The device is about the size of a pair of binoculars. It is an entirely featureless rectangle of cheap black metal except for a steel toggle switch and a piercing red LED light (when on). Someone has built up two quasi-handles at the “base,” where you are supposed to hold it, from layers on layers of rough, muted-silver duct tape. It is a prototype, one of a kind. Well not “one.” I am told there are three of them.
It, alongside a box of tiny receivers, has been lent to the museum by the good people of MIT. The receivers are the size of your thumbnail, and fit into a notch in the temple of these bulky glasses. We have two pairs of the glasses. Of course when the system is ready, it will be beamed to the guest, or something, they haven’t quite worked it out yet. This is a most exciting time, a most exciting project. That’s what Michael says.
He’s the boss of our two-person team. I have a desk in his small office. I guess it had been a closet. He is sensitive about its size. He often makes a point of opening the one window. He has to stand on his desk, it creaks a little, and some of the papers lift little white arms under the pressure of his shoes, like vanquished soldiers, begging for mercy. He raises his own arms, so that his plaid blue shirt lifts and the lower half of his gut shows in its pink, hirsute glory. I don’t say anything, we both know. The tiny window sticks, he really has to tug, and then it comes down all at once, releasing a cool breeze from the park. There is no light from it except right at noon, the window being at the bottom of a brick-lined trench.
I was a summer intern in another part of the museum, but I am a research assistant now. I saw a post on the giant cork-board and could get school credit, and access to the warren of hallways and basements and sub-basements and sub-sub-basements and perhaps a lead-in to the start of a career. Michael has been here for decades, but from his out-of-the-way office, and the no visitors, and casual Friday extending through the entire week, and the way he sometimes just sits at his desk, slouched deeply backward, his muscled forearms twitching slightly as he clicks with the mouse then drags a card from one pile to another in solitaire, well not even an institution as dysfunctional as the museum is keeping this guy around forever.
I wonder if he got forgotten there, with all the other lost relics; if some misplaced record means his paycheck keeps coming.
But now we are very excited. He has the device. An old friend from college came through. He is not telling anyone, he says. This is his baby.
He lights up for a time, with all this enthusiasm, mostly discussing in what ways his redemption will take shape, before settling back into a kind of torpor. He is like an aged house pet that has gotten out into the yard and caught a squirrel, but now doesn’t seem to know what to do next. For a while we just look at it. But he is formulating a plan.
Now he has me engage in a flurry of activity. Mostly it is taking me, “by hand, Adriana, by hand,” to this storeroom or that. We eschew the pneumatic tubes, because missions of this importance require a personal touch. We had a discussion about the personal touch early on. He put his hands on my shoulders as we went over some documents, I could feel a faint wash of sweat. “We’re not doing this,” I told him. He was good after that.
You are never quite safe, of course, but I trust in his wearied weakness, he collapsed in on himself like wet cardboard, and shuffled back to his desk. Other times, other men, I’d known I had to get out. Of course, if we ever had some success with whatever wild plan Michael had, well, it’s a risk.
Days later, the boxes start coming, brought by men in smocks and caps, on different dolly carts. Sometimes they are small, the size of my palm, three or four of them on an enormous pallet, others are as big as my thigh, and take both of us to lift. There is a space problem. We clear out an enormous stack of papers and folders that had swallowed up a row of wire rack shelving so completely that I hadn’t noticed it before. I am surprised at how chrome it is, still, shining like a blade.
We borrow a cart, and I bag up the papers and folders, magazines from years past into black plastic. There are staples, rusted, bleeding onto the paper. I ask Michael if we should look through them. He is aghast. I realize immediately, there is nothing from before the device that matters now. He helps me hoist the bags onto the cart. I push it down the hall, and another, and another, one wheel squeaking, the pale fluorescents flickering in places, I watch the pattern of the linoleum tiles flow like a river. Then the northwest freight elevator.
Three trips it takes. When I have finally returned the cart, and am back at the office, Michael has stacked the boxes, large to small, up the shelves. He is puffing, his face, behind his salt-and-pepper beard, is beet red. I see sweat at his temples. We collapse into our swivel chairs. I have a slick of sweat down my forearms. For a while I admire the gleam of the office light on my skin, like the gleam of my perfect optic-white nail polish.
