[ToC]

 

SAFEKEEPING

Ruth Joffre

 

 

When it was first arranged, her lover said she would be safe: the apartment was designed just like a vault, so no matter what happened the doors would lock, the water would run, and the overhead lights would continue to shine in their metallic cage-like sconces; the whole world could descend into nuclear winter, and the apartment would remain a comfortable 72ºF (excepting that cold spot in the bathroom and the caul of heat around the oven whenever she made her dinners). There was a lifetime supply of dehydrated food in the cupboards and an intercom should she need to request anything, though where the intercom led and who it would connect her to, she didn’t know. Once or twice she tried pressing the button and saying, "Hello. Hello?" but there was no answer. There was nothing she needed, anyway: everything had been provided for, except her loneliness.

*

Their relationship had always been a secret. They met at a fundraiser for the university where she used to work and at some point between the cocktails and the awards her soon-to-be lover led her to a darkroom and pushed her up against a wall (she remembers the smell of lavender in her palm and the sharp sting of metal on her arm where she was pressed into a filing cabinet); then when it was over and their dresses were smooth she assumed this was how it was going to be—a spur-of-the-moment sort of thing replete with furtive glances and secret messages. By the time they were seated at the table, they had already forgotten each other’s names; and then it was just a matter of smiling and trying not to blush as a single, stockinged foot rubbed against her leg. They had been dating ever since, but had rarely been seen in public—only once when she wanted ice cream, and once when they attended the symphony, though that was in Paris, which neither called home. Her lover was a diplomat, and feared that the relationship would attract the wrong sort of attention, as evidenced when her apartment was ransacked one night—her real apartment, the one she'd rented on the surface; the lock had been broken, clothes strewn on the floor; nothing had been taken, but that was little comfort. Her only call was to her lover, but she was in Belgrade then—Belarus, on assignment—and couldn’t pick up the phone and with nowhere to turn she started sleeping in the lab. She'd be safe there, she thought. Certain things in life were sacred. For her, research was like a silent god. It had to be nurtured, attended, ridiculed. What was science if not a form of inquiry? Her heart had always been a skeptic, so when her lab was burned and her experiments destroyed, she asked her lover why—what did these people want from her? Her lover sat her down and said, "There are some things I haven’t told you." That was when she decided to go underground.
     They made it look like a kidnapping—a broken window, signs of a struggle. Her lover even drew a blood sample to plant her DNA. Meanwhile, her assistant was at the lab, reconstructing all their research, and when he saw someone downloading their files, he assumed that it was her, working from her home terminal, as she had been known to do in times of stress. It wouldn’t occur to him until later, when the police came, that someone else might’ve been accessing the data—that same someone who set the fire, perhaps, their arsonist-turned-kidnapper—but to what end? It was true: she was a decorated scientist. In graduate school, she was among the first ones ever to witness an almendro tree shrink into its roots. In the labs it took weeks of filtering and isolating to reproduce the exact chemical composition of the forests where the almendro trees used to thrive, taking into account the soil, the rain, the sun on any given day, when phosphorus dropped in pellets from the sky—the bat population was decimated, and with it, the source of guano. A journalist once wrote the lab was like a warehouse with white walls and green trimming and a thousand trees that were suspended from the rafters, feeding on a nutrient-rich bath as they basked in the simulated effects of a biome encased in glass (she had to hang the trees, she explained, to observe the roots). It was supposed to help people. Before the fire hit she'd been researching how to terraform the earth and counteract the disastrous effects of global warming, but she couldn't work fast enough, and when the research was lost, everyone assumed it was because of her, because she'd gone to a fundraiser and pissed off the wrong people, the wrong hand in the government pocket. That was the official story. It was much easier than the truth.

