manually. It’s hard to say exactly what qualities distinguish a human driver from an automated one. The car is joined by two others, then five, then ten. I fool myself into thinking I can hear the drone of their engines in the distance, but I’m wrong, I’m in another century; the horde is silent and electric. By midday there are fifty or sixty people gathered on the perimeter of my land, hoisting signs and chanting.
There was a time when a few acres of old and handsome trees separated me from the county road. Back then, back when I bought the house, I didn’t think there was a greater sensation than being alone in the woods. Now, the view from my kitchen is all crackling grass and invasives, unfamiliar bushes and vines that I’ve grown to love because they, like me, are what can survive.
Oh, well. Things change. Time proves us all agoraphobic.
A call from the sheriff. “Sudarsky,” he says.
“It’s a warm day,” he says. “They’ll get thirsty and go home eventually.”
“People get stupid when they’re thirsty,” I say.
“You could always take the offer,” says the sheriff.
“Have a nice day, Val.”
“Call if you need me,” he says.
I hang up and peer out of my kitchen window at the protesters. Their signs are too small for me to read. At this I feel a sudden paternal instinct and imagine, for a moment, striding down the long driveway to meet them, giving them an impromptu lesson on effective activism. If you want to reach your target, you’ve got to get up close; you’ve got to cross some boundaries. We’d sit cross-legged on the earth and talk about the meaning of civil disobedience, the necessity of sacrifice. I’d tell them about my days protesting the fracked gas pipelines, about the time when I was twenty-two and chained myself to a tree in order to save a mountain.
Of course, we lost all of those fights. The pipelines were built. The mountains were mined. The land is parched, and I am what the good people protest these days.
I leave my dishes in the sink and walk heavily out back, into my little greenhouse. I sit in a chair, pick up the book I’ve been slogging through. I try to ignore the world. I don’t have to see their signs to know what they say. It’s everywhere these days. It’s the graffiti on the city streets. It’s the guerrilla billboard on the county road.
Water is for everyone. Water is for everyone. Water is for everyone.
. . .
“Oh,” I said, wondering if I would spend my last good years fielding calls from telemarketers, reporters, and the FBI.
Eileen wanted to know why I’d chosen composting, as opposed to any other postmortem ritual. I told her that I liked dirt; I didn’t like the thought of being pumped full of chemicals; I wanted vegetables to grow out of my corpse. “I’m Jewish,” I said. “We really thrive on that sort of macabre humor.”
“I’m Jewish, too,” said Eileen.
“Oh,” I said.
“I don’t want to be composted,” she said.
“That’s fine,” I told her. “You don’t have to.”
A few weeks later, over breakfast, I stumbled upon a small column in the Opinion section entitled, “How Would You Like To Be Dead?”
I scanned the article for my name. There it was, midway down the page. The only quote Eileen had chosen for the column was my line about being Jewish. I clipped the article nonetheless and showed it to Riz when he got home.
“Look,” I said. His hands were dirty from digging potatoes. This was part of what I had decided was his quarter-life crisis: a desire to go back to the land, to know where food and stuff comes from. So he toiled away at a homestead farm owned by our friends Jill and Tom for the first half of the day each Friday, and I figured out how to turn my cadaver into fertilizer. This way, when I died, we’d still get to play together.
I held the newspaper up for him to read. “Don’t touch,” I said. “You’ll get it dirty.”
He leaned forward and squinted at the small print. “Yikes,” he said. “This lady wants to be buried in an ancient pyramid.”
I shrugged. “White people are weird.”
“You’re white,” said Riz.
“And I’m turning myself into compost. So there’s that.” I lowered the article and took his hand. Caked and dry earth fell from his palms, scattered in the air, landed on the kitchen floor. The soil smelled rich and lovely. “What about you?” I asked. “How would you like to be dead?”
“I wouldn’t,” he said.
. . .
There is a jingle for the Water Collection Agency that interrupts every broadcast on every medium in every corner of America at all hours of the day. It was the largest ad buy in the history of the country, and there is speculation that it will continue to run, unaltered, forever. The jingle goes like this: When Lake Superior’s running dry, WCA is standing by! Except that the body of water changes depending on where in the country you’re living. In Los Angeles, for instance, you hear: When the Colorado’s running dry, WCA is standing by!
