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Coal Harbour

Henry Hu - Epoche

“Epoche” by Henry Hu

Coal Harbour

By Kaitlin Ruether

Published in issue 26.1

 

 

You dream of falling into the screens that surround you. In that world, illumination comes from city lights that on closer inspection become circuit boards. The grass underfoot solidifies to horizontal planes as you walk. The ocean roars in the distance, but when you listen closer it becomes the whir of a fan. You drop to your knees, crawl towards the noise. Vibration rolls in waves until you cannot breathe. You sprawl flat under the ocean and close your eyes. You float.

There is thrill in the moment before you wake up, and with it an awareness that life is simpler here. Air sweeps across your sweat-drenched skin as you lie frozen on the synthetic foam mattress. You have worked too hard to lie on springs.

 

*

 

You were wrong about technology. Your computer never sucked you into its lace-coated brothel.

Instead, the hardware climbed out of itself and shed the bulky skin for one used to dance its way to your briefcase, pocket, then brain. You got your own iMPLANT six months ago. The do-it-all chip. Music, camera, phone. You cannot misplace what is lodged in your brain. Four new versions have been released, but the changes are insignificant. The new update fried a woman’s brain last month. You tell your coworkers you will update once they raise the megapixels in the CorneaCam. Part of you hopes they do not.

You draw your wrists across your face, push stringy sepia hair away from hazel eyes and try to keep the strands behind your folded ears. Handsome, your mother called you for sixteen years. She and no one else. The computer screen captures your gaze and you plan out your evening of television and silence. Your iMPLANT reminds you to contribute to employee 46’s birthday potluck. He will be twenty-four. You never told Telus your birthday because you would rather no one know. After forty you stop counting. You know your birth year, but you have to think before you write your age.

Employee 99 has a friend she wants you to meet. You appreciate 99. She has large breasts that never move in time with her body. Her name is Deborah, but names feel useless. When you take Highway 99 home you often picture clipped greasy hair and eyes the colour of bleached pavement. You wonder how 37 looks while you stare into your own tapioca face. Your number could be worse.

At work, you sit in an office seven stories up and write emails to customers dissatisfied with their internet. Your cubicle is dull grey metal and cork board. A touch of the seventies re- mains in the orangey break rooms squashed between multi-gendered bathrooms. The only brightness here is Employee 73’s rainbow pinwheel that collects more dust with each season.

Screen savers spin images of children, pets, and the odd travel picture for those who managed to get time off. The computers with pictures of the ocean make you queasy. You cannot stand the ocean.

There is thrill in the moment before you wake up, and with it an awareness that life is simpler here. Air sweeps across your sweat-drenched skin as you lie frozen on the synthetic foam mattress. You have worked too hard to lie on springs.

When you were eight you wanted to be a journalist. At twenty-nine your mother heard Telus had an open position. Creativity orients you, but the money from corporate work pays for your urban bungalow. You write at your job while the rest of UBC’s class of 2016 washes dishes to pay off the cost of information. At Telus you have one hundred colleagues–that never changes. Each employee sits at a desk with a number on it so you know what to dial on the phone.

Home is a bungalow filled with glass, open spaces, and hardwood, the place where you spend the majority of your time. In the den sits a television and a couch made of shag carpet. Your mother gave it to you when you moved to university. A parting gift. There are muted lamps fastened to the walls that cycle through the rainbow in dull tones. You sit alone in the dark on your shag sofa and remind yourself to visit your parents. The television airs news of a bomb found on the SkyTrain, a 90-year-old woman who climbed a tree (damn preservationists), and a review for the new iMac that allows you to track other people’s iMPLANTS and follow their actions.

Employee 99 emails you the Twitter handle of her friend. @NaomiKnows32’s picture is a girl with dark violet vine tattoos that swirl from her eye down her cheek. She has short ebony hair that crosses over her left eye and a nose that points out at the end the way you appreciate. The picture was taken mid-laugh and her eyes look warm. She has perfect teeth. There is a tingle in the back of your mind, a jolt of familiarity. Loneliness forces the image of a life with this woman. 99 asks if you like what you see. You respond with one of the hundreds of smiling emoticons included with the company email system.

Your mother calls.

“Have you heard about this new iMac?” she asks.

“Yeah. Got a fifty-four percent on the CBC.”

“Fifty-four! Higher than the last iMPLANT!”

