When we first came to the wall, the aliens had been building it in the middle of the Sahara for fourteen months. It was, at the time, eighteen hundred feet tall and nineteen thousand feet long. I was part of a tour group from Kentucky. The arrangements had been made by my aunt, a travel agent whose ailing business had been reborn when travelers realized how complicated it was to organize a trip into the middle of nowhere. It was me and a bunch of people who took pictures of everything, from the attendants who checked us in at the airport to the towels at the hotel in Timbuktu where we spent a night before we ventured into the desert. I didn’t speak much with any of them. I remember only a man named Denny. He brought a small piece of Kentucky grass on the trip and, as far as I know, carried it everywhere he went to ward off something he called “the desert boogeyoogies.”
Margie, on the other hand, had come on a far more serious mission. Her friend’s father had passed away eight months earlier, and his dying wish had been to have his ashes scattered as close to the wall as possible. Her friend was too distraught to handle it herself, so Margie had volunteered to make the arrangements. It had taken half a year to wrestle the proper permission from the International Council of Alien Affairs, whose strange web of rules govern all wall-related activity, including ‘the disposal of loved ones.’
“I shit you not, that’s what they called it,” she told me. “The guy behind the counter looked me in the face, in the eyes, and told me I needed to fill out the form for ‘disposal of loved ones.’ If I’d had the ashes with me, I’d have thrown them in his face.”
We met in one of the many souvenir shops run by the Bedouins who used to roam the desert back when it bored the rest of us. Margie, who never really knew the father, felt out of place with her friend’s family and was giving them space while they went about their mourning. I was there looking for a miniature replica of the wall with my name on it, the last one of which she held in her hands, a gift for her cousin Sheldon.
“If you won’t give me the wall,” I said to her, “at least have dinner with me.”
Margie and I spent hours sharing details about ourselves in a Moroccan restaurant located at the edge of Sector B (the tent “village” we were staying in). She was a feisty woman from Seattle who spent most of her twenties working in coffee shops and dying her hair different colors.
“I was rebelling against something,” she said, “I just can’t remember what it was.”
Our conversation was all over the place, random and disjointed (she once burned her tongue trying to lick bacon fat off the surface of a frying pan; I am unable to do a layup in basketball; she’d been the drummer in an all-female Beatles coverband called the She-tles; I inherited a large stamp collection from my father), but somehow, when we left the restaurant, we felt like we knew each other.
On the way back to her “hotel,” we talked about the wall for the first time. It was a cool desert evening, and even though it was late, hundreds of people were still in the streets, admiring the alien marvel, which is lit up at night by giant security spotlights put there by the ICAA.
“It looks so different during the day,” I said.
“Almost smaller,” she replied.
“Maybe we feel bigger in the sun.”
“Maybe we feel more lonely in the dark.”
“Night or day, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so large.”
“Sometimes, when I look at it, my heart races and I get a little dizzy.”
I stopped walking.
“Is your heart racing right now?” I said.
Margie turned to look at me and I saw a section of the wall reflected in the surface of her big eyes. I didn’t wait for her answer. I grabbed her and kissed her, and after that, we were inseparable.
Everybody has the same reaction the first time they see the wall in person: total speechlessness. The wall overwhelms you with its size, with its flawless surface, with its confidence. You don’t try to understand it. You’re too busy trying to maintain yourself, to avoid destruction.
After that though, after the first fifteen minutes or so, what people do at the wall, how they respond to it, varies. I’ve seen crying, screaming, religious chanting, meditation, self-flagellation, people throwing things at it, personal things, rings, vases. A woman in my tour group took off her underwear and threw them like a groupie at a rock concert.
As for me, I never found my thing. The wall held me in silent reverence until I met Margie, and at that point, it became impossible to say what was a reaction to the wall and what was love.
A typical day for the two us began with breakfast, always at the same little stand, which according to Margie had the greatest ham and cheese croissant in the world. The owner, a gentleman that Margie nicknamed the Turkish Penguin for reasons still unclear to me, always gave us free coffee and would ask us to help him with answers to the New York Times crossword puzzle. I never had any, but Margie would offer solutions whether or not she actually knew them, and invariably, her and the Turkish Penguin would end up arguing over what color the wall is (the wall appears to be gray, but on closer inspection people see it as either blue or red. It’s a divisive issue. Thankfully, Margie and I both thought it was red).
