by Sheila Marikar
Illustration by Mia Lee
The virus had spread to the point that you had to stay in your bubble. The White House had executed the G-Force Act — “out of an abundance of caution,” “to preserve humanity.” I guess the stakes were that high. I was at a Pilates class when it happened, one of those really expensive ones, lots of women in fancy, compression leggings, me in a stretched-out pair from Generic. I was on a reformer, midway through a series of hundreds, eyes closed, breathing out through my mouth — hah — when suddenly, I was in my bubble. Alone. Door locked. In the same position that I had been in class, but now I was on my cot and there were no straps in my hands, so I looked like a forlorn Tetris piece, the one that looks like a squashed Z. The only evidence of the G-Force was the chill on my cheeks, like a blast of wind had pushed them back.
“Fuck,” I said. They had to do it during Pilates class. Trigger happy president couldn’t have waited 20 more minutes so I would’ve at least been able to finish my workout. My way-too-expensive-for-someone-on-Essential-Human-Wage workout. I had seen the warnings, of course. You couldn’t not see them. They appeared in the upper right corner of your vision, in bright red text, stayed in your Feed until you actually focused on the warnings and read them, and then they would go away.
There was the half that took the warnings seriously, planned, prepared, hugged and kissed their loved ones, stocked their bubbles with wine and Xanax, framed photos and weighted blankets, so that if it happened, when it happened, they’d feel okay. Like they could handle it, “weather the storm,” “tough it out,” “win the war,” all the things that the suits on the big screen liked to say. Then there was the other half, the half that was like, “meh.” “Not gonna happen.” “They’ll find a cure.” “No one’s ever used the G-Force Act.” “She’s not gonna use the G-Force Act.” “You think the first female president wants to go down in history for having used the G-Force Act?” “No way.” “Not gonna happen.”
One of my friends called it the pussy act. She was getting waxed when it happened.
Some people wanted it, like my friend Priya, who’d just had her third kid. She lived on the 132nd floor of those “island” condo towers west of Venice, in the Pacific. 360-degree water views but you had to get in a bubble to go anywhere. I lived in Silverlake, she never came to me.
“Even newborns get their own bubble,” she’d told me the week before. We sat at her dining table, making progress on a bottle of Pinot Grigio, me more than her. A screen between us showed Anya, asleep in her crib.
“Lab-grown breast milk, a swaddling bot, the whole nine,” Priya said. “And you can float right next to them, link your audio. Or not! It’s like having a 24/7 nanny that you never have to pay.”
“What if you wanted to break out?” Every bubble came with a hammer that could break the glass. Normally, you’d be able to get a new bubble in a matter of days, but in the event of a national lockdown, it would probably take a lot longer. “Would you break her out too?”
“Are you kidding? For what?” Priya poured herself a splash more. “Getting locked in your bubble is like a government-mandated vacation. Why would anyone want to break out of that?”
Freedom, I thought. Seemed like an obvious answer. But Priya would roll her eyes and tell me I didn’t get it and I didn’t feel like being pilloried for not being a mom. I watched Anya curl and uncurl her feet. “Would you miss holding her?”
“I mean, for a week?” Priya eyed the screen and took another sip. “Given all the holding I’ve already done, will do in the future? All the holding I did with the other two? I just want a week. Three days, even. Some me time, you know?”
To be honest, I didn’t know. I had so much me time. Heaps of it, really. The thing about having all your basic needs taken care of — emphasis on basic, if you wanted to eat anything that wasn’t grown in a lab, Essential Human Wage was not for you — was that it gave you a lot of time to think about what you really wanted to do. What “moved” you. “What drives you in the direction of your most authentic self?” was the way that Athena put it. I’d love to say that I was not among the billions who tuned into Athena’s daily inspirational talk show on the Feed, but I would be lying. I focused hard. Actually wrote down some of her aphorisms: “Who are you without your Feed? Who are you when no one’s watching?” Whenever I read that second one, which I stuck on the inside of my desk drawer, I thought, “I am a person who wants to know who I am when no one is watching. I am pathetic.”
