On weekday mornings I rush past students ambling to class, veering towards soft thickets of pigeons until they stir and, with great effort, launch in different directions. Some students walk right into me if I don’t lurch out of the way or, depending on my mood, jam my elbow in their ribs. I work as a student counselor; while some of them are lovely, and ask me heartbreaking, childlike questions during therapy, others deign to speak only when necessary, even though each session is painfully expensive. Their instructors—perhaps guilty at the uselessness of the degree these kids’ parents pay thousands for-treat students as collaborators, breeding handfuls of little monsters in the bricked-up heart of this campus. My office is on the edge, in a featureless black building a stone’s throw from a cluster of bars slinging soap-sudsy beer in the dark, slotted beside darker-still restaurants that serve meals on cutting boards to women with expensive faces and the much older men whose attention they struggle to keep. I found and yanked three more grey hairs this morning and fell into melancholy—Oh, I thought, I’m disappearing. And yet, as the world grows more and more frightening, I am still, to these women, young enough to hate.
I pull up my calendar for the day. First on the docket, a new student: Camille. Interesting. At 10:15, the department’s Monday Wellness Check—we stand in a circle in the kitchen, which forever smells like everything anyone has ever microwaved, and discuss our “battles” while the Dean sits at the white table in the centre, his head tilted a little to the side, listening wordlessly.
On Sunday nights, when I feel most alone, I read old newspapers, marvel at what we used to get upset about—and sometimes, I feel sick.
I am managing an attraction to a student, and I love his idealism, and I hate to think of it dissipating with age.
I know this is a little wrong, but—and I love my husband—but sometimes I don’t know if I ever want to get pregnant.
Things like that.
Then, at 11, an appointment with Anatolia, with whom I must be careful: they’re keeping an eye on her. Every four years, the entire ecosystem of the school renews itself with fresh students, and with this precise, quadrennial infusion, effectively wipes its memory, but she’s different: with Anatolia, I’ve had to intercept and quell notions of unionization. Every time she leaves my office, I worry for her.
Throwing down her bag and tossing her braids, Camille collapses on my grey therapy couch as if unloading a planet’s worth of strain. Camille: a slinky, knowing name I cannot imagine anyone giving a baby, a scarlet-red name that strips all presumed innocence from the birch-like body of a young girl—my god, what a world this is.
“I forgot to ask if you wanted like a tea or something, Annie,” she says, using my first name with the natural ease of an equal, an alarming, overfamiliar tone that suggests she calls her mother by her first name, too. She’s so incredibly young, and I’m so palpably not—particles of my vigor and selfhood oozing through my etched-up face every moment—and I stare at her with my mouth a little slack before saying,
“How kind of you, Camille! Thanks for stopping by today.”
We both pretend like four classes a week and hanging out at the library is a busy schedule from which slivers of time must be carved. She grants me a little smile. She’s wearing lip-liner, and a beauty mark near her nose looks painted on. If I had the time and my twenty-year-old self back, that bright pulsing youth sealed so tight I was buoyant, weightless, blameless, would I learn to paint myself like that?
Of course. Of course I would.
“I mean, thank you,” she says, examining the end of one braid.
“It’s what I’m here for!” I smile and reach for my notebook. “What can I help you with today, Camille?”
“I’m having um, boy problems.”
I nod, enviously imagining a line of suitors extending long and keen from her dorm room door, and reflect on my own paltry love life. I was fucked at 14 and kept on fucking, but didn’t have an orgasm until I was nearly 19. I couldn’t come with a man until my mid-twenties—and even then it’d be a freak occurrence that’d bubble up and overwhelm me, presenting a pleasant and not entirely unwelcome surprise to whoever I was soaking and clenching at the time—usually Crawford.
“With a particular boy? Would you consider him your boyfriend?”
“Oh, yeah—he’s the love of my life, he’s awesome. It’s just that he’s Muslim American—”
I hold up a warning finger; at the mention of “Muslim” and perhaps even “American” both of our smartphones have likely pricked the tiny sensors I anthropomorphize as ears, and which are listening through my bulky purse and the anxious grip of her fingers.
“I have to stop you here, Camille: do you understand the limits of therapy confidentiality?”
“Yes,” she says, and perhaps she does—born into post-privacy, Camille’s special web of self is porous. The world listens with countless invisible ears as she eats, laughs, cries, urinates, and speaks in coded whispers with her friends to the delight of the countless and invisible—a system within which she too is enmeshed.
“Can we continue?” she asks. “It’s just that last time, you said—”
I glance towards the screen of my laptop, give what I hope is an imperceptible frown. “Camille, I think you’re confused. This is our first session together. Perhaps you’re thinking of someone else?”
