An Excerpt from Ling Ma's Upcoming Novel, 'Severance'
What's worse than breaking up? Ending things during an apocalyptic super storm.
I got up. I went to work in the morning. On the J crossing the Williamsburg Bridge, I noticed that the sky looked different. It was yellowed, some kind of yellow I’d never seen before, an irregular jaundiced chartreuse like a bruise trying to heal. Later, trying to pinpoint the beginning of the End, I’d think about the way the sky looked that day.
I hadn’t slept well the night before. I had laid on the cheap bed of my Bushwick studio, listening to the sound of my breath. I thought about the next day at the office, and the day after. Whenever I couldn’t sleep, I would torture myself by creating a completely hypothetical Bible production scenario to troubleshoot. I would calculate the cost of using Swiss Bible paper in place of the Chinese paper that the client insisted we buy, should the latter prove too flimsy to prevent ink from bleeding to the other side, the Psalms obscuring the Proverbs, Matthew contradicting Mark, Peter preempting John. I would estimate the time this theoretical setback would delay the production schedule, then the shipment schedule. I would know that I was alone.
Before the train tunneled underground, my phone buzzed in my tote bag, alight with another text from Jonathan: Leaving Sunday. Talk to me plz.
What if I texted back: I’m pregnant! It’s yrs lolz.
I needed to find a way to break the news. We hadn’t seen each other in a month, the last time being when he had informed me he was moving out of New York. He had texted, called, and emailed a bunch since then. I hadn’t meant to ghost, but it was just easier not to deal with it. Especially since I didn’t know whether I was going to have it.
I put my phone on silent.
I took the J to Canal, where I transferred to the Q up to the Times Square stop. Crowds were thin on the morning commute. When I walked out onto the street, the yellow of the sky had deepened. Its tincture infected everything. Even in Times Square, there was only a slight scattering of tourists. The lobby of the building was empty, except for Manny.
What are you doing here? he said.
I’m going to work.
Wait. Did you check your—
Sorry! I called out, as the elevator doors closed. I wasn’t in the mood to hear cracks about my unusual punctuality. It was 8:44 AM on a Thursday, which, admittedly, was pretty early for me.
The elevator screeched to a standstill. It paused in suspension, emitting a mechanical moan. It always did this between the 26th and 27th floors, some kind of glitch. Then something clicked, and it glided up smoothly to the 32nd floor. I held my breath, willing the doors to open.
They opened to reveal a darkened office floor. Spectra was entombed, blinds drawn across the floor-to-ceiling windows, our cubicles small, silent sarcophagi. A lone beam of light emanated from a bank of offices at my left.
I swiped my key card and opened the door. Hello, I called out.
The light was coming from Blythe’s office. Navigating through the tangled maze of gray cubicles, I found her inside, typing on her computer. The glare of the screen bounced off her straight, equine features, her long, blond hair pulled back in a low ponytail.
Hey, she said, not looking up. Can you believe this shit?
The email that they sent out this morning, at like six. The office is closed. There’s a major storm advisory. You didn’t check your work email?
No, I said, feeling guilty. Why are you here?
This is what I get for breaking my phone, she said, almost to herself. She looked up. There’s going to be a storm. Here. She swiveled around her computer screen toward me, and googled ny weather. There was a superstorm warning for the entire tri-state area. A Category 3 hurricane, named Mathilde, was closing in. Certain train lines would be closed in the afternoon. Flash floods were expected in Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan.
The mayor had held a press conference earlier that morning. Blythe played the video: New Yorkers, he said, in front of a bank of microphones. Our job here in the mayor’s office is not to alarm you, but it is to prepare for the worst. The fact is, while we have our emergency services on standby, we may be stretched beyond capacity tonight. Please—
Anyway, Blythe said, swiveling the screen back toward her, I’m going to get some files and take them home. She looked me up and down. You might think about doing the same.
She opened up her file cabinets, rummaging around for proofs. Locating the project folder, she spread out the proofs across her desk. The proofs were for New York Mirror, a compilation volume of New York photographers.
Splayed out on her desk was a Nan Goldin photograph, Greer and Robert on the Bed, NYC. I could recognize it on sight.
