It Can Be Made Private
Text by Gregory Howard, Images by Scott Fitzgerald
What? I said. The planes had made another pass.
Private, my guide said, raising his voice. It was supposed to have been private. Residences. Buildings. A new way for people to get the best view of the sea.
He was talking about the island, which was still in the distance.
But the sea was all around us, the boat’s spray blurring our eyes, mine. I felt something soft in my throat. The sea, or at least the gulf, which is either still the sea or not. Sometimes what you think is the sea is something else. The horizon, infinity, etc., etc., I thought.
It was me, my guide, the driver, and the guide’s assistant who held a camera and filmed whatever he pleased.
The planes made another pass. Soon they would form a heart in the sky. This is what the guide told me back on land, where everyone was else was. The whole country it seemed, jamming the streets in celebration, spraying each other with glitter and string and Marco and Sammy in the restaurant kitchen the family had given us for prep, getting everything ready for tomorrow. Who knew what Marco would concoct? He was being secretive this time. A slow roasted lamb with black truffle spray, something that looked like a strawberry and tasted like popcorn, a chocolate desert made with the rarest of cocoas. We like to use what’s indigenous, Marco had said, after he had accepted the invitation. Anything you can imagine is indigenous, the representative of the family replied.
The planes would form heart because in everyone’s mind their country is shaped like a heart. Or is it, I thought, the other way around?
I swallowed again. The soft thing moving.
But for now it is families that come to picnic and relax, the guide said. If you have a boat, you can come here. All this, he said, in spite of the snakes.
The snakes? I said.
They are harmless, of course, the guide said. If you treat them with respect.
What snakes? I said.
The assistant turned his camera from the city to me and focused on my face.
Don’t, I said. We’re not looking for harmless if, I told the guide. We’re looking for harmless period.
Harmless is harmless, the guide said. No one knows where they came from, the guide continued. Because the island of course is not really an island. It is only several years old. Made from other parts of the world and placed there. Who knows what that brings with it?
It was still in the distance, the island.
The planes overhead.
It is, in fact, much like this city in the desert, the guide said. The city of the future. It was built to take care of itself. In terms of energy. It is completely self-sustaining. But no one wants to live in the desert.
We’re not in the desert?
Of course we are. But we’re also by the sea, which creates the illusion of life. The desert, the guide said, is a state of mind. A belief. But this city, the guide said. It was built and abandoned. At first no one came and then the government got impatient and moved on. It now gathers dust, living and breathing for the few people that live there. Maintenance workers. People who monitor the grid. Storms sweep in and cover it and the workers uncover it. Like it is a temple. Like they truly do live in the future and excavate the past.
The assistant who had been filming the guide during this speech was now filming his hand.
The island. The planes. I swallowed. Etc. Etc.
It needs to be private, I said.
It can be made private, the guide said. For the right price.
How, she thinks, its all system of states and transitions. New York, Abu Dhabi, Shanghai, Abu Dhabi, and so how she must consider each—moods, temperature, texture on the tongue—and then begin their erasure. In for six and out for six. To live like how something else sees the world, something primal, walleyed and cyclical. A fish maybe. And take only the current state and not the sequence, not events, such as they are, preceding. She doesn’t yet open her eyes. Blackout curtains. Sight and memory. It could be anywhere. The room is the same room. His room. This view the same view. Whatever it will be.
And how, she thinks, reviewing the facts—having been sent by longtime friend and employer (G. felt partner?), the high-wattage and celebrated chef to scout locations for Emeriti family (here is the footage of the voyage out: wake-board, kite-board, jet ski, and then wake-sprayed grimace of G. staring into the camera; G.’s voice directing shots of white-sanded beach, G.’s vocal insistence: show me these snakes)-- the voyage out? she thinks, what seems to cling to her tongue and what lodges in the throat and having scouted the location, found it satisfactory, and returned and so executing all necessary preparatory tasks for completion, G. returned to hotel, texted (chef, sous, her) and then, it seems, disappeared.
The light outside the window is too bright and cheerful, too welcoming. A false light.
And how post-surveil G. is “professional but distracted”—high-profile celebrated chef’s sous. How the text G. sends her reads only “everything is fine,” a text that comes out of the blue, not in response to any interrogation of well being. How when she thinks about it she thinks of it as “everything is everything” because of a dream she had in which men in trench coats were always calling her on the phone asking if she was ok and saying “everything is everything” before she could respond. How and often when they were little she and G. would plan elaborate “escapes”, packing a duffle bag full of clothes and canned goods—olives, peas, mandarin oranges—and get to the “busy street,” which they couldn’t cross without an adult so they would stare with longing at the other side and return home, she to her home and he to his, next door, and how later she crossed without an adult and descended into the underpass on the other side and would stay there and listen to the train above rumble over her. How friend is another word for stranger.
On the television a show about “The Rise of Slime,” about how rising temperatures in the ocean and overfishing have led to a surge of jellyfish, who have no natural predators, and are thus choking the life from the ocean. “Complex ecologies and their big, complex animals are rapidly being replaced by simple ecosystems—vast, barren wastelands of water dominated by simple animals,” the television says. She feels her legs in all their discomfort.
