They could stay afloat for only so long. Before the deranged creatures picked them off. They were so thirsty or so hungry. They swirled in the raging wind, fire, and water. Their skin shriveled. Time had ended and yet passed. Parched, they watched the last particles of moisture rise and fade in the golden air above an earth of previously unknown colors. They trudged on and on but the land was barren. Fungus rotted their limbs and bacteria new to the dying world cruised their organs. Germs, maggots, and death from virile viral microscopic life loomed in the near future. Buildings tumbled upon them. Flying debris severed them. Chasms opened wide and swallowed. They were crushed and strewn, and they exploded. Their brains burst from the noise. A spinning cow or lamp broke them. Their insides fell out. Their fingers crumbled. The inside of my skin was the earth, and grass took root and grew toward my heart. I had drunk and eaten enough pesticides to make it possible. My organs, robotic as zombies, worked with what they got. I saw myself clumping about, dribbling clippings from my razor-sharp teeth, pulsing with quotations.
That day they were blowing off work in rented kayaks and wasting it by having a fight. Now they were in the silence that comes when articulate people can’t make anything move with their vocabulary. Chirping, lapping, the bridge in the distance like a fake frown. The city lagged behind. Below, they had to rely on their imaginations for fish. Becky thought of a recent moment on the internet with Singleton Copey’s Watson and the Shark, inspired by an event that took place in Havana, Cuba, in 1749. Fourteen-year-old Brook Watson, an orphan serving as a crew member on a trading ship, was attacked by a shark while swimming alone in the harbor. His shipmates, who had been waiting on board to escort their captain ashore, launched a valiant rescue effort. But it seemed from the painting that the effort was in vain. As a child she’d thought that boy was a girl with beautiful flowing blonde hair, arching before the shark’s wide mouth in the waves, the shark’s tail so distant it might have been another shark. Two men reached for her in matching white shirts. A woman with beautiful flowing brown hair lunged at the shark with a spear. A black man stood behind the woman with the spear, compositionally parallel to the girl in the water. He was in his own world. He was above the fray, both interested and feeling something Becky could never quite peg. People in the boat were exhibiting fear, sadness, bravery, but one thing you don’t always think of is joining the victim.
Now, Becky had always loved the lip service of a good internet citation. When she cut and pasted into her own documents it made her feel like it was a free country. This, she felt, is how you make something real of your own. Copley himself had made three versions of the paintings, after all, and just turned the “Borghese Gladiator” on its side for the figure of Watson. But just as she was deciding on a way to bring the painting up with Ben, he spat some mean shit at her and she spat something back. Then, while Ben was trying to come up with another example of what he meant, she got down to her skivvies and slipped into the water. This surprised him so much that he dropped his paddle overboard. A shark came by and ate it in one fell swoop. Ben screamed something about being up a creek, and that’s when she called him the enemy of expression.
It was before there were tall buildings in Mexico City, but there were tall buildings, and flying vehicles. High and gray. Concrete. Nothing organic. No neon lights. A sensation of falling, maybe sweat, maybe an earthquake and Tlatelolco, this huge housing project where I lived right before the big one in ’85. One of the buildings came down and killed a thousand people with cheap concrete, just like the other day in practically name your country, it can happen any day.
Opus caementicium made the Pantheon possible.
After the apocalypse, I see concrete. I can tell you a lot about concrete in developing countries. You add water to stretch it and that’s our downfall, a concrete downfall. I can’t say “developing” without irony. I can’t say “concrete.”
My wife and I finally chose an architect we’d admired for years, a guy who had gone to our college, though we’d only known him from afar. He impressed us. He’d always been artistic. He did the drawing and we did the dreaming. Natural efficient everything, modest and modernist, we wanted that balance of cutting edge and built to last. We were excited and scared—we had good money, but it was still a lot. We told friends over dinner about our plans, going over the idea, couple after couple. We ended up describing that house at practically every restaurant in town that we liked. Real estate, figurative estate. I just thought of that!
We’d had friends fuck up in process. One couple bought a house, turned out to be made of stuff called hardboard. Well, they learned via lawsuit that it was not designed to hold up in the rain. Thirty year mortgage and ten years life expectancy on the siding. Just imagine all the replacing you’re expected to do on a dream like that. What is it about cells, they all slough and replace within seven years? I once thought of a reason why that must be an urban legend, but now I forget. It must have been right before falling asleep, or that instant waking up, disappearing and reappearing to myself.
Don’t worry, we didn’t split, we’re fine.
At these dinners we described the blueprints. We drew on napkins. Our friends kept saying, “People want the master bedroom to be a suite. People want a garage. People want a stove the size of a tank. His and hers everything.” At dinner, I’d say, “but this is our dream house. It’s not people’s dream house.”
Later my wife would say things she never would have said before. “We should have a real laundry, we should have a proper foyer.” In a marriage you learn to see it the other person’s way. We’d spread the blueprint across the table in the rental. Her eyes going over the lines, my eyes going over the lines. I was placing our belongings in the house, and I could see her placing little people-friends walking around in there among our belongings. Lines such as countertops. Vessels such as vases. I ran my eyes along my wife. It was inevitable. Are you my dream, are you mine, what are you, who are you for?
Programmatic inflation, our architect called it, when he’d redrafted according to what we’d heard about these buyers our friends imagined. We built the house. It was over budget, but you know that going in. We didn’t fight about what happened to our dream house, but we definitely alluded to it. “Where are his boundaries,” she’d say about some guy at work, and I have to believe we both felt the house in there. “What did you dream?” I’d ask her in the morning. I knew the house was in what I was saying. A couple of times, alone in the house we built, I’ve even felt the real house like an invisible balloon around me. One time I felt it I really laughed at myself because if there’s one thing I have ever excelled at in life it’s being in this institution we call marriage. Another time, I remembered following my mother on a tour of a great house in some state, not where we lived—probably Monticello. Suffice to say, my parents did not have a marriage like mine. It had been a long drive on a very hot day. My dad was so angry he was not joining us, he was waiting in the car. In the tour group I was at everyone’s hips. I almost fell asleep walking behind my mother’s bottom to the tour guide’s speech, my mother’s bottom in her summer pants blooming white up the staircase toward the great dome.
She was so excited about the present she had decided to get me that she told me what it was going to be. I loved it. It was a great idea for a present and just right for me. It was what I had been dreaming of without even knowing it. But time rolled on and I didn’t get the present itself. Of course, this is all in the past. Now she’s gone. Big surprise. I don’t even get pleasure from the idea of the present anymore, because I was so mad about her not actually getting the present that I forgot what it was going to be. I can joke about the eternal present of the thought that counts, but what I’m actually trying to give you is an understanding of the stasis of certain forms of pain. It’s a matter of eradication.
I smoothed the described sheet over the described person I’d loved before the apocalypse. The rich feelings welled from the page. Under the blanket, the person I loved remained. We used to mean so much.
Slowly, carefully, gingerly, I began to suspect I remained ironical.
Lucy Corin is an American novelist and short story writer. The winner of the 2012 American Academy of Arts and Letters John Guare Writer's Fund Rome Prize, Corin was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowship in 2015. Her short story collection, One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses (McSweeney's) is out now in paperback.