“Guess it is,” you mutter. “How is Dad?”

“He’s just made toast.” Your father is halfway to becoming an invalid. You celebrate the little things.

“Good for him,” you say.

“I tried to get him to use my old iMac so I could buy the new version.”

“Mom,” you scold. Your father will never accept corporations. He blamed them for the loss of his business. The loss of his sanity. You rub out pen marks on the Ikea LACK coffee table with the pad of your thumb.

“I should go,” your mother says. “You know how tired I get. Have you been eating well?”

“I’m over forty.” You eye the McDonalds bag that sits on the LACK. “Goodbye, Mom.”

“Come visit next weekend,” she says. Then she hangs up. The silence traps you with commitment.

 

*

 

Once, when you were twelve, you walked into the ocean. Your parents’ Coal Harbour high rise was a fifteen-minute brisk pace from Second Beach, where city met park in a clash of rock and waves. You snuck past your mother’s pomeranian, the coke dealers in the park, and the security cameras around Deadman’s Island. The beach glowed in the moonlight, but your attention focused on the black of the water. Tiny steps carried you to the sea. The ink swallowed your body with each stride until you stood waist deep. When you returned to the beach, you shivered and peered at your feet. You could not pick out your toes from the white stones. You fled to the high-rise. The elevator doors opened on the 16th floor, and before you a girl stood solemn, her back against mirrored wall. Violet lined her eyes and dribbled down her cheek. Tears and makeup. You breezed by and entered your own apartment. Your mother did not notice your absence. Her spine tensed and arched with each word spat at your father. He sat with his head buried in hands. All six foot five of him brought to shakes and trembles. Your mother, the power source of the family, stood impressive in her fury. She blamed kindness for the loss of his business. Neither parent had time for your follies. You crept to your room. As you lay in your bed, you felt immense relief to be somewhere familiar. No roar of ocean here. No tear-streaked girls or shame-filled fathers. You turned on your computer, opened Facebook and read the menial updates from people you did not talk to. Superiority overwhelmed you. You typed out your own status, ready to post, highlighted the text and deleted it. This would be your secret.

 

*

 

You send @NaomiKnows32 a tweet: Do you enjoy Japanese?

She responds: Sure. Downtown or somewhere else?

You google it. Tap out: Sushi Box. Coal Harbour. 7pm tomorrow?

She favourites the tweet. Confirmation, apparently.

The undecorated side of the cubicle is all you have to stare at besides the screen. Grey metal with a strip of virgin cork board. The email you write today is more difficult than usual. A company tracking energy consumption in Canada is angry about data transfer rates. You checkoff the box in the form labeled “connectivity problems” and put the paper in an envelope to take to the technicians. You plop the company name into the template response and add personalized touches to avoid accusations that robots run the company. The job is all about that “human touch”.

The drive to your Kitsilano bungalow takes 30 minutes in this traffic. Your iMPLANT plays the songs you want to hear via the bluetooth system in your Porsche SUV. Today you feel synth-pop and classic rock. If you listen too long your head starts to tingle, so you save the music for the triumphant end-of-the-workday drive. Home is cold, hard, and refreshing. You usually watch the 7pm news followed by whatever procedural drama plays that night and then sleep.

When you dream you feel the wet sand beneath your toes and the icy water lap at your legs. The hairs there whisper with the current. You become a massive, ugly piece of seaweed.
Then your phone buzzes in your shorts. In second grade, you were taught not to talk on the phone while in the bath. Kids electrocuted themselves that way. The phone vibrates again but your pockets have collected handfuls of silt. The slippery side of the phone brushes against your fingertips but you cannot grasp it. You wake soaked with pieces of glass lodged in your palm.Remnants of the wine glass of water you keep next to your bed litter the floor. Fingers unclenched, you stare at the blood that trickles down your forearm.

With your hand sheathed in gauze, you return to the bedroom and the abyss of your closet. Black is for work, but today is a colourful Saturday. A plum dress shirt draws a different kind of attention. The navy blazer and a black tie, then. In the dresser, eight pairs of black pants are folded crisply against one another. You lay the outfit on your bed and leave.

Downstairs, you scan a barcode over the top of your coffee machine and it releases a paper teacup and begins to dribble. You slip bread into the toaster and the sensors drop it to be roasted. Your body sags onto the kitchen chair as you reach for your iPad. The kitchen is painted ivory with black furniture that refuses to groan under your weight, despite your recent affinity for toasted bagels. Too late now. Weight loss will have to be a priority before the second date.

