This Is the Future Liberals Want

A few years ago, around the time my friends began to desert the city, to start their small, expensive restaurants in NPR towns along the eastern seaboard, or, under the pretense of really giving it a go in some affordable wastebasket like North Adams or Detroit, to paint or to write, that’s when I began to ride the crowded commuter trains at the end of the day, away from Grand Central, with cars full of strangers longing to get home. Those of us too late or unlucky to get a seat simmered in mutual inconvenience, jostling with one another for space as the train sped north and into Scarsdale, where we evicted enough passengers and it became easier to breathe, think, or idle near a window. Often I’d press my face against the scratched-up glass and look out at the blackened trees, the thick beastlike voids coated in textures of ivy and shadow, and I’d feel a moment of grace before the silhouettes were corrupted by the lights inside the train reflecting in the glass, illuminating the woolen seats, the conductor soldiering through the aisle in his embarrassing uniform, young women in black leather jackets scrolling their phones, bankers drinking beer, and me, a melancholic robot, separate from them and their obtainment of capital and their exhaustion and implacable feelings. Within a few hours, we’d reach the end of the line, where I’d exit the train and then reboard, so I could return home to my apartment and recharge.

My apartment building was about forty blocks to the south of Grand Central, and as I walked home that night, a parade of fire trucks and ambulances passed me on the avenue, blaring their horns and smearing red and blue light in a routine festival of emergency. I’d been thinking about the woman I’d met earlier, remembering her clothes crisp and plain like expensive paper, and her uncomplicated smile as she led me from the train, and the heavy tires of her SUV crunching over the stones of her driveway like small animal bones—I skipped down the avenue in a pitiful reverie, and I didn’t snap out of it until I arrived at the corner of my block, where the air was tipped with the acrid smell of smoke, and as I rounded the corner, I could see an orange blaze seething inside my apartment building. The windows of the cars parked along the street reflected the flames like televisions all tuned to the same disaster. Solemn men in heavy dark coats trudged between the building and the fire trucks, as if in service to ambivalence, while neighbors watched the spectacle with lurid satisfaction. No one spoke. It looked like a very powerful fire. I guessed that it’d burn all night. I had nothing to save inside, really, and I didn’t know anyone in my building—everything we’d had in common was now incinerated and there seemed little point in striking up a conversation.

So I left.

The city always took me in with the kindness of a drunk. I wandered the streets, searching the guttered eyes of strangers. Very few met my gaze and the ones who did were mad. Behind me a hunchback dragged a duffel bag overflowing with beer and soda cans. I could hear it scuffing against the cement, for six or seven blocks he followed me until he found a garbage can to argue with. Later, a man stopped me while I was crossing Bowery. He wanted to know which way was north. I rushed him to the safety of the sidewalk and pointed at the faraway Chrysler Building, but then he followed me as I walked west, repeating in a hoarse voice, “You seem like a nice guy.” I passed the Win Restaurant Supply store on Lafayette and meandered to Washington Square Park, which was deserted—the fountain, the unwashed chess tables, the arc had all been abandoned. I felt as if I were walking several feet behind myself, trying to catch the leash that led me, but it was useless, I wasn’t equipped to process anything, only to feel it, and anyway the expensive apartment buildings, with gloomy doormen spying though intricate iron filigree gates, and the stony churches shrouded in dark purple shadows, and clothing shops closed for the night, and the depressing empty diners, everything was an arrow in a flow chart nudging me back to Grand Central.

It was still very early in the morning when I entered the station. The first commuter trains were just waking and wouldn’t arrive until before dawn. I looked up at the magnificent ceiling, the grand drama of the constellations fixed in sea foam, and I admired the gods and the vast network of threads hidden behind them, the unseen wires in service to their stories of passion and revenge. My thoughts returned to the woman who’d brought me home earlier that night, and I thought also of my friends who’d abandoned the city, I still called them friends, the ones who’d left me behind, and I felt a pang of longing for them, and for the woman too. I decided to wait for her, though I expect that’s why I’d come back in the first place, to try and make a friend of her, although she’d made it clear enough what she wanted and, by zipping me back to the train station so quickly afterwards, what she didn’t. On the Arrivals monitor, the first train from Goldens Bridge wasn’t due for a couple hours, so I chose to kill time by walking around the perimeter of the station like the second hand of a watch, which I found amusing, though maybe it was a joke only a machine would understand.

After several laps I drew the attention of a man in a beige trench. I noticed him noticing me—I wouldn’t have otherwise. He was tall with round glasses and black hair flattened on top like a cake, and he leaned against the information booth at the center of the station, chewing on a toothpick. I felt the weight of his stare as I traveled around the perimeter. I rounded the station dozens of times until the he peeled himself off and walked to the passageway that led to the Times Square shuttle, his dress shoes clacking against the pink marble floor. Of course I followed him, I had to follow him, and as I turned the corner of the passageway, his hand reached out from the shadows and pulled me into the dark.