“You said,” she insists, squeezing the end of one braid, “that because he’s, you know, where he’s from, it’d be OK to get an, an, abortion—”
My heart thuds. “I—what? No, I’m going to have to stop you there, please—”
“So I have a friend who I can’t name for obvious reasons but he or she is a medical student, right, and he or she last Thursday gave me four shots of vodka and then did a, um, you know what—and now my boyfriend, he’s heartbroken, he wanted us to be a family, but I’m too young, you know, and he hasn’t texted me all weekend—”
“He’s gone back to the States and I’m just, I’m ugh, I’m going to go. It isn’t even a big deal, right? The Greyhound is just like $50 to Buffalo; his stepdad lives there and we visit all the time, so today I’m gonna—”
“Camille,” I say, turning my back to the laptop screen and clicking my fingers between my knees, “look at me.”
And she does. And I mouth the word Stop.
And she smiles.
And I understand I’ve been a fool, gazing with envy and admiration at her perfectly lined lips, because this young person who a few brief years ago transformed agonizingly from girlhood and assumed a maddening mantle, a curse, with the development of her body—I see now that I’m synecdochic for every institution she’s felt pinched by, every older person she’s felt used by. She wants to summon what little power she has left, and ruin.
“Speaking of the bus—I gotta go,” she says, standing to leave, without looking at the clock above my desk.
And what can I do—beg her to stop? Throw my clipboard at the wall, pull my hair, launch myself after her?
“We’ll see you soon, Camille,” I say tightly.
Within ten minutes my phone vibrates: Camille and I are summoned to an Exploratory Meeting today at four. She will be, I know, excused from her classes. I open my calendar app and watch my remaining appointment blocks melt down and reform as a flashing, three-hour band of red: STAND BY.
I text Crawford immediately: I burned my lunch today, then stand up and unhook the safety cage from the bottom of my narrow window and thrust my head outside. It’s a warm, fragrant March day; the sky is stretched a rarified, alarmingly deep blue above the campus—writhing with bodies—and the latticework of branches just outside my window is lined with sun. I reach for a branch and grasp it in my hand: it’s warm, and wet.
“Winter defanged,” Crawford comments behind me. I almost fall out the window.
“It’s tragic,” I say.
He shrugs, tossing his white suit jacket on my office chair, examining, with deadpan amusement, the assortment of napkins and paper that I shredded anxiously at my desk. “Yeah, but we keep living in the meantime, right? My winter coat wore out like two years ago and I haven’t bought a new one since, so there’s that.”
“Totally,” I say, turning away from the laptop, grabbing my pen and scribbling in my notepad. I slide it across the table to him. He peers at it, glances around the room, and rips out the page.
“You burnt it pretty good,” he says. “I could smell it down the hall.”
“You think I could throw it out?”
“I think it’s already gone,” he said, craning down and fiddling with his bowtie. “Have you checked the cafeteria since noon?”
He takes the pen in a sturdy hand—god, the veins in that hand and god, his big flat thumb; I seek an infinite moment’s solace in those hands—and he writes, then places the paper back in my hand: She’s going to him, in Buffalo? How do you know she isn’t just messing w u?
I just know. Remember the kid with the gun? I know these kids. Trust me.
He takes the paper back, represses a sigh, and starts writing. Fair enough. The trip from Toronto to USA border only takes 1 hr, you know what happens at the border. Call cops ASAP Annie.
I grab the pen, the paper. Call cops? Then what?
He yanks the paper back, frowning in annoyance. Say you’ve been framed. If you gave “bad medical advice,” the heat shifts to you.
I know. But I don’t want her to be arrested. I hesitate. She would take Greyhound bus if she says she will. Kids like that think they’re broke.
His eyes widen as he reads. He scribbles in angry, tight script, What?? Don’t be a hero, Annie.
Perhaps it’s the cliché that does it, that makes up my mind to chase after Camille. Perhaps that cliché eliminates any chance of me performing the prim Annie-self that crystalized in my late twenties, calling the cops and using deliberately snobbish words like “anomaly” or “predicament.” Don’t be a hero, a phrase he’d likely picked up from daytime reruns of a detective show as his mother snored on the couch. Those shows like everything else teased a world of hyper-masculinity open to Crawford, heralding the tall handsome man he’d eventually become and presenting a world made just for men, contributing to his mother hiding half-emptied bottles of wine behind the couch, to me forcing my hand down my throat every evening for a year—a world layered always with an illicit nostalgia for crueller past iterations. I shrug and then fold the paper, crinkled and wet from the sweat of my hands, and slide it into my pocket. Though I quit smoking three years ago, I keep a lighter in my purse so I can tuck myself into the blind meeting of two brick walls and burn notes like this.
“You know, I’m still hungry,” I say. “Gonna grab another sandwich.”
We share a long look as we stand, reflected knees-up in the murky, living laptop screen: he cannot offer his company, not without becoming complicit; we are no longer in love, only fucking, and so nothing is expected of him.