I love Nan Goldin, I said, lingering in the doorway. She was my favorite artist when I was a teenager.
Blythe glanced up. Maybe you can take a look at this proof, give me a second opinion.
Sure, I said, uncertain whether she was asking me out of courtesy or because she genuinely wanted a second opinion. Blythe was hard to read in that way, like a WASP version of Kourtney Kardashian.
Do the colors look off to you? Blythe asked. She turned on the color-correcting lamp. A woman lying down next to a man, clutching her wrist as if measuring its thinness. He was looking away, beyond the frame. They were bathed in the warm, yellow light of the room. She was in love with him; he didn’t seem to care.
I don’t know, I finally said. It’s supposed to be a warm image, isn’t it?
Look. Blythe indicated the woman’s arms, her neck. Doesn’t this look weird?
It took a moment for me to see what she was saying. The flesh tones are off, I confirmed. There’s maybe too much “Y” in the CMYK.
Good. She produced her proofing pencil and marked it up with satisfied, incisive lines. She turned the proofs, page by page. More than the other Art Girls, Blythe had a sharp, exacting eye.
Take a seat, she said, not looking up.
I rolled someone’s desk chair into her office, and she produced another proofing pencil for me as I sat down beside her. We slowly paged through the images, images by Peter Hujar, David Armstrong, Larry Clark, marking up repro imperfections.
There were other Nan Goldin photographs, her earlier work taken in the 70s and 80s. They were all of her friends; they existed on highly emotive planes, socializing in cars and on beaches, posturing at good-bad parties, picnicking chaotically, cleansing themselves in milky baths, sexing and masturbating and visiting one another in hospitals, lit up by the bald glare of the camera flash. When they laughed, they threw their heads back to reveal crooked, yellowed teeth. The city back then was almost bankrupt. Day and night seemed indistinguishable, the dividing line between them membranic. The party spectacles gave way to hospital scenes gave way to funeral tableaux. The AIDS epidemic seemed to strike overnight.
I first encountered Nan Goldin’s photographs when I was a teenager, and hoarded a copy of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency under my mattress. So many of the people depicted seemed freakish or other in some way; they didn’t fit in. But that didn’t matter, the photographs seemed to say. What mattered was, they styled and remade themselves in the way they wanted to be seen. They inhabited themselves fully. They made me want to move to New York. Then I’d really be somewhere, I had thought, inhabiting myself.
We went through all the proofs, marking up color corrections.
Thanks for helping, Blythe said.
No problem. I thought Lane was working on this title, though.
Lane’s taking a leave of absence.
Oh. I looked at her, waiting for her to say more.
Blythe paused, choosing her words carefully. Lane is sick. She’s, uh, fevered.
Wait, really? I searched Blythe’s face for a reaction.
Yeah, it’s pretty shocking, Blythe said with feigned nonchalance. But her voice caught, and she looked away.
I’m sorry. You never think this kind of thing happens to anyone you know.
It’s happened to a lot of people, Candace, Blythe corrected me. But with Lane, it’s really surprising. Lane wore her mask everywhere. After her neighbor was found fevered, she had her apartment sprayed with that antifungal treatment all the time. She took every precaution, and still it didn’t... Blythe swallowed, trailed off. She undid her smooth, sleek ponytail and then redid it. She checked her phone. Think I need to get going. Better get home before the storm starts.
Yeah, me too, I echoed. Do you want to split a cab?
She hesitated. I was just going to take the subway. They’re not shutting down for another few hours.
Somewhere in the office, a phone was ringing.
Would you get that, please? she asked, gathering up the proofs in her bag.
I left Blythe’s office and went toward the ring, grappling through the maze of cubicles. It led me all the way to the other end of the floor and back to my office. It was my phone. Someone was calling me.
Spectra New York. This is Candace.
Finally, you pick up, Jonathan said.
I paused. I guess you really wanted to get a hold of me.
I called Spectra and punched your last name in the directory. I was worried.
The light went off in Blythe’s office. She had put on a trench coat and was walking out the glass doors to the elevator bank. I could hear the rain on the windowpanes. Suddenly, the rain intensified so drastically that the pane shook. On the streets below, tourists in white sneakers and Crocs scattered.