I had resolved to put 25 percent of each wage check into a savings account that could fund a passion project that could turn into a side hustle, maybe a full blown career. I knew of plenty of people on Essential Human Wage who had done it — deejays, fashion designers, flower arrangers, all with so many followers, so many likes. But I had been spending a not insignificant portion of the fund on Pilates classes in some vague, pie-in-the-sky hope that I’d magically wow the instructor to the degree that she would ask me to come work with her. I’d taken five classes, ever. The first one was free and the instructor came up to me afterwards and said “Great job!” which was all it took. I couldn’t remember the last time someone had said that to me. Four classes later, I still wasn’t 100 percent sure where my core was. I knew that I could ask the instructor about that, express interest in learning more, be, you know, inquisitive, proactive, whatever, but the specter of being told that I wasn’t good enough nagged me like one of those Feed ads that followed you around for days. I pictured the instructor dropping her chin, narrowing her eyes, saying, “You don’t know where your core is?” She hadn’t said “great job!” since that first time.
“You don’t know how good you have it,” Amir said, the night after I saw Priya. “You don’t have to do anything.”
“Technically, you don’t have to do anything either,” I said. I was dividing a pot of cacio e pepe into two bowls. I’d used kelp noodles and the results made me pity the four-hours-ago version of myself that had strode to the gourmet grocery store with all this hope and promise.
“Who’s going to pay for New Zealand if I don’t go to work every day? You?”
This was a frequent refrain in our relationship. We’d been dating for two years and living together for a little less than that, long enough that I knew the cost of sleeping on 4,000-thread-count sheets and going on extravagant trips to exotic places. I told myself that he needed to say things like that to feel better about himself. We were going to New Zealand. What he said didn’t matter. What I was going to do with my life didn’t matter.
“Speaking of,” I said brightly, “Queenstown is supposed to have some amazing running trails. Did you have a chance to order those sneakers?” I brought the bowls on the table.
Amir narrowed his eyes at the bowls or me or both. “You know I hate it when you do that.”
“What?” I knew what.
“Try to get me to work out.”
“You were the one who said you wanted to lose weight.”
“Are you saying I need to lose weight?”
“Those were your words, hon.” I thought calling him “hon” would drain the tension out of our exchange, like poking a blister with a safety pin. “I think you look great. Don’t worry about the sneakers, we can walk, same views, it’ll be great.”
“Same views we’re going to see out the window of our hotel, right?”
“Then why don’t we just stay in the room I cashed in half my Amex points for and see the view from there?”
I inhaled sharply and mouthed “okay, then,” but I could tell that he was looking at something in his Feed so he probably didn’t notice. I turned on a Miles Davis playlist, volume low. He’s just stressed, I told myself. The virus had wreaked havoc on the markets. He worked in real-estate development, ultra-high, ultra-luxury condo towers, and the last thing anyone wanted to do with a pandemic sweeping the planet was buy a condo in a 300-story building. Too many neighbors. Too many shared spaces. Views? No one cared about views at that point. The only things selling were bunkers deep in the ground, the closer to the earth’s molten core, the better. Location, location, location. You could always stream a view onto the wall, pretend you were in Vail and not like, 10 miles below Des Moines.
It was a weird virus. The story was that it originated in a lab off the coast of Argentina, only later did we find out that it actually came from a meteorite that landed in Patagonia. It spread through South America first. The first known instance, patient zero, was a fashion designer in Buenos Aires who had attended a wedding in Patagonia not far from where the meteorite hit. One moment, he was drinking a cappuccino with a trend forecaster he hated but had to ingratiate himself towards, the next, the trend forecaster threw her latte in the designer’s face, spat, “How dare you, you, you, misogynist … prick,” and tipped over the table so that everyone around them turned and gasped. But they weren’t looking at the table. Across the designer’s forehead, a line of pixelated, bright red, upper case text scrolled like an old-timey stock ticker. “That cunt. What the fuck was that about? What a mess. Everyone’s looking at me. They think I caused this. She’s insane. Must be off her meds. Total nutcase. What, are these people still looking? It’s not that big of a deal. Why did that guy just throw up? Is my dick out? What’s going on?”
A virus that put your inner monologue on display, for all to see: at first, it was funny. The late-night shows joked about it. But then one of the late-night hosts got it, somehow, and “I need a drink I need a drink fuck this I need a drink” started scrolling across his forehead in the middle of a live taping, and the audience freaked out, stampeding out of the theater, because no one knew how you got it, or what the cure was.