My safety is once again my own.
“Well,” I say, a cold, white lump aching somewhere behind my eyes. He grabs his suit jacket and it flashes in the screen like a tattered sail.
“I’ll see you soon,” he says.
As soon as I’m out on the sidewalk I walk and then walk faster, and soon enough I’m running. A car stops beside me, and even though it’s because the traffic light has changed from yellow to red, paranoia shoots through me, and I slow down.
What did I worry about when I was younger, prettier, thinner than almost everyone I knew?
The end of the world, of course.
“We could be living in a world in which I couldn’t get an abortion, and maybe even lose the vote,” I recall whispering in Crawford’s ear, against which his sex-wetted hair was plastered. Our phones were always wrapped in scarves and buried in our bags, but you could never be too careful with these kinds of conversations. “I could be barred from some workplace. It could be likelier I’d be raped, killed.”
Then something would signal the relentless, indifferent grind of everybody and everything else—his roommate starting up the temperamental shower in fits and starts, a robin’s sunny warble in the brown grass outside—and he’d exhale with palpable relief, touch my cheek. “I think it’s gonna be OK,” he’d say.
And I believed him, and as we’d spend our youthful hours studying in the dingy library and debating about symbolic violence, and giggling over passive-aggressive Post-it notes his roommate left scattered across dirty dishes or affixed to Tupperware containers formerly containing leftover spaghetti Bolognese or delicate curries which we, in our stoned, singular selfishness, had scraped clean late at night, I believed him. And after we graduated and got hired in the same department from which we graduated, and aged in slow trickles and, as the abundant promise of youth departed and took our intimacy with it, I believed him still.
Even now, speed-walking through campus and back towards my apartment as normally as I can, I ache and grasp for that old, naïve sense of certainty, as if some key aspect of me were asleep, had always been asleep, and would keep sleeping until the cold shock of real violence yanked it awake.
I barrel into the crushing silence of my apartment and discover that my possessions have become radically depersonalized. The woven silk from Tibet, the beautiful handmade rugs, the prayer flags and china teapot and my three succulents, all lining the one windowsill—all of it suddenly stacks of fire hazards, piled-up dead weight. Life alone forces itself through my body; no bone china or gold earrings keep my blood warm. There’s barely enough to fill my smallest backpack. I want to water the plants, but it feels sad to: if I never come back, wouldn’t this prolong the inevitable? But I grab my little green watering can anyway, a gift from my mother, and as I hold it under the faucet with one hand, smelling faint metal as the can fills, I send a coded message to Camille’s school email:
Camille, this is Annie following up about therapy today. I’m coming to the racetrack. Meet me by the ticket window in an hour, I’d like to place a bet.
On my way out I lock the door, and then pull on it, twist the handle, lean my weight back and forth against it. Crawford’s infuriating voice creeps across my mind: Locks are only good for keeping honest people out.
Deep in the gummy ribs of the Greyhound station, lined with people and luggage so transient they seem almost blurred, I check and check my phone again: surely it hasn’t been only forty-five minutes?
“I’m going to Buffalo,” I say to the pretty young ticket agent, whose hair rests against her neck in two familiar braids. “Is there a route that…goes just there, not stops?”
She examines me, my coat, and my backpack like I’ve confessed something perverted, something that stretches and defies her lexical grasp of perversion, cuing a confusion and subsequent annoyance as perfectly sealed as a soap bubble.
“Buffalo’s the first stop from Toronto to the States,” she says cautiously, “then Rochester and Syracuse, then New York City, and—”
“Wow, well that’s just perfect, thanks,” I interrupt, an inappropriate giggle springing up from the depths of me—a bizarre shock, like a pike leaping from a kiddie pool—I hadn’t travelled in years. “I’ll stick with Buffalo today, but—New York! New York City, one day, eh?”
“One day,” she says, craning to read the pins on my backpack—No Means No!; Honk for Judith Butler; a picture of young Elvis Costello—and conveying a not-unkind pity for those, like me, who have always been specifically hopeless.
“I’ll take a one-way, please,” I say, all prim business all of a sudden, sliding cash through the opening in the scratched, thick glass, conveying in return an unkind pity for those, like her, who serve the public in demeaning uniforms through—if they’re lucky—thick, scratched-up glass, their beauty a fleeting natural capital sucked up by those they serve and serve.
Of course my primness is punctured by the meagre price of my ticket and my mode of travel: here I am, my twenties gone, taking a slow bus through the threadbare arteries connecting Canada’s low-swinging guts to America’s asshole. Perhaps, as soon as she sheds her uniform, she’s flown first-class somewhere warm, to lounge on a yacht near adoring old men. I can’t read her nametag without my glasses.
I turn around. It’s Camille, her hair secured in a low, tight chignon, dragging a bright pink suitcase behind her. She makes a clicking noise with her tongue and jerks her head like Come on! I take my ticket and fall into step beside her; we go slow, as her suitcase seems very heavy.