The jingle is completely anachronistic and wildly successful. The woman who sings it sounds like a lost descendent of The Andrews Sisters. It doesn’t matter how old you are, it doesn’t matter what your tastes in music are like—when you hear her sing, you want to dance. You want to smile. She doesn’t say anything beyond the nine (or sometimes ten) words of the jingle. She doesn’t explain what WCA stands for. She doesn’t describe what it is. But maybe that’s the point. When the tune ends, you feel abandoned; you want to find her again. And it’s easy. All you have to do is search “WCA” and follow the first result: sell us your water and all of your future water, and we’ll make sure there’s enough to go around.
Except that a lot of water is too salty to drink. And a lot of the water that isn’t too salty is being preferentially distributed, which means that you can pay to get first dibs. And there are also some holdouts, who have stubbornly decided to collect their own water. Like me. When it rains, we hoist open our vats and our barrels and our homegrown water-towers, and we dance, and those of us who are old enough try to remember what it was like to splash through the puddles in our dirty shoes when we were children.
. . .
Our neighbors, Jean and Joan, adopted a child from Vietnam. I didn’t realize it would be so complicated. It was April when Joan told me, throwing the words over the fence as both of us set to work preparing our front yards for the coming summer.
“A baby?” I said, as though it was the craziest thing in the world.
“Yeah,” said Joan, yanking grasses and weeds out of a bed. “A fucking baby.”
“Wow,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Joan. “Wow.” I paused in my toiling to watch her. I suddenly felt as though every weed she pulled, every bag she filled with yard waste, was to make space for her child.
That night, I curled up with Riz and wondered what it would be like to adopt a baby. We had friends who had done it, of course, but they were people who seemed to move through life with child-shaped holes in their lives, people who looked strange without a stroller. When those people adopted, it felt like a sigh of relief. But Riz and I were different. At least, I thought we were. And so were Jean and Joan. How do you have a baby when your life is already so full? Riz played with my hair while I drifted off. I closed my eyes and smiled. I purred like a cat. I decided not to ask Riz about babies, in case it broke whatever spell was sustaining us.
It took a long time for Jean and Joan’s baby to materialize. Spring turned to summer. Summer grew sweltering. Most of my plants died, most of Joan’s survived. No babies appeared next door. Fall turned to winter. I didn’t ask Jean or Joan because I didn’t want to pry—maybe something had gone wrong, maybe they’d gotten into an argument and given up.
And then, in March, Joan and I were cleaning out the gardens for the next season’s plantings, and I asked where Jean was. “Vietnam,” she said.
“Vietnam?” I said, as though it was the craziest place for Jean to be.
“Yeah,” said Joan. “Vietnam.”
She gave the word such weight that I paused. “Oh,” I said when it dawned on me. “Oh.”
“Yeah.” She sounded nervous.
“Wait,” I said, “why aren’t you there, too?”
Joan laughed. “Lesbians can’t adopt babies, silly,” she said. “Jean is picking up the baby on behalf of herself and her husband, who happens to be named Joan.”
“Huh,” I said. “Don’t they suspect?”
“Of course they suspect,” she said. “But this is how we are supposed to do it. There are guides and everything.”
“We’re going to be having a small party for people to meet her in a few weeks,” said Joan. “You should come. Riz, too. You’ll be taking her when Jean and I go on vacation, after all.” I must have looked panicked, because Joan cackled. “I’m kidding, Dan. Kidding. We’re not going on vacation for eighteen years.”
“Ha, ha,” I said.
. . .
It’s late afternoon and I’m just settling into a feverish nap when I feel something change. Maybe there’s a noise; maybe I’ve just gotten good at knowing these things. My head snaps up from resting and I look around. I’ve been dreaming of Riz. When I get up, I’m surprised at the tension in my joints. In my dream, the air was crisp and carried with it the smell of decomposition. I plod into the kitchen and look out of the window.
I was right. The protesters aren’t just standing at the perimeter anymore. They’re marching straight onto my property. Good for them, I suppose.
I make a call. “Val,” I say. “It’s Daniel.”
“How’s the protest, Sudarsky?”
I peer out of the window. A few of the protesters have rifles. Not illegal, but not encouraging. “I’d be really grateful if you got your tuchus over here,” I say. “Quickly.”
I hang up. Outside, the protesters have gathered a few yards away from my front door. My pulse quickens. A line of men—the ones with guns—materializes at the front of the mass. My sympathy for the cause drains rapidly. One of the men in front raises his rifle. I don’t bother to move from the window. This would be a silly way to finally die, I think, but I am also pretty sure that the man is not going to shoot.
