The sky today was a smudged, sickly orange, a disturbing contrast with the previous day’s soft yellow, even though the warm fronts always came in that way. She could remember a time when they warned you not to go out unnecessarily on orange days, but now they only issued those warnings on red mornings, and not always then. Anyway, most people by now treated the warnings as a ritual, as a wake-up chant in a meaningless language. Some were still frightened, but it was increasingly hard to tolerate such an absence of adaptive skills, even though of course everyone was supposed to tolerate everyone else’s sincerely-held beliefs and fears.
Martin sent her a voice-stroke as she was walking to the park – Melt out 2nite? She replied right away – B at Ur place 10. She’d decide later whether she meant it or not. She thought she’d already arranged to be somewhere, but she didn’t check her time map. The last time they had a melt-up, he was the one who’d forgotten, and when she got there he was in the middle of an all-maler. He’d tried to pretend he hadn’t forgotten (which was nice and old-fashioned of him) and invited her to join them, but she didn’t like that combination, and she’d already promised herself never to get into it again. A few years ago, she was sexually like everyone else, a believer in never saying no, but recently she was getting into the Self-Zoom movement, and asking herself every day what she really wanted. She wasn’t very good yet at finding answers to that, but they always emphasized how much time you had to invest in the questions before moving forward.
The park was just about as busy as ever, despite the greater violence. The western half of it belonged to the tents now – sometime in the past few years, the forces had given up chasing them out. She felt bad avoiding the tents; most of the people in them were just like anybody else, but some of the men were driven by obnoxious new doctrines that made them dangerous. The eastern half belonged mainly to the dogs. It was the only good place in the neighborhood to bring them, and it felt like there were more of them around than ever, although she’d heard on an info-stroke that the dog numbers were declining, because people preferred pets who fit with their insiding. It was probably one of the many things where living in the country’s most affluent city distorted your perspective, because people had more reasons to go outside. Apparently most middle-sized towns now didn’t have a single coffee shop. That’s what she’d heard anyway. She wasn’t sure if that was because of the price of coffee or because of insiding. Maybe both. She still had three coffee shops within a ten minute walk, and often thought she’d visit them more often, to provide support, but she couldn’t see the point of drinking anything hot.
About half the people had their faces uncovered today, the usual number. She never covered up unless she was looking up at raging crimson. She sat and listened to info-strokes, watching the dogs wandering in the dirty shade. A few of them ran in spurts, but they mostly stayed by their owners. Dogs had once been symbols of loyalty and companionship but now they seemed mostly like embodiments of everyone’s eternal waiting. Maybe if dog numbers were declining, it was because people suspected they sensed too much. One of them came briefly over to her and she stroked its neck. It went away without looking at her, as transactional as everyone else.
She was receiving constant info-strokes about disasters in Poland, even though they didn’t match her settings. She didn’t even know where Poland was, let alone care about it. But she let them continue, finding for now anyway that the shards of misery made her other info-strokes seem almost refreshing by comparison. She wondered whether this was in any way a profound discovery.
A man was walking toward her. He was a little older than her, with more facial hair than you usually saw now, and with exposed arms wrapped earlier-generation-style in painterly tattoos. On most people the combined effect would have been comic, but on him it looked deliberate and purposeful. He sat on the same slab as her, even though there were others available; some people would have called the forces for not much more, especially from someone who looked like that. For the next few minutes though, she wondered whether he’d even seen her there, he seemed to be traveling so deeply through his own forest. She knew he had seen her of course, but she admired the concentration. She spoke first: “Are you from the neighborhood?”
He turned toward her, in a way that made her think he’d been waiting for her to go first. He smiled in a comfortable, unshady kind of way. “I’m trying to decide on that actually. I mean, I’m not from the neighborhood. But maybe I could be. I’m walking around, trying to feel out whether this would be a good place for me.”
“How long have you been walking around?”
“Several days. Not consecutively. A few hours yesterday, a few hours today.”
“I didn’t know anyone took that kind of care about finding a place. Most people just check if there’s a clinic or a termination station, or a school if they need that. Or somewhere to get delinked, but you can always find that. Do you need a school?”
“I don’t need any of the things you mentioned. Just an atmosphere I feel comfortable in.”
“And you don’t just mean a cooling system that never ever breaks down.”
“Well, I do mean that too. I believe in having a cooling system. I know how they’re ultimately making our problems worse and I admire people who take the ethical stand on that. But it’s very tough on a person, subjecting yourself to that kind of constant discomfort.”
“Worse than that. They often die in their rooms. I don’t know if it’s always an ethical stand. Sometimes it’s just checking out. I mean, I’m going to take the pill, when I get to that point, but some people actually think the pill is too fast. They want to feel the end, even if it’s unbearable.”
“I haven’t made that decision for myself. I’m focused on staying alive and maxing it.”
“I’m not arguing with that. It’s just that focusing on maxing it doesn’t take you as far as it used to.” She sighed and looked at him like someone looking to the bottom of oceans. “Anyway, that’s a heavy conversation to have with someone who just randomly sits next to you.”