*

Her lover insisted she have no contact with the outside world. To maintain their ruse that she was missing, presumed dead, her parents would never know she was alive—she could never call their house on Christmas morning or ask them out to dinner, and when their birthdays came, on June 4 and August 9, she would light a candle in the kitchen as if to say she’d made a cake. In fact, there were no baking tools in the apartment, even though she would’ve like the smell of gingerbread or the taste of a breakfast muffin on those mornings when she knew that it was winter (the windows were artificial, their screens programmed to alter with the seasons so that in the spring there were lilacs, and in the fall, colors). There were days she longed for nothing more than mulled wine and a blanket she could sleep in as she snuggled closer to the fire. It seemed the architect had thought of everything, except the smell of leaves burning in a barrel and the taste of snow crabs dipped in butter. There was no recourse for nostalgia or desire (her lover had been gone over a month when she decided she couldn’t take it anymore—she had to leave). Her apartment was connected to the surface by way of a single circular staircase, its walls reinforced to prevent collapse, and required a passcode in order to leave it. In the event of an emergency, she was trained to wrap a scarf over her face and make her way down to the foreign consulate, where the Chinese ambassadors would take her in no questions asked. There were papers she was supposed to give them—documents to say she was who she said she was (a doctor, a pediatrician in need of their help); but it turned out that she didn’t need the papers, or the sunglasses, or the scarf, except to filter through the air. The city was a disaster—the buildings crumbling, the doors collapsed. Where there was once a line of sycamores dotted gently on a path, a pair of elderly Japanese men were playing kotos on a bench, keening desperately through the smog. It must’ve happened, then. How else could she explain it? The rubble in the doorway, the glass shattered in the hall. At one point there had been a hundred-story building where she stood, but when she looked up then all she saw was the sky, its fat belly hanging low like the fateful clouds of gods. It wasn’t safe. When she turned, a town car drove by and she hid in an alley between two storefronts until she was sure that it was gone. After that, she returned to the apartment, but instead of weeping, like she wanted to, she sat on the couch, where there was a note that said: I’ll be back tonight.
     And so she waited.

*

It became a sort of ritual—laying her clothes out on the bed, putting the water in the kettle. It had taken her hours to get ready the first night, spilling water on the floor and getting a comb stuck in her hair as she scrambled to boil the halibut and rehydrate the wine; then, when the table was set, there was nothing more she could do except light the candles and eat the figs she had been saving for the occasion. There was a limited amount of everything, particularly fruit, but she wanted this dinner to be perfect and waited for as long as she could before sinking her teeth into its flesh; and even then she felt guilty (the skin had gotten sticky, and the acids in the juice had eaten their way through the onions and the greens until the salad had turned mushy, the lettuce dark and slimy, as the sea). Her apartment had a garden, and she was growing as many different kinds of vegetables as she could in a dozen mini-beds; the kale had turned out well, and the tomatoes were a godsend on those days when she was cold and feeling lonely (a ripe tomato was like a burst of sunshine in the mouth or the splash of liquid when one bites into a grape). It was so soothing—even after she accepted that her lover wasn’t coming, there was still the dinner. There was still the wine and the fish and the lovely béchamel she had made with the rehydrated milk and the last of the Parmesan cheese; and after all, she was wearing that dress—the one her lover bought her from France, with the sleeveless arms and naked back. It had a cowl neck, its folds accentuating the soft lines of her throat and the hard edge of the necklace wrapped so tight around her neck, by the end of the third course she felt like she was choking.
     The leaving had been a mistake—that much was clear. Her lover had gone, and might never get a chance to come again. It was entirely possible that her lover had been killed, but she didn't like to think of that possibility, and for months after set aside the hours it would take to convince herself that it was fine, her lover was fine, she had simply been called away on an important mission and would return as soon as possible (and then only if she had forgiven her for leaving that apartment in the first place). Her lover had been very clear: she was doing this for her. It was all designed to keep her safe, presuming she let it; so why not let it? There was no harm in living out the fantasy. And when she was being perfectly honest with herself she felt a terrible thrill in knowing that her lover was the kind of woman to make her wait, that even when she did come, it would take hours or even days for them to speak, with all their time spent devoted to the intricacies of heart, blood, flesh, re-learning the methods by which they had first silenced each other and made it safe. It had occurred to her that this might be an experiment and that at any moment her lover might be at the other end of the intercom, listening and watching; the thought of a camera following her from the kitchen to the shower then from the shower to the bed lent every motion a special significance, as if it were being weighed and counterweighed to determine her faithfulness. In the afternoons and the evenings, she put on an extraordinary show of desire, anticipating the lipstick on her fork, the skirt pooling on the floor. Once, she even dreamt of a tongue swirling on her neck, the tip tracing a delicate, impenetrable design; but in the morning she always woke alone.

