Chapter Seven

These weeks since my mother died I have found myself awake at 3AM backtracking every step I’d made that kept me from reaching her in time. I could have done this. I should have done that. Clearly, I have been in denial. My mind’s problem-solving impulse doesn’t seem to be aware that time travel is impossible.  When will the thought, if-I-had-only, finally stop tormenting me with its useless remedies?  I prayed god Melatonin would take pity on me.

Last night I fell asleep as soon as I lay down and woke in the same position nine dream-free hours later.  I seemed to have just switched off for a full deep rejuvenation. It was 8:30 AM; the sun was already high, and the day was going to be hot. Julia would come at noon.  I wanted to get in a run and change the sheets, and of course, I would have to spend extra time shaving properly and checking my nostrils and toenails. I calculated the time. I had plenty of it.

I ran along the Hudson River, down to Battery Park and back again. As usual, the park was eerily empty for a Saturday morning, only a few masked dog walkers, risking certain death by thrombosis.  I thought about how in Russia the parks that weren’t gated and locked were crowded, people squeezed into the benches, kids doubled and tripled up on bouncy horses–while here, the faithful, obedient New Yorkers stayed in their quarters, not even looking out their windows but looking into their computer screens onto the virtual Covid world.

After several weeks of morning runs along the river park, my initial delight, at the clumps of undulating marsh grasses among jumbled boulders along the bank, had evolved into fond familiarity.  But today everything was fresh again because I was imagining Julia running with me next time. I supposed she would find the grasses as lovely as I did when I pointed them out to her.  We would talk about how well the landscapers had managed to make their carefully architected scene seem so natural.  As I ran briskly up the steps to an overlook at the end of Battery Park, I saw myself in her eyes. I ran harder.  I wiped the sweat from my face and imagined her looking at me as I did so. I smiled at the thought. By the time I got back to my apartment it was 11AM. I still had to put the sheets in the dryer. After my shower, I was trying to pull the fitted sheet over the corner, when the buzzer rang.  She was early.

I pressed the video intercom and saw Julia’s lovely sea shell ear and sculpted jawbone, as she looked away from the camera.  That note was not a dream. She really was on my doorstep. “I’ll come down,” I said and buzzed her into the foyer.

Out in the hallway I checked the elevator button and found it still unresponsive, and so I hurried down the stairs.  When I opened the stairwell door into the foyer, I startled her.  She had been starring at the elevator doors.  She laughed in embarrassment and covered her eyes with her delicate hands. She was wearing that navy blue summer dress with a red sash around her slender waist.

“Sorry. Elevator’s broken. Can’t get anyone to come out to repair these days.”  I held out my hand and drew her to me. I was going to kiss her perfunctorily on the cheek, as if she were already my long-time partner coming home, but Julia more or less jumped me. With wild arms thrown around my neck and shoulders, she was kissing my face and chest. Thrust by her passion, I walked backwards into the stairwell into a corner where the CCT camera could not see.

“The lockdown is crazy. People can’t live like that,” she said. “I’m starved, starved for this.”

Julia’s red sash was undone, her shoulder straps loose, her skirt pulled up above her waist. Our bare bellies pressed together. Our ears and necks damp.  Not in another stairwell, I thought, hesitating, but then, with all the drunken carelessness I’d had in Saint Petersburg, but this time sober, I plunged into the moment, which was literally just that, a momentous moment, triggered by her, Oh!, and then the room lights came up in my mind, and I was shocked at what we had just done.  Like that.

Julia laughed, or rather chuckled, briefly and low. “Now that we’ve taken the edge off, it will be easier to talk,” she said.

Welcomed levity, thank you my dear mistress. I smiled back. “I was pretty anxious. I admit. You are coming up, right?”

She slapped me playfully on the arm.  “Yes, I’m coming up.  I didn’t plan on this.”

I helped her to her feet and buttoned her dress.  “For Juliana comes and she, what I do to the grass, does to my thoughts and me.”

