Fair Society

by Chelsea H. Bryan
 
     This morning a beautiful woman sat beside me on Metro. She was wearing a camel hair coat and she held her tall black coffee with slender fingers and pink fingernails. I got off before Arlington Cemetery, but she was wearing a wedding ring and I let the ridiculous image linger in my head all morning of her getting off there, carrying her empty coffee cup to the grave and mourning a dead soldier, laying what she had down as tribute — newspaper, coffee cup.
     I am not a soldier. But I do work at the Pentagon, in the fifth ring, security clearance five, and I sit in a cubicle and I hack. Or, to be more specific, I counter-hack. About twice daily, rogue aircraft show up in my Holy Six airspace: the White House, Pentagon, Capitol building, Washington Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial. It makes me angry that the Library of Congress is not included, so sometimes I monitor that too. But it’s not in my job description.
     My Holy Six airspace frequencies sometimes show a signal broadcast from a supposed aircraft that wasn’t there milliseconds before. Air traffic control ignores the “sudden aircraft alert” for about six seconds, in which time I must find out whether it’s just a signal sent by some sicko on a computer and counter-hack it, making the blip on the radar disappear or if it’s a real signal from a real aircraft that turned its radar off and snuck into the Holy Six, I issue the national security emergency to the DoD. My job is to make sure that the spoof aircraft, the ones that are not really there, don’t get the panic and coverage reserved for real terrorism.
     That’s what the point of the spoof is, to achieve massive terror with only a signal and sudden blip into 18,000 ft where there is no actual hijacking terrorist. Culprits are maybe a smart MIT grad student also interested in literature, like me, but maybe who read one too many of the wrong conspiracy books that left him (almost never her) too disillusioned to work a job like mine. Whoever it is though, it’s definitely not Al-Qaida. Al-Qaida doesn't know much code right now. So I have to counter-hack all these over-educated malicious fingers. It’s said that there’s always someone smarter than you, but DoD pays me for that not to be true.
     I counter-hack, on yearly average, two spoofs per day. I am only 24 but the woman on Metro looked as young. I don't think in any universe she'd describe me as a man, maybe not even a guy. Boy is the word. I like to think of myself more as a creature, or an animal. Crawling through the universe, subsisting on space food. She looked at me, though. I saw her.
 --
 
     I’m drinking on Metro, which is not allowed. There are signs posted. But I don’t much care and it’s very hard to make coffee properly, so when it’s made properly, I drink it no matter where I am and what the rules are. 
     I’ve just drained the last sip of the latte with maple syrup I pulled and poured at home and now my head is titled a little back, my lips parted, my chin up, my eyes wide. I love this feeling, I search for it every morning and I’ve never gotten it from a latte I made at home before today.
     I have an espresso machine I got from my in-laws. With its steam wand, filter basket, tamper, it was too manual for them. They wanted something with pre-packed espresso pods and a button to press that could get them a crema-capped shot in under 30 seconds. They gave it to me before Jeremy was gone but I started making the coffee for real after. It still comes up on the news sometimes, the crash, but I try not to feel anything at all, ever. It was a plane that went into the avionics maintenance wing of Dulles International, where Jeremy was a technician. I try and go to a lot of yoga classes and work very long weeks and always wake up with enough time to go through the whole damned espresso making process.
     What happened this morning though is what they call a God Shot. The espresso I pulled is so perfect, goes the saying, that it must have been blessed by God. I believe this to be true literally.
     The guy beside me on Metro is a total nerd, the kind characterized by a blank, haughty downward stare that indicates he may be totally inept at basic communication. I know this because I sat beside him on Metro and young men who aren’t nerds can sense this code, that when a young, single woman sits down beside you when there are other vacant seats beside wilting, neutral teenage girls, she wants you and you should look at her and smile. 
     I don’t really want him per se, I don’t want anything. But he sort of reminds me of Jeremy and I can’t resist tempting fate on Metro. Jeremy was a nerd inside a half-jock body. The muscles on his abdomen rippled the first time I saw him playing soccer shirtless in the sun, his jaw wide as a German rugby player’s and his quadriceps wet with sweat like new-born seals, bulging, shockingly large, glittering. I loved him so much it almost made me crazy and it actually did for a time after I read it first trending on Twitter under the hashtag #avionics, which I monitor closely for work, that there had been a plane crash into his workplace.
 