After that, the day was divided into two parts:
the pre-noon hours (when all of Sector B was covered in the giant shadow cast by the wall), which we spent wandering amongst the tourists, ogling the wall (Margie insisted she could see its end in the distance), inserting ourselves into the backgrounds of other people’s photos, playing made up games (“When you look at the wall, what’s the first word starting with ‘D’ that pops into your head.”
and the afternoon hours, which we spent recharging ourselves near the fence the ICAA had erected to keep everyone eighty feet from the wall. We laid in the sand, looking up at the sky, watching the alien crafts as they magically, hypnotically built the wall without making any sound. Margie would often tear up.
“Their silence makes me sad,” she’d say. “Doesn’t it make you sad? It reminds me of everything that’s missing in the world.”
We’d watch the ships until the sun started to set. Then we’d watch the sunset, sandwiched between the vivid, shifting colors of the day’s dying light and the wall’s stark, immutable reality. Margie said it was like being caught in a kiss, the warmth of it on one end and the cold return to reality on the other, and every night we came out of it like two teenagers, ready to roam wildly beneath the desert stars.
No space within Sector B was safe from our amorous rampage, no restaurant, no “hotel” lobby, no bar, no intersection was spared. People thought we were drunk or rude or both, and whenever I tried to correct them or apologize, Margie would interrupt me.
“Are we blocking your view of the wall or something?” she’d shout.
“Get a room!” some would shout back.
Eventually, we would. Eventually, we’d return to my “hotel,” to the small corner space separated from the other small rooms by fabric walls and make love as quietly as was possible for Margie.
The desert heat waxed and waned, and soon our last day together arrived. In the morning, Margie argued for twenty minutes with the Turkish Penguin about the color of the wall. Then, in the afternoon, while we watched the builder-craft, she made weird noises.
“Can I help you?” she said after she caught me staring at her.
“Are you making spaceship sounds?”
“Obviously. Is it bothering you?”
“Good, cause if it was, I’d have done it forever. You would have been like: where did Margie go? What’s with this Margie-sized spaceship following me everywhere?”
Margie didn’t make any noises to accompany the sunset. I could barely hear her breathing.
Afterwards, we broke from tradition and strolled along the fence like grownups. We made a game of counting the stars.
“I’ve counted forty,” Margie said.
“I’ve counted fifty.”
“Most of the ones you counted died millions of years ago. Mine are fresh and full of life.”
“How do you know that?”
“What is it?” I said.
“Do you think we could sneak passed him?”
She was talking about one of the guards posted periodically along the ICAA fence. They wore black uniforms (even during the day, when the desert sun rained down it’s tremendous heat) and carried tasers on their hips.
“Why would we do that?” I replied.
“I want you to kiss me up against the wall.”
“I don’t know. How fast can you climb a fence?” I said jokingly.
Margie squealed and shoved her head into the crook of my neck.
“What’s going on?” I said.
“Shhhhh. I think he heard.”
I looked at the guard. He was staring right at us. I turned my head away from him. Margie squirmed.
“Is he still looking?” she said.
I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye.
“I’m not even sure he blinked.”
Margie remained in my arms, but peeked around my shoulder at the guard.
“It’s so fuckin’ sad,” she said. “He stands there all day watching us. It’s like he doesn’t even know the wall is there.” She left the embrace and took a few steps towards him. “Hey Jackass. Something amazing is happening right behind you. You’re missing it.”
The guard reached for his Taser.
“Come on,” I said. “Let’s go. Leave him to do his job.”
Margie stood her ground for a moment. I wasn’t sure if she was kidding or not.
“Come on,” I said again. “Let’s go back to my room.”
Margie and I made love for an hour, disturbing all the guests around us.
“What are we going to do now?” she said when it was done.
“We could do that again.”
“No. Not now now. After-we-leave-the-desert now.”
“I could . . . well . . . I suppose I could move to Kentucky.”
“I don’t think you’d like it.”
“Maybe we just stay here forever then. I hear they’re building condos.”
“We’d be Wall People. Our kids would be pariahs.”
We talked about it all night, sifting through the possibilities. We both wanted to remain in the states and neither of us was a fan of winter weather. After ruling out Hawaii (giant, flying cockroaches) and Florida (armies of regular-sized mosquitoes), we decided to rendezvous in San Francisco.
I remember the bus ride back from the desert. The entire time, I watched the wall.
“Denny,” I said, “that wall is something else.”
“Yeah,” he replied, also transfixed, “As it gets smaller in the distance, it gets larger in here.” He tapped the middle of his chest with his finger.
“Do you really believe it’s meant to do what the aliens claim?”