— Chapter Two
“Honestly,” Amir said, still focused on something in his Feed, “I think we should cancel. If this G-Force thing happens while we’re there, it’ll be a total mess.”
“I mean …” I trailed off. I wanted New Zealand. I needed New Zealand. Maybe I wasn’t taking calls and schlepping to site visits all day like Amir, or juggling three kids like Priya, but this trip had been my light at the end of the tunnel for the past three months and in my head, it was the trip that was going to turn my whole life around.
Athena had done this series, “Transformational Trips,” interviewing people who had gone somewhere out of their comfort zone and returned totally different and better. There was a mom who went to Mars and came back with some sort of dust that cured postpartum depression (it sold out within minutes of that episode). There was a preschool teacher who took some high-grade ayahuasca and realized her true calling as a dominatrix for 65+ billionaires. There was a barista who traveled back to 1982 New York, learned how to dance with Baryshnikov, and launched a revival ballet company that had won a bunch of awards and spurred a revival of ballet flats with ribbons that tied up the leg. I bought a pair. The ballerina — apparently, even if you learned to dance at 37, you could still be called a ballerina — said that the shoes made her feel like she could “pirouette through anything life throws my way.” I hadn’t figured out how to tie them so the ribbons wouldn’t puddle around my ankles.
Compared to those trips, New Zealand was pretty basic. But it checked all the boxes for me: beach, mountains, wine, otherworldly-ish but actually of this world. I wasn’t ready to go back in time (too many waivers to sign, vaccines to get) or to Mars (more waivers, more vaccines), and as for ayahuasca … maybe I’m square, but I don’t want to have to throw up into a bucket for hours to reach some sort of revelation. I figured, couldn’t a simple change of scenery lead to a revelation? Wasn’t removing yourself from your daily routine revelatory in and of itself? I had this feeling like if I could just break out of the rut I’d gotten myself into — spending most of my waking hours looking at my Feed, comparing what I was doing, or rather, not doing, to all the seemingly Actual Things that my friends and celebrities were doing — a bolt of inspiration would strike, and suddenly, I’d be Someone.
Anyway, this was what was going through my mind the day that Amir came home, flopped on the couch, and said, “I’m bored.”
Me: “Should we maybe plan a trip?”
“What do you think about New Zealand?”
“New Zealand? Like, koalas and shit?”
“I think that’s Australia, or, it was. They have wine and luxury hotels.”
“Hmm. You really want to go?”
I nodded like a little girl.
“I’ll look into jet streams.” You could bubble around town and maybe up the coast, but if you wanted to go more than 500 miles, you had to pay for a jet stream. “By the way, we’re going to 1979 New York for Jake’s bachelor party,” he said. “Studio 54. Hope that’s cool.”
Hope that’s cool. I thought about how, when I told him I wanted to get a Le Creuset dutch oven, he’d looked up eight similar (but inferior) versions and asked me to explain what justified the cost of the Le Creuset over all of the others. I should’ve just ordered it and told him, “hope that’s cool.” Or said nothing at all. But then we would’ve had the fight when his credit card statement came, so I would’ve just been delaying the inevitable. Amir made the money, so Amir made the decisions. He was old-fashioned like that. It was charming, in the beginning, the way he’d pick me up in his bubble to go to dinner, how he’d slide his card into the hand of the maître d’ when we got to the restaurant, so I wouldn’t even see the check, let alone have to chip in for it. I’m not gonna lie, it was part of the appeal. Again, I was on Essential Human Wage, I couldn’t afford 10-course dinners with wine pairings. I had worked, for five years after college, as a translator for a company that reformatted Western classic literature — Shakespeare, Dickens — into Feed-friendly content. (I specialized in finding memes that could serve as “fun breaks” between blocks of text.) But then someone wrote an algorithm, and I was out of a job. “It’s not all about money and wanting more,” my mom had said. My mom spent five hours a day performing Hindu rituals. She re-used paper towels, which horrified me. “Think about how you can use your talents to do something meaningful.”
