A carousel of objects, that’s what we’d called it.
I didn’t much get to know the man my wife had sent to rescue me from psycho-digital limbo beyond our brief conversation on the train home from Mexico. I never even learned his name. After he pulled me from harm’s way in New Rio and got us safely boarded into a private compartment, I fell into a near coma and slept through the first few hours of the ride. By the time I awoke in a daze, he’d settled in for a nap of his own.
He sat across and one seat over, hat tilted to stubble. His was a subdued sort of dapper, dusty-shoed in a dark, broken-in suit like some retro-mod private eye. That’s what he was, I suppose: a fixer, an ally for hire, a professional nomad. I was a freelancer too, but our similarities ended there. Too humbled or tired for jealousy, I glanced occasionally at him but mostly stared out the window, mind vacant save for a dull ache, not entirely unpleasant. I eventually went to the restroom, got myself feeling somewhat refreshed, and then visited the service car. By the time I came back with a tall, dark beer he’d awoken. He looked up as I plopped down and popped the can open. I asked him if he dreamt in his sleep as I poured the plastic cup full.
Yes, he responded. He seemed guileless and lucid as he talked me through it.
He’d been walking down a quiet, suburban road alongside a short stonewall when he saw a blank billboard. He walked underneath and followed a footpath through a bushy forest that took him into a neighborhood. A sidewalk led him to a grassy hill and then, a sprawling yard. He walked around its edges and came to realize the contours matched those of his childhood home.
He picked up a soccer ball and noticed a wood-paneled wall with a built-in shelf that lined the whole yard, like a large basement. He instinctively placed the ball on the ledge, and soon a comfortable feeling enveloped him as he saw there was room to hold many such objects and keep them all nicely in place. All around the yard were totems of his past– a favorite storybook, a plastic trophy, a dinged-up butterfly net, a stuffed animal with peeling Velcro hands. As he grew warmer, the floor became a frozen pond, and he glided around, picking things up and putting them on the shelf that ran around the periphery of the rink.
A voice called out to him, a close friend from childhood, saying there was even a place for him to pray, should he wish to do so. He found a small black Ganapathi idol like the one his parents used to have, seated on a hand-carved mandap at one corner. His friend skated around in the distance, still a skinny boy, playing fetch with Jambuvan, his childhood corgi, short-legged and long passed on. He moved into another place in the dream, one he didn’t remember, then awoke.
It had been quite vivid, he relayed to me with quiet intensity; he’d emerged feeling empowered somehow. He attributed this to the sense of agency within the dream, the free reign to advance whatever impulse crossed his mind, and in doing so, feel ordered and sensible. His actions, though mundane, had evinced raw creation; as soon as the idea manifested to put those objects properly in their place, he did, and in doing so accrued a twinkle of liberation, shortly before it had all ended.
Sounds like a great dream, I told him.
He smiled and nodded once and then we said nothing. He eyed my beer after some time and circled his finger: Another? I shrugged and thanked him as he left. I remained seated, tired from my misadventure and quite content to sip my porter and stare out the window. A tranche of blown-up boulders roared past silently like fallen asteroids, lining the cut hill as we snaked north. A small village dotted the countryside beyond; I distantly remembered seeing it or one much like it during the reverse journey. That now seemed eons past. I took a heavy sip. These last few days had dragged on like months, turning the weeks into years . . .
I’d been hurtling in the opposite direction along this same stretch of track, from the US down to Mexico City. The ticket stub was still inside my blazer’s breast pocket with the date of the trip: 03/21/23. The airline strikes had rendered flights quite costly, prohibitively so for my client, 20-Horizine, a new tech magazine imprint of a small, UK-based publisher. My editor at “20-H,” Marjorie Mellencamp-Kruger, known as MMK in publishing circles, but only as Marj to me, had agreed to reimburse a roundtrip train ticket as part of my T&E for the job. So, I’d hopped on a southbound Amtrak, changed lines at Laredo, and disembarked in Mexico City.