The Tweet read:
     Hijacked plane crashed into avionics maintenance wing at @Dulles_Airport. #plane #crash #Dulles #avionics #hijack #terrorism
 
     To me, it was the period that seemed most like a blow. The grief was beyond grammar and there was no period after his death, in reality it rang on like an infinite gong blasting my eardrums. 
I have checked all the tweets since then, 1 year and five months ago. There were 17 characters still left in that one tweet. After I called Jeremy and it went straight to voicemail I drove immediately home in utter silence at 90 mph at noon and then clawed a hole in the drywall in our apartment. 
     I can talk about it, but I don’t feel anything anymore. I try not to. Like I said. When I lie in bed at night I feel as though I am waiting for something to happen, and often I don’t sleep at all. I just wait (I won’t say “to die”). If I even think about it, like I am now while I stand to let the man I’ve sat beside get off at his stop at the Pentagon, I get this impulse in my jaw, almost like a tingle, to open my mouth in the shape of the traditional theatre symbol Horror, the one that looks like Scream, and then I grit my teeth and my chest compresses like extraction on an already spent pod of superfine grounds of the very best stuff, ground to the exact consistency needed for the God Pour. 
 
--
 
     My cubicle is small, unadorned. They know that even though what I do is important enough to mean the difference between an international press crisis and peaceful silence, I’m not worth bigger office space. I’m not a soldier, and I live in a general’s world. 
     This weekend, the weather is supposed to be like spring, and I’m planning on going back to visit my college campus. It’s not a special weekend or anything, but it was warm last weekend and it’ll be warm this weekend, so I know that trees will be in bloom, but also no one will really be at the school except for a million freshman wearing short shorts and tank tops, prematurely, stupidly, uncomfortably for the boys, who pretend not to notice but obviously do.
     I’ll go and I’ll look at the cherry blossoms and I’ll walk around the base of the Mr. Jefferson statue on the lawn and it’ll give me a sense of peace. There’s a lecture on emerging computer languages, too, I remember as I set my brief case down beside the recycling bin in my cubicle. I might go to that.
     People in the office are always talking about stuff, the news, a book, something they heard on the radio, and it literally just bores me so badly that I want to die. I think of the woman on Metro and her dead husband. I keep thinking every morning I might see her on the Metro again but I don’t. I am guessing her husband was probably a smart bastard; she had this haughty air but she kind of smiled at me. That must be some sort of sign of favor from heaven. 
     The neighboring cubicles have begun to fill and since it’s Friday the chatter is heavy. I can’t sit through this so I’m about to take off to make some oatmeal, but my computer does the beep noise. I sit back down. The radar shows an aircraft of unclassified size heading toward the Washington Monument. I put in the coordinates and look for the code. If it’s not there, I know the plane is real, and call DoD. Otherwise, I find the code, counter-hack it. 
     But it’s too easy to find. I sigh, churning out perfect counter-code in 18 seconds at 105 words per minute. I hit enter. I’m so bored.
 