My talents included flat ironing my hair, applying lip gloss, and drinking just enough that I could come off as charming and wry, at least the night that I met Amir at Priya’s housewarming, three months out of work and thirsty as hell. If there were a cartoon version of me from that night, I’d have dollar signs coming out of my eyes. I knew. I could tell from his shoes, his belt. The logos. My last boyfriend had been a coder who attended meetings of the local socialist organization and wanted to get into pickling things and making his own sourdough starter. He had one of those t-shirts that said “the future is female.” By the end, I couldn’t bring myself to have sex with him. We were still together, technically, the night I met Amir.
“The market’s tanking,” Amir said. He’d had maybe two bites of the kelp cacio e pepe. “I had two deals pull out this morning.”
“I mean, we booked the jet streams,” I said. I took a sip of wine, pushed my shoulders back, tried to seem like someone who knew best. “They’re not gonna refund that. You already put in for the days off. Worst case scenario: G-Force locks us into our bubbles. We can still float wherever we want, link our audio, take the jet streams we paid for, you paid for,” I corrected myself, imagined the sound of points dinging in my column, “see the sights, eat the things, or whatever things we can order to our bubbles and have 3D printed.” Each bubble had a 3D printer that generated food, which would be paid for by the government, if the G-Force Act went into effect. Runny cheeses and anything with gelatin tripped the printers up, but besides that, they had gotten pretty good. Cooking, even the kind of rudimentary, follow-the-recipe type of cooking that I did, was a luxury, an activity that hipsters engaged in to pass the time, like knitting a sweater even though you could 3D print a sweater from Generic for less than the cost of a ball of mohair. Of course, the thing was that it would be generic. There were three types of sweaters in three basic colors. Generic’s “La Crock” came only in gunmetal gray and was made of “ceramic grade” plastic. No hipster home cook would be caught dead with one of those.
“It’s not ideal,” said Amir. “We’d be spending all this money to stay at this hotel by the lake and not even be able to sleep in the bed?”
“We’ll sleep above the bed, park our bubbles side by side, you’ll probably like it even better.” I smiled and tried to catch his eye. “Less chance of mattress hump.” Amir liked to complain about a hump in our mattress, right down the middle, that prevented him from being able to sprawl out while he slept. I couldn’t really feel it. The obvious solution was for him to sleep on the hump for a few nights, flatten it out, but he said that would hurt his back.
“Mm,” he said. “You have a point about the jet streams.”
“And we’re talking worst-case scenario. She’s not gonna use the G-Force Act.”
“You think it hurts when you repel into your bubble that fast?”
“They’ve done thousands of tests that say that it doesn’t.”
“Pack some extra Advil or something, just in case.”
“Sure!” He wanted me to pack. We were full speed ahead. Fuck the pandemic, I thought. It would probably fizzle out while we were there, in two weeks, we’d look back on how big of a deal the whole thing seemed and shake our heads and laugh, all that time spent agonizing over nothing. At that point, it was like a running joke. Every day there was another story about some sorry fool who got it, like the private equity investor who was on stage at a panel about gender disparity in startup funding, nodding, finger on chin, as the founder of a company that made menstrual cups out of cauliflower stalks talked about her initial struggle to raise money.
First, the top half of his head turned red, and the crew adjusted the spotlights, thinking that was the issue. Then, he returned to normal, except, of course, for the bright red letters scrolling across his forehead: “If I have to hear one more woman whine about how all these guys just didn’t see the problem, didn’t see the hole in the market, the literal hole, in this case, ha, God help me, I will pick that bitch up by her tampon string and hurl her across the room. Unless, of course, she’s using one of these ridiculous cauliflower things which just — it’s beyond disgusting. Sick, it’s sick. Sure, let her blather on about sustainability, socially conscious capitalism — total oxymoron — I know how she really got that $500 million valuation. Tits. And she knows it. Wears a bustier to a professional conference, what a fucking joke.” By the time I heard about that one, her company was a unicorn.
