It isn't hard to imagine a world without freedom. But try to imagine a world without privacy -- a commodity without which there can be no freedom.
You can't see the street. I suppose you could, if you looked directly down, possibly while you were walking, although it would work better if you stood still. But you're not supposed to stop and look at your feet, or the street. You're supposed to keep moving, even if you've got no place to get to. The crowd gets edgy if they're just standing around.
It's the people. You can't walk down the street without running into one; or in ten minutes, a hundred.
I don't know where I'm going. I guess work, so I can save up enough for another room with...
I would slap myself, hard, but I might elbow somebody in the face and instigate a riot. It's impossible to get into a fight with just one person.
And I keep forgetting.
I think that's dangerous, psychologically, when you keep thinking that a part of your life that's now gone is actually still there, and you just take it for granted. Then you feel like hitting yourself, crying, mourning.
I never did mourn. And it's been two months. I've been counting the days on my toes.
I worked one day, and the manager, Bill with the green hair, he seemed pretty impressed with me. He even told me to come back whenever I could. And that's a rarity. But the problem is I don't think I'll ever see Bill or his little food hut again, because I can't remember what it looked like from the outside or what it was called.
I hear that's what usually happens. Which is why you consider yourself lucky to get one paycheck at the end of the day.
I remember I used that paycheck for an 8-by-8, partitioned with delaminating blue foam, and behind that rusting corrugated steel. There wasn't a lock on the door, and you could hear what was going on in the other rooms, but it was worth it. I'd never been in an empty room before. I had been saving up for a month. Molly chipped in, too, with the watches and wallets she had lifted from the undulating mass of humanity out on the street.
I wonder where Molly --
My feet and legs are turning numb, becoming rancid blocks of wood. I have to find a place to sit down, quick. I've heard stories, where the wave just rolls over you.
"Darwinism," Molly used to say, smiling contentedly at my confused expression.
I see flashing neon and tilt my head up to the emblazoned "Sit 'n' Dry" sign that looks like it's a mile up. Beside the sign is a gilt-framed 3-D cutout of Uncle Luis, set off by seven multi-hued spotlights on the roof of the building. Uncle Luis: saint, supplier, and quasi-legal drug cartel. 'Course, when you own 44 percent of the Drug Op Force, legal and illegal become hazy concepts.
The Sit 'n' Dry is free, but there's a time limit. Supposedly Uncle Luis supplies the charity to the weary myriad of humanity, in hopes that his benevolence will pay off in other areas of business. I guess it's economic acumen: I'd go to a LuisBurger before a Burger-Burger, even though I can currently afford neither. Nor, I'm sure, can any of the people who actually need to use the Sit 'n' Dry.
"PR," Molly would say jauntily, straining over the ubiquitous noise of people, as we stood in a corner of another nameless bar, talking, since sitting always costs extra.
The place is packed, as always, but the bouncers at the eight front doors try to limit the inflow to match the outflow. Still, there's always about a hundred people standing around inside, perfectly quiet, just waiting for someone to stand up for the bathroom, or to leave altogether, or even for a bouncer to come over and yank them out of their seat because they've been there over two hours.
There's no sleeping here, but usually you can get away with a good hour if you rest your head on your hand. Uncle Luis also owns Nite-Lite, which is a lot like this place, but the chairs recline and the time limit is twelve hours, and it costs 100 bucks to get in the door.
I see a bouncer talking to someone down the furthest right aisle, number 59 that is, and I head for it instinctively. About five others circle in on the possibility but stop dead about ten feet away. You can get kicked out for not giving the sitters their space. So you're not even supposed to walk down the three-foot wide aisle unless you're pretty sure you're gonna get a chair.
The woman in the chair stands up, and I keep walking. She steps away from the chair, following the bouncer out to the front, and I'm a good three feet closer than all the others. I get it by two feet, sit down and sneer at the languid guy who was the closest. He backs off quickly, holding his hands up in a gesture of peace, and hurries away, probably heading for the far left aisle. He knows you're not supposed to run for the chairs. You can get kicked out for that.
I sit and just stare at the people walking around like vultures, some of them wincing with each step. I've heard stories where some people just collapse after days of waiting for a chair, and the bouncers pick up their bodies, and nobody ever sees them again.
Of course, nobody ever sees anyone again, unless you're tied together, or holding hands.
Molly and I held hands for almost three weeks straight.
A lot of people rent the rooms for sex. Molly and I could hear them, in the adjacent rooms, their involuntary bestial grunts.
We didn't. We sat on the bed and held each other for awhile, savoring the space about us, the absolute emptiness of this 8-by-8 that became our world for three hours.