Another man, this one with a bullhorn, comes to the front. “Daniel Sudarsky!” he shouts. “We know you can hear us!”
I wave out of my window and wait to see if they acknowledge it. They don’t move.
“We’re not leaving until you join us in creating a better water future for everyone!”
You’ll be waiting a while, I think.
The protesters begin to sing. “When Lake Superior’s running dry, the WCA is standing by! When the Mississippi’s running dry…” Behind them, a few others have begun to set up tents.
My chest clenches. I want to shout at them: She’s a fucking robot, folks. The lady who sings the jingle isn’t real. She’s a voice that a company synthesized to provoke faith, confidence, and loyalty. She’s not Pete Seeger, for god’s sake.
But they don’t care. They’re thirsty, and they’ve never heard of Pete Seeger.
. . .
Jean and Joan had one of those backyards that was entirely boxed in by structures on the abutting properties. It could have been depressing, but they’d embraced the look and grown ivies up the walls, strung lights across the canopy, built a small fire pit. It was magnificent. Until little Thanh’s welcome party, Joan and I had had a strictly front-yard relationship. I’d never seen the back, and when Riz and I stepped through their living room and onto the deck, I gasped.
“This is a lucky baby,” I said. I turned to Riz. “Riz. Honey. Why doesn’t our backyard look like this?”
“Our backyard is very nice,” said Riz.
“But why doesn’t it look like this?” I said.
“We’ve been living together since before either of us came out,” said Jean, cradling the baby. “We know how to nest.”
“There’s a joke in there about lesbians and U-HAULs,” said Joan.
The party was bright and warm. Jean’s college friends brought eight bottles of wine (“You think we’ll have time to drink anytime soon?” said Jean), and Jill and Tom showed up with enough home-cooked food to feed the new mothers for weeks. Thanh took an immediate liking to Tom and soon began crying when Jean or Joan attempted to relieve him of his sudden, parental role (“I think we found a babysitter,” said Joan, winking at me). Jill said that this boded well, that Tom was going to be a good daddy, and I piped up, “I’d call him daddy,” to which Tom blushed and Riz blushed, and then I blushed. “Farmers are sexy, is all I’m saying,” I said, and shut up.
And then, suddenly, it started to rain. Riz felt it first, a split second before I did, a moment before the skies opened and the lightning struck. We rushed up to the deck, all of us forming a protective circle around Joan, who was holding Thanh, and pushed ourselves inside as the thunder cracked and clapped and the rain soaked us and the sudden wind drove away the evening’s calm. The lights flickered and died. I held my breath as though I expected a tornado to whirl the whole house away. Jean laughed. “I hope this isn’t an omen,” she said into the darkness.
“Of what?” I said.
When the weather stopped, we stayed quiet, as if to countervail the force of the weather.
Finally, someone pointed to Thang. “Wow. She hasn’t cried at all.”
Jean and Joan looked at each other, and then down at their baby. “She will,” said Joan, and touched her child on the nose.
My cell phone buzzed in my hand. It was a number I didn’t recognize. I’m not sure why I answered it, except that it seemed like the thing to do, and when I put my ear to the speaker a voice cried out, sobbing. I leapt up, keeping the phone to my ear, and left the room. I tried to make sense of the person on the other end of the line. Fractures of words mingled with low sobs, sniffling, weeping. “My baby brother, oh god. Oh god, my baby brother. How could he have done this? How, how… could this have happened to him.”
“Oh god, oh god, AIDS, oh god.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Who has AIDS?”
The voice stopped short.
“I’m so sorry,” I said again, “but I think you have the wrong number.”
The voice quavered. “This isn’t Dan?”
“No—I mean, yes—my name is Dan, but I don’t think I’m the right Dan? My name is Daniel Sudarsky.”
A pause. “Shit. Oh shit.”
I waited a moment for an explanation and then said, “Hello?”
The voice returned, sheepish at first, and then buttoned-up, professional, like she was delivering a standard voicemail or placing an order for takeout. “I’m so sorry, Daniel. This is Eileen, the reporter who interviewed you last year. My brother’s been diagnosed with HIV, and I was trying to reach my best friend. His name is just below yours on my work phone.”
“I’m sorry about your brother,” I said. Then, because I couldn’t help myself, even though it was none of my business: “You know that HIV isn’t a big deal anymore, right?”