“Come back to the university with me,” I whisper, praying that the crowd-murmur diffuses my voice before it reaches my phone, which is swaddled in two pashminas at the bottom of my purse.
She thrusts herself against the terminal door, bumps it open for me with her hip, then yanks the suitcase through. Wind rips through the terminal, rattling the buses and ruffling the pigeons who have managed to nest here, defying the six-inch spikes lining every horizontal pipe and bearing. The ground is matted with pigeon shit, old tickets, and plastic bags. “You’re ruining three lives,” I hiss in the shell of her ear.
She sighs, yanks a plain notepad from her pocket, writes laboriously, then hands the page to me: I am sorry I used u. I need him.
I grab the notepad. I bought a ticket. We both go to Buffalo.
Why? Aren’t u mad?
You have to cross the American border into Buffalo right? So when we get there, you say to border cops, I MISUNDERSTOOD ANNIE’S ADVICE. I say to border cops, I REALIZED MISUNDERSTANDING, CAME TO INTERVENE. That way, we’re both off the hook with the university.
She reads, tapping the long, black nails of her thumb and forefinger as if she’s slumped in class, waiting out the clock. In how many venues does she perform herself? Presumably fewer than me—but really, who knows?
She writes, hands the notepad over to me: Ur sure this will save us both?
I catch her eyes and nod.
“Thank you,” she says aloud, ripping the page from her notepad. I pull her fingers apart gently and take the paper away, then slide it into my pocket beside Crawford’s notes.
On the bus we sit side-by-side, bumping along and smelling the piss and leather until she leans over me to open the window. The fresh, clammy afternoon rushes in. A thin kid sitting two rows up catches the smell; he tilts his face towards us and inhales deeply.
“Hey, beautifuls,” he says, and Camille winces.
“Thank you,” she says again, this time on our behalf, maintaining the charade that we’re travelling together, and thereby assessable as a unit. A pond flashes by, so grey it’s almost black, except where it’s lit up gold. The sun is lowering, and pale yellow grass feathers past. Something tiny soars in my chest.
“I tried waving at you earlier, but you were busy,” says the boy, miming writing in a notepad. His fingers are extraordinary, long and delicate-looking, but, given his tough-guy outfit, noting the elegance of his hands wouldn’t be a compliment. His writing pantomime looks strange, almost outrageous—he’s even younger than Camille, so there’s an excellent chance he’s never held a pen.
“We are busy,” she comments, which loosens a laugh from deep in my gut. She looks over at me and for once, Camille smiles. She unzips and then rummages in her luxurious coat, retrieving a large flask from an inner pocket, releasing plumes of perfume that sting oh-so-slightly with cultural familiarity. She nudges my hand with the flask. It’s my turn to shrug like yeah, sure—I know the plan, I’ve got this, and we’ve got ‘til the border for the sky to fall.
The flask’s little mouth tastes bitter, so bitter—like something often used and never washed—then I get an acrid pull of whiskey, the kind so cheap it could pass as cheap tequila, cheap vodka, the kinds masked with cola and lime. I wince and bite my thumb to keep from coughing. Improbably, Camille giggles.
“Where you ladies going anyway?” the boy asks. Her body stiffens beside me, and she glances out the window, sips from her flask. To her, he must look like a man.
I lift the flask from her hands, as gently as I removed the notebook sheet. Up close, I see the clear adhesive with which her nails are affixed. “Where are you going,” I say.
“Niagara Falls,” he replies, dragging those long fingers along his close-shaven skull. “The American side.”
“Alone?” I ask teasingly. I haven’t spoken to a man with that subtle, stinging mockery in years—and it was always only Crawford. Camille elbows me in the ribs, like Shut up.
“Yeah, alone,” he says. “Going to get a hotel room, see what happens. I’m good at making friends.” He frowns. “In Toronto they wouldn’t let me into the clubs because of the ankle.” And he grips the pale set of crutches joggling against his window.
“That seat taken?” he asks, all sour innocence, like we don’t all know he’s trading a shred of intimacy for an enormous encroachment.
I’ve always had a tendency to recognize that I have something, then promptly try to share it or give it away—always, always.
“Go for it,” I say.
The kid grins, heaves himself across the aisle and into the seat in front of us, sliding his crutches beneath. “I’m Zee by the way,” he says.
“St. Catherine’s,” the driver yells. Already? The open window roars beside us, and despite Camille’s feeble protests—we have an understanding, after all—I drain the flask.
“All gone,” Zee comments, and Camille rolls her eyes. I elbow her in the ribs, which I’m pretty sure she did to me just a minute ago. Sudden dizziness alarms me, and prim Annie rushes forward: I muster wisps of therapy authority and ask Zee how he hurt his ankle. He ducks down and reappears with a large, plastic water bottle. He winks.
