After the full-body suspension is over—has it been months, a few years?—we are still in casings. They’re thin and brittle. Like garlic exteriors or dried-out electrical tape that’s lost its sticky. Eventually they will peel and pop loose on their own. There will be molting, in a sense. We aren’t allowed to just move around freely, touching everything and being touched. Skin was always a flimsy first defense.
This information was available to my mind upon waking. I don’t know how. But I suppose other creatures that molt know they will molt, on some level.
We have gathered in the atrium. We seemed to know where to go, a collective herd-like intelligence. We don’t know who saved us or why. We can see each other’s eyes, only that. And they are watery and red-puffed. Waking was emotional. We cried not knowing why we were crying. It was visceral, body-based crying.
The atrium is airy and light. We’re all facing an arched doorway that is elaborately carved with lots of little baby faces. It’s very decorative. Most of the babies are smiling. But some have been caught in taut grimaces, a few mid-wail—a pure expression of grief.
A woman in a rubberized suit emerges from the arched doorway, as we seem to have expected. Her exterior is smooth and a bit fat-padded, dolphin-like, and pink. Her joints are articulated, each arm and leg swings with its own momentum. I feel predisposed to want her to like me.
The woman is our guide. I can tell because she’s holding a stick with a small orange flag tied to the end of it. She says, “Hello and welcome.”
We speak a variety of languages so there’s a delay in understanding, a hesitation in the translation programming. With the same delay, we mutter, “Hello,” back to her.
“My name is Purda and this is your Formal Orientation. It will take three hours and fifteen minutes.”
She’s about to continue but people just start slamming her with questions. She answers as quickly as possible.
“Will there be a tasting room?”
“What about electric scooters?”
“Vespas have been restored and are used frequently.”
“Will there be Nordic compression pants?” These were very popular, what with the fear of blood clots.
“No, they are no longer necessary. But to manage stress, everyone will get a sound-proofed sleep pod that will play soft rock with mood lighting.”
“Can we trade that amenity for faux hot springs?”
The person who asks this question has ash-colored eyes. By the bass of the voice—his words are foreign and quickly translated—I assume male. I prefer males as company, not by a lot, just marginally. I like this voice. I like his ashy eyes.
His question about the faux hot springs is ignored and the omission feels pointed, to me at least.
“There will be gjetost at every meal,” Purda says, as if answering a dietary question. “It’s a fudgey sweet cheese. It’s pronounced yay-toast. Say it together: Yay toast. Yay toast.”
We say it together and the translation comes out in unison. “Yay toast. Yay toast.”
Before we can revert to asking questions, Purda lifts the orange flag and asks us to follow her. We all shut up and do as we’re told.
We shuffle along after Purda, down a flight of stairs that look like they’re made of porcelain. A few are lightly chipped and it’s comforting to think that many others have had this orientation tour before us. I don’t want to be the first group to be brought up from suspension. If there are kinks, I want them worked out on someone else.
“Let me tell you about the brandy,” Purda says, stopping at a heavy oak door. “It is aged in this room which plays opera, piped in 24/7.” She opens the door and opera—a soprano—pours out of the room, vibrating our loose casings. “In this way, the barrel is more inclined to embrace the brandy.”
Some seem moved by the music. I’m not. Voices forced into such acrobatics have always seemed unnatural to me. An anguished man draws his hand to his eyes, pressing them shut. I look at his hands, which are wrapped in a casing, like mine. These are not dried out, but instead are made of a tightly woven, almost shiny material. I clap my hands together to feel the slap between them. It feels good, alive. No one else hears the clap because of the operatic voice, rising ecstatically.
“The aging process still takes five years for our brandy,” Purda says. She closes the door and the voice disappears.
I open and close my fists, and we move on.
Next we head to an industrial kitchen. “This is where your meals will be prepared.”
The kitchen is currently empty and the sleek surfaces shine.
“Beware the kibbeh nayeh. It is raw by definition.”
We repeat kibbeh nayeh, kibbeh nayeh.
But someone whispers, Where’s the Vespas, where’s the vespas …
I think it’s Ash-Eyes.