“It definitely sucks. There’s a lot of stigma and you have to take meds every day. But this isn’t the ’90s. People don’t die from HIV.”
Eileen’s breath seemed to catch over the phone. “But he’ll be sick,” she said. “Right?”
“Not if the meds work. He probably won’t even be contagious.”
“Oh,” said Eileen. She heaved a sigh. “Wow.”
“I mean, don’t quote me on this,” I said. “I just learn this stuff through osmosis, you know? I’m not, like, a public health specialist.”
“No, don’t worry,” said Eileen. “I understand. Thank you. Thank you.”
She hung up. I dropped my phone into my pocket and pulled my fingers down my face. I felt disoriented. I looked up at the sky and realized for the first time how dark it was without power, how deeply quiet things had gotten after the storm. The evening looked like it was raining starlight. It was easy to forget that the sky had been waging war with us, pummeling our homes, soaking our shirts, just moments ago. I watched a satellite drift across the dark. Blink. Blink. Blink. I felt small and in love with the earth.
Later that evening, when Riz and I found each other and left, I didn’t tell him about the phone call. Instead I took a deep breath of the rainy air and said, “What do you think about having children?”
And he said, “You have to promise to live beyond fifty-four if we’re going to raise children.”
. . .
The cops show up around sundown. The world glows orange; the mass of protesters casts a shadow all the way across the field to where my property ends and the land dips down into rolling hills. It reminds me of what farmland used to look like in late July—long shadows playing with bales of hay, drying in the sun.
The cop cars, too, cast roving shadows. They peel across the county road and turn down my driveway, silent, liquid in their movement. Definitely automated. I look at the protesters, who are by now trying to hunker down in earnest for what looks to be a cold evening. They don’t even notice the squadron approaching. They’re lighting fires like they’re on a camping trip. They’re passing out the night’s allotment of water.
The cops honk once. The encampment freezes.
One of the men—the bullhorn guy—steps out of a tent and shines a flashlight at the cars.
This doesn’t go over so well. The cars turn their floodlights on. I hear the pop of a speaker turning on and then: “NOBODY MOVE. EVERYBODY STAY WHERE YOU ARE. PLACE YOUR HANDS ON THE BACKS OF YOUR HEADS. YOU ARE TRESPASSING.”
The protesters back away from their cars, away from the embers, away from the tents. They move like nervous cats, like terrified molasses. They keep their hands above their heads. They line up to be arrested, and it finally occurs to me—they aren’t activists or even dedicated agitators. They don’t care. They’re just loyal followers of the WCA. Violent salespeople.
The police cars begin to trail away. It’s dark by now. In the distance, another car has appeared on the county road. It turns down my driveway, headlights cutting silent beams into the dust and smoke. It’s cold out; I feel nauseous. Val approaches me and smiles. “Pays to be friends with the cops, huh, Sudarsky?” He winks at me. I look down. Behind him, the approaching car stops and turns off its lights. Val turns around. “Protest is over!” he shouts. “Pack up and head home!”
It’s a woman. She walks towards us and I can sense Val bristle. He reaches for his gun and I bristle, too. “Don’t worry about it,” I say. “Go home. I can deal with one person.”
Val pauses for a moment, caught in his aggression. But he knows me, and he knows what I want, so he gets into his car and leaves, his lights swinging red and blue as he lets the machine bring him home. The woman stops to watch him leave and then makes her way towards me.
“Dan Sudarsky?” she says. I think for a moment that she sounds too hopeful to be a protester.
I turn to go back into the house. “Sorry,” I say, stepping inside. “I don’t take visitors and I don’t do interviews.” I shut the door in her face.
She protests through the wood. “Wait,” she says, holding an old newspaper clipping to the window. “I just want to know if you’ve ever heard of a man named Rizwan Sadat.”
. . .
Riz died. It was that year, the year Thanh came home. He was only forty-eight and it came out of nowhere. He had an aneurysm—who has aneurysms? It was the morning of Halloween. I didn’t even get to see him, he left early for the farm and didn’t bother to rouse me with a kiss goodbye. I woke up to five phone calls from an unknown number and one voice message asking me to please call the hospital. I called the hospital. They told me.
“Drive safely. There’s no reason to rush over here. There’s nothing you can do,” they said.
