At eight a.m. Howard didn’t pick up his phone, so she sent him an email, which he responded to immediately. No, he wouldn’t be available to talk until eleven, but why didn’t she stop by his place instead of going straight to work? He had to talk to her about something work-related anyway. In the meantime, he’d send someone by to check on the house’s perspiration situation. He signed his email ‘cheers’, the sarcasm level of which she couldn’t decipher.
She and Louis drank smoothies at the kitchen counter. The kitchen, though the most over-the-top room in the house, flaunting its utilities and abilities, was also by far the loveliest. The light filtering in through the strip of windows lining two east-facing walls cast enough brightness for them to forgo artificial lighting in the space for most of the day, and the recycled-plastic-and-something countertops successfully reflected the rays with minimum glare but maximum illumination, as they were designed to do.
‘Won’t they let you take some more time off?’ Anja refilled Louis’s smoothie. He had fallen asleep again after his shower and woken up in another time zone, distant and disengaged. Jet lag – soul delay.
‘Of course. They keep saying I should take another week, but what else am I supposed to do with my time?’
‘I don’t know. Sleep? Process? Take a break?’
‘I need distraction. And it’s really busy there right now. Big project coming up.’
‘Are you sure?’ She reached out and hugged the back of his neck with her hand.
‘I’m seriously fine.’ He took the hand. ‘All I need is to get back to small talk, logistics, menial tasks.’
She smiled. ‘A typical day in the creative industries.’
‘A unique privilege. The manual labor of the elite.’
She moved the smoothie machine into the sink and turned on the water to rinse it. The water came out of the tap in irregular spurts.
‘Have you ever done real manual labor?’
‘Sure.’ He wiped the rim of the glass with his finger and licked it. ‘I did construction one summer in San Francisco. During grad school.’
‘Ever feel like going back to it?’
‘All the time. I could quit my idealistic job and fix this sustainable mess we live in. Do something practical. Become a stay-at-home environmentalist.’
‘I’d be the breadwinner? But I don’t make enough money.’
‘You’d have to tap into that trust fun.’
She banged on the tap in case it was clogged. It wasn’t. The water slowed to a trickle. ‘It’s not fun. See how people like you are always bringing it up?’
She glanced at him across the island. He seemed calmed by the familiar banter. She had learned to play this game expertly over time, the game of endlessly countering and counter-countering and punning, a uniquely American mechanical spiral of conversation whose pleasure was purely semantic and whose meaning was always secondary to the way it was said.
Louis needed a regular dose of banter, and she had, over the course of their bonding phase while she learned to play, unexpectedly learned to need it too. At the beginning, she had been typically European about it, considering it shallow small talk, but she became convinced over time that it was not only harmless but constituted an important kind of meta-content. Chatting didn’t negate an emotional bond; it reinforced it. Her English had become a flawless porcelain veneer in the process.
He stood up and palmed her face, so she could rest her cheek in his hand. ‘At least you know I don’t love you only for your money, since you never spend any of it.’
She rolled her eyes. This old joke had run the full course from provocation > slightly offensive but funny > actually offensive from overuse > permissible > endearing relic of relationship past. Was resorting to old inside jokes a good thing?
‘Howard asked me to go straight to his place instead of going to work this morning,’ she said.
‘Weird. Do you think I should come with? Is it about house stuff?’
‘I’m sure it’s fine. He probably just wants to ask me to pleeeease stop complaining,’ she said, affecting a British accent.
Louis left the house buoyantly, leaving Anja still hunched over her half-finished smoothie, inspecting the avocado chunks that had sunk to the bottom, feeling nauseated. She told herself not to obsess over his behavior. And yet he seemed so unthinkably normal that it was surely an abnormality. There was not a trace of grief left in him today. The sallow face of yesterday was gone, instead he looked slightly puffy, pink and fresh. It was indecent, almost offensive. All those nights awake and worrying about him, loyally depressed, wallowing on his behalf. Repeatedly calling her own parents just to check that they were alive. It was obvious she was appropriating something, and it had to stop.
Then she thought, fuck griefmantra.com and supportcycle.net – there was such a thing as a wrong way to deal with emotions. Assuming it could only be posturing, was posturing normality in fact a very bad sign? Should she be prepared for some crazy shit on the horizon? Or could he really be exactly like before, as he seemed on the surface? What was before?