I was to meet Ricardo “Rich” Manchando, a self-made social innovation entrepreneur of Portuguese-Indian descent. He’d already been featured in Wired, New York Times, and the other glossies for his brainchild invention, “MicroAR Favela,” an Augmented Reality experience designed to engender compassion and empathy for the world of extreme poverty that he’d escaped when he fled Rio Di Janeiro as a teenager. Along with some five thousand other refugees, he’d settled into an enclave on the outgrowth of Mexico City, tucked into the Ajusco foothills southwest of the City. Despite landing a full scholarship to MIT, he’d dropped out during his junior year to launch a virtual currency startup involving digital games for low-income refugees living in the third world. He’d hypothesized that leveraging people’s innate desire to play might help mitigate the extreme poverty sown by inequitable labor markets and ineffective economic leadership. The work had won him a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” cementing his wunderkind celebrity ascension and springboarding him into Aspen, Davos, and other elite circles of reputed do-goodery.
I’d learned most of that while writing my last piece for 20-H. Marj had floated the suggestion of an exposé to examine what impact, if any, his digital deliverance was having on real-world poverty. Manchando was on the press circuit promoting MicroAR Dharavi, a product expansion designed as an immersive experience to recreate the notorious slum city of Mumbai. Being of the subcontinental persuasion myself, which was no doubt why Marj had played it up to me the way she had, I’d gone all out in composing a scathing critique: Here was a newfangled scheme to prey on Western naivete, to commercialize poverty porn, to virtualize the exotic to yet-further distance, to sanitize the poor of third world smells and flesh and blood, rather than eradicating or alleviating any actual suffering. It seemed the endgame of hawking this slick snakeoil lay simply in courting a certain class of investor-bro to come party with him in his haute-concept enclave in New Rio and finance his next wave of toys.
Whether or not those trenchancies were merited, the truth is that I hadn’t really done much research on what he actually planned to accomplish. I had avoided reaching out with questions, blinded by deep jealousy and some petty, misguided competitive impulse. Marj had known my sensitivities and had welcomed the vitriol, indeed, encouraged it. Just thinking about it now left me cringing; I’d officially become a hack. The final piece amounted to an esoteric, overstuffed and sensationalized takedown, drafted in a fervid ego trip. I was trying desperately to prove something to the world. I forced into it a motivation to brush up on Said’s Other, Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Spivak’s Subaltern, in the service of erudite, sophisticated contrarianism.
How pretentious! It had to have come from a misplaced desire for recognition. I’d been quietly decaying inside my own skin, seeking escape from the pent-up frustration of a life moving sideways. For the last seven years I’d been building a makeshift home at 20-H, but I’d never meant to stay there that long. I was tired of the rote writeups, sick of the spoonfed ersatz innovation marketing pablum to regurgitate in bite-sized listicles. I was struggling with a serious block in my creative endeavor, a sprawling novella about home and identity that I hadn’t managed any work on in over a year. My wife and I had been fighting about money, our savings recently depleted to perform an emergency tumor removal on her old tabby, Jorge Borge, a chubby, half-blind crank we called JB. The cat was beloved, no nine ways about it, but it had been an expensive decision I’d disagreed with; the rift between my wife and I hadn’t fully healed even after JB had. She’d lately been encouraging me to take time off to focus on my story, even proposing to foot JB’s vet bills. I’d dismissed the idea and barked at her suggestion on the way to accusing her of passive-aggressive condescension, which it definitely wasn’t. I was sorry, now. I’d tell her when I got home. I went to sip my beer but found the cup empty.
Maybe the truth was that I was just stuck and frustrated. My selfish goals with the Manchando piece had simply been to boost my profile, to create something clickable to rise above the surface, and that it had, for a moment. Rich’s team had caught wind of the takedown and reached out to Marj, ultimately inviting me to come down to New Rio to learn more about the vision for this technology and test out the experience for myself. She’d offered me a spot bonus and a chance at a cover story if I was willing to make the trip and come back with a more “three-dimensional profile of his work.” The old coot had a way with words, or perhaps a way with people. Else, after seven years of working as my editor, she had a way with me. She always knew which buttons to push, how to stay on my good side while tearing down my ideas, how to manage my fragile ego with praise while stirring up my competitive impulse, and keeping things just out of reach.