--
 
     I am sitting on the bus and reciting to myself in an attempt to calm down what I read this morning in the coffee glossary I found online: “extraction is the act of forcing hot water from the boiler though ground coffee, which in turn ‘extracts’ flavors, oils, colloids, lipids and other elements that turn water into brewed coffee, or espresso.”
     Today, since I woke up, I’ve actually felt it: the grief. It’s been bad and my muscles feel weak. I hope that if human feeling does get the better of me and I go ragingly insane from this manic, horrible sadness that I can feel hovering like black clouds before a monsoon, there will be at least this by-product, some new finer version of myself I could privately enjoy in my madness. Just like the espresso, it would come after the grounds have been pressurized and wasted for the sake of the pour. I’ll be like that, my old self will have done its work and it can be discarded for something better, a luxurious byproduct. But the impulse to cry is getting weaker every moment as I sit very still and stare at the blades of short hair of the crew cut of the man in front of me. I do feel less, I admit to myself, and I resolve that I’ll be able to do my interviews today and finish the avionics piece on spoofing. When I’m not writing, I’m bored. 
     I thought at first that new fact I discovered about myself, about the unbelievable boredom, might mean I would create an amazing work of art or write a classic novel, but now I am beginning to see that what I will do is create ristretto, the condensed, desirable hyper-concentrated shot of espresso, or “pour,” between which there is a very fine line of separation from a stalled machine. I remember suddenly the man from Metro, how I did in some small way take pleasure in sitting beside him. 
     I saw him mouth “Arlington Cemetery,” as he got up for his stop, as if reading the script carved on my dark soul. He wore a hoodie and when I sat beside him his back tremored almost imperceptibly. The ridges of his spine were visible through the worn cotton, and my view of him benefited from his position on the edge of his seat, head forward, eyes locked ahead. He would not look at me but I did see his blue eyes dart at me once, doubtlessly cataloguing everything in an instant. 
     The bus stops and I get off and head into the station. I like this sort of obsessive, terse, aggressive thinking that he emanates, that I know he uses. I have always been this way, I think, as I refill my SmarTrip card for my ride in to Metro Center. I can work remotely from anywhere, but I go there because it’s sort of the blankest thing I could do: getting off at the most anonymous, neutral stop that exists. It’s so boring to get off at Metro Center and as I step onto the escalator I visualize, ritually, what I don’t want to do: stepping between stairs, tripping. I wait. My mind goes blank, like I have trained it to do with all the yoga, but then when I get off the same thing again, I visualize tripping as I shift my weight from back foot to extended toe to step off the escalator. In my mind’s eye, the elevator absorbs the fabric of my suede shoe and crunches into my toes. I don’t collapse or scream in the pain in the scene in my head, I just look down at my mangled foot. The images are just a defense mechanism, I figure. A way of teaching the body, like a good mother does a child, to know the pain of the forbidden act before he can commit it. For some kids, like me, that didn’t work. My mom said not to touch the stovetop and I looked her in the eyes and did it, slowly, looking at her the whole time. 
     The air is cold as I come off the second elevator into the spring morning and I remember another thing I do like that. When I used to sew, in high school, it was inevitable that I imagined the needle coming up and inserting into my cornea. The needle did that, the freak visualization in my mind, repeatedly, like a loop on auto replay. But I never stopped sewing because of that, I would just eventually forget about the mental .GIF and keep going with a running stitch on my embroidery or whatever it was. But I hate crafts. So I don’t sew that much anyway.
     There are no coffee shops, really, not good ones, in Metro Center. But that’s OK, because I’m buzzed off my cup and what I like to do is just walk around for hours. 
 