“We can’t stop it,” says Michael, holding a small box. He opens the top, and offers it to me. I look inside, a small figure, a jade. I guess it is Chinese, maybe 1st century. “It’s inevitable all these pieces will be going back to where,” there’s a long enough pause I know he doesn’t quite believe it, “they belong. Every figure, every statue, every bone. Once we could have protected the prize parts of our collection. But the heritage of every nation is going to be restored.” This vision of the future pains him. His eyes widen a second, he has just looked at me, and he has just thought, but she is gladdened.
The jade almost glows in its cotton bed. A grotesque. Enormous eyes, nose, mouth. Long fingered hands. Beautiful in its shading. I close the top. I am not sure. Sure there are treasures manifestly stolen from “my people,” whoever they were, though I am as American as him, whatever he thinks of my skin, or the gold stud in my nose. As deracinated. As void. I hand him the box back. “So, what now?”
* * *
“Baby?” says Chloe, weakly, from the bedroom.
Shit. I woke her up.
“It’s late,” I say in a heavy whisper, “I’m sorry, work . . .”
I wait a beat, just inside the doorway, in the dark, holding tight to my backpack strap, the books inside digging into my back. Maybe she’s still asleep. She will talk in her sleep sometimes. I don’t even breathe. The door opens. In the gloom I see her figure, a shadow, lighten, like the moon, in successive phases waxing into the fullness of her face, her eyes and lips. She comes into the living room in just her panties, infantile floral print. She drapes herself over me, for a kiss, which I give. Her mouth tastes like ashes. I guess mine tastes like whiskey.
What made me stop at the little hole in the wall, outside the subway, just a block from our house, instead of coming home to her? I love her, her tight little belly, its faint wisps of blonde hair, her torso, with what feels like extra ribs, shallow breathing, perfect breasts, long limbs I love to trace with my hands. She is like an ancient marble, white as stone against my skin, old as time. She is only 26, though. And I am 29.
I look into her eyes, they are open, colorless now, like everything, something about rods and cones; she is awake, alive. I start for the bedroom, but she is on her way to the galley kitchen, and I follow. She flicks on the light, a bright, hospital light I’ve wanted to change. It buzzes once, flashes like distant lightning, and then floods the little room. The sudden brightness is painful, as is the sudden coloration of her body. My cones surge into life. Peach skin, impossibly rosy nipples, hazel eyes.
“How was your day?” I ask.
She reaches from her chair to the fridge (our kitchen is that small), and takes a can of sour beer and hands it to me, then one for herself. Her long forearm is thick with goosebumps the chill raised. Her collarbones jut outward, her shoulders, her elbows. She is all erection. She doesn’t speak, but pops open her can, I hear the gentle fizz of the beer release. I pop mine. She takes a long swig. Some of the beer has wicked down over her chin.
“That good?” I say.
For weeks something has been going wrong between us. I can’t put my finger on it. Of course it’s me. Whatever it is. She is giving me the silent treatment.
“I’m sorry I didn’t call,” I say. Nothing. Her lip rises, her lids slump. She sucks at her beer. “I stopped by the bar after work,” I say. “I needed to unwind, you know?”
She is straight-up scowling now.
“I don’t care, dummy,” she says, “I love you.” She is all smile, now. “What is it with bartenders,” she says. “They all have sleeves.” I know the one she’s talking about; I feel a tinge of jealousy. I had watched his muscled arms make my old fashioned.
“They like to look at their arms while they work,” I say.
“Just like us,” she says. “Oh god, work . . .” She rolls her head on her neck so that her blond hair brushes around her naked torso. It moves like a skirt. “The usual,” she says, after that. “Just the damned usual.”
I stole her from a bartender. He was the kind in a white vest, pointed little beard, who flipped the glasses as he made drinks, and passed the shaker behind his back. I stole her, and I don’t deserve her.
“What about you?” she says.
I tell her about Michael’s latest antics. He is that asshole to her, from the unasked-for shoulder rub. I tell her about the device. When I call it, as Michael does, “the device,” she snorts beer out her nose. “The device” is our name for something else.