There’s going to be a storm, he added.
I heard. I was about to leave.
Can I stay over at your place? The landlord says my basement needs to be evacuated in case of flooding.
In the distance, I heard the elevator doors ding as Blythe left. I envied her free time, her evening of carefree plans. I needed to tell Jonathan my news. I couldn’t put it off forever.
OK, come over, I finally said.
It was early evening by the time Jonathan came over. All day, it had been raining intermittently. After I buzzed him up, I listened to his footfalls echoing up the staircase and through the hallway, heavy and careful, as if treading a bridge that might give way.
I waited for a few beats before opening the door.
Hey, he said. He was wearing his one nice shirt, a button-down plaid needled with rain. And, I couldn’t help it. My heart barked confusedly with love.
With mannered formality, he placed a pair of tidy, whiskery pecks on each side of my face, leaving behind an unfamiliar citrusy aftershave scent.
Hey, I echoed. You smell like a men’s magazine.
Where do I put this? he asked, indicating the white mug in his hand. It was his overnight retainer, soaking in green mouthwash. He held the mug level, by the handle, his palm over the top. He’d walked from his apartment to the station and boarded the train this way.
I shrugged. Wherever you want.
I watched as he opened up the medicine cabinet in the bathroom and placed the mug carefully inside. It was where he’d always placed it. Asking was just a pretense.
Are you all packed for your move?
Almost, he said, and went into detail about his day: how he had sold his mattress and record player on Craigslist. The remaining belongings he had packed and left with the upstairs neighbor, a middle-aged bachelor whose only act of storm preparation was to muzzle his dog.
I also found some of your things in my apartment, he added. Your toothbrush, some books. I’m sorry, I forgot to bring them with me. They’re at my neighbor’s. You want me to bring your stuff back here tomorrow?
I’ll pick them up, I said, even though I probably wouldn’t, then changed the subject. Are you hungry? I’m kind of starving. You want to go to El Paradiso?
He hesitated. Um. I really don’t want to be caught out there when the storm worsens.
Come on, I have an umbrella. Plus, it’s not even that bad outside right now.
We went downstairs and bounded outside, forgetting the umbrella. We walked along the street underneath the subway tracks. The rain was supposed to worsen later, but now it was clear enough that everyone was outside. The world was exploding into a party. Revelers spilled out of bars that advertised #mathilde drink specials: $5 Dark and Stormys. On rooftops, hipsters congregated in little gatherings, surrounded by masses of beer bottles. In bodegas and convenience marts, strangers chatted with one another as they waited in line, stocking up on bottled water and batteries. Old men sat on plastic milk crates, enjoying the show. Music blared from competing boom boxes and sound systems. A black sports car, its open trunk stuffed with soup cans and boxed wine, barreled down toward the intersection, pumping Ginuwine. Passing the open doorway of a hipster honky-tonk bar, I caught a bit of an old song. Waylon Jennings, “Crying,” the man’s voice one big pitcher of water being relieved.
Finally, we reached El Paradiso, this Puerto Rican chicken place. A druggy blast of air-conditioning greeted us as we walked in, bells tinkling. It was a pretty casual place: fluorescent lighting, red tile floors, the smell of industrial cleaners. The dishes were served cafeteria style; you went up to the counter and told them what you wanted while they ladled the food on a plate.
We went through the counter with our trays. As usual, Jonathan ordered chicken and rice, and I got oxtail stew.
For here or to go? Rosa asked. She was the owner.
For here, please, I said.
We sat down at the hard Formica tables. El Paradiso was almost completely empty. I wasn’t used to seeing it this way. We used to come here a lot, Sunday afternoons when it was packed with churchgoers just out of service, resplendent in their Sunday finery.
I don’t understand this festive mood, Jonathan said, indicating outside the window.
Well, they won’t have to work tomorrow, I explained.
So? he asked, cutting a plantain with a plastic knife.
I was like everyone else. We all hoped the storm would knock things over, fuck things up enough but not too much. We hoped the damage was bad enough to cancel work the next morning but not so bad that we couldn’t go to brunch instead.