I poured Amir and myself more wine and went to the fridge. It all felt so adult, Miles Davis on the surround sound, extra dark chocolate in the egg drawer, things to pack, having plans. I broke off two pieces for me, two pieces for him, placed his down beside his bowl, told myself not to be offended that he’d barely eaten anything. We had one of those retro atlases and I thought we could go over the map of New Zealand together, visually plot out how we’d take the jet stream from Los Angeles to Auckland, then Auckland to Queenstown, look at the little mile markers and distance measures on the page not because we’d need them for getting around — we had GPS for that — but to build up some hype, some pre-trip excitement. Anticipating something was half the fun. Maybe more than half.
I picked up my wine and drifted over to the bookshelf to find the atlas, humming out of tune. “Oh shit, the game’s on, mind if I put it on the big screen?” he said, as he turned on the big screen and found the game. The melody of “So What” yielded to screeching sneakers. I let my fingers graze over the spines on the bookshelf, as if I weren’t looking for anything. I supposed I wasn’t, anymore. There are times when you drink to savor the moment and times when you drink to drown it out. I took a large sip, settled into the armchair that didn’t face the big screen, and pulled up a quiz that I had bookmarked in my Feed: “Is Your Partner Bringing Out Your Best Self?”
— Chapter Three
I knew two types of women: women who married for comfort, and women who kept sifting, searching for The One. In my opinion, it was like running your hand through a thatch of grass. Some blades might be longer or shorter or a little more green, but it was all grass. People were people. You were always going to have to deal with some amount of bullshit. The way I saw it, I was at a fork in the road, and there were two ways my life could go: I could stay with Amir and be generally taken care of, which meant occasionally being belittled for the fact that I didn’t make as much money as him or make the right thing for dinner, or I could figure out some way to support myself, which meant going back to the studio apartment I’d previously lived in (or something like it) and giving up the extravagant trips to exotic places, hipster cooking, and nice sheets. At least, for some amount of time. It would mean believing in myself to the degree that I wouldn’t need to rely on someone else to fund the life I wanted, which sounded nice in theory, “be your own superhero,” like Athena said, but in practice, felt like going from a warm, cozy bed into one of those ice cold baths all the life hackers swore by. I tried, I did, submerged my legs up to my calves one time, but once I lowered myself to the point that my butt hit the water, nope, I couldn’t do it, I was out.
Some of the women I knew claimed to be in deep, passionate love, like Erica. Erica and I used to work together. I didn’t particularly enjoy her company but she had recently gotten a job at one of the top meme generators. I wanted to know how and how I could do that, too.
“My heart just wants to like, explode when I think of him,” she told me the last time we had lunch, at a vegan place in Los Feliz. She’d met her boyfriend on a dating app three months before. She couldn’t be serious, I thought. Who loved someone so much that they wanted to die? Let alone someone who brewed his own beer in buckets that he kept in his bathroom? She sounded hyperbolic and juvenile and I judged her as such. “Yeah, Amir’s pretty great, too,” I said through a mouthful of carrot lox. “But living together, lemme just say that your heart might not want to explode when he leaves his skid marked boxers inside out on the bedroom floor.”
She rolled her eyes. “Sure, but Hyperion and I are really taking the time to build a solid foundation so the small stuff doesn’t matter, you know? We’re getting all the tough questions out of the way — do you want kids, how many, how should we raise them, how should we split the work around the house?” She forked up some beet tartare and continued talking as she chewed. “Right now — I mean, we practically live together — it’s like, 60-40, him. He cleans and fixes whatever the bots can’t, I’m in charge of food.” She giggled and covered her mouth with her hand. “The other day, I was at the stove,” she said, when she composed herself, “caramelizing onions. Takes forever, right? I turn around, and he’s rearranged all the spice jars and ingredients and stuff on the counter into the shape of a heart.” She beamed. “Isn’t that cute?”
“Aw,” I said. Kind of on the nose, I thought. But still. 60-40?
“How are you and Amir, by the way? Wait — show me your hand.”
I tried not to take her pout personally.
“Well, maybe in New Zealand,” she said. “Perfect place to propose.”
We had talked about it in the way that Amir liked to talk about things, on a Sunday morning, in bed, during a football commercial break. I was watching a documentary in my Feed about female winemakers and consequently wondering if I could hack it as a female winemaker. I’m pretty sure that if I had watched a documentary about bats, at that point, I would’ve wondered if I could hack it as a bat.