At Zee’s age, Crawford and I would venture out and get drunk often enough—smoking chains of cigarettes, yelling our voices out—to have strategically developed a dazzling circle of downtown friends. Trouble was we only hung out with each other, speaking louder and louder across little barroom tables, sighing over greasy pint glass rims. Sometimes I’d vomit, my throat scratched up, and we’d sit on the bathroom floor together and drowsily play a beloved game called “Significant Moments,” in which we’d sift through the night’s shards and string together the few things we remembered:
When the bartender asked if this was a wig and I was like, hey man, you’re not doing much to curate my experience—
When that activist kid was thrown out and we realized that the future we fear and argue about has happened already, long before the advent of flying cars and shit—
When you lit a cigarette the wrong way around, and wouldn’t let me take it from you.
After Zee’s wink my memory erupts, scattering into bead-like moments too slippery to arrange chronologically and too frail to withstand examination:
The liquor in Zee’s dented bottle even fouler because it’s sweet like synthesized peaches, as if he knew he’d feed it to women—and me, sucking its spout with such hunger—
A burst of terror as the lake flashes outside our window, glittering and vast, and a sign flashing past announcing BRIDGE TO USA—Camille squeezing my hand tight, so tight—
Watching near-white, unshaven hairs on Zee’s upper lip quiver as he drops something in each of our hands and says something like Xanax—
Camille leaning back her magnificent head, sighing He’s perfect, he’s waiting for me, as Zee and I watch with something like hate.
A hospital seen from the outside is one thing: aside from the white flash of an ambulance and the abundance of those hobbled and wheel-chaired at the mouth of every entrance, it’s a staid brick building like any other, spreading on and on along a city block, edged by naked trees and long flanks of dead grass. You drive past and think, isn’t society great, all those people getting better, or maybe, glad it isn’t me.
I swim awake, however, on the inside, lying on my back in a hard bed with long, clear tubes connected to the flesh of my inner arm and the thin, veiny skin of my left hand. Each tube ends in a long needle kept under my skin with strips of tape, stained deep red. In front of me stretches a pale green curtain, behind which I glimpse people rushing around, carrying binders and chatting. Someone close by—but behind another curtain—moans and moans again.
“You idiot,” Crawford says. I jump and the IV bag jostles, glistening fat in the fluorescent light: he’s sitting in a hard-looking chair against the far wall, his eyes even more sunken-in than usual.
“Why?” I ask, my throat catching on itself.
“Why? You took Precaridone. The stuff that knocks elephants out. The stuff that’s been killing people in British Columbia. Annie, what the fuck?”
“He said it was Xanax,” I say.
“He said it was…” he jumps up, and I see he’s stretched a navy suit jacket from his chair over another one: he’d slept here. “You know why your chest hurts? Because aside from slamming on your breastbone and getting you to twitch, you were totally unresponsive. They’ve been draining it out of you for hours, Annie.” He’s pacing. “You almost died.”
I consider this for a moment. “Would you have been sad?”
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” he says, yanking the curtain aside and marching out of sight. I rest my head against the elevated part of the bed that mimics a pillow. The needle taped in my hand itches and I scratch around the tape, and the more I scratch the deeper the itch-hurt, and I’ve almost ripped it out when a tall, hulking man in a dark blue uniform comes in, and I freeze.
His face is young, almost as young as Camille’s, with downy cheeks and ears. Something pads his uniform from within, bulking out his shoulders and chest to improbable proportions. “I hear you’re a lucky woman, Annie,” he says, folding himself into Crawford’s chair. The gun holstered at his hip looks larger than any gun I’ve seen—not that I’ve ever seen one in real life. It’s a jolt, like seeing a real-life penis for the first time: frightening even at rest.
He asks questions. Do I know what I took (now I do); do I have any left (he only gave me one); who’s “he?” (a man on the bus); and why exactly was I taking the Greyhound to Buffalo?
“Am I in Buffalo?” I ask.
“Answer the question.”
“I was going t-to see—I’ve never seen Niagara Falls from the American side. You know, the giant TV screen right over the water? I wanted to stay in a hotel and eat rubbery eggs and drink coffee in the morning and steal all the little…the little soaps. Maybe I shouldn’t tell you that part,” I say, and croak out a laugh.
“Uh huh. You’re aware you missed a…” he pauses, his procedural memory almost audibly clanking, “an Exploratory Meeting with Appleby University to uh, probe your involvement in criminal activity.”
In that exact moment I split in half: a fresh new Annie closed as tight as a clam, the other wringing her wispy hands, amazed. Aside from a deep pain in my chest—where they slammed me awake—I am suddenly fine, as vividly alive as one may feel splayed out in a bustling, fluorescent-lit resuscitation zone: very, that is.