Brunch? he echoed skeptically.
OK, maybe not brunch, I conceded. If not brunch, then something else.
A day off meant we could do things we’d always meant to do. Like go to the Botanical Garden, the Frick Collection, or something. Read some fiction. Leisure, the problem with the modern condition was the dearth of leisure. And finally, it took a force of nature to interrupt our routines. We just wanted to hit the reset button. We just wanted to feel flush with time to do things of no quantifiable value, our hopeful side pursuits like writing or drawing or something, something other than what we did for money. Like learn to be a better photographer. And even if we didn’t get around to it on that day, our free day, maybe it was enough just to feel the possibility that we could if we wanted to, which is another way of saying that we wanted to feel young, though many of us were that if nothing else.
I don’t know if you get that though, I said.
Of course I get that. I worked in an office. He took a bite of a plantain.
We ate in silence for a while.
When do you move again? I asked.
On Sunday. So that’s in... three days. He looked at me. I kept trying to meet up with you. You didn’t answer any of my texts.
Well, we had a fight.
We didn’t have a fight. I told you of my plans to leave New York, and then you stopped communicating.
Yes, I said, because you made a decision that affected us and only told me after you decided. It seems very easy for you to walk away.
You have to know that I’m leaving because of New York, not you. You know why I don’t want to live here. I don’t want to hustle 24/7 just to make rent. He let his gaze drift outside the window. Then you have global warming and these seasonal hurricanes. This whole city is falling apart. Whatever happens, this place gets what it deserves.
That’s a little harsh, even coming from you.
He narrowed his eyes at me. You know this Shen Fever thing is only going to get worse, right? Some are saying more than a third of the population in China are fevered. It’s way worse than avian flu.
I shook my head. If that were true, then we would’ve heard a lot more about this.
The state media in China controls the optics of this, so we don’t know the real statistics. Maybe they don’t want to incite mass panic, but I’ll bet it’s also because they don’t want foreign investors to pull out of their economy. They need to save face.
That sounds like a conspiracy, I dismissed. One of Jonathan’s constant critiques of me was that I didn’t keep up with the news enough, but I wondered if he wasn’t overinformed, deep-diving into obscure articles and message boards, seeing connections that weren’t there.
He looked at me expectantly. And Shen Fever is spreading here too. It tends to move the fastest in coastal areas that see a lot of trade, a lot of shipping, imports. The whole tri-state area should be on red alert or something.
Well, I guess you’re leaving at the right time. I drank my water.
He softened, struck a more conciliatory tone. You could be leaving too. You could just come with me, he said, reaching for my hand across the table. We’ll settle down somewhere new, somewhere cheaper. We’ll figure it out.
I moved my hand away and said: No matter where we move, it would be the same thing for me. I’d need to hold down a job. I’d need to make rent. I’d need health insurance.
Jonathan gave me a hard look. Why do you want to work a job you don’t really even believe in? What’s the endgame of that? Your time is worth more than that.
I returned his look. The way you choose to live is a luxury. It’s only possible for a while, when no one depends on you. But it’s not sustainable.
He leaned away from me, defiant. But no one depends on you either. Neither of us has a family to support. And yet you choose to be tied down to a job you don’t believe in or even respect.
But what if you had kids, like, tomorrow? I asked, trying to sound neutral. It could happen. How would you take care of them?
That’s not going to happen to me, at least not anytime soon, he said, so obliviously confident that I wanted to laugh.
Instead, I ate my rice, focused on chewing each and every grain. I wasn’t going to tell him, I decided right then and there. It flared up without warning, this protective feeling toward an indeterminate bundle of cells inside of me. In that moment I knew.
Rosa came over to our table. I’m sorry, but we decided to close early today, she said. The storm. She gestured to our plates. I can wrap up your leftovers.
I looked down at my plate. I had barely touched my food, but I was no longer hungry. That’s OK, I said. Thank you, though.
Of course we’ll wrap it up, Jonathan corrected.
Fine. You eat it then, I shot at him.
Rosa hesitated. You guys used to come here, right? I remember, on the weekends.