“I don’t want to drive you mad.”

“Too late.”

How quickly and violently the course of one’s life can change. This was not going to be a fling. It was not mere lust. This was going to be very, very different. I knew.  I had a woman, a brilliant, beautiful, passionate woman, in that order. I led Julia up the stairs, mentioning salads, cappuccino or tea. “So you only pretend to go along with the social distancing and the masks?” I felt like being truthful, so I added, “I thought you were hypnotized like the rest of them.”

The shades were drawn. Through the open bedroom door Charrington’s artpiece cast flickering gray and blue light.  I had become used to its changeable presence like an artificial living thing.  But now next to me, living, breathing Julia lay, her cheek in her hand upon the pillow, mouth slack and slightly open.  My eyes traveled over her skin, smooth, pale, but with a slightly olive undertone.  A ring in her belly button. I was tempted to fiddle with it but didn’t want to wake her. No tattoos. As I surveyed and cataloged her body, with love growing in my heart, I felt like a violator, or at best, a peeping Tom. Because she was asleep, I was surveilling her without her knowledge or consent. Her vulnerability made me sad, and I promised myself that I would never, never do anything to hurt her. I kissed her temple and she stirred. She hadn’t been sleeping after all. Her eyes opened brightly and she smiled. “C’m’ere,” she said, pulling me toward her.

Julia, I found out, was a great dissembler.  In public she played along.  She was used to pretending, she said, because it was the only way to get ahead in her career.  For decades, she’d achieved fame by writing unreadable papers on transhumanism or making up categories and subcategories for various way to identify as a woman. Her best received papers, she said, were word salads that could have been computer-generated. She chuckled. Her writing was grammatically correct but incomprehensible, and her colleagues avoided having serious conversations with her because they worried she’d find out they didn’t understand her work. The Covid narrative was just a extension of the “intellectual rot that has infected academia for decades already.  It’s a stupid game, and I’m very good at it,” she said with a smirk. But I had seen her rage during the Two-Minutes Hate, was that an act? She laughed.  She could care less about politicians.

Our coffee cups and dirty plates were on the bedside table. The left lower corner of the fitted sheet still had not been stretch over the mattress.  “I would like to visit your farm,” she said after a silence.

“You will.  It’s very sad there for me now.  I could bear it, though, with company.”

Julia pulled the loose sheet over the corner and then took the top sheet in both hands and shook it so that it billowed out and settled gently over our naked bodies.  “Don’t you hate the phrase, social distancing?” she remarked.

“They didn’t enforce it in Russia. When I arrived at JFK, I had trouble understanding what the pieces of red tape on the floor meant. One mark here, another there.  A couple of arrows. They were like stage markings for a play, and I was not a cast member.  Then some man barked,  Stand behind the line!  I finally realized that it was some sort of a compliance ritual.”

“Why not just ‘personal space’ or something people intuitively understand?”

“Oh, no. That’s not the point.  The point is to make some new reality where ready-made phrases do not work.”

“I suppose the Committee on Effective Propaganda intended the similarity to ’emotional distancing’.”

“They were looking for something awkward sounding, disorienting,” I said.

“I think the point of ritual is to physically reenact the traumatic event that spawned the cult. Make it real again. Now that the hard lockdown has been relaxed, people need to be reminded how scared they were.”

“I was worried it was a bioweapon.”

“That’s because you’re a conspiracy theorist,” she said simply.

“I can’t believe you’re here in my bed.”

“So who are you, Winston?”

I go by different names. “I have been moving around a lot for the last few years.  I’ve been living out of those three suitcases,” I said, pointing to the old-fashion set of leather bags in the corner. “Before noon today, I wasn’t attached to anyone.  But you don’t live alone?” She didn’t notice my deflection.

“My husband and I decided to divorce, finally, right before the lockdown. It just hasn’t been possible to split up now. He can’t look for another apartment.  Real estate agents aren’t working.”