Naturally, I’d taken her up on it, in need of the money and more so some sense of progress in a career stuck in a cul-de-sac; as the trip approached I realized too, with giddy aplomb that I’d been deprived of adventure for too long, stretching far back, even before the pandemic. And so, I got on the train. After I never came back, I guess my wife might have contacted Marj. Perhaps they’d conspired to send the Nomad for me.
In the edge of my eye I caught a trace hint of the reflection of my own face, staring pensively through the glass. My tight throat softened into a lump as I recalled my wife at my side, her head resting on my shoulder, right where I wanted it, and hoped I might feel it once again. I imagined her as she must have looked when she met him. She would have been sitting at the dark café at the corner of Prodigal Station’s modest lounge, knees crossed, sipping an Italian soda in her wayfarers, the tortoiseshell ones. She’d be wearing the baby trench I’d bought her, a gift for our fifth anniversary. Her olive skin must have looked nearly green in the shadow of orange lights that came on in the early evenings when she usually left the office.
I was grateful he’d showed up when he did, and not as embarrassed as I would have been before all of this. Instead, I was flat out exhausted, ambition depleted. More than anything, I was relieved to be out of Rich Manchando’s reach. I looked around the cabin, still empty save for me. The car vibrated comfortably. In the old days, trains on this line used to shuttle illegal migrant workers atop freight cars from all across Central America into the States. Back then, the gruesome mortality endemic to train top passage had earned it several nicknames from the locals, one of which I remembered: El tren de la muerte: “The Death Train.” The line had shut down until recent years when an American PE firm bought out the lease and reactivated limited commercial passage.
Then, a man approaches her – not the first, not the last, I’m sure.
What does he want? Is this the fellow?
She picks up a sealed manila folio and stands, waves him over. They shake hands and sit back down.
I need you to go see about a man, she says. My man.
I know, he says. I got your message.
Thanks for agreeing to this; He means the world to me. She looks away. Don’t thank me until it’s done. He seeks her eyes, from careful distance.
All I can do is wish him back here, where he belongs. If that’s what he wants. I’m sure it’s what he wants . . .
I wondered where he’d gone to. Perhaps he’d opted to drink his beer in the service car, deciding it best to leave me to my weary contemplations. He didn’t just do all this – risk his neck to come down this far and rescue me – for the money. There were easier ways to flip a buck than faking an identity and skipping into New Rio. She’d become his latest client, or perhaps it had been Marj, but I knew from the looks of him that he didn’t answer to either of them. Why had he come? In search of what?
Maybe he just needed a vacation, but I doubted it. I knew about men like him, because I used to be one. More accurately perhaps, I used to want to be one, to be like him, or how I imagined him at least: Successful, confident, balanced and consistent, disciplined but easygoing, serious and lighthearted, strong, smart, adaptable, ready for anything. A quiet alpha, not Brutus, nor Caesar, but just a man of all seasons.
We passed by a lake set against a sloping mountain, Insta perfect. I realized I must have been sitting on the opposite side of the train to Mexico City, for I had the same view now that I did then. In a dawning déjà vu, I recalled ruminating these ruminations during the previous journey, and again before then. . .
My self-improvement gears had rusted out, ossified and quaint now in all their Romanesque glory. The failures of past obsession had become a defining character trait, or some fused chrysalis of psychic scar tissue. I’d never thought, in those Bhima-bellied days of yore, that the art of being satisfied was a worthwhile pursuit, so I spent the prime of my youth chasing after the imaginary life I wanted for myself, full of strangers and experiences; the cigarettes and cafés, window seats on solo voyages abroad, just like this one, all in the service of some inscrutable mythology of the writer’s quest.
Crossing the invisible threshold into adulthood, I’d started running further away from myself, one and then two drinks at a time, each woman and gig and passport stamp just too interesting to resist. All the while, I frog-boiled my pockets thick with guilt and guile, in the name of. . .what? I couldn’t remember anymore. Not virtues, like honor or truth, but some kind of meaning, or so I now hoped. Maybe I was just a lazy degenerate underneath it all. It all stopped when I met and fell for her. It happened so fast, her fierce kindness and tough patience and soft wisdom enrapturing my imagination all at once. We got married, but I’d come to doubt recently if even her love was enough to save me in the end. Jaw clenched on a tightrope, too afraid to look down; this is how I’d found myself once again as I disembarked and strolled with outward nonchalance into Mexico City.