I rushed over. I didn’t believe them. I drove like I wanted to kill myself and everybody around me, because I did. I said, “No, no, no,” all the way there, as if somebody was going to hear me and tell me that a mistake had been made, everything was fine, Riz was on the farm and the body on the gurney was somebody I didn’t care about. But nobody said that. They were right. There was nothing I could do.
I wailed. People don’t like to see men crying. The hallway where I was sitting emptied very quickly. A blotchy-cheeked nurse told me it was brave to cry, and I hated her for saying that. There didn’t seem to be a way to fucking stop it.
In the car on the way home, I forgot that Riz was dead. All I could think about was that I wanted to take a walk with him when he got back from the farm, wanted to point out the gold light tearing through the drying trees, the mushrooms pushing up through the detritus. Dry, lazy wind blew into the car, and if I had been able to breathe I’m sure it would have carried the scent of wild grapes and distant frost, the threat of winter. I couldn’t wait to show it all to Riz. It was a mistake. It was a mistake. It was all a mistake. I got home and covered myself in blankets and waited for him to curl up next to me.
At 5:30 p.m. the doorbell rang. I opened it to a gaggle of young children dressed like bats, superheroes, vegetables. They trick-or-treated me.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t have anything.” Then I started crying again. They left. I dragged myself back to our room and kept crying. The doorbell rang again. I didn’t leave my bed; I cried harder. The harder I cried, the more the doorbell seemed to ring. Riz was dead, and it didn’t matter to anyone except me. I imagined what it would be like, tomorrow and every day after that, for the entire neighborhood to hear me sobbing. It would be Halloween forever, and then I would die, too.
At 11:52 in the evening, Jean and Joan brought me five burritos wrapped in tin foil. “Two for now, since we assume you haven’t eaten today,” said Jean. “Three for tomorrow.”
“How did you find out,” I said. My voice sounded flat and unfamiliar.
“Tom told us,” said Joan. She looked me in the eyes. “Do you have plans for the funeral?”
“I’m not saying this to be callous,” she said, “but you need to make plans for the body.”
“This sucks,” said Jean. “I’m really sorry. This sucks so much.”
I knew that if I went to sleep, I would forget. I would wake up not knowing. That was an unbearable thought, to remember, so I didn’t sleep. At eight in the morning I called the composting company, but it was only 5 a.m. in Seattle so I waited another three hours and then called back. Time felt like paper.
A young man answered. I asked if I could transfer my reservation to somebody else who had died.
“Does the deceased already have an account with us?”
“No, that’s why I want to use mine instead.”
“I’m sorry,” said the man. “We can’t switch reservations. It’s against our policy.”
I asked how much it would cost to open a new account for Riz.
“Our prices have increased,” said the man.
When he told me the prices, I thought I might vomit. I couldn’t afford it, not at all, definitely not if I needed to survive on my own income now. My teeth started to tingle. I waited for a really long time to see if the young man would feel guilty and change his mind. He didn’t, so I said, “I talked about you in The New York Times.”
“I gave you free publicity,” I said, as if that mattered.
“He’s dead,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” said the man. “We can’t change our policies just because you’re sad.”
“What the fuck is wrong with you,” I told the man.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” he said.
“I hate you,” I said, but he had already hung up, and anyway, I couldn’t make myself mean it.
. . .
Her name is Samira. I make her tea in an old kettle, pour the precious water into the cup and watch it evaporate. We haven’t really spoken. I think she’s trying to get a handle on me, trying to understand who I am, or what to say, or where to start. Maybe she doesn’t believe what she’s read. I wouldn’t. I steep the tea. It’s pitch dark outside now, no fires, no cars. I bring the tea to Samira and sit, fixing my eyes on the steam. How incredible to think that for most of my life I thought of steam as air rather than water. Now I would like to catch it, put it back in the cup, use it again. But this is a special occasion, and that’s not how tea works.
“You were his husband,” says Samira, finally.
I laugh. “No,” I say. “We never did that.”
She looks back down at the newspaper clipping, searching it for answers.
“But yes. He was my partner.”
She nods. “Partner,” she says. “Was that a common term?”
I don’t really know how to answer this one. “For queer people, I guess.”
“Queer people,” she echoes. I’m beginning to think that Samira is half-empty, just a reflection of what I am telling her.
“You know, people who—”
“I know what queer means,” she says. She pauses. “Was he the love of your life?”
The question catches me off-guard in its naïvete, its degrading hopefulness. “No,” I say. “I fell in love many times. Maybe I’m even in love right now. But Riz was the best, I think.”
