Sunday, May 29, 2011

Countdown to Mars story

He loved to hide in plain sight; security by ignorance, a faceless persona, an avatar; in the crowds at Grand Central, watching everyone going elsewhere, while he sipped coffee. Or in bars, chatting up dates, wanting shallow and finding it, as always. Or online, sometimes as Joe, or Igor, or Mohamed, or Saul. Ready to talk, but not about that.

And then they went and picked him.

Cabby exited the station at 45th, blinking in the sun that slammed down between the urban towers, and hustled north along Broadway, looking, scanning, absorbing. He preferred to walk as much as he could, to soak up whatever city he's in, which is why he left the subway rather than transfer underground to chase the slant of B-way uptown.

He passed a noodle shop, far from Chinatown but catching the trade near Times square. Through the window he saw four bespectacled Asians peering down through the steam obscuring their bowls. There were some white faces and some black; and someone who caught his eye and quickly looked away.

A bum sat back against a storefront, his tattered box full of change and small bills. DISABLED it's labeled in Sharpie. Below it, clumsily crossed out, Cabby can still make out FREE TIBET. Even his box is a castoff. In goes a subway card with his last ride; a curt nod is his reply.

He's reminded of his own country, where the junta had jailed and tortured many souls, reducing them to begging like this guy. His dad would have been one of them if picked up early. When they finally did come for him, his short-lived underground paper had a following, so his torture ended in death, relatives be damned.

Cabby sifts through early memories of his dad, caressing them like elephants do the long bones of their comrades at their secret burial grounds. He thinks of dinners together in their snug kitchen as the sizzling pans threw strong spices into the air; splashing in the lake in the summer; bellowing along with folk songs on the radio.

Next block has upscale clothing stores, Restoration Hardware, classy booksellers, the ubiquitous StarBux. He peered down side streets that turn onto shopping avenues containing gleaming, polished doors to appointment-only haberdashers. Doors opened gladly for his country's despots and their entourages, the oily pitchmen owners falling all over themselves hawking their latest collections.

Elly. He thinks of her often. More today, as they're due to meet. She didn't tell him her Mandarin name, as her Americanized name has stuck, even within her family, she said when she met him at a trade event he was covering. He didn't share his real name either because his short one has stuck too, a useful label for a citizen of the world. Both of their assumed names being more interesting than the usual Bob, George, Rita or Mary so many internationals took on. Something they had in common.


Two small diamond studs set in gold went into her earlobes. The natural double folds of her Asian eyelids reflect in the dressing mirror while she checked her makeup. Her tight red and gold silk dress slid over her head and hugged her toned figure. Just a classy camisole between her perky breasts and the silk; no underwear.

Done dressing, Elly closed the door to the walk-in closet full of perfectly tailored and pressed outfits ready for any occasion. One of the Stepford wife perks available to the fiance of a dry-cleaner. As a Chinese national fully comfortable in America, she was a much sought-after daughter of a high-ranking member of the consulate. Her father had been located in New York and sometimes Washington for years doing trade negotiations, his big win being garnering Most Favored Nation status for the regime. Her mother and then El do their duty as the perfect Mandarin representatives. Both are slim, alluring, flirty with the Americans and others who came to New York on business.

Elly was born in Shanghai to her mother, a child bride, while her father was on assignment there as the city began to grow. When El was four, his next posting was New York, where he fell in love with the stimulating environment, the large multi-national community, and an attractive secretary from the consulate, and had enough clout to remain here for as long as he wanted. El had been sent to NYU to learn communications and marketing to allow her to do summer internships with the trade councils and the U.N. She was introduced to her dry-cleaner upon graduation a couple of years ago.

She grabbed a stylish jacket on her way out of the door, something to cover her sleek dress and to hide it from her mother's eyes. An oversized Coach purse with some makeup and a change of clothes completed her ensemble, and she walked the short two blocks to the commuter station behind large dark glasses, head held high, long black hair shining in the sunlight.

Even after coming of age, her small circle of friends had to balance allure with tasteful composure for their families' sake. She had been allowed to attend NYU as it was so close and she could continue to assist at the consulate. Many of her friends had to attend small, rural colleges that had parietal rules and dorm monitors, boys strictly forbidden. For her, NYU senior year had been a time of freedom, of getting on the pill, on meeting lots of international students, on having and sharing secrets. Before then she had to commute from home, her arrivals and departures monitored. She had managed to wangle that one year away (a whole ten miles across the river, hah!) saying how she had to work with her advisor very closely.

And that was when she had met Mr. Ping, esquire, Man of the World, thank-you very much, an associate of her advisor, and a specialist in emigration and residency law. He was the one who had filed for her permanent residency without her family's knowledge, in exchange for long talks over wine and her virginity.

So now she stood on the train platform, on a big city tryst, with a college degree, some experience in relations both international and intimate, and the world in front of her. If she could figure out how to untangle herself from her fiance.


The lobby was empty save for the desk attendant at the far end. The tasteful looped soundtrack was between selections. The two entered from opposite ends of the high ceilinged, brass and glass room, he from the street, she from the polished elevator bank. They spotted each other immediately.