Thirteen months earlier, the ICAA had sent emissaries to meet with the aliens and ascertain the wall’s purpose. “It will stand here between this side of the universe,” the aliens had said, pointing down at the ground they were standing on, “and the one on the other side of the wall.”
“I don’t know,” Denny replied. “Aliens are building a wall on our planet. How is anyone supposed to really know anything anymore?”
I thought about Margie and smiled.
Two weeks later, I sold or gave away almost everything I owned, got in my car and drove the two thousand miles to San Francisco. I spent the next two weeks in a shitty hotel in the Tenderloin district while I looked for an apartment that Margie and I could call home. Eventually, I found a place in the Mission, a small one bedroom that was too expensive for anything but love.
Two weeks after that, Margie arrived. For the next two days, we denied the outside world. We kissed and made love and cooked meals for each other. I told her about the dinner my mother made for me before I left. She told me about all the sad goodbyes. She also told me what happened when her friend’s family tried to spread the ashes.
“I showed them all the fuckin’ paperwork, but those black-suited nazi bastards told me I still wasn’t allowed near the wall, which the dickhead bureaucrat never mentioned. They made us throw the ashes through the fence. ‘Don’t you get it?’ I yelled at them. ‘That wall belongs to all of us!’ I wanted to tase the head guy with his own Taser. I wanted to make him shit his pants, but my friend and her family just wanted to scatter the ashes and be done with it.”
“Down with the bureaucracy!”
“Down with the dickheads.”
Our new lives started the following morning, with furniture: a queen sized bed from a department store, some tables and chairs from thrift stores, odds and ends from yard sales, a couch found on the street. We hauled it all into our crappy apartment and turned the place into a home.
When we were done, Margie put the tiny replica of the wall she’d bought on the living room coffee table.
“I thought that was a gift for your cousin,” I said.
“It was,” she replied, “but to him, it would have been a souvenir. To us, it’s a monument.”
We poured ourselves wine and talked about the real wall.
“How big do you think it is now?” she said.
“Let’s look it up.”
“That’s not the same. I want to know how big it is. I want to know how small it makes me feel. I want to know how big it makes me want to be.” She paused. “Do you think that maybe right now the guards are giving dirty looks to a couple who wants to hop the fence and make-out against the wall like crazy people?”
“Pssssh. Even if they are, we did it better. To us!” I said, raising my glass. Margie raised hers.
“To making out in the name of freedom!”
Then we went out and got jobs. I went to work delivering flowers and pizzas. She got a gig at a coffee shop. It was a step back for both of us. I’d given up the small, successful landscaping business I’d started after college and she’d given up working for a nonprofit that fought injustice. The plan was to eventually replace these things in our new city, but for now we would thrive on the love we had for each other while we worked these shitty jobs.
For a long time, everything was good. We made friends, took classes together, built a collection of books and movies, tried new restaurants, went shopping at a farmer’s market every Saturday morning. Margie was as boisterous as ever, dragging me out to art shows and concerts and weird street fairs. Her pace was sometimes exhausting, but I managed to keep up.
Everything changed around the six month mark. Suddenly, Margie wanted to stay in on Friday nights, and sleep in on Saturday mornings. She started canceling plans we’d made to hang out with friends. We stopped going to events, to dinner, to the book store.
Admittedly, I wasn’t concerned right away. As much as I loved her, as close as we were, I hadn’t known her long enough to determine whether a new behavior of hers was aberrant or not. But then, she started having trouble getting out of bed in the mornings; she started calling in sick to work. And she never wanted to leave the house or make love or do anything but sit in the living room. She insisted she was fine, but I knew something was going on and had a pretty good idea what it was.
Margie had Wall Sickness.
Wall Sickness isn’t an official disease, not yet, but nine months after Margie and I returned from the wall, more and more people who’d visited the wall were developing a strange depression. It would come on, seemingly out of nowhere, weeks or even months after their return. The medical doctors had ruled out physical causes (a disappointing conclusion for the xenophobes who were sure the aliens were somehow poisoning us) and the psychiatric doctors all had theories, but no one knew for sure what was happening or what to do about it.
I decided to be cautious. I knew Margie wouldn’t respond to suggestions that she seek help, and she bristled the few times I tried to talk to her about it. I read every article I could find on what was happening to her, considered every suggestion: long walks, long baths, more red meat, less red meat, surprise parties, redecorating the house, large pets, small pets, breakfast in bed, unexpected romantic gestures like flowers and candy, cuddling. I tried the ones that seemed reasonable, but nothing made a difference.