And how it was in that same underpass, which smelled of urine and had graffiti of creatures with large eyes watching her that she had her first kiss. How his tongue moved like the jellyfish on the screen, rhythmic, insistent, pushing into her teeth, searching for an opening and because everyone else had kissed someone and this was a kiss she let the tongue in. And how because of this or because of something else kissing was her least favorite part. And there was no evidence that he has taken a plane anywhere let alone home, that for all intents and purposes he was still here, somewhere.
And of course everything was being done, how the appropriate minister (she couldn’t remember his name) had said that finding a prominent guest was, without doubt, the highest priority and that the safety of all their was but how had. And how the celebrated chef, who had been up for almost two straight days, he said, trying to figure out what had happened, made the face of concern and touched her shoulders lightly. And then how it was the sous that said that besides the snakes what G. had also been interested in was a city in the desert the government was supposed to be building or have built, that was a city of the future. How you do the things you have to do.
A boom and bust cycle of disease, the television says.
How the last man she was with, she could not say her last lover, not without G. around to laugh about it with her, found her distaste for kissing a rubicon. How he equated kissing with love. How responses are involuntary and though it wasn’t the kissing necessarily, it was what the kissing stood in for, the man said to her, something he couldn’t necessarily name.
The light is too cheerful. The island is made for man but taken by snakes. The city is automated, driven by sun, waiting. He is out there somewhere. She will follow him again.
How what it means to disappear can only be reckoned by wake. Because once when they were little and they went to the aquarium, she and him and his parents—it was a special trip, a birthday trip, and they rode the bus, the train—to see the jellyfish, moon jellies the sign called them, he had disappeared too. How they were looking at them, the jellies, spooky and delicate, lamps in the darkness, and how she turned around to say to him aren’t they cool but he wasn’t next to her, some other kid was next to her, and how she looked everywhere, first walking quickly, quietly and then running, calling his name, through the dark, water-shadowed corridors, giant gray fish, exaggerated, prehistoric, floating in too small tanks staring out of their faces. And how she found him staring at eels. At eels! And he said, he liked how they could hide, if they wanted, how they could blend in. But she loved the jellies, how they were beautiful, the jellyfish, each one, pale translucence in the darkness, floating souls, there in their private ocean , floating souls, alone.
You come because there is a hope. The hope is like grain in your cupped hands. They say fast money. They say new life. Do they smile when they say it? Yes they smile. What does the smile mean? What does a smile ever mean? They are building a building, the tallest building. They are building a city, a museum. They are changing the land. The price of steel goes up, the price of tin goes down. You can make fast money. You can emerge from this—look around you—into something new.
Now you are in a room. There are others in the room. You can taste something that is home but it is not home. Soon the taste is no longer home. It is the taste of here. Fourteen men in a room. The smell of sweat. Other smells. Too many men. Too many smells. Stacks of onions, of cauliflower. This is only one house. There are other houses in the camp. There are fences around the camp. There are guards around the fences. “To keep you safe.” They promised 700. You get 600.
They take you out of the city to another city. Where are we going? , says M. We are going to build, says D. You say nothing. At night M. whimpers in his sleep. He has two daughters and one is unwell. Something with her brain. A cellphone costs 150. Food costs 300. You think of your beloved A. You can see her and it is difficult to sleep without her. Even though you are so tired, tired as to be dead sometimes you wake up because she is not near. The breathing of men; the breathing of women. They take you in a bus. Around you the sands are blown into small cyclones, covering and uncovering. Soon you see it. The city. A mirage. An inevitability. It is a city of robots, D. says. That’s what I hear.
It is not. Instead the city is a network of ghosts. Every street is empty, every building hollow. You are installing panels that capture the sun, which is high in the sky and terrible. The panels feel hot to the touch. Sweat stings your eyes. K. slumps down. Water, he says and goes to get water. Fast is a relative value. Welcome to the city of the future. The sting of sweat is the same everywhere. The price of tin goes up, the price of happiness?
You see a lone figure. Different from the workers. He is in walking around the city. He is not with the company. Occasionally he goes into a building comes out. You can’t make out his face, his expression. Why would a man walk around like this? He turns a corner, disappears. You can imagine him continuing into the desert, a lone figure. You think of A. You think A. and her hands and the feel of the small hairs on the back of her neck against your lips. A lone figure is nothing to you. You must get back to where you are not man who will walk into the desert. The panel is hot on your hands. Tomorrow you will build again. Tomorrow you will dream of home.
Gregory Howard teaches creative writing, contemporary literature, and film studies at the University of Maine. His first novel Hospice was published by FC2 in June 2015. His fiction and essays have appeared in Web Conjunctions, Harp & Altar, and Tarpaulin Sky, among other journals. He lives in Bangor, Maine with his wife and cats.
Scott Fitzgerald is a Brooklyn-based media artist who uses new technologies as expressive tools. His interactive installation and video work has been shown in galleries and public spaces throughout the United States and Europe. He has created permanent large scale LED works at the University of Oslo and for Conde Nast in New York City. He is also known for his glitch-based work; featured by PBS, in books, and shows across the USA. Scott is currently Visiting Assistant Arts Professor at New York University Shanghai, and was previously the founder and head of the Interactive Media program at New York University Abu Dhabi. He lead documentation for the open-source hardware Arduino platform, and is a partner at Lightband Studios.