We used to, I said.
You’re a nice couple. Whatever you’re fighting about, it’s not worth it. She looked worriedly outside. A storm, you know, these forces of nature, they put things into perspective.
How are you getting home? Jonathan asked her.
My niece and her husband are picking me up. They should be here soon.
Sorry for arguing in your establishment. Jonathan boxed up the leftovers in a Styrofoam container and put it in a plastic bag. He put down a tip. We stood up to leave.
Have a nice night, I added. At the door, I turned around and saw that she was wrapping up all the unserved, uneaten food behind the counter. I thought about her taking the food home to her niece and her husband, and eating the day’s leftovers.
Come on, he said, grabbing my hand.
It had darkened outside. The parties had dispersed due to the rain, the rain that started dropping in bigger pelts, faster and steadier, as we ran home. The houses outside, each window flickering with the light of the TV screen, sat in tidy, orderly rows, obediently being cleaned with a good whiplashing. Pretty soon, it was hard to see anything. We clasped hands as we ran, so as not to lose each other along the way. When we reached my building, we were thoroughly soaked. I fished around for my keys, and we heaved ourselves up the stairs.
I took a shower first, then Jonathan. While he showered, I pulled out my laptop and checked Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. Everyone was posting about the storm. Craigslist Casual Encounters exploded with urgent booty calls. People posted selfies in front of the window, with storm views outside, and filed the pics under #mathilde, the top trending thread on Twitter. Another was #netflixstorm because Netflix was hosting a viewing contest. Participants tweeted their viewing selections during the storm, and a hundred would be selected for complimentary annual Netflix subscriptions. Extra points to those who included a screenshot of their viewing choices.
Watching twister during #netflixstorm cuz I’m basic
#Mathilde is mother nature’s wrath for airing Jersey Shore #netflixstorm
Showgirls #netflixstorm #lifechoices
Watching #Mathilde outside window > Watching movies for #netflixstorm
Jonathan sat down beside me, on the floor cushions. He wore a clean T-shirt and boxers that he’d left at my place last time.
What are you looking at? he asked, speaking with a slight lisp. He had just put his retainer in.
Look at this, I said, swerving the screen around to show him a photo someone had posted on Twitter. It showed a picture of the East Village partly underwater, with only the awnings of storefronts visible. Boxes of Tide and hot dogs floated erroneously all around. Broken electrical wires flailed.
He shook his head. It’s fake.
How do you know?
The light in this photo is plain daylight, afternoon light. But the storm didn’t really begin until it started getting dark.
I studied the photo. There was no yellow sky. I scrolled through the comments. Others had picked up on the same thing, labeling the picture #stormhoax. One commenter wrote that it was a picture taken on the set of an apocalyptic movie and reappropriated as reality.
People have too much time on their hands, I said.
OK, I think we’ve reached weather-news saturation, Jonathan said, reaching to close the laptop. Let’s do something else.
Hold on, I said, still clicking. Let’s read the real news. On the New York Times homepage:Blackout Affects Millions in Manhattan. Mathilde was escalating. Electricity had been lost in parts of Lower Manhattan: Battery Park and Wall Street. There were satellite images showing the tip of the island almost completely dark. On other sites, we read, Storm Barrels Through Mid-Atlantic Region, Alert Extended. The storm alert had been extended from 6:00 AM to 2:00 PM the next day. Hurricane force winds were up to 180 miles per hour. The hurricane level had been upgraded from Category 3 to Category 5, the difference between “devastating damage” and “catastrophic damage.”
At that moment, the lights in my studio flickered, then shut off.
Shit, I said.
I looked out the window. The darkness was total out there too. The only light came from my laptop, which only had a 17 percent battery charge. It was only 10:13 PM. The neighbor’s WiFi, KushNKash, which I siphoned, had also succumbed, and Spotify stopped streaming.
Jonathan closed my laptop before I could protest.
Let’s just go to bed, he said. Come on.