“He’s the one you think about still.”
“He’s the one I think about still,” I say. Now I’m the echo.
“Why are you still alive?” she says.
It is strange to hear somebody ask why instead of how. “It’s not a choice,” I say.
At this she laughs. “It is for me.”
I finish my tea. I don’t understand what she’s saying, but I want to tell her there was also a time, for me, when it was harder to live than to die. Now it’s the reverse. I don’t ask what it is that makes living hard for her—maybe it’s nothing; maybe it’s how her brain works. “How are you going to get home?” I ask. “It’s too late to drive in the hills.”
She raises an eyebrow.
“It’s dark. Drive systems get thrown off around here, I don’t know why. There are flash storms every once in a while. Sometimes there are people waiting to mug you.” But she should know all of that. “You aren’t from this area,” I say.
“So why are you here?”
“My name is Samira Sadat,” she says. “Rizwan Sadat was my ancestor, and I… I just wanted to know what he was like.”
“Sleep in my spare bedroom,” I say. “You can drive home in the morning.”
. . .
I called Eileen. I don’t know; maybe it was because I thought she could help me, or maybe it was because I had once been able to tell her something which stopped the pain and I was stupidly, foolishly hoping that she could do the same for me. Maybe there was comfort in calling somebody almost-anonymous, somebody whose relevance to my life was whisper-thin.
My voice on the phone was hoarse and quiet. “They won’t let me compost him,” I said. “I won’t ever get to touch him again.”
“Wait,” said Eileen. “What?”
I told her what had happened when I called EarthBound.
She spoke gently. “I’m going to call you back in fifteen minutes, okay? Is that alright?”
“I might off myself in the meantime,” I said.
“Don’t joke about that,” said Eileen. “We’re not friends. I don’t know how seriously to take you.”
“Don’t take me seriously,” I said.
“I’ll talk to you in fifteen minutes.”
The next time my phone vibrated, it wasn’t Eileen. I answered anyway.
“My name is Amy Darlington. I work with EarthBound. I just want to apologize for the way our customer service representative treated you on the phone today. We’re so sorry for your loss. Of course we can transfer your reservation.”
“Oh,” I said.
Later, on the phone with Eileen, I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know if I should thank her, or ask what she did, or how she did it. I didn’t know if we were going to speak to each other ever again. I didn’t know if I was allowed to see her as a friend. I invited her to the funeral, because that’s all I could think to do. I didn’t think she’d come.
. . .
Val is kissing me. His chin is bristly, his lips soft. Sex is still amazing to me, after all of this time, how my skin can erupt with pleasure, how my neck can want to be touched, how my insides can desire to be held. But I can’t make it work today. It’s not my cock—after 140-some years of this, I understand that sometimes things don’t stand up in the way you’d like them to, and that’s okay—but there is something keeping me sad and sullen, even as Val tickles me with his mouth, touches me with his touch.
“Val,” I say.
“Mmm?” he says.
“Val,” I say, again.
He looks up and scoots himself to come face-to-face with me. “What’s up?”
I kiss his forehead lightly. “I, uh…” I sigh. “I don’t know. I used to want to get these knuckle tattoos. I don’t think you would’ve liked them.”
He rolls off of me and turns on his side. “I don’t like tattoos,” he said. “Don’t know why you’d do that to skin is all. But it’s your body. Get the tattoos now if you want.”
I laugh, but it tastes bitter. A-C-A-B. Those were the knuckle tattoos I wanted. I wanted them before I met Riz. I don’t know why I’m thinking of it now except that there is a sheriff in bed with me, and I can’t figure out when I stopped fighting for other people and started only fighting for myself. The people around me have all grown small-minded as they’ve gotten older, and suddenly I wonder if I haven’t as well, if living and living and living hasn’t turned me into a person devoid of values.
“Are you okay?” asks Val.
“Not really,” I say. I sit up in bed. “You should go. You’ve got work. Samira’s going to be here soon.”
I realize that I haven’t told him anything. But there’s too much, and I don’t want to. “Just an old friend,” I say.
“Didn’t know you had any of those left,” he says.
I touch my face, smooth as ever. I want to show him the ways I’ve wrinkled, but I can’t, I can’t.
. . .