Then one night I came into the living room and found Margie on the floor, holding the wall replica in her hands.
“I never really saw the end of it,” she said.
I sat down next to her and put my arms around her. She started to cry. I held her and said nothing. She cried until she fell asleep in my arms, at which point I carried her to the bedroom.
The next day, I suggested we go back to the desert.
“Our one year anniversary is coming up,” I told her, “and I think it’s a great way to celebrate.”
Margie came to life and threw her arms around me.
“I love you,” she said.
Ten minutes later, I got in touch with my aunt and had her begin making arrangements.
Around the time we were planning the anniversary trip, the slits appeared in the wall, punctuating certain areas of the wall’s otherwise smooth surface. Each slit was approximately two feet long, six inches wide and ten inches deep. Where they occurred, they ran all the way up the wall in a straight line, each slit eighteen inches from the ones before and after it. The ICAA sent more emissaries to find out what they were for, but the aliens weren’t interested in meeting with them.
That didn’t stop people from speculating.
When I first heard that people wanted to climb the wall, I laughed. A spokesman for the group that had petitioned the ICAA gave an interview on television. He was a man in his late-40s, wearing a ragged suit that matched his uncombed hair, dirty-looking beard and nervous hand gestures. He spoke about the ladder-like slits and the clandestine political agendas aimed at controlling the world’s most important resource: the human spirit. He claimed the people behind these agendas wanted to use the wall to keep us all divided and powerless.
“He reminds me of that guy we see on the bus,” I said to Margie. “The one who thinks the city is powered by slave ghosts.”
Margie shrugged. Since we’d booked the trip, her spirits had risen, but her energy levels were still fairly low and she seemed completely uninterested in this new thing.
“I give these looneys a week till everyone forgets them,” I said.
And so, I was surprised when we arrived at the wall six weeks later and discovered that a large group of protestors had taken over a quarter-mile of real estate right up against the fence. There were thousands of them, centered around a few men and women who were feeding them provocative rhetoric through megaphones. The ICAA, who’d denied this group’s numerous petitions, had quadrupled the number of guards. Men and women in black uniforms were everywhere, some of them now carrying guns.
“Not as romantic as Tasers,” I said.
Margie seemed preoccupied with the protestors.
“That’s our spot,” she said. “That’s where we used to watch the sunset. They’re in our god damned spot.”
I decided it would be best if we went as quickly as possible to our hotel, a place called the Sahara Nights. It was a small, ugly building made of concrete and tile, one of the first formal structures in the area, completed only a month earlier as a stand-in for the luxury hotels that were still being constructed. My aunt had been able to get us accommodations as part of a promotion being offered to the travel agents who sent the most people to the wall. Our air conditioned room had a queen size bed, running water and satellite TV. It also had a balcony that looked out on the sector: in the foreground, construction crews using cranes and bulldozers were erecting a luxury hotel, and beyond that was the wall, now thirty-three hundred feet tall and thirty-five thousand feet long.
“Look at this place,” I said, on the balcony, Margie in my arms. “Look at how much it’s changed in only a year. It’s looking more and more like an actual city.”
“Let’s go inside,” Margie replied. “I’m tired.”
On the first full day of our second trip to the wall, Margie and I woke up late and went to Margie’s favorite breakfast place. She ordered two ham and cheese croissants and made a funny face while eating them.
“They taste different.”
“Not as good?”
“Maybe this place has a new owner,” I said.
Across the room, the Turkish Penguin appeared with a folded newspaper in his hand and started asking some customers for the name of a famous soccer player from Germany.
“Can we go?” Margie said.
“You don’t want to say hi?”
“Let’s just go.”
We left the café and I gave Margie a tour of the places where I had memories of our first trip: the spot outside the souvenir shop where I saw her before we met, the bench where she accidentally drew blood from my lip while we were making out, the tent village center where we’d run into Denny and laughed at the brown, twiny remains of the grass he’d brought with him.
Seeing these places seemed to invigorate her slightly.
“I want to show you a place,” she said.
She took me to the spot where she decided not to give the wall souvenir to her cousin. We had to force our way passed hundreds of sweaty protestors.
“I wish these people would go the fuck home,” Margie said. She raised her hand and extended her middle finger. “Hey assheads! Here’s something for you to climb.”
Late in the afternoon, we managed to find a fairly secluded spot near the fence. We sat and took in the wall.
“Is it how you remember?” she asked me.
“No,” I replied. “It’s definitely bigger.”