And soon we are all whispering, Where’s the Vespas, where’s the vespas … Like a strange breeze rippling from our mouths. The moment passes.
Purda takes us to a banquet hall. “The reenactment of the hologrammatic wedding of Olga Khokhlova and Pablo Picasso will begin at noon each Friday. Dress accordingly.”
“Who are they?” It’s a woman’s voice. Her casing is very, very small. So small that I wonder if she is full-grown or perhaps a child with a womanly voice.
“If you don’t know, you shouldn’t come,” Purda says.
It’s strange how our history has been crafted. Some plucked from time, others left to drift.
Picasso was an artist. That’s about all I know.
Purda moves through the Museum of Past Joys in a very cursory way. “You can return on your own time.”
There are no other museum visitors. She reads none of the placards. It’s not a large museum. We follow the orange flag.
There’s a scepter topped with a bronze baby fist. There’s a glassed-off exhibit with a DO NOT ENTER sign, as if we would break the glass in hopes of entering a dead end. It is an exact replica of an ordinary living room, circa 1995, except for the live pacing coyotes. They’re rabid. Their mouth-foam coats the rug which, according to the placard, is an original from Ikea. There is a short oral history taken from an email in the era that plays on loop … that trip when we ate too many Swedish sausages mixed with lingerberry syrup.
“There’s no such thing as lingerberries.” It’s a snotty voice in the crowd. Why is there always someone like that? I wonder, if there isn’t someone like that—the chider, the scolder—will the group automatically generate one?
“What’s that smell?” I don’t know who says it.
“It is the Heads of your Babies, translated individually,” Purda says. “If you had a baby, that is.”
I did not.
“We slip it in through the vents.” Purda is bored of her job. I wonder how often she has to give this tour. How many groups of us are there? Where are the current residents? Do they have to clear out for every orientation?
I hear strange noises and I realize that a few people have started to cry. Their casings rattle. Babymakers, I assume, smelling the heads of their babies.
“And this, this here, encased in a glass box?” Someone has stopped and is leaning over what seems to be a relic of royalty.
“It is a crown made of ossified dopamine,” Purda says.
Everyone who isn’t openly weeping says ohhh, ahhhh.
I don’t care about the crown. I’m standing by “A Portrait of the Lady and Lord.” It’s a nudie.
“That sure is a lot of skin.” It’s Ash-Eyes. He’s stepped up next to me, taking it all in.
“Human skin,” I say. “It’s weird, right? That we have it. And haven’t seen it in so long.”
“It’s weird, alright.”
“Where’s the aquarium?” someone shouts, so excited that they’ve remembered aquariums.
“Destroyed in the last uprising,” Purda says, matter-of-factly. “The whales died. Together. In love.”
We press on and I feel for the whales but I’m also a bit jealous because I didn’t die in love. I was gathered up in a kind of public works project holding tank. Saved, yes. Can’t complain. But surrounded by strangers nonetheless. And I did love people. A few. Not many.
“What about the hot springs?” Ash-Eyes asks Purda. Again with the hot springs.
This time, everyone’s a little upset and they say things like, “Yeah, the hot springs!”
“They are faux,” Purda says.
“Yes, faux,” Ash-Eyes says. He doesn’t care if they’re real or faux. He’s adamant. It’s like he’s been promised hot springs. “Do we have access to them or not?”
“There have been ‘immersion incidents’ that we prefer not to have happen again,” Purda explains, nervously.
“What does that mean? Immersion incidents?” the woman-child asks.
We’re all afraid of the word incident. It was used a lot during the Final Days and always euphemistically. A placeholder for: pandemic, genocide, war, cataclysm.
“Nothing! Just incidents. That’s all.”
The orange flag is up! We move on.
As we follow Purda through gaming rooms—badminton, Yawley Chawley, Bits and Bobs, chess, shax—I lurk in the back of the group, near Ash-Eyes.
“So, what was your life like before, you know, near the end and all?”
Ash-Eyes looks directly ahead. “I was well-off and then, well, it all kind of dwindled down.”
“Me too,” I say, but I was never well-off.