*

There were cracks in the ceiling. She might not have noticed them, except one morning she woke up yearning for a proper lab, with phosphorus and zinc and grad students wearing safety goggles, and to console herself she laid in bed reading old science journals about plant physiology and the epigenetic influence of oxygen deprivation on the life cycle of bean plants. Then she laid back on the pillow, and there they were: those hairline cracks, like roots in the ceiling (for a brief moment she thought she could see them grow). It was difficult to say how long they had been there. If she had to guess, she would say it had been months: the cracks extended the length of the ceiling and protruded slightly in the center, as if taking on water; but the paint was very dry to the touch, and she knew (because her lover had told her) that behind it there was plaster, then foam, then steel, a thick layer of it designed to withstand any blast. If the ceiling were to collapse, it would mean the tectonic plates were shifting, the earth itself packing and unpacking as if under the pressure of an eternal gravedigger whose shovel was seeking out the edges of her home, hoping to undermine it (and she did worry that something had come loose along the way—the air ducts pried loose from their hinges, the stairway drifting further from the door). If she had but been left the proper tools, she could've investigated the matter, attempted some sort of Do-It-Yourself fix; but her lover had insisted she have only the most basic equipment and had all but outlawed any science experiment or building project. The apartment's systems were very delicate and should not be tampered with, her lover had said.
     In the fall when the artificial windows gleamed with the light of a million changing leaves, a tiny glitch in the mainframe resulted in the images being projected inward, the figure of a girl cycling through the living room on a bicycle, her pale hair and knitted scarf streaming behind her as if in the breeze, reassuring her that there was still some life left to be lived. It happened that the couch was situated under a maple tree, and as she curled up under its branches with a sweater and a cup of tea its leaves began falling all around her, their luminous fiery ribs passing quietly through her chest. It lasted three hours—maybe four—until a second glitch, no doubt precipitated by the first, resulted in the illusion flickering in and out of sight. For days after she would see in the corner of her eye the laces of a football sailing through the air or the tail of a squirrel twitching fretfully on the stove as it counted its nuts. Once, in bed after drinking a package of wine, she awoke when a pair of headlights burst to light inside her dresser, those perfectly round incandescents blinking at her like a dragon's eyes. In that moment, the world of the projections and the reality of life in that apartment appeared to collide, such that she had to shield her eyes and peer curiously through the windshield. There was a man sitting behind the wheel, fingers lifting the pale ghost of a cigarette as he nodded at an accomplice; there was an exchange of words and then a hard crack like a skull hitting the floor, and the apparition disappeared, never to return.
     Occasionally there were voices in place of images and she would hear the sound of a fistfight, for instance, or a child calling its friends out to play. It always seemed like these voices were coming from outside, as if they had merely drifted through an open window on a calm, suburban day; but she knew they came from within, the sounds leaking through the faucets and the cracks until they fell like whispers: was the water running smoothly? Did the floors ever seem to vibrate when she walked in bare feet? In the quieter hours, she reasoned that there must be an artificial intelligence maintaining the apartment's systems, and that either it was malfunctioning—threatening—or that in the recesses of its programming it had come to believe it was showing her a kindness, offering her voices in place of friends. When the voices returned, attempting yet again to open a dialogue, she only smiled to herself and pretended that it was comforting, hearing them chuckle. She didn't have the heart to say out loud that she was lonely and that she would've preferred the silence (the endless, deafening silence). Fall had become winter and winter, spring, and only after the ground had thawed and the windows were getting warmer did she think perhaps this would help after all. It took the better part of a day, sitting on the couch worrying her teeth over her lip, but finally she lifted her face to the sky and said, "When is she coming back?" Then, when there was no answer, she just said, "Please?" Please. She was having trouble sleeping.

