After more than three decades of the Second Depression, rising sea levels, and the environmental collapse in the Western Corridor, conditions were ripe in the old United States for the proletariat revolution to take hold. The people had seen the fallacy of capitalism and were ready for change.
-- A People's History of the Socialist Union of American States, 8th grade textbook
The train from New Grand Central to Boston is supposed to take 45 minutes, short enough for an easy commute. It takes two and a half hours because there's a problem with the electrical in South Massachusetts, outside Providence.
The whole New England grid has been overloaded for years, and the ongoing fight with the country of Quebec over hydroelectric still isn't resolved. Which is why it's dark when I step off the train. Cold, too. My breath puffs white in the air. And here I am.
"You have to go. You have to go!" Cinnabar said when the offer came from MIT. "They've got one of the best systems in the West. You can bid to design more complex jobs, make good connections in the engineering department."
"Besides, it's only a semester," said Peter. Perched on the edge of the arm chair, his arm draped absently over Cinnabar's shoulders. They live together now, in Cinnabar's claptrap of an apartment in Brooklyn, and are easy with each other like people who don't really think about loneliness. I see them a lot, even now that Peter's moved off Coney Island, though it's not quite the same. Cinnabar's still my lone investor, and he has surprisingly good business advice. I've learned to trust him, which felt strange until it didn't.
Brooklyn College has taken me off their teaching rotation this term. My class is popular, but they have a policy about rotating adjuncts into their available slots. Of course they do. Nothing's ever easy.
It's been a year, but I still feel like I just got back to New York. And now I'm being shipped off to the backwoods of the Northeastern sprawl.
"To your new guanxi," says Cinnabar, and raises his bottle of beer toward me until I lean forward and clink.
The MIT job has even found me housing in-city, in one of the huge, grim skyscraper complexes in Allston. There's row after row of them; my apartment is in the twelfth building back on the Eastern bloc. A hole in the wall on the 117th floor, with a view of the next building, and beyond that the river. From my bed I can see tiny buses creeping across a bridge. The apartment is freezing, with an antique radiator that makes obscene noises. I wonder if I can do anything about that.
The subway here is even older than New York's, though it smells about the same, and I have to take a bus to reach it. While I wait for the train I read the signs in Chinese and English announcing a public forum to discuss extending the green line to a place called Medford, then look sideways at the other people on the subway platform to see what they're wearing, how it's different from New York, from Nanjing. I'm not here long enough to try to fit in, but I don't want to stick out like an uppity zhongguoren.
"I hope you didn't have trouble finding us," says my MIT guide when I finally meet her. "I'm Lakshmi. It's my third year in the graduate program. We're very excited to have you." Then she stops herself and switches to shaky Mandarin. "Is English all right?"
"English is fine," I tell her. "No, my directions were very good." I'm glad they didn't try to make me come all the way to the engineering department, though, as we set off on a dizzying set of twists and turns through an endless set of underground tunnels, though I imagine these were very helpful during the Second Civil War. I saw the scorch marks on the old Harvard buildings earlier, on my bus ride.
"It gets easier, I promise," Lakshmi says, seeing my face. "Plus you can always jack in and ask the system which way to go." She points to a panel at the intersection of three hallways, and I make a face that's suitably impressed. There's still nowhere in the West that lets you be always jacked in, like Wuxi Complex, and I know the system won't even be advanced as Nanjing University's, but a system so well-funded it can waste resources on hallways is still impressive outside China.
I meet her colleagues, and some faculty. I'll be teaching a smaller, more advanced class than I had at Brooklyn College. Explaining how to actually integrate organic engineering into their current designtechniques. They spend some time talking earnestly to me about the specs of the system and what they've heard about organic engineering, whether the two will mesh well. They're very excited about the conceptual theories behind org-enj as one of the graduate students calls it, and I don't have the heart to tell them I just use it to design office complexes and Japanese hotels, to pay rent and buy beer. If only Woo Eubong could see me now. I imagine she'd get some deep, quiet amusement out of the whole thing.