“It doesn’t seems heavier to you? I don’t remember it being so . . . so . . . wall-like?”
“It does seem a little more wall-like, I guess, but maybe we’re just tired. Maybe we’re just jet-lagged.”
“I hope that’s it.”
I took her hand. She rested her head on my shoulder. We sat there until the sun set. When it did, nothing came over her.
Of all the explanations for why we can’t agree on what color the wall is, two stand out to me. The first was opined by a painter I’d never heard of who was being interviewed as part of a panel on the subject. She said the gray of the wall represents a sadness too difficult for us to bear and so we color it with denial.
The second was offered by a preacher during a televised sermon to his congregation.
“Gray,” he said, “is the color of God’s beard.”
Our first few days in the desert did nothing to improve Margie’s spirits. If anything, she grew more despondent. At times, I thought I detected tiny amounts of hostility, directed, not at me, but the wall.
Then, early on the fourth morning, Margie, who’d had trouble sleeping the night before, went out on her own. I woke up a few hours after she left and had room service deliver me a simple continental breakfast, which I ate on the balcony. When she returned, I was still out there, staring at the wall, thinking about what the painter had said.
“I just met one of the head protestors,” she told me. “A guy named Peter.”
“Did he try to climb you?” I said.
“Don’t be an ass. He was really nice. He invited us to an event they’re having tonight.”
“And you want to go?”
“It might be interesting.”
“You want to go hang out with those weirdos? I thought you wanted them to go home.”
“Well, talking to Peter got me thinking. The protestors are part of the experience now, whether we like it or not. We should make the best of it.”
“What did he say to you?”
“Nothing really. He just asked me to look at the wall. To really look at it.”
“We were right. It’s a wall.”
“Are you thinking about climbing it? Cause there are easier ways to leave me, you know.”
Margie punched me in the arm.
“I just want to hear more of what Peter has to say. I’m curious. Aren’t you at least a little curious yourself?”
I didn’t want to admit it, but I was. The protestors were a spectacle, a dense spot of human energy drawing attention to itself and I wasn’t above its power. Plus, Margie’s old enthusiasm seemed to be returning and I wanted to see why.
We left the hotel that night around seven and made our way to the fence. Hundreds were gathered, mostly dust covered young people, hippies and backpackers, but here and there were older men and women whose clean haircuts and unpierced faces spoke of the jobs they’d left behind to come here.
“That’s Peter,” Margie said, pointing to a man in his late fifties who was walking through the crowd. He looked handsome and adventure-worn, like an actor portraying an archeologist, and everyone he passed wanted to shake his hand or give him a hug or drown themselves in his shiny blue eyes.
“You didn’t sleep with him, did you?” I asked Margie. She elbowed me in the side.
Peter spoke that night for half an hour, from a stage set up near the fence. He was nothing like the man we’d seen on television a few months earlier. Where that man had been grotesque and tragic and political, Peter was bright and charismatic and poetic.
“The aliens have changed everything,” he said at one point. “They put up this wall, and now we’re all living in only half the universe. The aliens know this. They understand the pain they have inadvertently caused us. That’s why they’ve given us the slits. They want us to climb. They want us to transcend this division and discover what we’re missing.”
It was powerful rhetoric, but it didn’t change how I felt.
Margie, on the other hand, watched the speech with a little more interest than I was comfortable with, and when it was done, she wanted to stick around and talk to people.
If I was unconvinced by the speech, the conversations we had afterwards only strengthened my convictions. The hippies and backpackers all rambled about their aching spirits or regurgitated poorly digested chunks of what Peter had said.
“I don’t think Peter said anything about the aliens building the wall to imprison us,” I told one of them.
“It’s a wall, man,” she replied. “What else would it be for?”
“Yeah, man,” said her friend. “That’s why we need to climb it. To subvert its authority.”
Margie rolled her eyes at the people like this, which made me feel a little better, but she slowly pulled us towards Peter and his entourage of older, more professional-seeming women and men.
“Margie!” he said, when we were finally within range. “So glad you could make it.”
“This is my partner, Sheldon.”
Peter and I shook hands.
“So nice to meet you,” he said. “What did you think of the speech?”
“I loved it,” said Margie. “I never thought of the wall as a barrier before. I guess I was just too enamored.”
“Enamored?” I said.
“You know what I mean.”
“And what did you think?” Peter said to me.
“I thought the ideas were interesting, but I don’t think I need to climb a wall to find out what I’m missing.”