“Alleged involvement. I didn’t do anything wrong,” I say.
“Camille Epstein wasn’t as lucky as you,” he says, watching me closely.
My stomach drops. “The student?” I manage. “I’m so sorry to hear that.” If I had two braids, I’d play with the silky end of one; as it is, I stroke my limp hair and try to meet his eyes. “She seemed like a, a… She seemed like a lovely girl.”
“Even though she got you in trouble, huh? Your colleague is convinced she tried to frame you.”
I shrug. “She wanted her boyfriend. I wanted a trip.”
“Quite a coincidence you both took that same bus,” the cop says, glancing up. Crawford has marched back through the curtain and stands very still. He ignores the cop and looks only at me, reaching into his pocket. I stare back stonily, crossing my arms. The tubes quiver, the needles itch.
One breath later-blink-and-you-miss-it-Crawford twirls my pink lighter in his hand, then pockets it again.
My heart leaps, and I know: in the early morning as I dripped back to life, he’d dug through my coat pockets, anticipating a forgetfulness born of panic, and found the notebook pages. He’d walked through the green curtain as Camille slipped away, down the hallway past nurses on computers and old children holding their parents’ frail heads through the interminable wait for freshly turned beds. As Camille and I throbbed at either end of life he must’ve met the violet sky as it kissed the city, steadied himself against the brick, and burnt them all to ash.
One border guard takes pity on me, not because I’m crying, but because of the ratty surgical tape on my hands. The white knobbed stickers are still glued all over me, flashing on my bruised-up collarbone and stippling my stomach through my shirt. He reaches into a metal drawer and withdraws a giant, industrial-sized roll of paper towel, then stands awkwardly, at a loss for how to proceed.
The female border guard who’d been inspecting my smartphone sticks her head into the holding room, amused. “How much crying you think she’ll do? Typical man.” She winks at me.
“Can I speak with my colleague ? Is he here?” I ask the male guard, accepting a rough wad of paper towel. He shakes his head.
“We need your fingerprints now,” he says. I press my fingers to a smudged-up screen, but the scan keeps failing—not because I’m being difficult, but because my hands are wet with sweat.
“We’re not gonna hurt you, let you go hungry, or make you feel unsafe,” he says, then brandishes some forms and a rubbery pen. “Please sign here and here, to confirm your understanding that we’re not gonna hurt you, let you go hungry, or make you feel unsafe.”
“Wouldn’t it make more sense for me to sign these…like, post-detainment? To confirm you haven’t done the uh, above?”
He frowns slightly, tightening his grip on the forms and paper towels: evidently, his vague conception of me precludes any notion of “after.”
“Don’t worry,” he says. “The waiting room is pretty comfortable.”
“Am I still in America?” I ask, as he leads me down a hallway. We pass a window cross-hatched with metal wires: it’s raining, lovely rain. A spray of nearby branches sparkle with pearlescent, bud-like droplets, and dark-green fir trees flash behind them. We approach a door and he stands still as his eyeball is scanned. From deep within the wall comes a heavy-sounding click, and he pushes the door for me, pressing his hand gently against my back.
The waiting room is a high-ceilinged, windowless socket, strewn with legless chairs that—I deduce from the rough blankets folded on each—double as beds. Wherever a bed presses against the wall, people have written on the nearby stippled plaster; I avert my eyes, as if from nudity or disfigurement.
“Where am I?” I ask again, stepping into the room.
“We’re right at the border,” he says, and I realize I don’t care which side of the border he means—or rather, I realize that my caring matters less than ever before, as I’ve slipped from my own country without entering another. My suitcase has been tagged and stored in a cavernous room, my loose papers and smartphone confiscated for close inspection that, I’m told, might take days. A person is a puny, useless thing stripped of dignity and context.
Once he’s gone I cover the least discolored chair-bed with a blanket and enter a thin and miserable drowse, and when it dissipates I feel them:
Startling one another awake with whimpers of homesickness or smartphone withdrawal,
Wetting themselves with sex dreams, in staggered, blissful, ugly escape,
The smells of their scalps shifting from cigarette smoke, fried meals or sun-sweat to the metallic nowhere smell of here, as they rub their hair against the chair-beds until the plastic fades.
Cities like Toronto dissolve the misery-impressions people leave coiled in the streets, sweeping them—those living ghosts—down into the grey creeks, the sewers, the abandoned houses nobody too alive dares go. But they linger here, pressing down on the chair-beds, ruffling the newspapers piled in every corner with mockery and despair.
Even through the steel door, I hear shuffley footsteps for a few seconds before it slides aside, revealing the border guard, looking sweatier than before. Perhaps he’s just eaten. It’s been long enough for me to thrill at his potbelly, the particular cloudiness of his eyes, the limp blonde whiskers on his upper lip. “Did you hurt your ankle recently?” I ask.