I hid my disappointment at the mention of a husband, but I had an idea already that she had a child. “He’s not just hoping you’ll change your mind?” I asked, empathizing with the poor guy.


“I see,” I said, hating the image of Julia being in close proximity to another man, even an estranged one. “You have children?”

“Honoré, she’s four.” Julia pulled her phone out of her purse and showed me a photo of a dark haired child with Julia’s hair cut and carmine red lips. I was relieved to see there was no trace of a different set of genes in her features.

“She’s beautiful like you.”

Julia lay back down and we faced each other lying on our sides. “The three of us have been trapped inside together since March.” At this distance I could see that her brown eyes were flecked gold and green.  “My husband’s a believer. He doesn’t want me to take her outside,” she complained.

“But you do?”

“Yes, of course I do.” She pitched her voice up and looked cross.  “He makes her wear a mask when we go out. It’s abuse. It’s madness. He wears his mask around the house.”

“That sounds horrible.”

“I’d rather not talk about my life so much, but you asked, so now you know. Can’t I forget about him while I’m here?”

“I sure hope so. And Honoré, can I meet her? Or is that forbidden by pandemic orders?”

“It’s forbidden,” she said. “I should get full custody. He’s old. He could be her grandpa and he drinks all day.  He can’t afford a nice place on his own. She’s still a baby, you know. She needs her mom. But I think he’s going to fight, and I’ve heard of parents who go against the mandates loosing their kids.”

“You aren’t afraid that having an affair will be used against you?”

“An affair, no.  Violating Covid pod rules, yes. I was very worried on the way here that I might be followed. I got on the uptown E train and then I jumped off two spots later and ran to the other side of the platform and jumped on the downtown train.”

After a long silence (there had been many long silences) Julia asked, “What are you afraid to tell me?”

“When I was eighteen, a girl, sort of my girlfriend, killed herself.”


“It was my fault.”


“I killed her father,” I said simply.

Julia’s lips parted. She scratched her eyebrow with her pinky finger.

“Accidentally,” I added.

Her mouth closed to a grim smile.

“I don’t want to talk about Ophelia,” I said, but I had said enough. Julia could infer my whole sexual history from that confession.  She was staring at the ceiling, her eyes moving rapidly as if tracing a pattern that was not there.  She moved her hand to my thigh.

“That was a crazy thing to write to me,” I said. Under the circumstances, is it okay if I tell you that I love you too?”

“Sure. No emotion is pure nowadays, though. We are surrounded by fear and hatred. Even this is an act of defiance against the Covid Cult. It is a political act,” she said.

So that was Julia’s game.  She was not one to march in a protest or write up an earnest political position. Any kind of open revolt against the machine was professional suicide. Life, as she saw it, was simple.  You wanted to reach some position of success in the world and what you got out of that was mainly money, which bought you time, time to be yourself, time take care of your family.  You kept your true feelings secret.  “They”—meaning, to her, some machine-like way of thinking, more than a group of people—wanted to keep the system running, and she wanted to throw sand in the gears without being caught. It was a competition, that she apparently didn’t care to win so much as just keep playing, keep surviving.

At first I’d thought she was joking about her computer-generated papers. No, she had an AI program from a friend that could scan academic papers and spit out an abstract, an intro, and a conclusion, etc. “The body of a machine paper is a lot less coherent, so I have to tweak a little, to make it recognizable as English,” she laughed. “But that’s all I do.  You should read the peer review reports I get. It’s hysterical. They basically just try to restate the abstract in simpler, equally meaningless, language.”

Humanities academia, she said, was a clumsy mashup of oppression studies and marketing tools. No one knew anything; everyone just believed this and that. Institutions had been hollowed out by endowment after endowment with heavy strings attached and perverse loyalties rewarded. Her colleagues didn’t even realize they were being paid to think one way and not another. It was the nature of institutionalization to seize up thought.