“Cabby!” she called.

“Elly. It’s been too long,” he replied.

They started to shake hands, then locked in a warm embrace.

“Join me over here in the bar,” El said, heading across the room while steering Cabby with her arm into the alcove. “It’s intimate, and we can talk.”

Settled into two wing backs, with drinks delivered by an obsequious waiter, the two caught up.

“Why are you in the city?” he asked.

“I came in for overnight adventure which my mom thinks is for a seminar and some shopping. Your text to hook up was a godsend. Life is dull beyond belief in Jersey. Are you here for an interview? Who is it this time?”

“Nobody. This time I’m the interviewee. Elly, they want me for the launch.”

“For an opinion from the international community? Al-Jezera or something?”

“No. To go.”

Surprise flickered across her face.

“That’s a big step. Why you? To represent a friendly foreign face to the U.S?” she asked.

“Most likely. I really don’t know.”

“Will the media play this up and use your real name? Or will they call you Cabby to make you more ‘palatable’ to Peoria?”

“I don’t know that either, and probably never will. I don’t plan to go.”

“Oh no, this is an opportunity of a lifetime,” she said.

“The risk is too high.”

“The risk of a crash? That's pretty small. Of getting the ultimate cabin fever? After all those space station missions, they know how to handle that stuff now – get you in shape, keep you active, in touch. I’ll be your most active Tweeter.”

“The risk of assassination.”

“What, you think you're fuckin' Trotsky or something? The long arm of Stalin never far?” she wise-cracked, then turned serious. “Tell me more about your Dad.”

Cabby squirmed, and took a long drink. The cold hurt his stomach, as the different liquids fought it out, like his emotions did in his head.

“He was a warm, caring man, with large rough hands worn from doing whatever had to be done. Digging in the earth, inking his little press, loading his old truck. He filled my entire childhood, not knowing my Mom, who died in childbirth with me. We were a small family, but it allowed him to include me in everything, only occasionally having to have my aunt care for me if he got very busy. And as I grew up, we had our small differences, but he remained important to me even as a shy teenager, when most kids would disappear all day to play soccer or throw stones at the patrols.”

“So what happened?”

“He had applied for a job at the big resort hotel outside of town, but it wasn't his turn or perhaps his bribe was too small. Anyway, he was tossed out of the office. Always someone who felt the sting of injustice, he started his tiny press, printing leaflets. The object was to slowly grow a base of people also injured by the regime, having them find others face-to-face and ply them with the broadsides. That way there would be no public gathering easily crushed. They wouldn't act until there were hordes of followers. But it backfired when someone spoke his name.

“They came at night, of course. I was just falling asleep. He was smoking in the front room, the blue rings slowly rising in the hot air. The door stove in, and two large men grabbed him with a shout. I was all man at nineteen, so I leaped to his aid in my pajamas, but one goon simply knocked me to the floor. That's how I got this,” he said in a whisper, running his finger over the bump on the top of his nose. “Took weeks to heal, but nothing compared to beatings and electric shocks. I never saw him again.”

“What a contrast to my life,” El replied. She slid her chair closer, the proper ninety degree conversational angle now turning more acute. Her leg brushed his lightly, her head tilted toward his, her pupils dilated. “I've had everything either prescribed, or proscribed, by my family.”

“Not so different. Both of us are controlled by a regime. It's simply that mine would prefer me dead, and yours brain-dead. If your eyes weren't up to standards, they would have made you have surgical folds done. They would have bound your feet if they could, I'm sure.”

The waiter came by, refreshed their glasses, and departed.

“What do you want, El?” he asked.

“No, what do you want, Cabby? It's time to come out of the shadows. You can talk about that, that which happened to your father and possibly might to yourself. See, you're doing it now with me.

“When I met you, you were covering our delegation's Spring trade announcement. The international equivalent of doing dumb-ass weather and birthdays on local TV.”

“It's a living. And it keeps my hand in journalism, and my limbs safely attached. A low profile that doesn't upset anyone.”

“You can do better,” says El.

Emboldened by the alcohol and the attention, his desire for her and the mission goes up. He fights it back down.

“Imagine what you could do as the spokesman for your country during the entire training and flight,” she reminds him.

He's a bit dazed now, the nearby warmth and soft skin belonging to someone he can respect, someone who's smart and sharp and has a purpose.

“I don't need a man to take care of me, like my stupid fiance, I need a teammate, someone I care about and who cares for me. And I think you do too, babe.”

That does it.

They leaned back in their chairs. Glasses nearly empty, both watched each other suck on the leftover ice. The waiter appeared, El scrawled her name and room number on the slip, and they left the bar.

The elevator doors closed on their frisky frottage, and she pulled away, giggling. At the room, the card key actually worked first swipe. Inside she dropped it on the floor along with her clothes.

And suddenly he was behind her, in her, thrusting, watching her dark hair sweep across her back, with the ends, cut by some talented queer who must have been thinking of him, perfectly aligned. And when they were done, they rolled and laughed and cried and hugged, until he thought nothing could be better than this, except to go to Mars, if just for her.