--
 
     My boss is out today I notice, by lack of his big-bellied bear laugh that normally always sounds when I hear soft footsteps — no heels, always flats — of the college grad IBM “workflow” person, a.k.a. glorified secretary that most recently met his hiring specs: of Middle Eastern descent, mid-20s, female. But I hear her mousy voice saying his name like a question and there’s no response. Right when I’m about getting up to go make my oatmeal, the phone rings. I hate it when the phone rings. I stare at it. I let it go two rings. I snatch it up.
     “Hello?”
     “Hello, I’m with Avionics News, this is Marie. Is this Anthony?” 
     I sit back down and rap my pencil on a pad of paper on my desk.
     “Yes,” I say finally. 
     This woman, whoever she is, has a really interesting voice and I just want to listen to it, despite hating talking on the phone.
     “Oh, great. Hi. I’m working on a cover feature for our April edition. It’s on security issues for aircraft and the spike in spoofing. I was hoping you might explain to me how it works. I’ve read your bio and it looks like your area of expertise.” She seems vaguely winded, puffing for breath between sentences. She must be walking. I realize she was waiting for me to respond.
     “Bio. My bio. Like, off the TA thing?” 
     Marie inhales, clears her throat.
     “Ah, no, with the Air Force, actually. So, what do you say? Might you have 20 minutes now or at any time this week? I can be flexible. And we provide a transcript.”
     I have almost no idea what she is talking about.
     “Wait. If you’re a writer, or, ah, journalist for Avionics News, shouldn’t you already know how spoofing works?” 
     I smile to myself, think “Gotcha.”
     “What?” she says. “Excuse me, I’m sorry, I’m in the city.” She pauses. Puffs again for breath. “Look,” she says, “I understand the concept but I need a quote. I’m not an expert. You are the expert and you’re going to take my understanding deeper.”
     She stops there, waiting. I am? She’s good. She’s told me what I’ll do, and I can’t help but do it.
     “Umm… yeah. Sure. Call me back in 20.” In my head, I add, “I’ll take you deeper.”
     “Great. Thanks Anthony, we’ll talk soon.”
     I hang up and shut my eyes really tight. I’m really not quotable. I get up for the oatmeal. She has a sexy voice. There’s something about it, I know she would probably ask about how it works, then, maybe … I don’t even know. I rip open the oatmeal bag and press the hot water button on the coffee machine. Spoofing, I think, and can’t help but smile a little into the microwave. 
     At 9:20 she calls about halfway through the minute, at 26 seconds. 
     “Hello, Anthony?”
     She sounds calmer now. Composed. I hear a sudden machine-like drone of noise: an espresso machine. And there is the clinking of cups faintly too. Immediately a question comes to me.
     “Who else are you interviewing for this piece, and what’s your angle?”
     “Well, I just interviewed Airbus, as the manufacturer, to see what their perspective on the issue is.”
     “Airbus, huh? You must speak French.”
     “Not really,” she says and her voice becomes more serious. “OK Anthony, so, tell me, what avionics are involved in spoofing?”
     “Well, avionics actually aren’t really involved in spoofing at all, considering nothing is happening, actually — that’s the point.”
     “Sure, but you must have some avionics systems on the ground that you’re working to intercept. What are those systems?”
     Right. So she is smart, I think. 
     “Yeah, actually. It’s their Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast or the old radar system. And the voice frequency, too.”
     “What does that involve?”
     I tell her everything. 
     She interrupts and asks all the right questions. Then it’s over, way too fast, and she hangs up. 
     I stare into my reflection with the screen saver going, the little neon Microsoft streamers shooting into the black and then fading like fireworks.
 