“No, it’s the so-called light conversations that are heavy. Weighed down and probably sunk by everything they try to ignore. Serious conversations float at their appropriate level.” He laughed at himself. “I just pulled myself out of an iceberg metaphor there.”
“That wouldn’t have been culturally correct for sure.”
“Maybe it’s safer to talk about the dogs,” he said. But the dogs were doing even less now, except that one of them was rolling in the dirt, as though coaxing the earth into accepting him to its clutch. A little time went by. She didn’t want to say anything and didn’t mind waiting for him.
Eventually he commented: “You’re not listening to info-strokes or music or anything.”
“You mean right now? I was giving you a chance to speak again.”
“It’s unusual for anyone to tolerate that long a silence.”
“I’m not that big a history lesson. It was on before you came. Wasn’t yours?”
“I haven’t had it on for days. Look.” He moved a little closer and angled his head one way and then another so she could see there was nothing sitting in his ears. “It’s great.”
“But don’t you get into trouble? What if someone needed you now.”
“That’s the great thing I found out. No one ever does. It will always wait.”
“Obviously I noticed the tattoos and the…” She couldn’t remember the word; he had to supply it. “Yes,” she said, “the beard. It’s a disruption. I like them, but I don’t even know why. I think it’s a look we were all meant to stop liking years ago.”
“Yeah. But, you know, I’m not such a big history lesson either. And I’m not an outlaw. I just believe we feel stronger and cleaner when we’re even a little bit different. Except I don’t have the imagination to be different in a new way, so I reached back into the past.”
“I’ve been getting into the Self-Zoom movement.”
“That can be good. It works for some people.”
“You don’t sound very impressed.”
“I am. It’s only that, for some people, it’s like looking away from everything. It depends on how you do it.”
“If I was looking away from everything I wouldn’t be sitting out here.”
“I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“You’re right. You could probably use the Self-Zoom movement to justify killing people. That’s not how I meant it.”
“Do you do the organized Zooms?”
“No, I treat it as a personal thing.”
“That’s the better approach I think.” He took his shades off briefly and rubbed one of his eyelids. Maybe he genuinely had an itch, or maybe he wanted her to see his eyes, as some kind of message of sincerity. They were smaller and darker than she’d expected, but then all his features were small for his face, even his ears. If you were with him, you’d spend a lot of time wondering how you ended up seeing so much of such an odd face. Maybe you’d be happy to spend hours and years wondering about it.
She thought of taking off her own shades, but this wasn’t the place for that kind of intimacy. He replaced his. “I wanted to do something,” he said. “A sort of test of my comfort. It’s a little unusual.”
“All right,” she said, laughing uncertainly. “Does it involve prodding me with anything?”
“It may be embarrassing to you. You may prefer to move away.” She nodded and indicated for him to go ahead. He sat quietly for a moment. He took his shades off again and put them in his pocket. He got up and stood on the slab. He was still, perhaps giving her time to move, but she didn’t think it was necessary.
He took a deep breath, then exhaled into a loud musical note, high and strong and clear, which he held for several seconds. She felt herself leap back a little; she suppressed another laugh, before realizing immediately she didn’t feel like laughing at all. People and dogs looked over. He followed it with a second, higher note, then another, and a melody started to form. She stood and moved away, not out of embarrassment, but to watch and listen. He formed every note perfectly; each hovered in its own pocket of air before softly expiring into the next. His song didn’t have words, but for her it evoked – with strange and almost chilling clarity - a long-forgotten form of pleasure, or a dream of it, perhaps an afternoon in a park like this when the scene would have been founded in inexhaustible green, and the people would have been dressed in white, and they’d have been laughing and running and eating and drinking. A crowd gathered around him, and she felt they were seeing the same things she was, that his song was a window that had suddenly opened to them.
As he continued, his body relaxed deeply; when his arms moved with the music, they seemed controlled by an invisible operator. His eyes were closed; his head nodded and swayed as if engaged in the most profound internal conversation. She heard some people murmur something, but for the most part they were impossibly quiet, their info-strokes obviously turned off. Of course, you couldn’t tell who was recording it to play back later, but she doubted many of them were doing that either. This was to be an experience and a memory. The regret of it being gone, and incapable of being recovered, would be at the heart of its beauty. The majesty of the moment was inextricable from the fear of losing it.
He reached his highest note yet and held it for as long as a story, then his mouth snapped shut and he drew himself up like a soldier. The air was ringing. The city’s usual jagged hum was still there, but in temporary retreat. It was like holding back the ocean with a whisper; perhaps a miracle, even if it couldn’t last. A few people applauded, but others didn’t, perhaps finding it wrong to follow a sublime sound with a dull and formulaic one. Some came up to him; he stepped down from the slab to talk to them, shaking and clasping their hands and looking deep into their shades like a priest or a politician. One old woman even took her own shades off in return, that’s how far he’d taken her.
He didn’t look at her at all, but she knew he hadn’t forgotten her, that he was still controlling his performance, and that when it was over, she and he would continue. She was entirely content to wait, feeling no desire at all to move, not even into the deeper shade that was just a few steps away. She let others take their time with him, and as she watched him with them, it was easy to imagine that the air around him had become a rich, sheltering blue, and that he was glistening against it like life-giving rain.