We talked. In soft tones, always vaguely aware of the invisible others behind the walls, who probably couldn't have cared less if we were discussing assassinating Uncle Luis himself.
Molly told me once about books, and she laughed mellifluously at my puzzled stare.
She told me about the encyclopedia she had found in a tiny bathroom cubicle, where it was being torn apart page by page and used as toilet paper. She had taken it, tucked away in her red windbreaker that was her father's, disregarding all posted and implicit laws.
She told me how she carried that encyclopedia around for three days straight, reading as much of what was left as possible. She told me how difficult it was to read while walking, being jabbed and shoved by other faceless and nameless bodies.
I was nonplussed, utterly awed that she could read. Her father taught her, she said, before he had to sell the abandoned pesticide shed that they lived in. Before they got split up, he gave her that red windbreaker she wore everywhere. It had been raining the day Molly was propelled irrevocably into the real world.
Molly talked about roads. Like the street? I asked her. No, she said. Roads. Roads for vehicles, for passengers, for buses, for transportation. Roads that were paved twice a year, cleaned every other month by huge machines with cleaning bristle-brushes set underneath.
She said she read about them in the encyclopedia. The encyclopedia claimed that, at one time, everyone had a car, and everyone had a house and a garage to store their car, and kids who grew up to be 18 before leaving home.
I told her that was impossible. There was no longer room for houses or anything so silly as roads.
She agreed, sadly, nodding her head as her black hair brushed against the green foam that we lay upon.
"But," she said, "suppose there were once. I think the book is right. Suppose there were. Maybe there still are, somewhere."
"But who would use them? There would no be room, with all the people. I mean, look at the street..."
"Maybe," she said. "But maybe, I think, the rich people could afford them. How else would someone like Uncle Luis visit other countries, all the Luis-Pizzas?"
"Helicopters," I explained, matter-of-factly. Once, I heard a guy in a bar talk about helicopters. And he hadn't looked very drunk.
Molly talked about babies. After a moment of silence, just holding each other, listening to the sounds around us coming from behind rusted iron and faulty fiberglass doors. She talked about how the explosion was over, and the shrinking was going to begin. Like the Big Bang theory of evolution. How humans would be lucky if there was every a bang again, or even a whimper.
I didn't know what she was talking about. "Babies," she said, staring up at the peeling plaster of the ceiling, where chunks were missing and you could see the mahogany slant of the rusted steel roof.
"There's not going to be any more," she whispered, her soft, warm hand in mine.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean there won't be any more babies. There's sex, on this kind of small scale," she said, gesturing at the blue foam walls and beyond. "But even if there are babies, how do they grow up? How do they even get born? Uncle Luis doesn't have a Quick-Stop Baby Hut. Most likely, the mothers die, and the babies with them."
I thought about this in silence.
"Is that why you don't?" I asked finally.
"Want to have sex?"
She laughed her melodic laugh and leaned over to kiss my cheek. "No," she said, squeezing my hand.
"Good," I said, not sure if it was.
Silence settled down, comfortable and warm. Above us, erratic drops of rain struck the roof, creating a soothing metallic patter. Molly's hand, dry and soft, brushed my chin.
I guess I've fallen asleep, because a bouncer is pulling me up out of my chair. I look back at it longingly, but I don't fight to break the grip. When he sees I'm going quietly and that someone else has already got the chair, he lets go of my shoulder and walks on to find other misdemeanors.
I bump into someone, which is not uncommon, but I turn to look anyway. A woman looks back at me, not moving amongst the chairs like the others, circling in for the kill. Just staring back at me, appraisingly, very calm and quiet, a shadow of a smile on her lips.
"What?" I say, only vaguely aware that I'm speaking out loud to a stranger.
"Sorry," she says, the playful smile more apparent. In her hand, she is holding an old Coke can, and she takes a quick pull from it. A single clear drop of water trails down her cheek. "I just kind of noticed your situation."
"I know a place, cheaper than the Nite-Lite, if you're looking."
"How cheap you looking for?"
"Perfect," she says, taking another sip from the water in her can. I watch her lips closely, enrapt as they conform to the shape of the aluminum. "Follow me."
I stay close, trying not to touch her or get in her way, but also trying to stay less than a foot away, lest I get cut off by the crowd and lose her. She doesn't turn around to look at me, even when she turns into the alley.
I've seen alleys before, from the street, but never really entered one. The consensus is that the dangerous people hang out in them, wielding knives and guns and electric prodders. All of which I've heard a lot about, but never actually seen.