We lay down on my bed, on top of the covers. I could barely see his face. He put his arm around me. There were too many terrible things happening in the world. His embrace felt familiar and comforting, as I listened to the sound of our breaths. And the intensity of the rain coming out of tempo in fast, hateful waves, viciously attacking the glass. A car alarm went off in the distance, then another. Pretty soon he was kissing me. His lips were chapped. He never thought to buy himself simple things, like ChapStick. It made me feel tender again toward him, the same throbbing ache as when we first met. I could feel his retainer, the clack of it in the dark. He moved slowly, so that I could stop him at any point, as he removed my T-shirt and bra, a scalloped black lace thing with an elastic that seared into my ribs. It was my best bra.
Candace, he said.
I couldn’t see his eyes. He pulled his shirt off. He had a thin body, hairy and slimy and squishy. I can honestly say that it was my favorite body, his dick an ugly sea cucumber, veiny and brown and wretched. He handled me as if separating egg whites from yolk. He kissed my breasts and stroked the innards of my thighs, reaching into me. I sucked his dick and put it inside me. First I was on top, then I was on bottom, then in front on my hands and knees as he pulled my hair back hard. The hair pulling was new. Maybe he’d changed up his porn viewing, or maybe he had been with someone else in the month I’d been avoiding him, some rail-thin, high-pitched blonde—I bit his neck, he bit my breast—who liked it hard but not as hard as I did, someone who moaned and gasped a lot.
I was moaning. I was gasping.
Oh God, he lisped, pulling my hair back.
He didn’t give any warning when he came, something he used to do. Oh, fuck, he moaned. He jizzed all over the place. He jizzed inside me, and on instinct I cried, Wait. Stop.
We lay under the covers on our backs, side by side but not touching, looking up at the ceiling. His breathing was slow and steady, like a bass line against the relentless rain that continued coming down hard on the windowpanes.
What’s wrong? he asked. I have this feeling like you want to tell me something.
I don’t know how many times I can tell you I’m not going with you.
I guess I have a hard time believing that. We don’t have to go to Puget Sound. We can go anywhere, as long as we don’t stay here. I just want you to come with me.
I’m not like you, I said.
What I didn’t say was: I know you too well. You live your life idealistically. You think it’s possible to opt out of the system. No regular income, no health insurance. You quit jobs on a dime. You think this is freedom, but I still see the bare, painstakingly cheap way you live, the scrimping and saving, and that is not freedom either. You move in circumscribed circles. You move peripherally, on the margins of everything, pirating movies and eating dollar slices. I used to admire this about you, how fervently you clung to your beliefs—I called it integrity—but five years of watching you live this way has changed me. In this world, money is freedom. Opting out is not a real choice.
I didn’t say these things because we had fought about this before, or some variation of the same issue. I didn’t want to fight on our last night. I didn’t want to hurt him. Maybe he sensed what I was thinking, because he was silent for a minute.
He said, There has always been this stubbornness to you that I can’t break through.
I still love you, I said.
Whenever you say you love me, it sounds like a criminal confession.
I laughed sadly, my tired, hoarse voice cracking. After a moment, he began to laugh too, despite himself. We were both laughing, the last few weeks of our fight breaking like heavy clouds finally discharging rain, and for a moment, it felt like the way we were at the beginning, when we didn’t take things too seriously.
I have a request, he said, out of the blue.
OK. You want to store some of your belongings here?
No, it’s for after I leave. You know that photo blog you used to have?
I paused. NY Ghost?
Yeah. You had a good thing going with it for a while. Well, my request is that I want you to start updating that blog again. I’m going to be checking it after I leave. I want to see new work.
I can’t even remember the last time I posted, I said, amazed. It’s just—the photos aren’t that great. Not fishing for compliments. I just know they’re not good.
They weren’t that great in the beginning, he admitted. But they got better, though. And I remember, you started it the summer when we met. I had a crush on you after that shark fin party, and I used to kind of online-stalk your stuff. The photos on your blog were what drew me in. It’s just something I think you should keep doing.
We lay there in silence for a while. How many nights have we stayed up, talking in the dark side by side? I wanted to say more. My mind kept searching for words—words to unite us despite, words to bond us in spite—and coming up empty.
Excerpted from Ling Ma’s upcoming book, Severance, out August 2018 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. © Ling Ma
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