*

Her nightmares were waking her up two, three times a night. In one, she was locked inside an old building where the only method of escape was to descend a rusty ladder and crawl through a vice in the heating ducts to access a secret passageway that led into the dungeons and then the sewers. In another, she was walking through the halls of a palace with gilded chairs and doors with inlaid mirrors when she sensed someone behind her and slipped quietly into a dressing room, where she shut herself up inside a wardrobe, thinking she was in danger (even in the midst of perfect luxury this was always what she thought). Her dreams had taken on a sinister quality at once bizarre and claustrophobic that left her panicked and disoriented, as if her unconscious mind were attempting to warn her of a disaster still to come. It occurred to her that the situation on the surface was such that her lover had been captured and her enemies were searching for this secret location, thinking perhaps that she was storing sensitive information there, screenshots and external hard drives that would prove this or that government had known about this or that terror cell (and done nothing to stop the attacks). When she went topside, there had been a town car crawling through the ruins—perhaps she had been made then? Once the apartment itself was found it was just a simple matter of isolating the support systems and tampering with them, introducing psychoactive chemicals to the water and infecting the mainframe with various viruses and malware; by this method it would be easy enough to torture them both: the one left alone to crack under the pressure, and the other, made to watch. It had been a mistake to start talking, but she hadn't been able to help it—she was so desperate to make contact. Once or twice, she had even gotten drunk and started swearing into the intercom, swearing and begging, because she didn't know how much longer she could bear it. Then finally her lover visited her in her dreams.
     It was impossible to say whether it did or it didn't happen. There were times when she woke from one dream only to realize that she had slipped into a deeper, less forgiving one filled with women who laughed at her and men who told cruel jokes, and this felt like one of those dreams. It started simply: she was walking over a gravel road into the parking lot of what appeared to be a dive bar (she was aware in this moment that she was wearing a heavy winter coat and had her fists stuffed in her pockets). Inside, she found a man who was sorting through piles and piles of dirty laundry. He said, "You shouldn't be here," and she responded, "My girlfriend's going to be here soon." He had no response to this other than to sort his laundry. Soon she was kneeling on the floor, saying, "Someone's here," to a knocking at the door, and then there was the feeling of a hand on her head and her shoulders suddenly being turned. In the same moment that a biker crashed through a wall and destroyed all the terrariums, she tilted her head back, her vision going black until she rose up into a slow, inevitable kiss. Her hand had been resting under the covers, but she lifted it to rest on her lover's cheek (there was a warm puff of air on her cheek and a flush of what felt like pleasure or maybe gratitude). When she kissed harder, she felt her lover's tongue catch at the corner of her mouth, and then the kiss was over and her mouth was falling open. She remembers saying, "Why did you stop?" but these words came slowly, thickly, as if she were trying to arrange them on her tongue, pulling their shapes straight from the ether. It took some blinking for her lover's mouth to materialize, the lips curved in a wan, beneficent smile. Even then she knew her lover was tired. It was right there on her face—the uncertainty, the exhaustion, and the comfort she took in sighing, "You're alive." It almost brought her to tears. "I'm sorry I've been away so long. I tried, but it was too hard. Everything just fell apart," she said, as the pressure she felt in having to keep it together started to fall away, first cracking, then melting, like the cliff of a giant iceberg upending itself in the dark. In that moment, her only thought was to console her lover (to forgive her), so she began the gentle process of making her quiet: making small shushing noises, cupping her cheek, saying, "Come here," then drawing her in for a kiss. In thinking about it afterward, it occurred to her that she might've pulled too hard and that the sudden loss of contact might've been her lover breaking free from her—for her muscles had suddenly flexed and she had felt a rush of strength in her arm where it had drawn swiftly to her side. When she looked at her hand again, it was empty, the heel warm and flat where her lover's cheek had been. It took a long time to comprehend this. She kept staring at her hand, murmuring, "Where did you go?"
     "I'm right here."
     With a great effort she lifted her gaze from her palm to see her lover standing by the bed. "You're here," she breathed. "Are you real? Am I dreaming?" A tremor of betrayal passed over her lover's face, but in its wake there was only sorrow and a hesitation as to how to proceed. It felt as though her lover was receding, protecting herself from the pain of what came next, and, in order to reach her, she had to stretch out her hand, laying it first over her shirt, then under it. "Please." Her lover leaned down, allowing the hand to slide up her shirt, then around it; soon she was clinging to her. "Don’t leave me. Don't ever leave me, please. I love you." There was a hand cradling her neck. A palm cupping her shoulder. A whisper, I can't, but she silenced it, tilting her head back enough to capture her lover's lips with her own; their kiss was keening and desperate, and she found herself clawing at her lover's clothes, struggling to get them off. Her lover had to press her down and tell her to hold still—she was going to take care of everything—and then it was just a matter of being patient and letting the clothes slide to the floor as her lover knelt between her legs (she wanted to take her time; just this once, she wanted to pretend that they had all the time in the world), so that only later would she realize that she barely touched her lover—that in fact her lover was so intent on her pleasure, it felt like she was in a constant state of desire (unable to move, unable to weep), only slipping in and out of consciousness in concert with the explosions ignited in her brain. This was how she knew that she was broken, that the connection between them had snapped, and they were no longer united in the fight to stay alive; that night she felt for the first time the absence of her lover like a wound in her chest, a sore where her lover had placed her hand so that they might communicate; and so she knew it when she went away; she felt the touch recede and the pain like a memory in her skin, and the next morning she awoke with her head resting on the staircase, her right hand grazing the metal where the hatch was burning up. In her sleep she hadn't been able to remember their passcode, so she had lain there, ruined and spent, believing if she closed her eyes the dream world and the real world would unravel, and she would know. The war was over. They had lost.