Plus, alleys are supposed to be where they dump the bodies. The street is full, and there's no room for those who just can't stand any longer. And since everyone's scared of the alleys anyway...
The alley isn't empty, but it's surprisingly close. A few people seem to be entering warily from either street at any given moment, a few others are hurrying out, and some even sit down with their backs to the faded gray brick, oblivious to the dangers that are ostensibly skulking about behind every corner and every rusted fire escape. No bodies... There's one, lying down in a small dark space beneath an overhang. But he might be just sleeping. Yes, his arm twitches.
Still, it's amazing: there's no more than 30 people dispersed about the entire alley. Which probably amounts to 20 square feet of space per person. Amazing.
The woman stops halfway to the other street, turns right into a small alcove in the brick, below a metal skeleton of steps and rail that looks ready to crash down to the cracked black cement. The orange lamplight and the red neon glow from the streets is nonexistent here. It's a quiet blackness that seems so impossible, so far away from any reality, that it must be a vacuum in the very fabric of sight and sound.
The woman turns to me, a quick smile shooting out at me through the dark. Just making sure I'm still with her, but her look tells me that she wouldn't go searching for me if I wasn't.
She pulls something from her coat; her right hand has mysteriously lost the Coke-can of water. From the looks of it, she is now holding a key. I'm sure of it. I've heard of keys before, I think probably from Molly, because I've never really known anyone else who had ever read through a volume of encyclopedia.
It's small, rectangular, white, and has a black strip on one end she runs through a dead black box set upon the brick. The box comes to life for a second, a green flash of digits and red LED eyes peering out into the blackness, then it's dead and silent again. Beyond the wall, a metallic slide and click, like bolts moving out of position.
She pushes the door open and is inside so fast that I don't have time to look for a doorknob or to figure out how the door opened before I'm following her into deeper darkness.
I back up. The door is icy metal on my spine. The cold sends a shiver of fear up my back, into the tensed muscles in my neck.
Here I am, locked indoors, off the street, in an oppressive cage of inky black and piercing cold.
But then the lights come on.
My breath leaves my lungs, but I'm not sure at first why. And then it comes to me, inexorable and supernal.
It's the space.
This place is huge. There's got to be at least 350 square feet of raw open space, possibly as much as 400. God, yes, the walls are definitely 20 feet...
There's a few chairs, a cupboard sticking out along the far wall, and what looks like a fridge, and some other small square machine that's plugged into the wall...
And a bed, enormous, and what could possibly be a television, though much smaller and older than those mounted in the LuisBurgers above the tables while you eat -- that is, if you can afford to pay the $300 for a table...
Of course, I've seen rooms this size, and I've seen rooms 200 times larger. But never, never in all my life, have I seen a room this size with only two people in it. And one of them me.
I notice the woman suddenly, as if for the first time. She is standing ten feet away from me, smiling calmly, showing perfect yellow teeth, and she seems to be the only tangible symbol of reality in this surrealistic picture of emptiness.
It scares me and enthralls me, equally and simultaneously.
"Like it?" comes a voice, and it seems an eternity before I match it to this woman standing before me.
My lungs rasp out a choked breath, but speaking still seems an impossible feat.
"I know what you're probably thinking. It's huge, I know. I've never actually brought anybody here before, so I guess I'm used to it, but I can imagine, after the street..."
I find my voice, small and tinny and miles away. "You... you own this?"
"Yeah. My dad passed the ownership down to me. Got the deed locked up in that safe over there."
Sure enough, there is a safe over in the corner, sleek black and shiny.
The woman laughs, and the muscles in my neck and shoulders that were pulled tight as arrow strings loosen slightly. I force my hands to open. I uncurl my toes. I blink once, a full second, and breathe deeply.
"This place," I say, my voice no longer shaking and resonating from somewhere near the bottom of a deep well, "must have cost you a fortune." I'm not even sure if there is such a thing as private ownership anymore. It makes my mind race back to Molly, how she used to talk about houses, and how I thought it was insanity....
The woman smiles wanly, walks a few steps and sits down in a chair. She motions for me to sit. I can't feel my legs, so I just shake my head politely.
"My dad owned a chain of water suppliers. Built it up from the plumbing, and bought out most of that underground shit that nobody wants anyway. I think before he died he was worth close to 500 million. Everybody needs water, right? He sold out 98 percent of his holdings to buy this place, this one room. Gave it to me a week before he died. Guess when you look at it that way, this place cost about ten million per square yard."