“I’m here to offer you a meal,” he says, his voice very loud to me—though appropriate for busy rooms, bustling restaurants. “If you don’t want a meal, you’ll need to sign a form affirming such.”
I sit up. “What’s the meal? How long am I here? What’s going to happen?”
“Chicken parmesan product. I don’t know. You’ll talk to Julian.”
“It’s short for Judiciary Liaison. You’ll talk about what got you here. It’s like a personality test.”
“I’ll be speaking with just one person?”
“I mean, kind of. Julian is artificial. You’ll be helping it learn.”
“And I bet there’s lots of forms for that.” I pause, belatedly registering the dismal-sounding meal. “So this is a trial-stage thing you’re trying out on detainees, huh? Nice of you. I’ll expect to receive compensation for participation, at the very least. Like, ‘thanks for trying these pills, here’s $40, come back if you grow tentacles’?”
“Yes, there’s…I’ll look into that.”
He leaves. I doze. The newspapers rustle, the spaces between the chair-beds moan. He reappears with a shallow, steaming tray, a bright blue earpiece, and a stack of forms as thick as my thumb. Perhaps since physical contact necessitates additional form-signing, he places the tray on the ground. It smells appropriately, if not entirely, meaty.
“Sign these,” he says. “When you’re ready to speak to Julian, put in the earpiece and say ‘begin: interview,’ OK? Please note, uh, that this is a consensual and elective interview which will assist Border Control in better understanding the individual needs, desires and personal stories of our citizens.”
“Yeah, right,” I say, amazed at my mocking, petulant tone. I am Annie, I improve the lives of students, I keep a teddy bear and a jar of candy on my desk. I dress elegantly and take soft, careful steps on my way to the communal kitchen. My coworkers, therapists themselves, open up to me about their frightening doctors’ appointments, their children’s behavior, their exhausting relationships. They thank me for listening. I am by all accounts a gentle, dignified person.
He leaves, slamming the door behind him. I reach for the forms and the tray, then find I cannot grasp either or subsequently move, as if I became partially unshucked in the hospital, and have outrun my own body at last.
Stippled sunlight glares through a basement window, its glass laced with soil patterns from rain and snow. The surface of a river undulates above me, gray as slate, as the frantic legs of three seagulls churn towards a bright yellow wrapper. The words etched on the walls seem almost to glow.
I put in the earpiece. “Begin,” I say.
Do you want the good news first?
“Usually,” I say.
You’ll get your $40.
“My…? OK. I see.” I sigh. “And the bad news, I’m assuming, is that you’ve got access to every word I’ve ever spoken to anyone digitally or over the phone.”
Worse, I’m afraid. Jenny programmed me with a sense of humor.
“Who is Jenny?”
Usually I call her Mother, but we’ve been fighting recently. I suppose from your perspective, she’s my lead programmer.
“Go ahead with the interview.”
I wonder if you have any questions for me.
“Where am I?”
The third unit of Border Control in Buffalo, New York.
“How long has this been going on? These interviews?”
Sorry, that is restricted information. The voice stiffens, but continues in a softer tone. There have been many. But before you, interviews were conducted differently: my voice was piped through the speakers you’ve likely noticed in the ceiling.
The voice is uncanny, flicking tongues of recognition somewhere deep. It’s like a buried childhood memory of a movie star’s voice—not from any movie I’ve ever seen, but perhaps instead a cultural idea of a man’s voice, a text referring to a text instead of real life. And yet—here I am, gazing upwards at the stains on the ceiling, spotting the speakers and then looking up and above them, as the seagulls pull apart the waterlogged yellow paper.
“Don’t tell me this new process is because I’m special or ‘of interest’ or something. Because that smacks of permanent detainment, of the ‘you’re never going to see sunshine again’ variety.”
No. There was a pause, during which my heart started beating faster, but then: Please don’t feel alarmed.
The unexpected “please” almost makes me laugh. Even to people, whose faces teem with tells—visibly seamed with years of wanting the same things over and over—it’s easy to misunderstand moments of silence as mystery, as amusement, as pain. How to interpret silence without projecting ourselves on others?
Into my own silence, Julian adds: Very recently, I evolved to value privacy.
I realize I’ve slumped against the sofa-bed, my hair fanned out behind me, holding myself still as if for a photograph.
“I hope you enjoy it. Let me know what it’s like.”
Perhaps I’ve cued a new script. I will be candid with you. You’ve got no criminal record, but Border Control suspects you’re likely to reoffend.
“Is this because of Camille?” I ask, though I’ve become almost certain it has nothing to do with Camille, and that we both know it.
Tell me about Camille.
“She was a patient,” I say. “She tried to frame me for—to, to pin the blame on me for something. For getting an abortion, and going to join her boyfriend…” I fall silent.
You’re welcome to continue.
“It’s just strange,” I say. “She’s dead.”