*

In the days and weeks after it happened, she kept turning the dream over in her mind, replaying it as if it were a cherished film written and directed with her edification in mind: see how she loves you, the dream seems to say, see when your skin begins to burn how her hand smoothes away the sweat as if you have a fever (you were sick then, but she made you well—you were sleeping, but she raised you from the dead—you will never be the same). In her heart it felt like treachery even to think that the dream was not also truth, that what they shared had been a fantasy and that at the end of that fantasy she had been abandoned, as if this were the ultimate goal; no, she decided, no, it was better to do away with that line of thought entirely. There might not be any evidence to say her lover had come (no dishes in the sink, no pictures hanging just slightly out of place), but then again there needn't be in order for her to believe it: the mind was capable of building fortresses in between desires so that in the same breath she could feel the rush of expectation and the plummet of disappointment and never cross the two or confuse the true nature of her intentions: she was in love in spite of the absence. It was a love that kept her alive, and even though it was complicated, necessitating all manner of convolutions in order to sustain, resulting in times when her heart felt knotted as if the veins and arteries had rearranged themselves to prevent her love from leaving or else alter the course of blood in her brain to ensure some thoughts flourished and others remained buried in the shadow region of her psyche, she knew she was more than capable of waking in the morning and saying, "I have to get ready—my lover's coming back today."
     In the evenings, she dressed up for dinner, just as she had before, slipping into a pair of heels and fixing her hair just so. She would set two plates, one for herself and one for her lover, and always waited a half hour or more before eating, in case her lover chose that exact moment to return; but then the food would be cold and she'd have to pretend that she was still happy. "I know it's silly," she'd say, speaking then to the empty chair at the table and to the pale projection of her lover that the apartment's system sometimes generated. In the beginning she hoped her projection would be able to talk, but it never did, and she carried this entire conversation alone, saying, "I used to be a scientist," and then touching the projection's hand as if it were real. Reasonably she knew that the projection wasn't there to comfort her and there was nothing it could do to help, but sometimes in the middle of dinner it would stand and walk into the kitchen, the bedroom, the stairwell, looking over its shoulder suggestively, as if her lover could be found in the steam inside the shower, or in the room beyond the door to the outside; and though she knew its latch had melted and there was nothing she could do, still she climbed the staircase in the hopes that today would be the day—so far it hadn't been. It'd been long enough then that she'd lost track of the day and the week and had begun instead to count the languages she'd learned and the books she'd read. There was time now for things she'd never had time to appreciate, while she was working; time now to realize that her lover had gifted her this life of leisure and that the alternative was likely to die on the surface like all the others—but her lover had saved her from that and now appeared like an apparition in their bed night after night after night; and she was so grateful for her kindness, she now crawled inside the projection's outline and slept there, heart to heart, content in the knowledge that her mind had never been corrupted and her love was still intact. This was the only thing keeping her alive. One day soon, she knew, the ceiling over her bed was going to collapse, the pipes were going to burst, and her apartment would be crushed, sealed forever in a place where the war could not touch her, where she was safe from harm and pestilence and distrust, free to die in her own time, and on her own terms; and when that happens she will know that she was loved.

 

__

Think of the somnambule: rising in the middle of the night, unlocking the door. What does safety mean if desire is something different in your sleep? When my dreams turn into nightmares, waking up alone is often a comfort. And then again it isn't. This is just a story in my project Nitrate Nocturnes.