"Free parking," is all I can say, sitting down before my legs collapse. (I said that once, in the 8-by-8, must have been. Molly laughed, sweet laughter like champagne over rocks. Brushing a hair back, looking into my eyes, her own lit up deep aquatic blue. Wondered what the hell that was supposed to mean. Just an expression, I guess, I told her. Funny, she said, how the craziest things from the past can mutate into the craziest things in the present, with no discernible transition. Something about idioms, she said, running her hand through my hair, declaring how impossible it would be for anyone else to learn this language if everybody didn't already speak it.... But I wasn't listening, just watching her perfect pink lips forming the intricate shapes of the many words I had never even heard...)
And then I must have collapsed, somehow, because I'm no longer in the fantastical dimension where beautiful women on the street take you back to their impossible rooms, 400 square feet in size...
But then where am I?
I'm comfortable, and warm, and I'm lying down. These facts alone surprise me. I had no money for anything so exorbitant as a bed.
A hand is on my shoulder, light and warm, moving ever so slightly back and forth. Not a waking gesture...
I turn and see the face of the woman on the street, lit up by flashing blue neon light that filters in through a dirty plastic pane above the bed. She smiles, shy yet intimate. Her hand is still on my shoulder.
"Are you okay?" she asks, her voice a whisper.
"Yeah... I'm fine. Guess I really was tired."
"It's okay, if you want to rest. Stay as long as you like."
I don't say anything. Just watch her.
After probably five minutes, a private eternity, my hand moves to her cheek. My thumb brushes her skin slowly.
Her smile from the street returns, confident and serene.
The light from the sun is gone now, hidden from the night, lost beyond the horizon. The only light that falls on her face is the continuous blue flare from the street. When it sputters and dies, sometimes minutes at a time, I can only make out the outline of her jaw, her limp blond hair, the white t-shirt that she wears.
"What do you mean, why you?"
"Why am I here?"
"I don't know," she says, very quiet. "It sometimes... gets very lonely."
"I know." (Molly and I talked about this once. Or rather, Molly talked about it, while I half-listened, fully in love with her. She said something about the heavy irony of the situation, the poetic justice. How the street was packed with strangers, millions and millions, and every individual was still so desperately lonely...)
We lie like that for hours, blissfully content in each other's warmth, miles away from the wave of humanity just beyond that single pane of plastic.
And still, I can't help but think about Molly.
By the first gray tint of morning light, she strokes the hair from my eyes. Neither of us has slept but has reached some other form of consciousness. The peace of sleep, the perception of wakefulness.
Her hand runs down my back. Her lips meet mine. Above us, a single drop of rain taps the plastic, immediately followed by many more.
I sit up in gray darkness, suddenly cold and tired. Outside, the rain pours down. Behind me, on the bed, she reaches for me. I brush her grasp away.
"I can't," I say.
She does not sit up suddenly, does not grab me from behind, does not beg me to explain. She stays silent for a moment. Then, simply, "Why?"
She sits up beside me, does not reach for me. Sits quietly, her hands in her lap, staring at the vast expanse of floor. And in her silence, I sense her understanding.
"What happened to her?" she asks. I stand up, grab my coat from a chair by the bed. I pause, then turn.
"The wave. I was holding her hand, and we got pushed apart by the people, and she just got backed into a corner. The wave just rolled over her."
I turn quickly, head for the door, fumble for the latch. She calls out from behind me. I tear the door open. I hesitate. I turn around.
In her face, I see sympathy and deep sorrow. Sorrow not just for me, but for herself, and maybe even for the damn wave. And in her face, somewhere, I see Molly.
That's why I have to leave.
"I don't even know your name," she says.
"I don't know yours."
She smiles hollowly. "Then I guess it's okay." The door closes behind me, slick-chink.
The rain is solid gray bars, soaking the gray concrete, the gray flow of people. The flood of people, nondescript and cold, could be the result of the rain.
It clears up eventually, amidst the general sigh of relief from the crowd.
No one speaks, and the river flows silently on, branching out occasionally, feeding the neon-framed franchises that line the street, only to be spit back out into the torpid tide.
Sometime, much later, a distant face smiles at me, framed by the ripple of heads and shoulders. It's Molly's face, or the nameless girl's, or maybe a figment dancing on my eyes. The hand belonging to the face waves to me, then disappears altogether. Behind and all around me, the wave goads me on.
Craig Boyko (email@example.com) is a sometimes student at the University of Calgary in Alberta. He's constantly being shushed by his next-door neighbor.
InterText stories written by Craig Boyko: "Decisions" (v6n1), "Wave" (v6n2), "Gone" (v6n6), "Ghettoboy and Dos" (v8n2).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 6, Number 2 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1996 Craig Boyko.