“I really felt like I deserved everything.” His eyes crinkle like he might be smiling. “I had pet porpoises. I named them Me and Other Me and Yet Again Me but it couldn’t last. Eventually, I could no longer feed the porpoises. I gave them away and I’m sure someone renamed them because it wouldn’t have made sense to other people.”
“Right. They wouldn’t know the ‘me’ is a reference to you. It would have been moot.”
“Empty. Like they weren’t named after me at all.”
“Do you think it will be nice here?”
“It’s not bad. I mean, we could acclimate.”
“I think we will.” I’m being optimistic because there’s no point in not being optimistic. “I just don’t know why we’re here, why they kept us.”
Ash-Eyes goes a little nostalgic on me. I guess I opened something up in him. “The mansion lights dimmed at first but then finally went out. But there was this pool, see, where we used to swim, the porpoises and me, and it still had about a foot of water in it and a little built-in light and when I waded around—I was all alone by then—and put my hand to the dead bulb, I swore it was warm as if when I wasn’t looking it still flickered. So I held out hope up until the end that it would all come roaring back. But here we are.” He shrugs and a bit of papery casing pops off his shoulder. We watch it settle to the marble floor.
Purda leads us to a locker room. Evidently there’s a swimming pool here too and other sports. This is the only place that’s inhabited by current residents. They’re showering and getting dressed. We’re all stunned by the flesh. When the residents sit on the metal benches, their lush thigh-dimples are pinched walnuts, a flesh rind-hard. There are men and women and they seem to have no modesty. They seem too exhausted for that. They are weary. The skin I see looks palimpsestic. They have been used and they are being used again. Old scars, old wounds, muscles and atrophy, a mix.
One woman has a row of tidy scars along her right arm, which makes me think: self-inflicted, leftie.
The cellulite is lamp-lit under fluorescent tubing. The breasts here remind me of my legless grandfather’s pantomime: primping like my aunties, crossing and uncrossing his stumps then pretending to roll up long deflated titties and stuffing them into an imaginary bra. I miss him and my aunties and the others who are no longer. The memory feels good—clean and sharp and sudden, the way memories should work.
I look at Ash-Eyes and he looks at me.
I’m aware of my clitoris like it’s a hidden hummingbird.
“They’ve been fully immersed—in a swimming pool, right?” he says. “How could that be different from hot springs? What kinds of incidents do they not want to repeat?”
“They don’t look so good though.”
“They really don’t. What have they been doing? Why are we here? Why keep us? Maybe they miss the whales. Maybe we’re, like, their new whales.”
“The whales,” I say, sadly.
It’s quiet a moment.
“And I still haven’t seen any Vespas,” I say.
“The Vespas are bullshit, I’m guessing.” He cocks his head. “Do you feel human again? I mean, really fully human?”
I hadn’t really thought about it. “No, not fully.” But this is true, in part, because at the end, we were not humane to one another. We were vicious. I was too. Is this what stops me from connecting with my humanity? This viciousness?
“I wonder if we’ll ever feel really fully human,” he says. “They seem fully human, don’t they?” He nods at the people in the locker room.
“I can’t tell.”
“I hope we get there.”
“Me, too.” And I do feel hope and I realize that, here, in this new situation, I will have to treat each little good thing with tenderness and freedom. I will have to let it fly and circle the mansion of my ribs. I will have to walk around inflated with internal gloating and give in again, fully, no matter what was lost.
“Ten at a time.” Purda sends us up on elevators to the twenty-second floor. Who knew we were in such a tall structure? What is happening on the other floors? Are they empty? We’ve only seen the people in the locker room. They were so tired. Why were they so tired?
We stand in line, waiting to be assigned numbers corresponding to our sleeping pods.
Ash-Eyes is behind me.
And I’m wondering if his presence helps me feel more human and it does.
I wonder if his presence helps me understand why we’re here. It doesn’t.
What good are we to anyone now? All we can render is the past.
Maybe they miss the whales. That’s what Ash-Eyes said.
And it strikes me that we are still being preserved. No longer in suspension but transplanted into some new garden of some sort that needs tending. Or, if sticking with the whales as metaphor, some new aquarium.