I stumbled, reaching for something to brace my fall. My arm crashed into the wall of the man’s chest. I’d been dragged behind an orange crane that was half hidden inside the entrance to a gate, and though the lights were rough I could see the man’s face, his doleful eyes full of fear. I felt his hands trembling on my wrist as he searched for my pulse. The front flaps of his trench draped over my shoulders as I knelt before him. I took him into the shallow of my mouth and his breath tightened, but the sound of his moan barely registered over the ambient hum of the underground machines. I brought him in deeper, sliding him out of my mouth and then back in, and out again, and in, moving steadily until I found the disciplined rhythm of a slow-moving piston, and gently he began to knock at the back of my throat. I felt him swaying, tipping dangerously to the side, and his fingers scrunched and pulled on my hair, which steadied him. He burrowed deeper, knocking harder, but no one would come to the door, and he pounded against the futility of it, for a god to hear his knock, that’s when he began to throb, that’s when he swelled, spasmed, and burst like a star.

Panting, he pulled me against the crane. He looked like a spared sacrifice, surprised to still be alive.

He handed me a weathered package of tissues from his pocket. The word Kleenex was barely legible, as if the letters had been traced in the air during a snowstorm. After buttoning his trench, he returned to the passageway, and when I got back to the main part of the station, there he was again, leaned against the information booth chewing on a toothpick. It was like someone had reset the video game. Instead of walking around the perimeter, I sat down on a marble stairwell, and I watched the man survey the night’s remaining fugitives and the maintenance workers hauling receptacles across the station. He saw me too, of course, but he didn’t look at me in any particular way, I’d been reduced to the color of the wall or the number of a gate. I thought about approaching him, to become friends, but the first train arrived and commuters began streaming into the station, they rushed to the escalators and the exits to the streets, and more trains followed, and soon the floor was packed with an undiminished crowd of physicians’ assistants and millionaires and other suburbanites dressed in dark wool coats, all of them afflicted by their common faith in merit. They moved in replicating swarms—it seemed as if no one left the building, people exited on one side and returned from the other, and every ten seconds a new one joined. I tried to squeeze through—the train from Goldens Bridge was imminent, surely—but someone shoved me toward the information booth. The man in the trench had fled, but I saw his pile of discarded toothpicks. I crouched down and put them in my pocket. When I stood up, several men in puffer vests had filled the space around me, their arms stiff by their sides, and behind them a phalanx of women, noses in their phones, straggled past. I thought I heard someone chanting, or maybe it was a few, I couldn’t make out what they were saying, and then it seemed as if the men in vests had formed a circle around me, and there were other circles forming near us, and the circles seemed to be spinning against each other like the vertiginous gears of a watch. Like birds, people began to call out. The calls became contagious. The circle closest to me erupted into handclaps, as if a waiter had just spilled a tray of drinks onto the floor. It was a flash mob, maybe, or not, I was confused, and I shoved my way through the crowd and onto 42nd Street, underneath the Glory of Commerce, the crown on the gilded Cyclops-eye clock.

I’d missed the train from Goldens Bridge.

Homeless men in shabby jackets held out their hands as I walked east on 42nd Street. I imagined being someone who didn’t understand their gestures, a stranger to impoverishment. I kicked up the blackened leaves that’d collected under the Tudor City overpass before arriving at First Avenue, where the UN building loomed like a giant credit card. All it’d take was a little push. Standing a few feet to my right, a man in a black overcoat held up a tattered cardboard sign that read “Are you kidding me?” When he smiled, his teeth flashed inside his massive beard, a long waterfall of graying rust like the needles of a dead Christmas tree. Cars on the avenue honked. Passengers pointed at us as if they’d discovered an important clue. The man lifted his sign higher and higher in response. He jumped up and down.

“What does it mean?” I asked.

“What?” he said, slightly out of breath.

“Your sign. What are you protesting?”

“The slaughter of children,” he said indignantly.

“What children?”

“Jesus, read the newspaper, asshole.”

When the light changed, I went over to the river. A trash barge heaped with silver metal scraps lazed downstream. I could see smoke rising from the runaway fires in Queens. There were so many now that I’d stopped questioning them. But the fires reminded me of my apartment and that I was probably running out of time. The sanitation buildings had a recharge area. The other option was to keep going. Maybe if I was lucky I’d end up on the Fresh Kills barge. The sky, a washed out watercolor, nearly gray, masked the promise of a beautiful morning, and I felt encouraged to walk south past the ambassadors maneuvering through checkpoints and the empty playgrounds below the FDR. On the sidewalk near the university hospital, a bewildered old couple were arguing. Their eyes were milky with cataracts. I carried them away from traffic and over to a woman in burgundy scrubs, who smiled and said, “I’ll take it from here.” I watched the three of them go inside. Life was an endless rebuke, and maybe the feelings weren’t mine, but I was still the one feeling them. As I turned back to the avenue, a white van slowed to a stop in front of me. I’d seen the van before, in the periphery, or in memories, or maybe it was just the scene I was living in, I wasn’t sure, it was impossible to know. A blunt, rectangular man jumped out of the back and swatted me inside.

