I knew this hotel well, but I wasn’t ever going to admit it to her. I knew this particular room real good, too, but she was never going to know that. I didn’t want her to. Every girl in my past didn’t have anything on her. She wanted to know everything about me. She wanted to hear my soul, like listen to it and do something with it.
When I first got up to that college, up in those towers, I got stupid. I brought girls down. But they were scared of me, in some way, in a part of them. They’d coo and purr, and get what they wanted from having a poor boy on their arm. They’d get tired of the sewer smell. Then they’d see a fight or some eykayzi walking around with a gun on his back. Then they’d be gone. They didn’t care about revolution or fighting back, and they didn’t care to know anything about the systems that had put them here in the first place. They had no desire to be anything other than what they already were, because that scared them.
Arie had no fear. And it wasn’t because she was trying to get killed. She had no fear because she knew about everything good in this world, and getting it wasn’t frightening to her. She knew about revolution, and change, and she knew about how we’d all gotten stuck in this position. She knew how history had betrayed us, and she wanted more.
She was laying next to me, and the yellow light made her skin glow. She could have been in one of those old paintings–Odalisque, or something, sprawled out with her eyes half open, running a casual finger on my forearm.
“Don’t you have class this morning?” She asked.
“Watching you wake up is so much more important to me than that shitty class,” I grinned.
She rolled over so that she was no longer under the window. There was a rush of wind against the paper. It was raining torrents, a rageful hiss on the aluminum sill.
“What, that history class?”
“Yeah. With Stoger. Man can’t teach to save his life. I’ll learn just as much from reading the book.”
“Are you actually going to read it?” She asked me.
“Sure. If the writer is any good.”
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t read bad stuff. Just poisons your mind.”
She got up and put her elbows up over my stomach. “Poisons your mind?”
“With skyton lies and climber hymns to an impure god. It’s meant to make us follow them like children.”
“Climber hymns, huh?” she asked. Her hair was touching my chest like a spider web, just delicately, so that my skin itched and reached for it. “I could poison you with hymns.”
“No you couldn’t.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah babe, I am damn sure.”
“I could be undercover. A secret agent.”
I kissed her. “By the way you scream and cry, babe, I don’t think you could be an undercover anything.”
“Oosh—yeah, you caught me there,” she said sarcastically. “I bet that hotel lady didn’t sleep a wink last night.”
“What, Eva? Nah that woman snores like a fuckin fog horn on a barge. Could sleep through the apocalypse, I’m sure of it.”
“Eva? You know that lady?”
“Yeah. She’s a friend’s ma.”
“With the curlers and the pipe and the neon pink flowers on her dress? That lady?”
“Eva Patrowski. Owns the place.”
Her eyes grew wide for a minute, and she looked slowly towards the mirror. I followed her gaze. Hazy from scratches and dust, it watched us from a crooked angle. She was still sitting on top of me, streaks of orange light across her stomach. Out of partial mortification and partial hilarity, she dropped her jaw and tried to cover it with her fingers. “You fuckin quack, you brought me to your friend’s ma’s place?”
“Wouldn’t let me stay here for free if I didn’t know her,” I teased, grinning.
“Jesus—you sure she slept through it?”
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
She was getting a little hint of wild in her eyes, underneath her fingers that were now covering most of her face. She was starting to grin.
“She saw us come in, though. She’s going to blab, isn’t she?”
“Yeah,” I smirked. “From here to Cornerstand, Eva’ll be telling everybody how Michael’s got himself some climber girl in her hotel.”
“What’s she saying, then, about you being with a climber girl?”
“About me thoroughly satisfying a climber girl?”
“You said she didn’t hear anything.”
“Right. I did.”
She rolled her eyes, and swung her legs so that she stood on the floor between the bureau and the bed.
“She’ll be talking about how I chase after tourists.”
“Girls who find slum boys and strut around with him to get attention. Girls whose lives are so boring that they have to throw themselves into a fiery pit just to feel something. Eva’d tell her friends that you’re just down here for ‘rough love’, then she’d laugh at me like a mother laughs at a five year old who thinks he’ll be the president. She’ll say that I’m playing war. Trying to get a bigger cock by stealing a richer man’s woman.”
“And is that what this is?” Arie asked, coolly.