An ageless woman dressed in a dark skirt, blazer, and white ruffled blouse held a sign with my last name on it next to a black, electric SUV. I’d worn my suit and only brought a weekender in anticipation of a short trip. She didn’t speak English or chose not to with me, so on the silent ride to Manchando’s compound I found myself too anxious and distracted with my notes to notice much of the colorful megalopolis bustling through the tinted glass. I’d feigned indifference when Marj had proposed the trip down here, but truthfully, I was deeply embarrassed to meet and make nice with this man, whose rising star and celebrated creation I’d attacked, unprovoked.
I rifled through the overcooked clusters of questions I’d jotted, involving variously: the nature of his motivations in expanding to India, the country of the father he’d never known; the transferability (or not) of any interpersonal empathy generated through augmented reality; the limits of the white knight role that private capital could play in third world poverty given the well-documented economic history of global late-stage capitalism, and so on. The questions seemed inane now, a sad trifle, crumbling under my scrutiny like wet cookies, or teeth tumbling out in a bad dream. The sun hung low in the air by the time we arrived. I was dread-soaked and clammy, but my stomach still plunged with excitement as I got out of the car.
I’d read about Manchando’s compound, The Cube, but the pictures didn’t do it justice. It was a squat, Rubik’s shadowbox of concrete slabs, designed with clusters of residence rooms for visiting guests, a line of glass-walled offices, and a layered, multi-story laboratory for R&D, all set in concrete around a central garden courtyard. I stood in the cosmopolitan lobby like a dusty scarecrow, pretending not to notice a colorful gaggle of well-dressed, leggy women with small handbags, laughing en Español by a burbling fountain. An androgynous, slick-haired bantam whose nametag read Sunimret greeted me in a warm, vaguely Thai accent and showed me through the polished hallways and up a flight of floating slab steps to my guestroom.
Once inside and alone, I dropped my bag on the armchair and looked around the sleek, minimalist studio bedroom: A standing shower, mounted flat screen, and small window offering a partial view of the garden courtyard. On the bed sat a sealed manila packet containing my itinerary: A late breakfast, then a morning tour of the facility, followed by a light lunch and afternoon interview with my host, with an optional AR immersion if I so desired. The leisurely, unpretentious schedule calmed me somewhat. I stripped and showered, poured myself a glass of ice water from a sweating crystal carafe full of flowers, limes, and cucumbers, and lay on the bed in a bathrobe. I tried to text my wife that I’d arrived but got stuck looking for signal in the room when a landline rang.
It was Sunimret, inquiring after me hospitably. They invited me to order a complimentary dinner for room service, and if I liked, join Rich and other guests for a cocktail hour and an intimate garden party starting in about fifteen minutes. I said thanks and hung up before remembering to ask about the Wi-Fi. I fiddled with my list of lame interview questions for a few minutes, then craned my neck peering out the window at the women who had moved to the courtyard. I decided I could fix up my notes with a fresh mind in the morning. I’d pushed it back this far already, after all. I combed my hair and brushed my teeth when I noticed my wedding band. I watched my reflection twist it off slowly, his mind traipsing between the ladies outside by the bar and the distant memories of the last time he’d been alone in Mexico . . . I shot him a frank look and put it back on, spritzed some cologne, pulled on a fresh shirt, and left the room.
The sun-kissed garden greeted me warmly as I walked out of the concrete onto a plush rhomboid of manicured grass. Tangerine-hued gravel paths intercut the lawn, with bulb lights draped high overhead in anticipation of the sunset. A dozen or so guests stood in small groups around clusters of cushioned benches, drinks glinting as they marveled at a flutter of butterflies flirting with the floral vines of a living wall behind a tall and spotless white bar. Standing circular fans moved the humid air around. I drafted to the center as another group of folks entered the party behind me. My jaw clenched up in a faceless grin. I nodded insipidly to everyone and no one as I beelined for a cocktail. I was soon chatting with a sweaty, blockheaded VC over stone-ground guacamole and a mezcal margarita when a murmur rose into hoots and cheers: Ricardo Manchando had arrived.