“True. Some people feel more comfortable not knowing.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
A few people sniggered at my question. Peter held up his hand and they stopped.
“The size of the universe tests our courage,” he said. “In some ways, the aliens have done us a favor by cutting it in half. And yet, for me at least, it’s not enough to settle. Settling is what makes me uncomfortable. It’s what makes us uncomfortable.”
“Cheers to that!” said a member of his entourage. Several other members echoed the sentiment, and I slowly faded from their attentions. I stood silently next to Margie for the next twenty minutes. Margie also stood silently, but I could feel her leaning into the conversation and I didn’t like it. When I noticed that ICAA guards were starting to “mingle” with the crowd, I whispered in her ear.
“Maybe we should go,” I said, gesturing to one of the guards. “I think some people are getting anxious.”
“Those guys can go fuck themselves,” she replied.
A few minutes later, the guards swept across the crowd in squads of three or four, handling the protestors like a broom, pushing everyone away from the fence. The protestors protested and I’m sure a few of them were tased by the overzealous, but Margie and I managed to make it out untouched.
She was bursting with energy when we returned to our hotel.
“Wasn’t that exciting?” she said. “They’re holding another protest tomorrow afternoon. Can we go?”
“We have plans for tomorrow, remember?”
“Margie, baby, we’re here for our anniversary. It’s supposed to be romantic. It’s supposed to be us, not us and a thousand hippy conspiracy theorists.”
For a moment, she looked ready to fight, but then she softened.
“You’re right,” she said. “We’re here for other things.”
“So no more protestors? No more Peter?”
She brought my hand to her mouth and kissed my knuckles. Then we made love for the first time in months and fell asleep in each other’s arms.
The next day, Margie and I took a special tour of the wall, something my aunt arranged for us as a gift. The guide took us around on a golf cart. He showed us things like the power station, the fuel depots, the communication center’s gigantic satellite dish, and the Receiving Center, where “a constant stream of trucks bring everything to the desert but sand.” At the wall, he showered us in facts: the aliens build at an impossibly consistent rate of four-point-two vertical and forty-five horizontal feet per day; the wall is thirty feet thick; the wall is made from an organic substance similar to muscle fibers found in our hearts but somehow harder than stone; the alien craft are piloted by what appear to be alien children; the wall generates twelve million dollars a day in revenue; all access to the wall is restricted to the western half; the wall casts a shadow across the desert that can be as much as one hundred and forty miles long; no one knows how large the aliens intend to make it; and so on.
Margie was somewhere else the whole time. She smiled at me frequently to make herself seem present, but whatever energy she’d reclaimed yesterday had vanished. Still hopeful from the previous night’s love making, though, I concocted a plan: a picnic dinner at the fence featuring food from our Moroccan restaurant.
“I have to take care of a few things,” I told Margie at the hotel. I sent her upstairs and went to the concierge to make the arrangements.
When I returned to the room, I found her on the balcony. The wall was there, consuming the distance as it always did. In front of it, bonfires started by the protestors burned.
“Whatcha you doing?” I said.
“Just thinking,” she replied.
“I’m trying to remember how the world felt before the wall.”
“I know how it felt for me: a lot more lonely.” I scooped her into my arms and kissed her on the neck. Her warmth and softness contradicted her sober mood. “I’ve got something special planned for tonight.”
“I was kind of hoping we could just stay in.”
“Are you sure? I think you’ll really like what I have in mind.”
“Maybe we can do it tomorrow?”
“Whatever you want, babe.”
We saw the sunset from the balcony and stayed in. Margie fell asleep in my arms while we were watching a romantic comedy on TV.
The next day, I snuck out to the croissant stand while Margie was sleeping and brought her back two ham and cheese, along with some flowers. I woke her with a kiss.
“So pretty,” she said when she saw the flowers. “They must have cost a fortune.”
“I’m not going to lie. Here in the desert, flowers are known as ‘rainbow gold.’” Margie chuckled. “Any idea what you’d like to do today?”
Margie wanted to go lay by the wall and watch the ships, so we killed a few hours in the room, waiting for the sun to come off its apex. Margie didn’t touch the croissants. She said she wasn’t hungry.
At the wall, the protestors were celebrating. Earlier, they’d disrupted the supply trucks. It was only for an hour, but it had the ICAA goons up in arms. Margie and I had to convince a cadre of guards that we had no intention of climbing anything. She bristled at the interaction, but I kept the peace and got us access to a cozy spot near the fence, as far from the protestors as possible.