"If you'd like," says Lakshmi, my fifth day here, "some friends and I are going out tonight. You could come." It's the best sentence I've heard so far this week; I'm starting to go crazy in this city with only my own head to listen to, and even awkward graduate students are better than another night alone with Zhong Shan.
We go to an Indian restaurant and eat rich, spicy sauces over rice and bread. It's surprisingly excellent, and not all Lakshmi's friends are students or engineers. I listen to them argue about the newest kites for the races, the ones with a backup safety system that wrests control from the flyer if he's going to crash, whether it's a smart move or a betrayal of everything that keeps the game pure.
"So you're MIT?" says the guy to my right. He's drinking beer with a label I don't recognize.
"Yes," I say. "Kind of. I'm here from New York for the semester."
"Impressive," he says, in a voice that doesn't sound very impressed. He's dark-skinned and broad-shouldered, and, annoyed at myself for noticing, I think well, who asked you.
"What do you do?" I ask, to be polite.
"Teach," he says. "Eighth grade. In Roxbury." It's clear I'm supposed to know what that implies. In Nanjing, or Baffin Island, I was such a stranger I didn't feel like I was really expected to know what was going on. I didn't think Boston would be all that different from New York, but of course there are a whole new set of neighborhoods and locals and implications, and I just feel stupid half the time. I need to find someone to explain the basics to me.
"Let's go to Chinatown," says someone, and we pile onto the subway and come up in a different, brighter part of the city. I don't really know where I am, and hope I'll be able to use the subway map to point myself home.
Before I'd been to China, I imagined it was very like the Chinatown in New York, but that's not true at all. In a sense, maybe, but in the Western version everyone's so much more self-consciously Chinese. Or smug ABCs, more likely, milking their heritage for all its worth, obsessed with maintaining tradition. Still, it's the richest part of the city, and it seems like the same is true in Boston. Loud music spills out of sleek bars. I glance at one on the corner, showing Chinese music videos in the window.
"We can't get in there," the teacher from the restaurant says in my ear. "Not a high enough C to W ratio."
"C to W?" I say.
"Chinese to waiguoren," he says, and gives me a deadpan look that after a moment I realize is a joke.
"Well, I'll try to raise your social standing as much as I can," I say in my most faux-uppity voice, and hope it comes across right.
"Good of you," he says, still deadpan, and turns to follow Lakshmi into a hole in the wall bar with old newspaper taped into the window.
I end up walking home, drunk in the way where the cold feels good. It takes a long time, along the Back Bay levee, skirting the water so I don't lose my bearings, watching the lights shine on the surface, thinking about the Hudson and home.
Classes keep me on campus three days a week, and I'm spending as much extra time as possible in a library cubby, using the system to design projects too complex to bid on with my little one at home. (Right now, a biotechnology research complex in New South Wales; biotech companies always want flashy, expensive, new. My bid will probably seem far too clean for them.) But there's only so much time I can spend between concrete-block walls. So I do what I've always done and walk. Up to the slums of Somerville. Over to New Charlestown. And from my apartment back along the levee through the flooded ruins of Back Bay, where skyscrapers and old church spires stick up through the water.
There are marshes here, too, which I find one chilly evening in the early dark. Just beyond where the water ends, with little bridges and paths up on pylons. At first I think they're deserted, which is always a strange feeling in the heart of a city. After a while, though, I see a man standing in the shadows up ahead. Waiting for wayward citizens to mug? But as I get closer his eyes catch mine and hold them. Ah. I can feel his eyes on me long after I go by.
I start going more. A takeout dinner of tamales or Thai only takes me half an hour at most to eat in the shabby apartment. Then I pull on my scarf and the coat that's not-quite thick enough and walk.
My fourth time, there's a guy coming down the path at me from the other direction, and I glance at him from the corner of my eye, as we're passing. He's looking too, and we stop at the same time. It's Lakshmi's friend, the teacher.
"Well," he says, with that same sardonic tone from the other night. "Lakshmi's engineer likes the Fens at night."
His apartment is nearby, and as hot as mine is cold.
