Our eyes meet...
Our eyes meet across the crowded car. He’s standing by the airlock, as usual. But today he seems different. The smile, which I look forward to at the end of each day like a warm, soft embrace, is gone – his face is hard, edged with despair. What’s wrong, I want to ask. What happened to you? But although I know this man from a thousand commutes, I’ve never spoken to him. Instead, my eyebrows crinkle in mute sympathy. You’ve had a bad day, I’m sorry! And when I can no longer bear his pained expression, I look away, pretending to check the air-quality meter on my wrist.
The doors hiss as they open. We’ve descended to Yellow Deck. Commuters in yellow overalls flood the car. The airlock is supposed to provide a perfect seal – but some air always enters in the workers’ lungs. Particulate matter clings to their overalls. You can smell the change. Yellow Deckers smell faintly of blood and salt. They’re invitro workers – making our food in gigantic vats.
The flood of new commuters have pushed him closer to me. We’re next to each other now. I sense his staring eyes, his jaw clenched with the desire to impart words. But why now, after so many years? Every night we’ve smiled at each other and spoken our silent good evenings. What’s changed? I don’t want things to change.
‘I’m leaving.’ His voice is like soft brown leather. It’s a voice for stories, secrets, bedtime whispers. It’s the first time I’ve heard it.
Then I realise he’s speaking to me. I look up, my blood quickening.
‘I’m being transferred to a different sector,’ he says. ‘I won’t ever see you again.’
‘Why?’ I ask pathetically. It’s bizarre to ask such a question of a stranger. But we moved past that stage long ago – we both know it.
‘I upset a client today,’ he replies. ‘On Blue Deck.’
I, too, work up on Blue Deck. We have that much in common. Or did.
‘What did you do?’ Again, my question is impertinent, but I find I don’t care. Now we’ve started talking, I don’t want us to stop. I want to know everything about him.
‘She made demands on me. Demands I could not fulfill.’
‘You’re a sex worker, yes?’ I ask. I know he is. He wears a red uniform. I’ve often wondered what it might be like to do such a job. Now I’m curious about what demands this woman made – but I’m scared to ask.
He wipes his forehead and sighs. ‘When I didn’t do as she asked, she made an official complaint against me – she said I raped her.’
The doors hiss and more workers enter – this time in purple overalls. I catch a faint whiff of baby vomit. Purple Deck is the creche.
The crush pushes him closer to me. The air is dense with his presence. I can smell the woman on him – her sex. I’m repelled by it. Why couldn’t he shower before leaving work? But then I chastise myself. Perhaps there was no time. He may have been forcibly ejected. Did he rape her? I don’t think so. I know those Blue Deckers. They’re the elite – they think they can do anything to us. Their air is so clean, but their minds are filth. We on the other decks exist only to cater to their needs. We read to them, feed them, fuck them…
I can’t believe I said that word – even in my head. Have I ever said that word before? I don’t think so. What’s happening to me?
We’re getting closer to Green Deck – my stop. I’m in a fog of misery. I don’t think I can bear not seeing him again – not now we’ve finally started talking…
‘What’s it like on Red Deck?’ I ask. ‘Is it orgies all the time?’
He shrugs. ‘Sex for us is like taking a bath. It’s just something we do. But I’m not thinking about that now. When they told me I was being transferred, the first person I thought about was you.’
‘I live for your smile. It’s what keeps me going each day.’ His eyes search mine, seeking that same love light that I can see burning in his. But how can I show him that? I’m married. Our worlds are so far apart, and in minutes he will be gone forever. I look away.
I hear him lean back and sigh. ‘I suppose you Green Deckers read each other stories all night?’ he chuckles sadly.
‘We read a lot of books,’ I admit. I’m struggling to keep my voice steady.
‘I’d love you to read me a book one day,’ he says. ‘Teach me about this world. Perhaps you can tell me how it all came to this. How is it that we can’t all live together on one big deck?’
‘I–I don’t know.’ Tears are starting to prickle my eyelashes. The car is slowing towards my deck. I want to hold his hand.
He’s speaking feverishly now, feeling time slip away. ‘I’ve heard they put drugs in the air on each deck – sex drugs for us, brain drugs for you – to make us better… performers. The Blue Deckers are reducing us to specialised menials. We’re losing our humanity.’
His hand grasps mine. I squeeze it back.
‘Goodbye,’ I tell him. ‘I have to go.’
He shakes his head.
‘What?’ I flicker like a candle.
‘Stay. Come with me to Red Deck. Let me show you another side of life.’
‘I can’t…. The Breathalyser. They won’t let me in.’
‘I’ve given you a pill,’ he says.
In his palm, pressed against mine, I feel the outline of something small and round. ‘It’ll change your breath.’
He releases my hand. I see the pill lying there – so tiny. The gift of a new life. But I can’t move. My hand is frozen.
‘Swallow it,’ he pleads.
There’s a beeping sound. Without looking up, I know a camera has spotted the pill.
‘I’m sorry,’ I tell him, letting it fall to the ground.
He blinks and there are tears on his cheeks. I want to kiss them.
‘Goodbye,’ I whisper, and I exit through the airlock. I’m young, but I feel old and dry inside. My womb is dead. My husband will read to me tonight, and then we’ll turn from each other, go to sleep.
Footsteps behind me. I don’t dare turn.
A hand on my arm.
I’m shaking as I turn around.
I fold myself into his embrace, wanting to disappear in there.
‘The Breathalyser,’ I murmur.
He kisses me deeply. I feel myself opening up inside – light, colour, heat flooding into long-dead spaces. Before I’m ready, he breaks away and pours his breath – my breath – into the machine. It clicks and the light turns green. The gate opens, and he enters my world.