“It’s not as quiet as it used to be,” I said, referencing the protest noise, which drowned out the eerie silence of the ships.
Margie was lying on her back, looking straight up into the sky.
“They’re getting farther and farther away,” she said. “Look how tiny they are. Like gnats. I kind of miss them.”
She had a sad, distant look in her eyes. It seemed to vanish when we got up to leave, but it came back later while we were making love.
“Are you ok?” I said, stopping.
“Why don’t you want to know what’s on the other side of the wall?” she replied.
“Why don’t I what?”
“Don’t you want to see what’s out there?”
“You’re thinking about that? Now?”
I’d reached a momentary breaking point. I was yelling. Margie pushed me off her and sat up on the edge of the bed.
“What the fuck is your problem?” she said.
“My problem? We came half way around the world to be together and I’ve never felt more distant from you.”
“How is that my fault?”
“You’ve been somewhere else most of the time we’ve been here.”
“So? You’re the one who’s happy the aliens have cut the universe in half.”
“I never said that.”
“Then how are you not curious? How can you not want to know?”
“Know what? I already know what’s on the other side of the wall. More desert.”
“You don’t get it,” she said. “You so don’t.”
“I don’t get it?”
“You only see what you see.”
“What does that even mean?”
“How can you look at that wall and not want to find out what’s on the other side?”
“What do I need to find out? Everything I want is on this side.”
“Maybe not for long.”
“What was that?”
“It was not nothing.”
“I’m going to bed.”
Margie turned her back to me. I tried to continue the conversation but she put a pillow over her head.
When I woke up the next day, Margie was gone. I searched the room, but couldn’t find a note. I waited an hour for her to return, before deciding to go search for her. I left her a message in case she returned while I was out.
The first place I went was the croissant stand. The owner hadn’t seen her. Then I went to our favorite spots along the fence. Then back to the hotel to see if she’d returned. Then I combed through the protestor crowds. Then I gave up hope and went in search of Peter.
I found him at the protestor headquarters, a giant tent near where we’d seen him speak.
“So good to see you,” he said.
“Have you seen Margie?”
“Not since the other night.”
“I’ve looked everywhere for her. Where could she be?”
“I’m sorry. I wish I could help.”
I turned to leave.
“Wait,” said Peter. “I heard an American woman assaulted one of the ICAA guards a few hours ago. I was told her name was Mary or Maggie, but it might be her.”
“Where would she be?”
“The guards have a holding facility on the other side of this sector, near the power station. If Margie assaulted one of them, they’d take her there.”
I thanked him and left, hoping he was right and hoping he was wrong.
I found Margie sulking in a sterile, windowless room inside the large concrete guard building. The ugly fluorescent lighting stole the natural light from her eyes, which were puffy from several hours of crying. When she saw me, she leapt from the chair and threw herself over me.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I was just so confused, and I went for a walk . . . and then this guard fuck . . . and so I . . . and they took me here . . . and I wanted to . . . but they put me . . . and I couldn’t make a call . . . ”
It took a few hours to convince the guards to let her go. I explained to them that she’d been having a rough time and promised she wouldn’t be a danger to anyone and that I’d personally take responsibility for her. Margie sat quietly while I negotiated. She wasn’t looking at any of us. She wasn’t looking at anything.
“I want to see the wall,” she said, as we were walking back to the hotel. It was close to one-thirty in the morning.
“It’s right there,” I said. “You can see it from everywhere.”
“I know, but I want to get up close to the fence.”
“The guards made me promise that you wouldn’t go near the fence.”
I stopped walking.
“Margie, we’re not going to the fence. This is a very serious situation. They didn’t have to let you go. If they’d wanted to, they could have taken you to jail in Timbuktu. Do you understand how serious that is?”
Margie kept walking.
“Margie? Did you hear what I said?”
“I know,” she said softly. “I know.”
Margie cried in the streets of Sector B that night. I held her head against my chest and told her everything would be ok. Across from us, maybe forty feet away, a couple made out on a bench.
“Take me back to the hotel,” Margie said. We’d been standing in the same spot for close to half an hour. The couple on the bench hadn’t moved either. “Take me back to the hotel. I want to make love to you on the balcony.”
And that’s what we did, slowly, softly, in full view of the wall.
“I feel silly saying this,” Margie said when it was over, “but I felt at times like the wall was changing colors.”
“You noticed that too?”
Margie kissed me on the forehead, and we laid there quietly until all the heat we’d created for ourselves during the love making had been taken by the cool desert night.