He was shorter than expected, but no less vulpine, and preternaturally assured at the center of his entourage. He made no grand speech, but simply waved, grinning megawatts in his silky black polo and off-white slacks as he floated around for handshakes and personal greetings.
I drained my marg and ordered another, trying to play it cool through my sweat until he finally made his way over to me, hand outstretched. His relaxed smile didn’t quite hide an air of scrutiny, but I supposed the feeling was mutual. He whispered something in another language to a hovering assistant, a radiant, mocha-skinned woman in a lavender sundress and a white cotton blazer, who looked me softly in the eyes then down and up, nodding. She left us to chat and with the liquor flowing, I couldn’t help but watch her go.
That was quite an article, he told me. You’re a talented writer. I look forward to reading your next piece, after I’ve had an opportunity to change your mind about MicroAR.
He spoke crisply, his accent pluck with succinct, rehearsed sincerity. I nodded nonchalantly and threw Marj under the bus for sensationalizing the piece but stopped short of an apology. He squinted and cocked his head at me, as if reading my mind, or more. He smiled dryly and patted me lightly on the shoulder, then motioned me to join him at the bar.
In the end, as they say, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. And my opinion is that you’ve got to lighten up, man.
I stared at him silently. I knew he was right.
You’ve had a long trip. I think maybe you’d like to relax tonight before you experience the suffering tomorrow – he paused before adding – you know, from the Favelas I mean. He smiled coolly, without using his eyes.
His assistant stood waiting at the bar with two short flutes filled with an elaborate, murky blue-grey cocktail.
This is a special drink, just for you and I. To appreciate the splendid evening. But perhaps you don’t believe in augmenting your reality?
I caught the soft challenge lurking plainly in his voice. I picked up the glass without a blink and clinked it against his own. I waited as he drank half and matched his sip. He smiled and whispered something else to his assistant, then introduced her to me as Maud.
Maud will be taking care of you if you need anything. You’re in great hands with her.
Trust me. More whispers. We quaffed our drinks with a nod. Then, he winked and left me with Maud, whose irregular English and off-kilter giggle didn’t diminish her affability, but in fact the opposite. She was Eritrean and Portuguese, with a smile so white and persistent I found myself not caring about anything else as she took me around the party, snacking and drinking. By the time we joined a group seated on the chairs, I noticed the colors of the flowers on the wall had intensified. I excused myself to the restroom, feeling incredibly light on my feet all of a sudden. The smallest flutters of light and breeze felt magnified to lush proportions. I stared, heady into the mirror. Was I really fighting my own enjoyment? Hadn’t I been in need of an adventure?
Lighten up, man, he chided from the mirror, deftly removing his wedding band.
I walked back outside, feeling the nervous pit that had anchored my stomach for hours, or years, blossoming into a soft, slow-building anticipation that didn’t end anywhere, but kept on opening, like a kaleidoscope. It felt like I was wafting out of the last day of school, back into the permafun, music and laughter. Soon enough, some deep muscle memory from a thousand nights of bachelorhood past kicked in. I began laughing, joking, and connecting with the others, several of whom I soon discovered had also partaken of Manchando’s elixir. The sudden distance between my recent worries and my immediate future thrilled me, like I’d discovered some geometric shortcut to living. I was in a hall of mirrors that shone onto me a halcyon highlight reel of the most blissful moods of my life. I dwelled on nothing save the joy of my pulse, the balmy warmth on both sides of my skin, the positive energy brimming from the people around me, my new friends. It all swelled together on the veranda, slowly, building momentum with the deep bass as the sun’s heat bathed us with its final rays.
An hour or so and several plates of hors d’oeuvres and glasses of champagne later, the garden had thinned out, Rich had disappeared, and I was soaring on an astral plane. The light grew as soft as the bubbly when Maud led the group of us to the top of the Cube to take in the sunset, a stunning fluorescent colorscape, shimmering over the fuchsia haze of Mexico City’s skyline. I sat between Alma, a bronze woman with doe eyes in a white dress with a wreath headband, and a tight-shirted, lumberjack Oregonian investor named Clive. I said little, listening to the eight or nine of us prattle on. Maud stood on a handrail as the sun quivered over the horizon, watching her then I felt a pull, like I wanted her to float to me then and there.