“No. That is not what this is. Eva Patrowski can’t ever know it, because that’s how she raised her son. She taught him to go out and conquer and take what he needed. You and I are nothing like that.”
“Do you think I’m one of those girls?”
“Because I know those girls. Those girls have a pretty picture of what it looks like down here. Then they get here and it’s a hell of a lot dirtier and scarier than they thought. And they run.”
“What is there to be scared of?”
“Bugs. Rats. Drugs. Gangs. Guns. Murders—“
“I’m not scared of those things. I’m not a tourist and I’m not down here for rough love.”
“I know, babe.”
“I’m down here because you’re down here, and because you’re alive–like really alive, Michael. Like nobody I know and like nobody I’ll know again. Up in the towers, they just do the same thing every day just because, just because they think they ought to. They live in this cloud of sameness and stuff and it’s death. I’m here because you make me free of all that. Eva Patrowski can say whatever she wants about me—call me a climber and a whore and a tourist—but she’s wrong, because I’m here for you.”
She was standing in front of me, between the mirror and the bed, stark naked and proud, head held high in her seriousness. There was a stark silence in the room, even though the street noise still floated in. I just didn’t hear it for a while. Her hair fell over her shoulders and covered her breasts like Eve in the fucking garden of Eden—and way before she was ever ashamed of anything.
“You could singlehandedly turn this world upside down, you know that?”
“I might, some day.”
“You and me together, babe.” I sat up. “Don’t worry about what she says. We’ll break free of all that. Her ideas about climber and slum kid, rich and poor, her conquerors games—it’s only a part of the poison—them thinking that we shouldn’t be together, and the categories, and whose on top and whose on the bottom. The skytons can’t rule over us all from nests in the air—not unless they convince us that we are separate peoples, and that our plights are separate plights. Aleksandr taught me that. It’s why he got me into school. He doesn’t think like she thinks, and he’s the only one that matters.”
“And what is he saying about us?”
“Nothing, probably,” I said, throwing my arms over to try and scramble up some cigarettes. “He’s not a gossiper.”
I found the cigarettes, and she passed me my lighter from the bureau and then crawled back into bed with me. I lit a smoke and handed it to her. “He likes you, though.”
I lit another for myself. “Yeah, he and Jacques were both impressed.”
“So there was a test and I passed it?” She chuckled.
“Not like I had any doubts.”
“They mean a lot to you.”
“The only reason I’m not some thug—or with a bullet in my brain already—is because of Alek.”
“He is brilliant. And sincere. I’d believe it if you said he’d taken that bullet for you.”
I inhaled. “He takes care of his kids. He’s got dreams for all of us, you know. He believes in our country, that we should be our own nation–not just some amendment to a city. He sees the real in everybody, and he knows how to make everybody exactly who they ought to be. That’s why he likes you. He knows I wouldn’t just bring some lazy climber ho here, cuz I know he would kick my ass.”
She snorted. “He’d kick your ass?”
“Yeah! Cuz this world, babe, this is sacred down here. This is where we come from. This is family, and you might step up for a little while, but you never disrespect this place. Aleksandr’s a man of the community down here. He’s got his store in the daytime and his bar in the nighttime. It’s his way of doing what needs to be done for us. He knows people and they know him. He’s got connections with people from all sorts of power.”
“You mean, like the gangs?”
“Sort of. Not so much anymore. Now he just runs his bar and builds his family. His connections don’t make him one thing or another.”
“He must remember a time before this place was the Free Quarters.”
“Oh he does,” I snickered. “And he’ll tell you about it any chance he gets. His father was a prefect for the Eastern Nation.”
“Is that right?”
“Yep. I mean, that means about the same as it does now—prefects then were useless unless they were corrupt. Just like now. Only choice they had was corruption or impotence.”
“Does he talk about Extension Day?”
“Oh, he’s got plenty of stories about Extension Day. He was twenty-four, and he worked for some shithead smack smuggler. He remembers watching all the military come in, and the walls being built around the factories. His father got shipped out of here, into the Eastern Nation, since he was a government guy. But Alek stayed here to make money and send it home to his parents and sisters. His father couldn’t get work anymore, since the changeover in the Eastern Nation.”
“What do you mean?”
I flipped over on my stomach, so that I could use my hands to talk. I drew a circle that outlined the yellow stain on the pillow. “You remember how Extension Day happened right after the election in the Eastern Nation?”