Once, in the Before, at a dinner party, Louis had retold a story he’d read in the New Yorker. The article was an exposé on Russian prisons in what was known as the ‘Black Zone’, a lawless section of the penitentiary where there was little supervision from above, and the prisoners were basically left to govern themselves. In the Black Zone, rigid customs had developed that newcomers had to learn if they didn’t want to get knifed. Most of the customs had originally been created for practical reasons, but by now they’d become arbitrary rules whose only function was to enforce a sense of social cohesion. For example, there was one major taboo against throwing away crusts of moldy bread. Back in the early years of the Black Zone, when food had been scarce, it was necessary to conserve every morsel. Today, a healthy black market supplied champagne and caviar to the inmates – and yet the taboo against wasting bread remained. Throwing away rotten food marked the newcomer as an outsider, someone who didn’t understand the history of want and deprivation from which the rules had evolved. With regards to bread, explained Louis, the culture of the Black Zone was a culture of inclusion via conservation.
This was more or less the situation in Louis and Anja’s six-household eco-settlement, or eco-colony, or colonoscopy, an assortment of experimental architecture clustered a thousand meters up the side of the Berg. The no-waste principle, according to which all inhabitants were responsible for monitoring the internal ecosystems and microclimates of their homes, was enforced by an internalized pressure based on imaginary rules rather than any actual supervision from Finster Corp. above. The tiny red lights of the cameras blinking in every room were a sort of mental reminder of Finster’s presence – of the abstract idea of monitoring – but Anja was sure nobody was actually watching. The contract was clear: the only spying being done was by a machine-vision algorithm whose job was to spot anomalies and flag worst-case scenarios. Tornadoes. Fire.
This lack of explicit instruction had led to some conundrums. When they had first moved in, Anja would hike up the mountain each evening with a backpack full of biodegradables and other trash she had accrued throughout the day, in order to dump them down the disposal and enter her total net waste into the recycling system. It was her waste, wherever she produced it, and she was going to be honest about it. But the surplus of wrappers and crusts and tissues had started to clog the drain unit and overflow the toilet; Anja was wasting way more matter than the house could make go away.
‘Couldn’t you throw this stuff away somewhere else?’ Louis asked her, scooping chunks of foul-smelling paper pulp from the kitchen drain. He pulled out a long, thick strip of blue-and-brown paper. ‘What is this, a shopping bag from the mall?’
‘I just used it to carry my other trash in. Jesus, it’s not like I was shopping at the mall.’
He stared at her, dangling the wet strip. ‘You brought home a random bag from a fast-fashion store, which you only used to carry your other trash in, and you put it down our drain.’
‘Yes, that’s what I did. I used the bag. Ergo, it’s part of my waste output.’
He frowned. ‘I think the waste thing only applies when you’re at home on the mountain.’
‘No, I don’t think it’s spatial. It’s about what you waste in your whole life, as a human consumer. The whole point is to cancel us out completely.’ She realized she was clasping her hands earnestly. Without meaning to, she glanced up toward where she knew the camera was, nestled above the cabinets.
‘Right, that’s what it says on the website. But everyone knows we’re just supposed to be making it seem like the house works. We’re trying to prove that it’s possible to live sustainably and not be such a freak about it. Which means not carrying your trash around everywhere.’
Anja unclasped her hands and then reclasped them. ‘But throwing waste away in other places is cheating,’ she said. ‘If the house can’t handle all my waste, then the designers didn’t do a good job, and they should fix it.’
‘They obviously did not do a good job, Anja. Nothing in this fucking house works. I’m not going to drag all my trash home every day. It’s just not realistic – you want me to save the packaging from my lunch? Where does it stop? Am I supposed to wait to shit until I get home?’
‘Wait, why are you eating lunch with disposable packaging? I bought you a lunch box!’
Eventually Louis’s practicality had won out, as it tended to. He was right: Anja couldn’t wait to shit until she got home, and she couldn’t keep track of everything she used; trying to do so had led to an ontological breakdown on the microlevel of her daily life. Were eyelashes and skin cells on par with hair ties and coffee cups? Were paper coffee cups on par with a mug that had to be rewashed using graywater from the house, which cost energy to pump? She couldn’t bring herself to ask the neighbors how they were handling things, convinced that everyone else automatically understood the rules. To reveal her confusion would be to reveal all, including her doubts.
That had been only a few months ago, but lately, as more elements of the system were getting clogged or bogged down, the two of them had started to perform exactly the opposite of what Anja had originally done: they carried their trash down the mountain and disposed of it clandestinely in orange trash canisters on the street. At first Anja felt ashamed marching down the slope with a backpack loaded with a bundle of trash flattened against her laptop, but Louis reassured her that they were just doing what was expected of them: putting a good, clean face on sustainability. Eventually, bringing trash off the mountain seemed just as responsible as bringing trash onto it once had.
The above is an excerpt from Oval by Elvia Wilk, published by Soft Skull.
Photograph © Life Pilgrim