As if she read my mind she turned and smiled, her silhouette dusky and her eyes sparkling. She sauntered to my side and snuggled on the cushion between me and Alma, her head on my shoulder. One of the women sparked a joint, and we were all properly buoyant when Maud suggested we head out to a speakeasy in La Condesa, owned by one of Rich’s investors.
I swam with the pack into a trio of black cars; from there my memory smears: Another bottle of champagne in the car, singsong and perfume and heavy bass, the blur of orange streetlamps lining the highways into the city, the dimly lit, raw-brick warmth of the cocktail bar. Big spheres of ice tinkling in tumblers of ambrosia; Hand-rolled cigarettes, with more marijuana stuffed inside like paratha. By the time cheshire Maud produced a box of AR goggles for us to play around with, I was falling or flying through a kaleidoscope of black and neon laughter. We found the dance floor then, all of us and then it was just me and Maud. Bobbing our heads to the beat, laughing, touching as the lights flashed, teeth and eyes and perfume and mezcal sweat lighting our skin on fire.
I don’t know how much time passed before I came to. I only remember that my head was pounding, and that I couldn’t move my hands or feel my body. My vision blurred badly, but I thought I heard a voice telling me to relax, and perhaps a distant prick inside my elbow, and then more darkness. Was my mind playing tricks on me? As a sinking headache clouded my restfulness from a great but diminishing distance, more snippets flashed back to me: Maud and I at the back of the bar; kissing wildly, the smell of her hair making my tongue strong; grinding again on the dance floor. Then we were in a room, black and brown skin in white sheets, her breast in my mouth. The door closed and my stomach lurched into a dry heave. In a cold squelch
I realized I had wet the bed. Still I lay there, frozen, all of my temples in a vice.
I eventually realized I could still open or close my eyes, but the rest of me seemed frozen. When I opened, all I saw was a hazy, ugly white, like a wall in need of paint. For some time I simply kept my eyes closed from exhaustion. The headache failed to subside all the way, so eventually I awoke again and lay there, eyes open, for what might have been minutes or hours. My vision slowly blurred into place, twitchy or pixelated somehow. When I tried turning my head, everything tilted unnaturally to the side, towards a boxy window and a door.
That’s when I realized I was inside Manchando’s program.
By adjusting my field of vision, I soon found I could drift, ghostlike, but I wasn’t able to look down towards where my body would have been. After some time I figured out how to float out of the room. It wasn’t the favelas, but instead a honeycomb of blank rooms, some kind of digitized representation of The Cube. I could only maneuver from one empty room to the next, drifting haplessly like I was killing time at an empty airport terminal. I dithered aimlessly, eventually finding a chamber with a bed and a television screen.
I went inside and positioned myself in front of it. Nothing changed as I waited for the television to turn on, but I found quiet solace in having something visual to concentrate on. I found to my dismay that when I went to get up and leave this room, my vision had become fixed. I struggled momentarily in my disembodied way, but as if the program was aware of my awareness, everything soon faded into darkness as the screen came to life. I realized I had shifted into a pinned view of the image that bled into the screen, which was, of course, me.
I was now watching a video feed of my real body, laying in my guestroom, goggles strapped tight. I was connected to an IV. The sight would have sent my heart racing, but discarnate and likely medicated against panic as I was, all I could do was close my eyes or open them. I suddenly felt an itchy feeling and tried desperately to move my hands or get up, to no avail. All I could do was close my eyes and imagine clenching my teeth. What followed was a static, stationary descent into madness.
I sunk, trapped in a quicksand of self-loathing. I had only myself to blame for winding up here. I could only lay there endlessly in bed as I stared at myself, utterly stuck. Sunk. Fucked. Too numbed to feel fear, I languished in acute distress. The quivering emotion was nondescript and non-verbal but acutely psychological, as if the IV was flushing the context away, leaving me only with the panging, bilious pit of remorse, regret, and slow-seething vitriol. I questioned my wife’s love, and how she could tolerate me when I could barely tolerate myself. All loose threads, I prepared to resign myself to the convincing scenario on the loom; that she hated me, that the marriage was broken. My stomach careened and I wanted to cry. I squeezed my eyes shut as I fell headlong, turning everything over and over, tuning into and out of relentless loops of intro-retrospection.