“So,” he began, in a way that made me pause, “if I were to ask, and I’m not saying that I’m going to, but, you’d say yes, right?”
“Oh!” I was genuinely surprised. In my mind, a scene of how I would have liked this conversation to happen flashed: not candles and roses, not that cliché, but holding hands, walking back from a restaurant together — walking, not bubbling, a total novelty, especially in L.A. — a little tipsy, moonlight — and then I felt stupid because what I would have liked was not all that different from the cliché of candles and roses. Accept reality, I told myself. This isn’t “The Bachelor.” Also, you should stop watching “The Bachelor.”
“I mean, I think that could … be arranged.” I don’t know why I thought that being coy was the best course of action but he cracked a smile so I patted myself on the back for having done something right. He muted the game and turned towards me. “Let’s be honest, what else are either of us going to do? I can’t stand the dating apps, you’ve been living with me for what, a year and a half?”
This is the scene I come back to when I feel the need to justify what I did.
But as I was packing, I was not thinking about Erica or whether or not Amir was going to propose or even the virus, which had spread through Central America and into Mexico. It infected a chef as she briefed her staff prior to service. “She started turning red,” a busbot told the local news channel. “We thought she was just hot. Then we saw the words.” “Didn’t get a star. Did. Not. Get. A. Star. How much longer do I have to do this before Michelin gives a damn? Before they give me what I’m worth? So Euro-centric, that goddamn guide, God forbid they give three stars to a restaurant that’s not serving fucking emulsions and flavored gas. I invented the algae tostada. Fucking Del Taco now has algae tostadas. Fuck. Forget Michelin, I should get a Nobel for all the algae I’m repurposing, instead, I get, what, offers to judge some bot cooking competition, or those influencers, all those scum of the earth influencers who ask for a free meal in exchange for content and then go dark the minute they leave, fuck them.” At that point, her staff, including the busbot, yelled, “yeah, fuck them!” and rallied around her, lifted her up off the ground.
I read about that incident the way I read about celebrities renting out small island nations for their kids’ birthdays: wow, crazy, but has zero to do with my life. The border wall would stop the virus from crossing into the U.S., at least, that’s what the president said. Men were more prone to infection than women, and older men especially. Scientists around the world were working around the clock to come up with a cure. And the virus didn’t kill you — it just made it impossible to hide your thoughts. So what? If anything, the virus was getting on my nerves, because news about it kept cluttering up my Feed to the degree that I didn’t want to look at anything there anymore.
I scrunched up a few more pairs of underwear and looked at the time. If I hurried, I could squeeze in a Pilates class before the jet stream. I messaged Amir, told him I’d be ready to go by 5, as promised, smiley face smiley face, “see you when you get back from work can’t waaaaaiiiitttt!” I knew the pandemic was murdering his deals, and I thought the way to get his mind off work was unfettered, in-your-face enthusiasm. Or maybe, if I’m being honest, I thought that was the way to get what I wanted.
I got in my bubble, which was bare but for the essentials — water bottle, sweatshirt, lip balm. The 3D printer was gathering dust. I’d taken out the factory-installed “driver’s seat” — too bulky, and the bubbles drove themselves so really, it was a glorified recliner — and kept the cot folded up like a Murphy bed. You’d be surprised how many steps I could rack up in a 10-minute ride. It was pulling into a parking spot and I was attempting to stay upright while holding my right ankle in my left hand when Amir’s reply came in:
I pretended I hadn’t seen his message and rushed into class.
— Chapter Four
I knew it was selfish and uncaring of me to not at least say something palliative like “oh no.” But honestly, even in the best of times, Amir was a “shit’s fucked” kind of person, a glass-half-empty kind of guy. When I told him that I was thinking of joining an improv group, he first screwed up his face and then said, “You’re not going to talk about me, right? Promise you won’t talk about me?”
“Why … how would you even come up? Improv isn’t like stand up.”
“I don’t know, just … don’t talk about me. Why are you even doing this? What’s the point?”
“I mean, I don’t know, it’s kind of like …” I trailed off. I thought improv might help me better express my thoughts and opinions. It could make me a more confident public speaker, not only in front of a group, but also in everyday conversations, like the one I was having with Amir. But he would ridicule me if I said that.