“So, you fake your feminist papers, but I take it your love for Wollstonecraft is authentic?”

She nodded very slowly, staring at the far distance. “They’re madhouses, universities. It started in the visual arts first. Serious people working as museum curators at prestigious institutions were been utterly demoralized and made to proclaim ridiculous values and believe impossible things. Someone with eight years of Art History training had to show visitors the pile of garbage on the floor and say it was art–of the highest kind.  The travesty has gone on for generations.”

“It’s just art. Where’s the harm?”

“Exactly. Why did they go for the artists first, you think?” she answered her own question, “Obviously, artists are the radical free thinkers who question the status quo who will fight any tradition or tyranny that tries to crush their independent souls. Besides, there was money in it. You want to buy a plane load of cocaine?  Fine. Buy a shitty canvas painted by some non-representational artist for a million dollars and we’ll deliver your order,” Julia went with a mix of romantic passion and advanced cynicism that was her own special brew. “And the dealer can even sell 10K prints by the same stupid so-called artist to New Jersey housewives. No one with any integrity could be a successful. It killed a generation of artists. Next, literature.”

Julia didn’t pause. “They began by judging literature by everything except its literary qualities: by it’s subject matter, by the author’s political views or ethnicity, by the author’s sexual orientation. They could ignore completely the way in which the author chose to put the words down on the page. Style was no more.

“Now it’s politics, ethics, law, everything.  But working in the Casaubon collection I’m insulated, and I still get the naive grad student who is in love with the Romantics, or an amateur historian like you, who isn’t corrupted by—”


“Don’t get me wrong. Obviously, I love amateurs—”

“No worries.”

“Most of the visitors, because of the nature of the collection, are still wild romantics who haven’t gotten into identity politics yet. Oh, I didn’t tell you. Next month, one of the collection’s major patrons is coming for a visit. Koenig Schmidt. Maybe you’ve heard of him?”

“Yeah. In fact, funny coincidence, I downloaded The Great Reboot last night. His writing style has all the charm of an interoffice memo.  Are you sure he’s a person, not a committee?

“I’m sure he has a ghostwriter and an editorial team.”

“Why is he visiting?”

“Probably, he wants me to put my name down as co-author of his next book on trans-humanism because he admires my papers that he can’t understand.”

Before Julia left that evening, she got me to download Telegraf to my phone and create a profile, “PercyShelley,” and link it to her profile, “MaryShelley1818. “Secure communication,” she said, “or private, at least from my husband.” She hadn’t left the apartment ten minutes before I got a message from her.  “I forgot to mention, don’t be familiar with me at the library. There are cameras.”

For some reason I didn’t mention to Julia that I’d had Telegraf on my Russian phone, perhaps because it was how I had communicated with my Russian lovers, a little unnecessary guilt there.  I hadn’t been on the app since I had gotten back to the states. I checked, under my old identity, some of the channels I liked: The White Rose, Felix O’Brien, and Wrench in the Gears. Felix had sent me several direct messages, asking why I had disappeared. I told him I was in New York now working with an AI program for handwriting. I figured that would pique his curiosity.

Strangely he replied, “We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness.” I didn’t know what to make of that and figured he was just high.

Over the next couple of weeks, Julia and I spent as much time together as we could. On the following Wednesday, we both called in sick: “Might be corona; best to be safe.”  We stayed in my apartment and ordered Indian food. Julia wouldn’t dare go with me on the street, which was disappointing to me. No runs along the river.  No walking arm and arm through the streets. Julia was growing quite paranoid that her husband might be having her followed. It took her twice as long to arrive since she was doubling-back on trains to throw the, probably imaginary, stalker off her scent.

Julia couldn’t expend much energy on the political situation because she was laser-focused on her divorce and custody battle. The pandemic was strictly personal for her.  It was keeping her in prison with a man she hated; it was ruining her life and jeopardizing her relationship with her daughter.  Julia didn’t care about the truth of the virus, or whether the body counts were inflated or whether the PCR test worked or not.