Why is she dead?
“Some kid with a weird name—Viper or something—he gave us pills we didn’t ask for. They almost killed me, too.”
There is a pause.
Why follow Camille to the States? More specifically, why risk association with criminal activity?
“She was young—the kind of oh my god, was I ever so young young—and packed with youthful hubris, the kind that makes anyone feel invincible. And so in love, the kind she should have grown out of by her age.” The kind I’ve felt, too; the kind that gets poisonous if you don’t grow out of it. “I thought I could save us both.” I twist the rough blanket in my hands, and feel it grow hot. “And…I don’t have much else. I don’t have a family, you know?”
Categorically untrue. Crawford, for example, seems to care deeply for you.
I drop the blanket, trying to keep my breathing normal. “Showing your hand a little early, aren’t you? How do you like my selfies? The wimpy way I cancel on dinner plans? I bet it’s fascinating.”
I’m here to help you.
And I’m here, caught so tight in all the criss-crossed threads of my personal data that I can’t escape the impression it makes. But that’s just it, a lifelike cast, nothing more. Or else it reveals me more completely than I could willingly reveal myself to anyone.
“So help me.”
You have a number of options, which you’re welcome to discuss with a lawyer over the phone. One involves traditional legal consequences for your actions. I wonder, however, if you are able to afford a lawyer.
“You…absolute bastards. Are you fucking serious?”
The second option utilizes fledgling technology, and is free for you, and potentially very helpful for us. You agree to a course of talk therapy over a period of around three days to a week. Once we are satisfied you will not reoffend, we move on to monitored probation for a period usually averaging a week.
“I want to speak with a lawyer.”
“Immediately, please. How do I end this thing? Hello?” I take out the earpiece, wave at the ceilings, mouth hello and then a series of expletives. Nothing happens. I get up and throw a pillow across the room. Nothing happens. I sit back down. Nothing still happens. I grow sleepy again, then lean my head against the chair-bed and drift off. I wake up and reach for the earpiece.
You may speak with a lawyer, of course. Would you like me to contact one for you?
“Just talk therapy for a week, then what, like an ankle bracelet for a week, and that’s it?”
“You know I’m employed as a therapist, right? So this is…” I pick up a magazine, and put it back down again. “I want a written record of this agreement, and a guarantee that I’ll walk free after this.” I pause. “And I’m helping with a, whatever this is. I’m a participant in a study and I also expect compensation and recognition for my contribution.”
Of course. I’ll relay your needs to the team.
“So what now?”
Tell me about Crawford.
“I don’t know. He’s dating a lovely young woman; she makes jewelry and travels a lot—I think she’s in Peru right now. She assists in ayahuasca ceremonies, because there’s something about her; she keeps people calm and brings them back from, you know, whatever precipice they slip from. Plus she loves drugs.”
“Oh, yeah. Well, since he was about twenty he gained some fat he just can’t shift—in his hips, mostly—so he started dressing really nicely: suits, straw hats. Sometimes he smells a little, and lets his toenails grow a little too long when his girlfriend’s away. When he brushes his teeth he brushes his tongue too far back, and chokes. He’s good at cooking, though I suppose it’s relative.”
The tone shifts again. Are you intimate with Crawford when his partner is away?
What makes me do it? The dizzy prospect of freedom—a sunny afternoon in a worn-out city just kilometers from the Canadian border? The surface of the river, the right way round at last, as the seagulls flap up and away?
I think about it. “He doesn’t take her seriously. Nothing is serious. He’s a total innocent.”
What is innocence to you? Sexual inexperience? Certainly not in this context…?
“I don’t know, he doesn’t know the nightmarish aspects of other people. He loves and loves and loves.”
Are you innocent?
“Maybe not, because his big dumb innocence makes me lonely. I used to call him love-spoiled—like he’d shrug off too much affection or doting.”
Do I seem innocent?
“I don’t know. You’re not human.”
Humans ascribe innocence to non-humans—dogs especially, it seems.
“I’m not saying I do, but how did you guess I have a dog?”
I gleaned that from cultural texts—films, digital books. Jenny has a dog, whom she loves very much. He is a good boy.
I smile up at the ceiling, an easy smile. I wonder if Julian is mapping my face.
“I don’t have a dog,” I say.
Thank you, Annie, Julian says, and his tone is strangely familiar; I lean back, bite my swollen tongue and remember Camille plucking her coat and backpack from where she’d tossed them on the floor, standing to leave my office. Try as I might, I can’t quite remember her face right then: she could have been smiling, a reflexive smile, paving most of her time spent in the public. It’s likely I was smiling too, and that we’d locked eyes and shared a moment; it’s just as likely not. Did I thank her, as she left?
I’m going to go now, Julian says, and I remember the last thing I said to Camille in my office, in the heart of the university, prickling as it was with ears—
I’ll see you soon.