She coughs, and laughs, and a tear comes out of the corner of her eye. “That hurts! Give me the device, give it to me.” A pause. “Well, what does it do?”
* * *
“You have to believe,” Michael says, “at least, it seems to help.” I must have been giving him a look because he says, “That’s only in the first phase, acquisition. Playback is unaffected by relative belief. It relies on quantum entanglement, to achieve a kind of 1:1 mirroring.” Michael and I have read, and failed to fully understand, the same popular science books. I mean, when you read them, you find yourself nodding in perfect comprehension, until someone asks you about quantum entanglement. You wave your hands a bit. It’s like . . . the metaphor stalls. You haven’t understood. Maybe, this interior, tiny hope, nobody does, really. Michael has just cribbed some of his friend’s explanatory text, word for word.
We have cleared off his desk, and put a foam board down. It’s dented all over and clustered with pinprick holes, little spots of darkness.
Whatever the device is, it is magic. Alchemy, more than science. Certainly it promises a transformation of Michael’s stalled career. And for me?
My hands are shaking a little, still.
This morning—it doesn’t matter how I dress—today it was sweats and my Columbia hoodie—“I see you, princess!” the man was shouting at me, from halfway across the crowded subway car. “Can’t hide your lovely self from me!” He is in his early 40s, proud of his physique, his trim beard; his hand on the pole flashes a gold band. When I accidentally catch his eye, he wags his tongue at me. He is good looking. His leather valise speaks of a professional vocation. Architect, lawyer? These were the worst clients, Chloe said. Entitled, self-assured. They’d try to take more than they paid for. I roll my eyes, and he turns, as they all do, on a dime. “Bitch!”
I wonder if she misses it, in a way. Sometimes, in bed, she tells me, “I love the way you objectify me.” I don’t love it. It feels bad. But then I see her lose herself. It is only a manifestation of my fear, that she doesn’t desire me, that I don’t offer her enough. That keeps me out late sometimes, with no particular reason. We got into a fight yesterday. She gave me her share of the rent. I told her she didn’t have to. I know she hadn’t been paid yet. I don’t want her to feel like she needs spending money. It’s a whole goddamned thing. That she might go back to it. The sudden slap of latex against skin. Michael has one meaty hand entombed in latex. He inexpertly stuffs his other hand into one. Why isn’t he better at this?
We are hovering over the foam board; the feeble lights make three or four faint shadows. He has a small white box, like a pie box but smaller than his palm. It has a wadding of cotton, and out comes a silver coin between his latex-covered thumb and forefinger. It’s Roman, Republican, 2nd-century BCE. He likes to hear me identify these things. It gives him some kind of kick. I keep expecting to hear him say, “You know, looking at you, I’d never guess . . .” But he doesn’t, bless him.
“OK kid,” he says. He has the glasses on. “Here goes nothing!” The coin is placed with great solemnity in the center of the foam-core altar. He takes up the device in two hands, holding it away from him, like a sick puppy, and clicks the switch on. I am not sure what I expected. The only thing I notice is the bright red light, shining out of the dark surface like a beacon. And a change of expression in Michael’s face. It is an effort, whatever is happening now.
He falls back into his chair, the device lands in his lap, and he says, “Fuck!” He doesn’t say anything else for a while. In one hand he holds something, invisible to me. He is chuckling to himself a little, in a weird, discomforting way. He brings whatever it is close to his face, peering through the glasses, then seems to toss it up and down. He rips the glasses off in disgust, and looks at me.
“I hope you have better luck,” he says.
“What,” I ask. “You didn’t believe?”
“I guess it doesn’t work when you have to believe,” he says. “I need this too much. Here, take a look.” He hands me the glasses. “Nothing to it,” he says. “It’s safe.”
I put them on. I feel like I have just put polarized lenses on, the light in the room goes a little darker. I see something glint in front of me, and it is a bit of silver. As I reach my hand toward it, it grows into a kind of disfigured lump. It is the coin, but a twisted, broken version of it. I shout when my hand meets the metal, it is cold, and hard, and real. I curl my hand around it, and feel the protruding edges of its deformity. I give it a little toss; it has mass, inertia, and describes a tiny arc, up, into the air, away from my palm and back again. A cold tap. I give it a little more thrust, and more; this is kind of exciting. It twirls, spinning upward, and then . . . at about three feet, disappears.