Eileen interviewed me for the feature, the one that earned her a Pulitzer, late in her life, after we had already answered the question of our friendship. She was nearing seventy and I should have been, too, but I wasn’t. Or rather: time was passing and I wasn’t going with it. In our few encounters over those years, she seemed to leap ahead, degrading in the way that humans were supposed to degrade, while I… didn’t. In our correspondences, she would mention it every so often, mostly as a joke. “I know you’re in eternal mourning,” she said once, “but you really must make use of this gift. What is it, the ninth yahrtzeit since he died? Tenth?”
“Twelfth,” I said. It was strange to realize. The pain was mostly gone now, replaced by a feeling of being half-in and half-out, the odd sensation that I was just observing myself.
“Twelve years!” she said. “Dan. Daniel. You’re a middle-aged man. You’re past middle-age. You’re not going to look like this forever. Trust me. One day you’re going to wake up looking like a scrotum and wish you’d been a bit more of a nafka while you had the chance.”
“For the record,” I retorted, “I have been a bit of a nafka.” The yiddish felt like a joke in my mouth. And, in a sense, it was—we were parodying our grandparents, our great aunts and uncles.
“Maybe if I set you up with a nice, Jewish boy…”
We laughed—hard—and she slipped her request in as the embers of our humor died down: “So? When are you going to let me tell your story?”
“Never,” I said. It was my stock response—eight, ten, twelve years later. Until it wasn’t.
I think I did it because I didn’t believe what was happening to me. Maybe if I saw it in print, it would feel real; I would be able to accept it and figure out how to move on with my life. Or maybe the spell would break, and I would snap into my age right then and there, shrinking and shriveling and growing feeble and getting incontinent, right on the sidewalk while I read the paper. It might have been a relief, a way back into my body. So I took a bus to Manhattan and caught a train to Long Island and walked a few blocks to a cute, vinyl-sided house.
A man answered the door. He looked to be about sixty.
“Hello,” he said. His voice was soft, so soft that I could barely hear it. “I’m Joshua,” he said. So soft that I wanted to fall asleep inside of it.
Eileen appeared behind him. “Ah,” she said. “You’ve met my brother.”
. . .
I make Samira tea again. To hell with conservation; ritual demands sacrifice.
While I boil the water, she takes a folder out of her bag and begins to spread ancient newspaper clippings and old magazines over the table. “It happened by chance,” she says. “We were supposed to analyze a notable piece of twenty-first century journalism. I didn’t think I would run into somebody I was related to.”
“How did you know?”
She points to a picture in the magazine, a picture of me looking exactly as I do now and of Riz looking exactly as he did then. “He looks like my father,” she says. “Basically identical. My whole body started shaking when I found it. I thought somebody was playing with me.”
The tea is ready. I set a cup in front of her. “What did your teacher think?”
She looks down, stares at the steam rising from the tea. “Why didn’t you sign up for the WCA?” she asks.
It takes me a moment to realize that she’s changed the subject—I’m too busy searching her face for remnants of Riz.
“I’ve been listening to the news around here,” she says. “People think you’re a misanthrope. They think you want people to die of thirst.”
“Good for them,” I say.
“Do I what?”
“Want people to die.”
“People die whether I want them to or not.”
She rolls her eyes. “But you’re not participating—” she pushes, and I walk out of the room. Samira follows me as I tromp through the back of the house and out of the door. It is parched out; it is rabidly hot. Samira strides out behind me, covering her eyes in the sun. She sighs. I wait. She waits. She sighs again.
“Did you come here to change my mind on the WCA?” I ask, finally. “Are they paying you or something?”
“Then stop talking about it.”
She bites her lip. “I just think Riz would’ve done it.”
“You don’t get to talk about him,” I say.
“You don’t get to talk about him.” My voice is loud. It is 156 years loud.
She freezes like a doe who knows she’s awoken a coyote, like a child who has been caught in a lie. She turns around and leaves, scurries through the house, pushes through the front door. She is going, her car is kicking up the dead forest dust, and now she is gone.
I stand on the porch for a while, baking. Eventually I go inside. Samira has left the articles on the table. Her bag sits open next to it.
I make a call. “Hey, Sheriff.”
“Sudarsky,” says Val in his gruff, sheriff voice. “What can I do you for?” It’s a phrase he’s learned from me.
“Can you… can you look up someone named Samira Sadat? Tell me what her situation is?”
“I thought she was an old friend,” says Val.
“Yeah,” I say. “Me too.”
He pauses, and I take a sip of Samira’s tea. It’s too bitter.