"Heat's stuck on," he says by way of explanation, and drops his coat on a chair. I can't remember his name -- Lakshmi rattled off everyone's name at the beginning of the night, and I forgot them all immediately. But there's a flimsy on the table from the Roxbury Middle School of the Revolution, addressed to Jeffrey Williams. Right, yes, Jeff.
Down the hall a toilet flushes and a door slams, and I feel myself jump. Someone else is here, so this can't be what I thought it was. And I almost gave myself up.
"It's fine," says Jeff. "It's my roommate. He's more bent than I am."
A bent roommate. What would that be like? I doubt sleeping on Peter's couch is quite the same.
And so I was right. Thank God. Already I feel that prickling in my palms, that heaviness in my stomach.
"Beer?" says Jeff, and hands me one before I answer, the top already off. I take a long pull and keep his eyes the whole time. It's better beer than I'm used to. I suppose everyone prioritizes something.
"Have you seen Fenway?" Jeff asks, and I have to shrug.
"Will I be kicked out of Boston if I say I don't know what that is?"
"Probably, yes," he says and turns out of the kitchen into a dark doorway. It's a bedroom on the other side, and he kicks the door shut after me. "Here," he says, and beckons me over to the window. For a moment it's so much like Haitao at his sleek Nanjing window that my throat catches. Stop. That was another life, another world. I've already wasted so much time on those feelings.
I take a slug of beer and move to join him. The apartment building is so close to the levee that I can see dark water straight below us, filling the spaces that were once streets.
"There," he says, and points at some kind of stadium. Only the tops of its stands are visible above the water filling its basin and lapping against the sides. Lights from the buildings on this side of the levee glitter across the surface.
"Baseball," he says. "Or béisbol, if you prefer." There are still exhibition games played every once in a while by the Latin American League. I went to one once, in Brooklyn, with my mother and her brother, when I was very young. I liked the green field but couldn't understand when to leap up and cheer until the whole crowd was already on its feet.
"Here," he says, "aren't you hot?" He reaches around me to set his beer on the windowsill, and strips off his shirt and sweater in one go.
"I guess I am," I say, and let him kiss me in the dark of the room. Here's to this backwater city after all.
I wake up in the dark to a strange pink glow coming through the windows.
"It's snowing," comes Jeff's voice from somewhere across the room, and it takes a moment for my eyes to adjust. He's standing in the doorway, still shirtless, with a glass of water.
"I should go," I say, as expected, and begin the half-awake fumble into my clothes.
"Are you sure?" he says. "It could get bad out there. I have school in the morning, but you can stay if you'd like." It's generous of him, but I shake my head.
"It's all right," I say. "Once I lived in Baffin Circle." Although in Baffin Circle I had an artificial climate suit, and here I've just got my sweater and the one warmish coat I bought last winter, after I came back to New York.
Jeff walks me downstairs in the chilly dark, and gives me careful directions about how to get back home. He's not that much older or younger than me, which is different. I watch his face as he talks.
"Thanks," I say when he's done. "Perfect."
I let the door close behind me and stand in the empty, pink-lit street, big flakes of snow whirling down. No one else around.
It's still snowing when I wake up in my own bed, four hours after I fell into it. There are puddles of water by the door where I dropped my snow-encrusted coat and shoes. It doesn't snow in New York much anymore. This is the most I've ever seen south of the Arctic Circle.
I turn on the radio, which lists the schools that have closed in English, then Chinese, then Spanish. I try not to notice when they say Roxbury Middle School of the Revolution. MIT is on the list. So. An empty day.
I take a shower as hot as I can get it, then make coffee in one of the chipped, oversized mugs that was in the cabinet when I got here. If I had a day like this back in China, I'd waste the morning writing Peter a long, detailed letter, but maybe that would seem strange, now he's with Cinnabar. What are they doing right now? And Invierno, who I haven't seen since this past summer? Is Jeff in his waterfront apartment, sleeping, talking to his mysterious roommate? I feel very far away from everything: New York and Nanjing and Wuxi and Baffin Circle. The building's silent except for the hissing of the radiator. Outside the window the snow falls, silent and ceaseless and white.