As I scrambled for an escape hatch, I came to my novella, feeling the weight of its limpid, earnest pages dragging me down, even here. The working title was ‘What we talk about when we talk about home.’ I fell into a roaring cringe. I knew that it would never get published, even if I ever managed to finish it. I remembered how Marj had offered to read it, but gave up after a few pages, saying only that the references to Indian mythology in the first chapter were too much for Western readers. What would she ever care about Kurukshetra – but didn’t that prove her point? Miles away, a tightness gripped my chest. I’d open my eyes and see myself, stuck in my own sweat, while the walls and room remained bright. Unlike the late morning gloom I’d suffered in my teens and twenties, wherein getting out of bed felt impossible, the defeat here felt whole and total. Like pierced Bhishma on his bed of arrows, all I could do was lay in wait for fate’s chosen heroes to arrive at their station.
Eyes closed, I orbited deeper and deeper around the endless middle of this slow hell; eyes open, I watched myself laying there, a goggled cripple soaking in my own cold piss. I imagined my wife again, walking into the room. What would she say? I dreaded her reaction; I didn’t want her to see me like this. But I needed her help. I needed anyone’s help. I needed to help myself, and I needed help, myself. Which more? I didn’t know. Was that why I couldn’t have either? I closed my eyes again, tired, empty, deadened. I wanted to scream, to cry, and to go home to her, to my true love again, to curl up against her body in our own bed. I wanted to feel JB’s furry weight on my chest, to trace the knotted scar that now loped up his belly. I was glad we’d kept the furbag alive, despite the cost. I felt myself smile at the memory of his dopey, angry meow.
Suddenly, my field of vision jostled from the smile. The slow dawn of cold but certain discovery:
The goggles had moved!
Dull thumping woke me up as my heart jump-started from the netherworld. I tried to smile again, to budge my way to freedom. It didn’t work at first. I grasped at the possibility of escape like I was meditating in front of a tiny candle. She doesn’t know. She trusts me. She still loves me. I can figure out how to get through this, too. At a placid moment’s distance, a voice tugged on my sleeve: I did still love her, too. Flooded with relief, I hugged at it like gravity, soon taking deeper breaths, exhaling and imagining a deep relax. Then through the darkness, they tumbled up to me at last: fragments of gratitude from my happy, blessed life.
I recalled my wife’s sneaky tickles, our summer trips to Portland, that one time we decided not to get out of bed all weekend. The video I’d filmed of JB dry heaving at a bowl of fresh-cut cucumber. I laughed. The bottom of the goggles rode up on my cheeks, millimeters up my nose.
I began to imagine myself after I got out of here. The goggles slipped back into place but now I felt suffused with gentle reverie. What if I did take a break from 20H? How grand. To spend whole afternoons watching JB sleep, as I worked on my novella, re-worked it, from scratch and claw, pages all on the floor.
To prepare dinner and decant a bottle of wine before she came home. A Spanish red, her favorite. I’d give anything just to see her now. I remembered the scent of her shampoo and felt my nostrils twitch. I wanted to go home. My throat swelled into a lump and my vision grew blurry as my eyes felt warm; Instinctively, I reached up to wipe them and –
The Nomad arrived, standing in the doorframe with a patient smile and a second beer in hand. I shook my head clear as he took his seat.
How are we feeling? Next stop is us.
Great, I told him. Just thanking my lucky stars to be out of there. We popped our cans at the same time and poured the beer for a toast.
To Freedom, he offered.
To Going Home, I met his gaze.
He nodded back at me, and then we drank. Outside, a great puffy cloud was trying to swallow the sun, leaving the sky with a puzzled complexion.
Say, I asked him. Do you mind if I ask you a question? Or maybe a few?
Shoot, he said.
I asked how long I’d been stuck in Manchando’s prison. I could hardly believe him when he told me. Had my wife hired him, or was it Marj? He said he couldn’t answer that one, but he told me my wife would be waiting for me in the terminal at Prodigal Station. How did he manage to get me out of The Cube? He shrugged and said that he’d been hired for a job, and that’s what he came down here to do.