“Yeah. We just did this in politics last week, right? One guy got voted out and Trenton got voted in.”
“Oh, I don’t know what we did last week. I didn’t go. I had other things to do—but I know this story from Alek better than they’d ever teach us up there, you know since he was there.”
“Being there helps.”
“I bet they didn’t tell you that the skytons had their secret service in there fixing things up for them. They had all this money and military pressure on Trenton to allow them to extend their protectorate. Trenton has tons of power out there, but he just uses it to be a puppet to the skytons.”
“Yeah, a protectorate is like a little colony that a big country protects so that they can get something out of it. So, the Towers–that area is a Commercial Protectorate. They didn’t want the city center to die after the war, so the skytons just said it belonged to them instead. They drew a line around it and made it sort of a colony. But, they were hungry for more. They wanted the protectorate extended. So they got Trenton voted in so that he would do it.”
“You mean they fixed that election?”
“Yeah, basically. It’s twenty years ago now, so it’s come out. Just old enough now that nobody feels the need to apologize. They just accept it. Like it’s totally normal for the skytons to make their own justice. They did it so that they could put someone in who would agree to their every word. Someone who was more interested in personal gain instead of the dignity of his people. Typical politician really, but the one before him at least had some goddamn pride.”
“So Aleksandr’s father couldn’t get work, because he worked for the old guy?”
“Right, Aleksandr’s dad worked for the old regime, and anyone who had worked for government before basically got blacklisted. They couldn’t get a job anymore, because they sympathized with freedom and independence.”
“Anyone who worked for the old government?”
“Basically. The old government was an independent government. The new government wanted to be ruled by someone else–they wanted to keep getting more money from the sky cities. They had to ruin everyone who believed in independence.”
“That must have really angered the people who believed in independence.”
“Exactly. So they turned to other means.”
“Yes. Most of the gangs in the Free Quarters aren’t just drug pushers or gun pushers. Plenty of them are, or they are now–but most were formed with the notion that they would be fighting for independence. A free nation.”
“Plenty of things. Money poisons minds. Propaganda poisons more. The Skytons make it look like the gangster life is so cool–they make it look desirable so that they can keep us in our place.”
“I don’t understand, though… why would the skytons want to extend the District at all? The whole point of having their factories in the Eastern Nation was so that they didn’t have to follow their own labor laws.”
I chuckled, and then kissed her. “I forget that you weren’t even born then.”
“Yeah I’m practically a baby,” she replied sarcastically.
“That’s the difference between the Towers and the Free Quarters, right? The ‘Oswald Urban Commercial District’,” I sang, waving my cigarette around, “That’s where their laws apply. That’s the towers, right, where climbers live. But the District Extension… that’s a whole different matter. The Free Quarters aren’t really in the District, and they’re not really in the Eastern Nation now, either. The Hariss Riots were the catalyst for it. Lots of the factories got burned to the ground. So the skytons got on television and said that the Eastern Nation’s government wasn’t able to control its own people—that they rioted because the government couldn’t provide. They pressured Trenton, told him that Extension was the best thing for everyone, since the factories could prosper and people could have decent jobs, and the military could subdue the gangs and the nationalists.”
“Well obviously that didn’t work.”
I laughed. “No. They came in to protect their factories, and that’s it. Well, their factories and the trains that take their goods to the Towers. You know–they even argued that the trains were a good reason for it.”
“They said that the trains connect the city to its old suburbs. They said that the trains had to be all in one district,” I snorted. “That was their final statement. The unity of trains is more important than the unity of men.”
“I like the trains. They are like iron gods. They could have the ancients caught up in their engines, Zeus and Neptune and Thor, tied up in there and making them all go.”
“Now wouldn’t that be a story for English class,” I laughed. “You belong with Jacques, I tell you—he’s a storyteller. That damn fool, always tells this story about how his mom popped him out right under these trains, at the old county hospital. Won’t ever give that one a rest. The two of you could spend ages making up wild tales about them damn trains.”
She laughed, and she drew in the last of the cigarette. “I like your trains,” she said. “And I like your people. Let’s never leave, and just live in your damn friend’s mom’s hotel forever and drink at Aleksandr’s bar every night.”
I laughed along with her. “Yeah, right. Good luck with that. I can’t stay here forever, else she’ll start making me pay.”