“Honestly, if you need something to do, why don’t you spend some time with my mom, learn how to make biryani like she does? That would at least have a point.”
He wanted everything to have a point. But anyway. He did have a point about shit being fucked, in the case of the pandemic, because 17 minutes into class, in that series of hundreds, boom, G-Force Act, boom, I was back in my bubble, on the floor that I’d most recently taken 738 steps on.
I couldn’t believe it. She had to do it during Pilates class. She had to do it the day I was supposed to go on my trip. My trip. My transformative trip. I recognized my initial reaction as immature and self-centered and petty, just generally inappropriate and so in line with every stereotype about my generation, but the fact was that I wasn’t worried about the world or my friends or my loved ones — how many loved ones did I have, really? I was worried about me. Fuck it, I thought. Crisis brings out our truest selves.
I was still in that squashed Z shape, knees in tabletop, arms at my sides, when my mom videogrammed.
“DAUGHTER! DAUGHTER, ARE YOU THERE?”
I sat up, crossed my legs, and turned on my video. “Hi mom, yeah, I’m here, I’m fine.” She only called me “daughter” when she was being excessively formal, like addressing a birthday card, or when things were really dire, like when she called me the morning that my father died. Aneurism, out of the blue. It annoyed me, every time she called me “daughter” thereafter. Brought back bad memories, or more accurately, this thick, black bar that constituted what I remembered of that year, like most of it had been redacted.
She clasped her palms together and bowed her forehead down to them. “Thank God. Thank God. I cannot believe, this G-Force, no one thought, and now, here we are, my God, how are you? Are you okay? Where is Amir?” Her eyes darted around frantically, as if he were just outside of the frame and if she looked hard enough, she’d find him.
“Must be in his bubble, I need to call him.” You should want to call him, I thought.
“Do you think, since you live together, can you be in a bubble together?”
“I don’t think so. Priya said that even moms and newborns get separated.” I pictured Priya in an inflatable hot tub, drinking Zinfandel out of one of those big wine glasses that comes on a lanyard and watching Netflix.
“Really?” My mom’s expression reminded me of a tragedy mask. “Terrible, what this president has done. You’d think a woman president would be more … understanding, nurturing, just, a little nicer, but she’s a brute, separating all of us like this.”
“I guess the virus really is that much of a threat.” I thought that if I agreed with my mom, I’d be condoning her stereotypes and open myself up to the criticism that I wasn’t understanding, nurturing, or nice enough. Womanly enough. I thought it would lead, somehow, to her asking when I was going to get married, a question she’d only asked twice but that I steeled myself for every time we spoke. I spent whole showers having imaginary arguments with her, rehearsing defenses that sounded good in my head but that I knew I’d never say out loud. Amir, too. Heaps of pithy one-liners down the drain, like so many strands of hair.
“Well,” she sighed. “What are you going to do? Do you have enough food, supplies? I set up a puja place for myself, see?” She gestured at an assemblage of mini Hindu deities, an army of hope ready for war.
“Can I send you something? Program a command — is that how you call it? — to your 3D printer? Rice, chapati, daal — I never thought to write the recipes, never thought I’d need to, my God, the way things change, but I can certainly try, or—”
“Mom, don’t worry about it, I can order from restaurants and Generic.”
“But no home cooking.” Her dismay made a weight sink in my chest.
“You know what, maybe daal, but in like, a week — we’re going to New Zealand, remember?”
“Now? Still? In this? That doesn’t sound—”
“New Zealand doesn’t have the virus, it’s perfectly safe, and it’s not like we can get out of our bubbles.” Well, there was the hammer, but bringing that up seemed like a bad idea. “We can still sight see, 3D print food from places over there, and we’ve already paid for the jet streams. Amir doesn’t want to lose out on all that money,” I added, pointedly. She seemed to trust Amir’s judgement more than mine. She shared his dislike of losing money, except she also didn’t like spending it in the first place, which was where they differed.
She sighed and held up her hands. “What can I say? Take care, be safe. Did you send me the itinerary?”
“The jet stream itinerary? I’ll have Internet the whole time.” Everyone always had Internet, all of the time.