Michael knows what happened. He says, “Wait a second, you’ve tripped its limit, it will come back.” The glint returns.
I take the glasses off.
“Now,” says Michael. “I’m counting on you.” He pops the chip out of the glasses, puts another in. Carefully pressing it in with his thumbnail until it clicks. He hands me the device, first time I have held it. It is heavier than it appears from its size. Dense. I almost let it slip out of my hands.
“Concentrate,” he says. “Just point it toward the coin, and flick the red light. Think about your aim, and hang on until the image is complete.”
“That’s what they say.”
With two hands firm on the device I flick it on. The initial feeling is sudden, intense, and distressing. I am sad. Overwhelmingly sad. The feeling runs up my legs, my back, tingles in two patches around the nape of my neck, and swallows my whole person. Then the coin is bright. Something grows on it, a spiral of itself, more than itself. It is doubling. The beauty is staggering. The tiny figure. The sadness passes. A single tear has squeezed itself from the corner of one eye and wets my cheek as it drops. I turn the device off. The second coin remains. As I tilt my head up the coin lifts, out goes my hand to receive it. It is perfect in every way.
I turn it, feel the raised lettering, the rough edge where the die strike was off the center of the blank. The clipped edge. I press my fingers together on it as hard as they will go. I made this. The way I made my life over. I put the silver, as unwise as it might be, to my mouth, press it against my teeth, feel the tang of metal, and a freshness. Two millennia and a century, gone away.
“Let me,” says Michael. He has come up to me very close. “Please,” he begs. “Let me.” He slides the glasses off my face; I let him. He is crying now. All red-faced, his big cheeks slick, one fist in front of him balled up so tightly I am afraid his not-well-trimmed nails will draw blood. I guess they do.
Have I ever done as much for Chloe? I can’t imagine, at that moment, could you?
There is more to do. We pretend the moment never happened. The tears are wiped away. The coin is reboxed, its number inked fat on a small manila envelope, the chip dropped in, the pair set in a card box.
The world’s smallest museum.
We do the jade figure next. Then an idol. Then a vial of the frailest glass. A rare butterfly specimen, pinned to cork. A pewter beer stein. A large griffin headed tripod. A thin gold crown. A German sword. Shells. Scarab beads. A cornhusk doll. Iznik tiles. An enormous Chinese vase. A shrunken head. A stone brick. A wooden chest. A crucifix. The skeleton of a snake. A child’s stone coffin, carved with the scene of his death, drowned from a small boat in a harbor while merchant ships tack in a rough wind to save him. This last arrives in a wooden crate. We have to requisition a crowbar to pry ourselves in. A simple, wooden cup. A stone snake. An apple of carnelian.
A fine Durer. Lesser sketches by Degas. A Byzantine icon, the saint in purple faded to pink, gold leaf halo like a crown.
We have a good rhythm. Michael is still useless on the device, but improving. He has to leave early a few days: important meetings. I lose track of time.
I suspect Chloe is seeing clients again. But if we fight too much, I know she’ll leave. I can’t live without her.
* * *
I have made a terrible mistake. If only the device could bring back lost time instead of freezing the sick, decayed present, forever. Why do I do the things I do? I wonder. Just a few hours earlier, my bag was so heavy with the future; I slumped into it on the nearly empty subway car.
It was so late; I had to watch the garbage train rumble ominously past. Two workers in orange vests were spraying down the uptown platform. The water from the hoses seethed loudly, kicking up a mist to drift through the emptiness and cool my cheeks. No one yelled at me, “Hey hot stuff!” “Yo! Lady . . .” Just quiet. A lone drunk asleep on the bench.
It took almost two hours to get home. The train shudders to a stop, I jump up, just making it through the doors. I feel the outline in my bag, the bulk of the device.
Chloe doesn’t wake. I tiptoe to the room. Now I am over her, the device goes soundlessly on. It is all I have wanted.
And it is wrong.