“2214,” Purda says to me as she hands me a pamphlet. It’s titled: “Manners, Exercises, Remedies & Rules.” She has a stack of them.
I pause. I have a question but I’m not sure how to put it. See, when I was a kid, teachers sometimes had us create time capsules about what we’d learned that year and pop culture events. Where are those shoe boxes now? It doesn’t matter. What I want to know is if we are part of some sort of commemorative effort. Are we the contents of some enormous box, preserved for future generations?
I whisper my question so only Purda can hear it. “Is this whole thing a living time capsule of some sort?”
Her answer isn’t very helpful. “Kind of,” she says.
“Is it like an aquarium?”
“What?” This makes no sense to her.
“What I mean is—”
She cuts me off. “What’s it matter? This is where you are. Does anyone know the point of it all?”
Her swift existential turn throws me off. I want to ask a follow-up, something specific and practical. But Ash-Eyes and many others are impatiently shifting in line behind me. I have to move along.
I only take a few steps and pretend to be very interested in the pamphlet. I’m really flipping through it. Does it matter why we exist? Is it a question that we can’t ever really know the answer to? I feel a bit sweaty. I wonder how sweat will affect the molting of my casing.
“Seriously,” I hear Ash-Eyes say to Purda, “people are going to be really pissed off if there’s no access to faux hot springs.” There definitely has been some communal alarm, but how much of it has he generated himself?
Purda bristles. Her thick rubbery skin-suit puffs up a bit. It’s menacing. She’s suddenly a good bit bigger than he is. Her voice turns hostile. “Remember touch?” she says. “Remember water? Water touches one’s entire body. You are not ready for the memory of skin!”
I look back, and Ash-Eyes is smiling.
I smile too because this means that we will be ready for the memory of skin one day. We will be. And we will truly exist.
Later in pod 2214, alone, I’m lying on my back. There is no music, as Purda had said there would be. But the glow is nice—dusky with gritty light, the kind that might try to penetrate a fogged pond in winter.
A fogged pond in winter.
A trailer staked in a row of trailers on that pond.
This is how memory will come to me here. I get it. It can’t return much through what I see before me, no. This world doesn’t offer a lot of context. And so it’ll have to ride in through metaphor.
A fogged pond in winter. Yelling in one of the trailers. A gunshot. I was a kid in another trailer. But, later, after the dead body was taken out, I collected with some other kids and I joined them when it came to looting the place. What I remember suddenly: The blood still wet, the cat’s pawprints dotting all the ugly countertops.
There was a knock at the entry-point of my pod and I wasn’t surprised. I opened the eye-hatch and there he was.
Neither of us a said a word.
I let him in. And we fit in the pod. It was large enough for two big broad bodies and neither of us were all that big or all that broad. Our heads propped on a bank of pillow, we faced each other. He reached out first, touching a large leaf of my casing. It was still attached in one spot near my collarbones. I touch one on his forearm.
“We should probably be careful,” I tell Ash-Eyes.
“We should,” he says. “Were you always careful?”
“No, but I don’t know who I was, not completely. Do you?”
“More or less.” He puts his hand on my waist, slips it around my lower back and cinches the space between us. Our casings rattle against each other like large chaffed leaves. Leaves bitten by blight, trees ringing the pond of rusty trailers.
There is a little pressure on each spot where the casings are still attached. My body feels lit in those spots, my skin dotted with tiny fires.
“You’re someone who had pet porpoises,” I tell him.
“I am. That’s true.”
“And I’m not,” I say, as if it’s as simple as that.
We press against each other. The little fires flare. My body feels bright and vivid, as if remembering itself through a history of bruises. And each bruise communicates to the others in some dense subcutaneous conversation that I can only understand in bits and pieces—a foreign language I barely know being shouted on the other side of a door.
Some casings chip and others break entirely. Later, my pod will be dusted with the chalky snow of our exteriors. And we’ll emerge, abraded and in some denuded form—ashamed or proud or some complex mix of the two? We’ll be essential again, or close to it.
But for now, there’s this enormous pressure of the past and the hushed destruction of our casings—rustling and snapping, like the sounds of two people moving quickly and urgently through primal underbrush.