Margie was gone again the next morning. On her side of the bed, she’d left the wall replica, which I didn’t even know she’d brought with her. Next to it was a note.
“Sheldon,” it said. “On this side of the wall, you will always be my everything. I love you, Margie.”
I was out of bed in an instant, and an instant after that, I was rushing down the hotel hallway naked, thinking I could catch her. At the elevator, I turned back for clothing.
This time, I went directly to the protestor headquarters and demanded to see Peter.
“She’s not here,” he said when he saw me. “She was never here.”
I knew he was lying, but I also knew he was lying for Margie and I couldn’t waste time trying to break through whatever reasons she’d given to elicit a promise of secrecy from him. I left to search amongst the protestors along the length of the fence.
I spent the day tangled up with the dusty hippies. I had a picture of Margie on my phone that I showed to anyone who spoke enough English to understand me. I was called ‘narc’ and ‘pig’ and ‘warden’ (what the protestors liked to call anyone who, in their eyes, supported their ‘imprisonment’ behind the wall). No one had seen her, and those who were lying couldn’t be turned by pleas of love.
I returned to the hotel after midnight, determined to resume my search in the morning, but when the morning came, the protestors were gone. They’d vanished in the middle of the night. I feared they’d been rounded up by the ICAA guards and taken to some secret prison in the desert, but the guards insisted they didn’t know what had happened.
“You have to be kidding me,” I said to the senior guard I spoke to. “Thousands of people don’t just disappear in the middle of the night.”
“Maybe the aliens took them.”
Several of his subordinates started laughing.
“Have you reported this to your superiors?” I said.
This only made the guards laugh harder.
I took matters into my own hands, filing reports at the ICAA bureau office. When it seemed unlikely that the clerk who took my statements was going to help, I became a search party of one, prowling the streets of Sector B. I held the wall replica in my hand like a compass that could point me in the direction of my love. I was panicked, not sleeping much or showering, and so with each passing day my outward appearance grew more and more to reflect the turmoil I harbored within. I didn’t believe the aliens had taken them, but I looked to the sky more frequently than usual, at the silent ships.
The wall, of course, followed me everywhere, seeming constantly unsturdy, like it was about to topple over on me. When I was too tired to continue my frantic wandering, I’d sit and study it, trying to see it as the protestors saw it, as Margie saw it, wanting badly to be driven to whatever ends she’d been driven to. I couldn’t do it. I saw the marvel that it was, the divider of hearts that it had become, but I could not find the longing that Margie had found. I could not find Margie.
Finally, on the fifth day, the protestors returned. They appeared in the streets, all at once, from out of nowhere, and marched on the wall, stopping as they always did, at the fence. I was standing on the balcony, looking at the wall, trying again to understand what Margie hoped to find on the other side. I left my room in a hurry and met them where they stood. Peter, who I thought would be out in front of them, giving a speech, was nowhere to be seen. Nor were any of the other leaders. I knew what that meant: these protestors were ready for action, which seemed like bad news for the unprepared guards, whose numbers had shrunk considerably in the protestor’s absence. The few that were left, once again armed only with tasers, looked like frightened animals.
I knew I had little time, so I dove into the crowd screaming Margie’s name. Several of the guards turned their attention on me and I slid deeper into the crowd to evade them, but I couldn’t stop yelling for Margie, so eventually, some of them caught up to me.
“Let me go,” I said, “I’m not with them.”
But the guards didn’t listen. They dragged me out of the crowd and then strangely let me go in the emptier streets beyond the edge of the protestors. I turned immediately, planning to dive back in and continue my search.
That’s when I saw her. She was standing with a group about twenty feet into the crowd, staring right at me, wearing a dress she hadn’t owned when we were together. Much to my surprise, I didn’t move. I did not become the unstoppable juggernaut I’d imagined I’d become, trampling over whatever was foolish enough to stand between us. I was desperate to find out where she’d been, what she’d been doing, how she had felt, but the look in her eyes stopped me. The sadness that had loomed there for months had been set on fire, and in that fire, the mystery of where she’d been was overwhelmed by the certainty of where she was going. She didn’t move either, and so I knew what she saw in my own eyes.
We did not speak that day. We never got any closer to each other than we were in that moment. We stood where we were, staring at each other until the protestors began their charge through the fence. It was a testament to our love that, even as the assault commenced, she stood unmoving long enough for us to say goodbye without saying goodbye.
And then she ran to the wall. I watched her for as long as I could. The last time I saw her, she was maybe two hundred feet up, a dot climbing toward the sky.
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