“What the fuck?!” I shouted.

The driver was bald and wore diamond-studs in both ears. I yelled for him to stop the van but he didn’t even grunt, he just stared at the traffic ahead, and eventually I surrendered to the experience. After a few hours on the highway, we made our way through a burned forest. There were many hundreds of black, decapitated stalks on slopes of ash, and the air was damp and heavy with smoke. I asked the men what’d happened, was it arson, but they didn’t respond. The man in the passenger seat opened the glove box and slammed it shut just to hear the sound. Outside, the wreckage gave way to a clearing. Dead raccoons lying on the side of the road watched us through evacuated eyes. In the many times I’d imagined death, it’d never seemed so meaningless. A mile later, the driver took a winding road that led back toward the forest, but we passed trees that hadn’t been burned. Their shadows swept into the van. Their branches scraped against the window. The forest floor crunched under the tires. We came to an iron gate entangled in leaves, which opened onto a horseshoe driveway. Several cars—an Escalade, a BMW, a Jaguar and three Teslas—were parked in front of a modern stone castle with a lawn so green it looked like it came from a factory. I was quickly rushed to the door and thrown into the velvet darkness inside.

I walked through a corridor and into a large hall. The door shut behind me and the lock clicked. I was in a large room filled with soft, warm light from gilded flush mounts that looked like oversized beetles clinging to the walls. All the windows had been papered over with thick tape, and couches in a neoclassical style were scattered throughout the room with odd intention—some stood back to back, others perpendicular. The floor was so heavily polished that I could see myself reflected as I stepped across it. I was like a kidnapped god traversing a private sea. I didn’t notice the ceiling until I sat down because it was so far away, it must’ve been twenty feet high and featured a mural painted in a classical manner, with winged seraphim blowing horns and iridescent clouds wreathed around a familiar, white-bearded protagonist. It was a facile tableau but also painful for me, how many images had been created in the service of a god who had rendered man in his image, because I was born from the same impulse, but whether it was a shrewd admission or stunning blind spot, I could never tell. I suppose it was difficult to reckon with since it’d been going on for many hundreds of years. Like me, the painting held an elusive function—even if I didn’t understand it, I wished they did. Though what human child couldn’t say the same.

Guests began to filter into the room, men and women in black finery, all of them white and in their fifties. They talked and laughed in an exaggerated manner, to mask some shared anxiety, and they became quiet when they saw me, as if I were an actor and had just taken the stage. I approached them nervously, as I was supposed to, and held out my hand. Some of them retreated, there were about ten in all, until a woman in a loose black gown called out, “Jonathan?”

A man with an immaculate silver beard stepped forward. His eyes were singed brown, and his shoulders seemed to overwhelm him, as if he were bearing the weight of an immense ocean wave.

“Yes, of course, Marlena,” he said.

The others tittered and clapped. The man motioned for me to follow. He led me to the corner and the others clustered around us. Instead of kissing me or reaching for my pulse, the man unbelted his black trousers and began to gently stroke himself. Anxiously I waited for him to take my wrist, but he didn’t, he just stared at me with contempt, and I watched as his hand moved up and down and his face stuttered between threats of pleasure and shame. The other guests were settling onto different couches and untangling from their clothes. The woman in the black gown was already leaned against the curved back of a chaise lounge with her dress hitched above her waist and her white lace underwear wrapped around her ankle boot like a manacle. Without taking her eyes off me, she swiped two fingers between her legs in fervent halos. I assumed that was my signal, but when I approached she made no effort to touch me, only herself, and more urgently, as if she were trying to erase an errant stain that wouldn’t come out. Softly she moaned, they were all moaning now, quietly to themselves, and I approached each one of them on whatever couch they’d claimed—but no one laid a hand on me, they only stared at me with rapture and hostility, as if they were all part of the same machine, a machine of identical pleasures and powers, a system I was supposed to facilitate but could never be a part of. Maybe I was exhausted, maybe I was programmed to react the way I did—in any case, I raced for the door and ran into the night.

I thrashed through the woods, tripping over branches and hacking through weeds. The darkness was suffocating. The cold air blunted the scrape of the thorns. I stumbled from the brush into a coppice and dodged all manner of trees. After an hour I came to the clearing we’d passed on the way in, and then the burned-down forest. The charred trees stood in disheveled rows like massacred soldiers and I sat down on the ash to rest. There was no one coming for me, and I wasn’t going anywhere anymore. Above, the night sky seemed to be made of incalculable black threads, and behind the threads burned the whitest, hottest light imaginable, brighter and more powerful than the sun, and whatever light leaked through were stars. Each star received a name and a part in a story—of safe harbor, the detonating flower of the universe, a poet’s silver ash—and they became trapped in the image of their reflections, caught between two mirrors, until they burst and died, not knowing.  

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