“I know, but—”
“Fine, let me video Amir and then I’ll send it.” I ended the videogram. Her need for itineraries was maddening. Did she really keep track of when I took off and landed? Didn’t she know that if I exploded in midair, she’d find out? These old-world vestiges of comfort, I understood some of them, but others just seemed ridiculous, like riding a bicycle with iron wheels because that’s what wheels were made of in the 1600s.
Amir was freaking out. Amir didn’t want to go. I told him he didn’t have to, I would go — surged with all this conviction that I could never muster when we were in the same room. I told him he could hover around the house, with his big screen and his gadgets and his ability to beam things into his bubble, which you could only do in your own home. The logic was that if something in your house was already carrying the virus, you were probably going to get it anyway. They still didn’t know that it could be transmitted through thought, that if you thought hard enough, long enough about it, that if you fixated on the virus to the point that you couldn’t focus on anything else, you could get it. There were other ways, too — stepping foot on infected land, the virus coursing through the body through the vibrations in the earth — but a lot of people got it because they couldn’t take their eyes off their Feeds.
“Are you really doing this?” he said. “You’re really going to go without me?”
“I don’t want to,” the words came out before I knew if they were true, “but, look, I know it’s not ideal, but even if I can’t run that trail in Queenstown, I want to see it. I want to get out of the house. What are we going to do there, anyway? Watch the news and watch the markets tank and watch the country go to shit? It’s going to happen whether we’re there or not.”
He hung his head, shook it like a metronome, and muttered something I couldn’t quite catch
He looked straight at the camera. “My mom said this would happen. You’re so goddamn selfish. How are you going to be a mother?”
When I think about it, now, I kind of side with him. I was selfish. It was pretty stupid, to travel to a foreign country when you’re locked in a glass bubble and can’t sink your feet into the sand, can’t run your fingers through the water, can’t even breathe the air. But something was propelling me in that direction, some kind of instinct for self preservation. Staying put felt like defeat, like signing a contract that I would amount to, at best, a woman who became a wife and mother because she couldn’t come up with anything else to do.
The trip there was fine. He drank half a bottle of some expensive champagne — the jet stream attendants served everything through our 3D printers — and fell asleep until we landed. At one point, I looked up from the article I was reading, about the history of sheep farming on the South Island, and saw his cheek pressed against the glass of his bubble, drool and hot, sour — surely, it must have been sour — breath clouding up the area around his mouth. We had linked our audio. “What are you doing?” he mumbled, half asleep.
When we arrived at the hotel on the lake, it was 5 o’clock in the morning. Sunrise would be in 45 minutes. “I’m gonna watch it from down there,” I told him. “Seriously?” He was groggy, rubbing his eyes. He’d argued with the front desk attendant because there were no available room upgrades, during which time I attempted to read another article and not pay attention because why would it matter if we had a plunge pool on the balcony if we couldn’t, you know, plunge into it? “Stay,” I told him. “It’s fine, I can go alone. You know, you really didn’t have to come here if you didn’t want to.”
He rolled his eyes. “And what, sit at home, alone, while you run around by yourself? Who knows what you’d get into.”
He grumbled as we bubbled along a paved path to a dirt one, which wound down a lush, green hillside and switched back four or five times, grumbled as we bounced down a long set of stairs to the gravel trail that ringed the lake. He said, “this would have looked better from the room,” as I pressed my nose up against the glass and watched the sky turn from inky blue to lavender striped with pink and then to bright red. I turned away, for a moment, to find the wooden handle, and when I turned back, I saw his eyes wide, his mouth open. He was shaking his head, saying something, but I’d unlinked our audio once the sky started changing colors, so I couldn’t hear him.
I thought I could do it in one whack. It took three. I figured that if I kept going after the first one, my heart was set. This was the thing I was meant to do. A thing, anyway.
The gravel made a satisfying crunch beneath my sneakers. I watched, hands on hips, as the curve of the sun emerged from behind a mountain. Once it revealed itself in full, I turned around and waved. He pointed, hand over mouth, at my forehead, then pounded his fists against the glass, screaming. Got it, I thought. I’m another statistic. Aren’t we all, in some way? Yes, this was drastic. Yes, there was probably a better way out. But look, now you’re free, too.