--
 
     The following night was a Friday and Marie dreamed her husband met her and they made love, then she met his brother, who was with the French guy from Airbus she had interviewed over the phone. She had imagined him as bald but very handsome in the face, and in her dream he glared at her until she began irrationally to cry. She woke tear-streaked on a Saturday and worried she would not hold it all together any longer so she dressed immediately and went for coffee.
     She went somewhere that took the coffee so seriously that they were only open very select hours and had a very short menu written in chalk. She ordered a cortado, not on the menu, and they made it for her apologetically, saying if it was too hot they would remake it. 
     She found it too bitter, but approved of it anyway, knew it was good.
     Anthony woke up at 10 as he usually did, and went out for a “cuppa,” as he liked to privately think to himself. He had stayed up until 2 in the morning playing video games and he found that as he walked in the spring sun with ear buds in, listening to a rolling, jazzy, depressive sort of song with violins and a woman’s cold, resonant voice, he felt perfectly rested but also incredibly vulnerable.
     He walked through the garage door-style entrance of the coffee shop in his neighborhood, to which he always went, wearing a rumpled polo in what he felt was a delusional effort to meet one of the girls like the one that sang the song that he always listened to on the walk, which was the same to him as the woman’s voice on the phone, the widow on Metro. He stepped out of the sun into the shade of the shop, and there he saw her sitting at the edge of a long table, her legs crossed, she was bent over a book, holding a cortado. He knew the name of that drink and had seen it; a man in front of him in line had ordered one once before and Anthony, not recognizing the name from the order board, had paid attention when the barista prepared the drink. 
     Looking at the cortado, at the woman from Metro, while he stood in the converted warehouse garage doorway, his body felt like mortar, utterly stricken, and for one moment as the haunting woman in his ears let out a piercing, meandering note and the violins looped over the piano and the drums built up, he stood there staring. She looked up. In her eyes he saw recognition, and she lazily lowered her gaze back down to her book and turned the page.
     He moved quickly into the line and automatically ordered “a coffee black.”
     “What?” asked the barista. They didn’t acknowledge regulars here, he knew.
     “Well, I’d like a black coffee,” he said. The barista blinked at him as though he was crazy and he pulled his ear buds out. 
     “Black coffee,” he stated in a monotone. 
     He looked over his shoulder and he saw the woman pick up her cortado and drink it back in one shot, he saw that her brow was furrowed, her eyes momentarily revealing an infinite sadness.
     He looked back at the barista who was still staring at him. 
     “Black coffee!”
     Anthony realized she was already waiting for him to pay; she had the little swivel iPad cash register facing him.
     “Oh. I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s been a day.” 
     “It’s 10 in the morning,” she said, as he signed with his index finger. As the other barista began to set up the filter for a pour over, he realized he hadn’t specified whether he wanted drip or what, but she had finally put his order into the machine, admitting him as a regular in so doing. He felt extremely gratified and turned and went directly to where the woman sat. A man had just left the spot beside her, and he sat down. He knew he had no poker face, that the hope-mingled sadness in his eyes had somehow broken through to her, that his veneer of outward robotic intelligent hate had loosened somewhere and somehow along his walk in the cruel spring sun. Then she had, upon looking at him, shattered it forever. There it lay, he thought, looking at the invisible shards in the spot of sun at the door through which he had passed immutably, like a portal, into her existence.
     Strangely though, she looked back at him with a thin coldness, behind which he could see her own unmasked and brutal sadness shining through. He began with words, his weakest point, but also his only way out of himself.
     “No cortados on the menu,” he said.
     She shifted her knees and her eyebrows opened as she spoke. He watched her mouth, she had a small gap between her two front teeth he noticed. He wanted to kiss and he felt his chest begin to physically ache.
     “I don’t know why I ordered it, either,” she said. “It was bitter.”
     “I only order black coffee but I don’t particularly like it. It’s just easy.”
     She tilted her head and smiled a little at him.
     “I recognize your voice,” she said.
     All the muscles in his face released and his eyes widened in panic.
     “I believe I interviewed you,” she said. “Maybe a month ago. On spoofing. I forgot to email you the article, never got your email, also.”
     He looked down and recalled instantly the phone call at 2:48:26 in the afternoon nearly a month ago.
     “The journalist. The April edition.”
     She laughed, “That’s me.”
     “Well, I know it sounds stupid. But I remember you from the Metro. More than a month ago, I believe,” he said, knowing and not only believing, “I sat beside you and got off,”
     “ — Arlington Cemetery,” she interrupted him.
     “What?” 
     She constantly rearranged his entire comprehension of the world, he thought.
     “You whispered it, I think. When you got off.” 