“Samira Sadat,” he says. “Damn.”
“It looks like she lives all the way over in the annexed states.”
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t give a shit about the news as long as nobody tries to kill me,” I say.
“Yeah,” says Val. “That’s my point. The annexed states are known for putting people like us in jail.”
“People like… oh.”
“So what’s Samira Sadat doing all the way over here?”
. . .
Joshua threw me an apple from the top of a tree. I put it in the bag and watch him wiggle his way down the ladder. “Enough for a pie?”
“Should be,” I said. He hopped down from the tree. I kissed him. It was as soft as his voice. It always was.
“We’re very lucky,” he said. “There’s something special about knowing where your food comes from, don’t you think?”
“I love you,” I said.
“I love you, too,” he said.
We drove south from the orchard, through the hill towns and across the river and deep into the forest. I cradled our bag of apples on my lap and stared at the trees whipping past us. We turned onto the county road and rolled all the way down the driveway.
There was a package blocking the door. It was Riz. A few pounds of compost, a few decades later.
Joshua knew; he always knew. He left me alone, and I carried Riz with me into the bedroom, put him in bed with me, tried to feel him through the sackcloth and the plastic and all of the years. I fell asleep like that, and when I woke up, Joshua was sitting next to me with a piece of pie on a plate.
“Here,” he said. “Eat this.”
He left me alone again, and I ate the pie like it was my entire life with Riz, like it was everything. I ate so slowly that when Joshua came back into the room, I was barely done with my second bite. He took an apple to the bedside and placed it on top of the bag of compost. I realized that I was crying.
. . .
I sit on my porch until Samira comes back. It is a long time. I drink glass after glass of water, like it means nothing, like I do not care if I will run out. When I see the dust billowing out along the county road, I put my glass down and feel my heart. It’s beating so heavily, so insistently. The car rolls down the driveway and halts.
Samira gets out. “I forgot my bag,” she says.
She looks at me.
“I didn’t know.”
“Where you were from.”
Her shoulders slump, like I’ve pulled a backpack off of her.
“You’re like us, aren’t you?” I say. I half-smile. “Queer.”
She breathes the word, quietly. I can see it send lightning down her spine; I can see her fear what it means. “How did you figure it out?” she says.
“How did you?”
She approaches me slowly, like she is afraid that I will lash out again. I don’t. We walk inside, together, and I take her through the house and out back, and we walk to the far edge of my property, where the water tanks are, and then we walk a little bit farther, following the hoses which snake down from the water tanks.
She gasps when she sees it—first the dark, wet mulch on the ground, and then the apple tree, sixty years my junior and still nearly a century old. Gnarled, lonely, but well-watered.
. . .
The night Riz told me he was going to live to be two hundred, the night of our first date, we had the best sex I’ve ever had. I don’t know if it was his best; I hope it was. After that, I think, we grew technically better—we never stopped enjoying it—but that’s not the same thing. That first night, it was like he was giving something to me. If I try to explain it any better than that it will start to make less sense, so I’ll stop there. But sometimes, in the years after Riz and Eileen and Joshua died, when I was inside of someone new or they were inside of me, sometimes I tried to pass all of that along, all of the dreams I’d ever had for myself. I thought that if only I could do that, I’d get to claim my ten-percent discount and return to the soil. And who knows—maybe, in fifteen to thirty years, depending on a number of factors, a man who did not think he could live without me would still be stubbornly, insistently alive, and when a box of compost arrived in the mail, he would open it, and it would smell like Riz’s hands after a day on the farm, the waft of broccoli on the wind, an apple tree. I imagined this moment as a romantic and peaceful epilogue. I longed for it. But when I close my eyes and go back there, to that first night, I can’t figure out how he did it. I try to remember everything: There were children who walked right by the window, asking their moms for piggyback rides, and we paused to hide under the covers, holding each other, sweaty and slick. There was a walk signal on the street outside; it flashed orange across the white drapes in rhythm with our movement. There was the scent of hyacinth and lilac and pear tree that drifted in from out of doors. There were the indoor smells of dust and laundry and cooked food. There was an eyelash on Riz’s cheek; there were big pores wide open on his nose. There was the gentle undulation of safety, true safety, for maybe the first time in my life. He wanted to give me all of the happiness that he had learned how to feel, and we barely even knew each other. I don’t think I know how to give like that, to give everything, even after all of this time. There’s always some part of me that wants to hold on. •