The day is spent like most Saturdays, except today places the heavy weight of anticipation on your shoulders. Your mother texts at 12:30 to inform you Rita of next door gave birth and has the new iMac in champagne. She conveys champagne is the most difficult colour to get ahold of. You plan to text after your date, when things like iMacs and birth seem less trivial.

When you leave at 5:30, you forget all you need. Three seconds after your Porsche squeals away, you realize you don’t have your wallet. You return for the wallet, but then, peeling out again, remember your tablet. When you finally take off, traffic jams the highway. You rest your head on the wheel until the scream of a horn jolts you to step onto the gas. You almost hit a Prius and the stress makes you turn right. A wrong turn. When you finally pull in, you take adeep breath. You remind yourself you used to have a knack for this. Like riding a bicycle.

The last time you went on a date you were thirty-two years old and in love. It was a fifth date. The first date after sleeping together. You met in a Starbucks, and when you reflect on the event, you think her choice of meeting space should have been a warning. She tore up the cardboard sleeve as she spoke. You fixated on the way her hair flipped away from her face. She told you it was not working. She moved on and you should too. You reached to stop her hands from further shredding the green and brown paper but she pulled away, stood up, and left without another word. Her drink was still three-quarters full. You picked up her cup and slammed back the half-fat mochaccino. You wanted one last taste of her lips. You never saw her again.

 

*

 

Sushi Box is warm and dark. Yellow rice paper lights reflect off the mahogany walls to create a mood too romantic for a first date. You inform the hostess you are here to meet someone. Your tablet is almost at your nose as you scrutinize NaomiKnows32’s profile picture and compare it to all the clipped brunettes in the room. There, in the corner, she flips through a menu. Fifteen steps. Your shadow falls across the woman’s pointed nose. Her tattooed cheek swivels toward you. For a moment you think she is crying.

“Andrew?”

“Yes.” You sit.

“So nice to finally meet you. Deborah has told me so much about you.” You let the lie slide.

“She’s lovely,” you retaliate. Naomi nods and silence falls. The menu is skimmed.

“I will be honest,” she says. “I have no idea how to order sushi.” You smile.

“Well I guess it’s my time to shine,” you say. You order the only dishes you presume you can pronounce.

The meal is fine. Colourful pieces of dead animal served on sticky balls of rice. Some pieces are wrapped in seaweed that smells of brine and salt and you remember the feel of slime between your toes in the ocean. Naomi–you call her by this now you have heard her voice–has eyes the colour of moss. She only eats the vegetables and rice and informs you she is a vegetarian but it’s okay because she loves vegetables and rice. You try and remember what “vegetarian” entails, exactly.

The restaurant grows busier as the date progresses. There is chatter from the tables that surround your booth. Another couple is seated at the table to your left. Nervous children who clink nails against the hardwood table, sake glasses, and whatever else they can reach. The bubbly waitress takes their order and glides to your table.

“Friday night,” she answers an unasked question.

“It’s been busy?” Naomi chirps back.

 “Only with lovebirds.” At the words of the waitress, Naomi beams at you. Her tattoo becomes streaks of mascara in the light.

Naomi speaks of chopped and mutilated forests on Vancouver Island. She comes from Nanaimo. She watched whales and deer and otters and asks if you have ever seen anything similar. You went to the aquarium once when you were five. She laughs and it makes your skin crawl. You pay the bill. She thanks you as though she did not expect it. She climbs into her Prius and waves from the window as you stand and watch. You recognize that car.

You did not mean to follow her.

Something in the way she spoke about trees, you muse. The way she tucked her Blackberry in her purse as though it was not five years old, at least. Who even has a Blackberry anymore? You cannot think the way she does, but as you follow the ‘Save the Dolphins’ bumper sticker you try. She reminds you of the ocean when you were not allowed to swim. After fifteen minutes, she cranes towards the driveway of a log cabin. Your SUV pulls in across the street.

She opens the trunk, hauls hemp bags full of groceries and slams the trunk closed with an elbow. The path to her house is created from stone circles that float in pine chips. She slips, and you almost scramble out of the SUV. Your phone hums in your pocket and you dig for it.

Your mother texted: Call me when you get home.