I asked Julia if she thought Felix O’Brien was hyping up AI, saying it needs to be regulated, so that he could help write the legislation. She merely shrugged. She didn’t care about 9/11 either.  None of it mattered.  “It’s all tommyrot,” she said.  She believed that people in places of authority were like herself, producing nothing but horsefeathers so that they would be allowed to keep their positions and their salaries.

I complained to her about the lockdown, about the stupid policy of keeping healthy people in their homes, mostly the laptop class, the managerial Zoomers, who were perfectly happy ordering from Colossus, while the worker class, whose health conditions tended to be damaged by cheap processed foods and financial stress, had to get out there and work harder than ever.  They were ringing customers up, driving buses, knocking on thousands of doors. And worst of all, the most vulnerable group, the elderly in nursing homes, were not protected; they were sent the coronavirus equivalent of small pox blankets.  Every measure to protect public health was designed to kill as many people as possible.

None of these arguments interested Julia.  She was just mad that her husband wouldn’t leave her apartment. She had long since learned to tune out her husband’s news shows. She didn’t care whether the virus was natural, a bioweapon, or pure fraud.  It didn’t matter to her because there was nothing she could do about it.

I had to know.  I wanted to act.

When I told her about my father dying on 9/11 and how Horatio had come to me with documents showing that there had been explosives planted in the towers, she said, “I figured it was something like that.” But she didn’t care to learn any of the details. “We’ll never know the whole truth,” she said, a little impatiently, when I elaborated too much on what I thought had probably happened.

But, come to think of it, what had I done when I discovered my father’s murder had been covered up? Nothing really.  Naively, I wrote a memoir to shine the light. But everybody kept looking the other way. In the end, I suppose, what mattered to me was coming to my own reading of the tragedy of Hamlet. That was enough for now.

When I returned to the library that first Monday after our dramatic coup de foudre, I started to note the locations of all of the close circuit cameras.  Several were covering every angle at the main entrance where I passed through the metal detector. One on Charlie’s chest.  One in each ceiling corner by the coat check. Would there be microphones as well?

When I opened the door to the Casaubon Collection, I found a workman under my table checking the outlet while Julia looked on.

“That did it,” said the man, groaning as he pulled himself up. “It’s on the same circuit as the security cameras. To be safe, don’t use the scanner there. Pulls too much juice.”
Julia glanced at me.  “Good morning, Winston,” she said professionally.

“Good morning,” I replied with mock professionalism.

“Old wiring,” the workman explained to me. “The last update was in the seventies.”

Julia stepped in.  “I’ll bring it up again, Peter.”

As Peter went out, Syme came in. 

Syme had returned to discuss the details of, or rather constraints on, my pay raise.  Octopus was introducing some sort of digital payment system.  Syme was explaining it all to me over coffee, when I interrupted him.  “I’m sorry, for a minute there I thought you said human chattel.  You said human capital. What does that mean?”

Syme’s big blue mask had been folded away and put into his pocket so that he could dare to drink his coffee.  “A unit of Human Capital is an asset like any other listed on a company’s balance sheet. It refers to the economic value of a worker’s education, training, intelligence, skills, health, and other things employers value such as loyalty and punctuality. The better the investment in human capital, the better the productivity and profitability.”

“If you invest a lot in a … unit, how do you guarantee he doesn’t go to work for himself or someone else to get more money?”

“That’s a very perceptive question, and the answer is blockchain contracts. In exchange for training required for a particular skill, workers would agree to contracts that are designed right into his digital payments to insure that he does not try to get our of his obligation.”

“Digital chains for the human chatt— I mean, human capital?”

“Quite right. Blockchain is the future of contracts. Because they are digital, and all transactions will be digital by 2030, if not sooner, fairness and equity will finally be possible in all contractual agreements.”

So, I had my raise, but there would be puppet strings attached.

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