So, what do you want? Why did you take this gig? He frowned at that, tilting the beer in circular swivels inside his glass. He slid on a wry smile and answered slowly.
Honestly, I don’t want much of anything. It makes things easier in some ways. Makes it harder in others.
I stayed my tongue. His brow somersaulted in a brief conniption. He went on.
Truth be told, most of the time I just want to be left alone. And the rest of the time, I get bored, or I get lonely, and then, well, I guess I wonder if I do want something else . . .
I nodded politely; mouth still closed. Another train zoomed past us. What does a train want? Only to move. He looked at it too, smiling.
You know what the locals used to call the trains that ran on this track? He turned to me with that cryptic smile. El tren de los desconocidos. It means, “The train of the unknowns.”
I squinted. He leaned in, elbows on knees, beer cradled, eyes clear as crystal.
Have you ever given up on something before you’re finished with it?
Plenty of times. I mean, you’ve gotta know when to quit, right? He cocked his head to the side, brow pursed almost admonishingly. Anyway, my turn. What were you looking for when you came down here?
I’d been thinking about that the entire ride, but I didn’t have an answer. I shrugged, turning to the window. I don’t know if it was the beer, or the psychonautical hangover, or just the hum and throttle of this goddamn train, but in a sudden whoosh of evanescence, my turmoil about Manchando, Marj, the article, this whole trip, the self-loathing, all of it – felt like moths disappearing at dawn. Godspeed to the anointed, and to hell with everything else. I couldn’t wait to get home now, to take a shower, to hold her. I choked up suddenly in a gasping sob, my throat tight and delicate. An onslaught of hot, furious tears threatened to blow, and I had to wipe my eyes. I felt him studying me like a reflection as I slipped my wedding band back on from the depths of my breast pocket.
Overhead through the cabin, a tone chimed in three parts. A voice called out from the intercom that we were now minutes from Laredo, passengers please have your passports ready.
Okay. Well, what did you find? He’s still watching.
The sun broke out of the clouds and the light flashed my eyes, triggering a gentle flashback to the soft acid sunset from the top of the Cube. I leaned way back into the headrest, breathing deep and out through my eyes into a husky smile at the remembrance of that melted neon party, now just another invisible stain in my mind’s eye. What had I found?
I found myself in the digital prison where I’d gotten stuck. What happened to me, anyway? I pinched myself discreetly to make sure I was still here and remembered the IV’s pinprick. Manchando’s revenge, that son of a bitch. Or was it just Maud trying to help me after I blacked out? I chuckled under my breath and mimicked her permasmile in the window, relaxing another notch. What a trip. I shook my head and let her go, left her in the countryside forever as we clacked over the rails. The land was now dotted with the station’s fringe of freight train fragments, inert on the tracks without locomotion. Amidst the streaks of rusting clutter, I remembered finding the hauntingly clear image of myself, detached and disabled in the depths of a bright white box, just a muted, shallow, and inanimate object.
I found myself recalling the pregnant dread in discovering the cluttered abyss of my own soul, lain and stripped bare for my own judgment; how I’d spun around and around myself there, on the bed in the tidy hotel room, my eyes closed in a noisy quiet. Or were they open in a silent scream? Whirring in place around all of the different selves I’d created and destroyed and brought back to life again, in the name of duty, work, love, or truth.
Like a carousel of objects, spinning around and around, circles of love and hate, I’d been falling sideways for an eerie, lonely eternity that didn’t feel very short at all. I found myself thinking about how, as it turned out, all of those selves and their thousand brethren didn’t revolve around me, but how we all revolved around something else entirely.
The train rumbled at last to a gentle halt. A chime called out again, warbling nostalgic sequence of chords, ancient, futuristic mumak in three-tone loops, over and over and over again until they stopped. The Nomad’s eyebrow tilted up, followed almost imperceptibly by a tug in his cheek. We drank our beers to the last. He handed me my phone. I picked up my bag and walked from the compartment into the narrow aisle. At the exit I stepped down the ladder and hopped down, back at last onto terra firm.
I looked up at the Nomad from the terminal of Prodigal Station. We nodded farewell. He didn’t get off the train; we were both exactly where we wanted to be.
Story by N.D. Rao
Art by William Crawford