     She turned to face him and they sat silent for a moment. Neither spoke.
     “Want to go for a walk,” she whispered.
     “Yes.”
     They got up and went out into the sun.
     “It seems you are sad like me,” she said. 
     They headed toward a soccer field filled with upward of 200 running children kicking soccer balls in matching shirts. They were impossibly small.
     “Well, I think something happened to me today,” he said. “I am sad,” he shook his head, “or not sad, but I’m struck.” 
     He paused and they both looked forward as they walked. 
     “I am just a nerd, you know, I live alone and stuff. I don’t tell people anything. I don’t make friends because I am proud. I pretend to know everything and know almost nothing besides every perfect detail of my job and anything else I set my mind to. I think I realized I’m lonely though.” He stopped and put his hands in his pockets. “I never knew that until I saw you. It’s weird,” he laughed, “But it doesn’t feel weird to tell you this.” He glanced at her, saw that her face was stoic. “I hope you don’t mind,” he said.
     “My sadness is different,” she said immediately. “I do like nerds like you. But the point is that I am not really alive.” She said this matter of factly and quickened her pace a little. 
     “When my husband died I entered into a parallel sort of living, like I live waiting to die, because then I will join him.” Anthony clenched and unclenched his fists as he listened. She stopped and turned to him.  "I’m sorry I’m telling you this too, but you started it, and now I’ve got to just tell you this, OK?”
     “Fine with me!” he almost shouted. He was very nervous. He was having trouble really comprehending what was happening but it seemed like they were connecting. She nodded at him and he nodded back and then she turned and he did too and they started walking again.
     “When I was 16,” she said, “I remember my grandmother telling me she didn’t really want to live anymore. That she read and sat all day just remembering her life because she was waiting to die. I didn’t understand her. I thought she was depressed, unmotivated, under some sort of fatalistic choice that would ruin the few years that remained of her life.” Marie was speaking faster now.
     “She is still alive and she is always pleasant but there is a melancholy still. She didn’t really change back to how she was ever, after he died. Since Jeremy died, I have understood this. I actually feel exactly the same as her.” She looked at Anthony and he saw her eyes were light brown.
     “I almost called her to tell her,” she said.
     “Who?”
     “My grandma. But I didn’t want to add to her sadness. What she chose in her old age I chose in my youth, but it wasn’t really a real choice, and that’s what I didn’t understand about her and now I do.” Anthony watched her lips.
     “He was my life,” she said, closing her eyes, and he saw that tears streamed across the soft peach fuzz of her cheeks, visible because of his excellent eyes and the bright noon sun.
     “My grandmother didn’t even love my grandpa, but still he was her whole life, she lived her life for him, and that was me. My heart revolved around Jeremy and now that he’s gone my heart has stopped revolving. I’m like a planet spun out of orbit, just hurtling out into the infinitely expanding galaxy, waiting for the end of time, which doesn’t come.” She stopped speaking and walking. She was crying a little.
He figured if he was silent she would just continue. 
     “So I have this sense that he exists on in a dead space, somehow, and I exist parallel, sort of like since he’s dead, my existence and identity died with him,” she looked at Anthony and then smiled weakly. 
He blushed intensely. This woman now suddenly held his whole heart, and, he felt, was about to obliterate it. She could throw it up so high with her voice even that it would go out of the atmosphere and hurtle out with the expanding of space, straddling the galaxy, wishing for the end of time.
     She looked up into the cloudless sky and her voice changed tones.
     “There is a sort of romance and purity to you, sitting on Metro, invincible to everyone and everything, your black oily hair matted against the temples that frame your pale face, which you don’t even know is very handsome,” she said.
     He heaved a very heavy breath.
     “No,” he said, his eyes crinkling and his head swiveling as he shook it between a sort of no and a roll. “You’re right. There’s actually not too much to me,” he said. He put his hands in his pockets and his vision momentarily darkened. “Low blood pressure,” he thought to himself. 
     “But I like you,” he said, his voice quavering.
     They looked at each other. Anthony was amazed and infinitely grateful that he was taller than her. He saw her delicate fingers tremble by the hem of her white shorts.
     Looking close at her light brown eyes he saw the little creases of young skin. He didn’t think anything at all and he saw the sliver of a gap through her parted lips. Her sad eyes were still damp and her eyelashes glistened a little in the sun. He moved his face very close to hers and he pressed his lips onto her lightly parted, upturned mouth. She touched the backs of his arms. He put his hands on her shoulder blades and they pressed back against his hands, and leaning into each other, there was the kiss. Suddenly he opened his eyes and she did a moment after, their lips parted, and they stood there, in broad daylight, the soccer children gawking, and Marie laughed.
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