The brightness of the phone in the dark interior burns your retinas. You jump from the seat and stride towards the cabin. You press against the brick and wood and lift your head to the glass pane of the window. Inside is as foreign as the exterior. There is a fireplace against the far wall and in front of it lies a real woven rug. Naomi paces. She becomes the child you saw outside the elevator. The girl too young to wear so much makeup on her eyes, let alone in streaks down her face. Naomi’s voice rattles through the glass.

“I don’t know. I’m tired of being just a number. Sometimes I think about renouncing technology all together, you know?” Silence. “Yeah, but I could live off the grid. After I meet someone to come with me.” You wait until she speaks again. “I am! I went on a date tonight, actually.” Pause. “Pretty good. I didn’t mention the techno-fast thing. Next time.” She giggles then, and the sound of it fills your ears and tears you down. You want to hear it repeatedly, to let it grate against your ears, but you will not because this girl is insane. Pricks of electricity spark your mind. The iMPLANT warms and hums. She is poison to you. You look around the house. You need to be inside, to fix her and teach her and introduce her to real life.

There is a rock left of your foot and you reach for it. The jagged edges sting your palm where the glass left scabs. You squeeze harder and feel the blood trickle and collect. If you threw the stone at the glass you could climb in. You weigh it, toss it to your other hand, squeeze. The jangle of her laughter pours over you. You cannot un-hear it. The rock slips to the ground. There is a roar in your mind you cannot place. Maybe a motorcycle, maybe the tide as it comes home.

“He was grand, Mom,” she squeaks. “Funny. The mysterious type. Plus, he had great hair.” You drag your fingers through your clumpy locks. Blood smears across your forehead and runs from your nose. Her pointed features materialize before you. Imagine her mouth form an ‘O’ of surprise. Of something else, too. The tide rises and now you cannot hear her at all. You turn to face your car. It sits where you left it–of course it does. You walk until you can grip the handle and climb in. Then start the engine.

 

*

 

The SUV swivels around a corner and you can hear the cinematic shriek of the tires. It is all in your head — this car was designed for silence. Her tin laughter echoes. A recording. The bubble of salt water trapped inside crab holes in the sand. There is something stuck to the bottom of your shoe and you think for a moment it is seaweed from the restaurant. Your shoe will not lift off the gas. The SUV speeds up until you are on the highway and you have forgotten how to stop. You wish you could stop. You pull your foot up but it does not follow.

You watch the familiar boardwalk pass in the passenger seat window and drive home.

Not to the impersonal, un-lived-in bungalow you bought, but to the building where your parents lived until your father’s unemployment forced you to move. You drive to the harbour.

A fire has started within your brain. You blink away tears but nothing changes. You are blinded. Light bounces off the polished black leather interior, the rearview mirrors, the metaldoor handles. The road is hidden by the splotches of black that crawl across your vision. You say:

“Siri.”

“Yes, Andrew?”

“Text. Mom.” Beep. “Mom. Something’s wrong. Very wrong. I think it’s my iMPLANT chip.” You have to pause to wipe the sweat from your hands on your synthesized polyester slacks. You wrap your fingers around the wheel and turn right. “I don’t believe I can come home. Please send my regards to Dad. Try to find me before he dies. If you can’t find me–” the salt climbs under your eyelids and you flinch, pull hard left of the wheel. “Fuck. If you can’t find me, I don’t want to be found. Send.”

You recall what you wanted to write as your Facebook status. You shivered alone in your bed, tugged the blankets under your chin as your laptop lay on your chest. The screen rose and fell with each breath you took while you stared at the message you created, cursor hovering over “post”.

“The ocean is colder than I expected. Second beach is beautiful in the moonlight. I don’t think I’m the same person I was before.”

There was more you wanted to say, but you refrained. You bore holes into the message until you changed your mind. No one knew what you had done. It is the only secret you ever had to yourself. You pull it close and feel the wounds in your palms split open against the wheel. The secret is a balm, gauze, and heated compression.

The familiar blip of the sent message rings in your ears. The sound joins the chorus of laughter, ocean, and your own cries. You spin the wheel right and the sound is drowned by an other sound, louder and filled with hysterical terror. The vehicle groans as it smashes a stone wall and soars where the land ends. You shut your eyes.

Then all you can breathe is ocean.


 

Kaitlin Ruether was born in Ottawa, raised in Calgary, and currently studies Creative Writing at the University of Victoria, where she spends too much time staring at the sea.