June 1, 2010
TWENTY-TEN

Ira was quite down-to-earth for one of the twenty-ten. Living in New York as I did you met quite a lot of them and they were very easy to recognize because they would always talk about it. They had nothing else to talk about. They were insufferable and the way they acted was so resolutely holier-than-thou so as to be disgusting. I couldn’t muster sympathy for them anymore.

When I first met Ira he was looking up, because he was ringing up the novel I’d picked out at the dusty, dark bookstore where he worked and a plane went by overhead, barely audible over the traffic. He froze, looking up into the dusty ether of the air, despite the ceiling and four stories of apartments separating him and the plane. It went right over of course in a matter of seconds and Ira went back to scanning my debit card. “I’m sorry,” he said. This threw me off because the twenty-ten did not apologize for their habits. We were meant to apologize for them. But there was no other reason to freeze at the sound of a plane.

So I said to Ira, “Are you –”

“Yes.” He smiled politely. I was surprised by this. For most of the twenty-ten the allowance was such that they no longer had to work. They would travel and give lectures, or they would lie around and paint images of their captivity in a pretentious, modern style that made nothing clear. Of course there were massive government implementations to prevent even the semblance of hiring discrimination against the twenty-ten, but none of them wanted to work. Money came in monthly checks that were provided after a complete overhaul of the welfare and social security systems. There had been little outcry. “Put yourself in their shoes,” people said. They ran the video on the news constantly for a week or two after it happened – the little girl, in the stained nightgown, weeping, bawling, crying hysterically, wildly, insatiably, with incredible confused terror, led up the beach at Far Rockaway by an older gentleman clearly of no relation, weary-eyed in a wrinkled suit, who held her by one dirty small hand.

 

I could tell by how Ira reacted when he heard the plane that he was one of the ones who remembered. About half remembered; the others were said to have a new breed of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that doctors called June 18 Syndrome. These people, while capable of living their lives regularly as they remembered no details of the event, customarily chose to live them as though the sixty-two hours of their abduction had been sixty-two hours of near-constant waterboarding, with occasional breaks for severe caning. I was fascinated by Ira, namely by the brevity of our conversation. Usually when you asked one of the twenty-ten if they were one of the twenty-ten they responded with a ten-to-fifteen minute lecture on the infinite reaches of their suffering. I once met a woman, eating a cup of chocolate mousse beside me on a Prospect Park bench, who told me for no reason other than that I was also a woman that she had been six months pregnant when abducted, and when she returned was asked to abort the fetus. “Visibly,” she confided, “There was nothing wrong with it.” The fetus had been male, but she chose to refer to him only as it. She shed no tears. “Visibly. You never know what they did.” She shook the chocolaty spoon in my face. “You never know.”

I looked up Ira’s interview on the website that had been established to satiate public curiosity about the twenty-ten. A joint committee of politicians and journalists had filmed about two hundred consenting individuals discussing their experience, and had uploaded them, along with a brief biography of each interviewed individual, a nicely written summary of events, and helpful links for schoolchildren who were doing research. The pretentious array of twenty-ten spokespeople often said that the filmed interviews were exploitative and characterized them as “prostitution of a personal experience.” Some of the interviews – the tearful, sobbing ones – were reminiscent of car wrecks – you wanted to look away, but you couldn’t. These people had been nearly destroyed, even those who remembered nothing. Ira’s, on the other hand, was very calm. He was pale and thin, unshaven; his face was composed and shoulders relaxed. You would not be able to tell but he kept looking up – looking, with calm drifts of his eyes to the gray, tiled ceiling, up. I was fascinated by Ira. He was such an anomaly.

Behind the camera someone said, “Please state your name, your age, and your neighborhood of residence.”

Ira looked unprofessionally into the camera. “Ira Harmon, nineteen. I live in Bed-Stuy.”

“What were you doing at 5:08 AM on June 18, 2009?” This was the date and the time, the famous date and time. People had this tattooed all over their bodies. 

“Jogging in Prospect Park.”

“What do you remember?”

Ira closed his eyes and leaned his head to one side, resting one too-large ear in the palm of one hand. He drummed the fingers of the other on the desk. And, in a gentle, lazy voice that was barely his own, this calm and weirdly sensuous voice, Ira said, “I was running and I heard the plane –”

 

For those sixty-two hours we watched the news and only the news. There was nothing else to watch and nothing else to do. So we saw it when they came back. It was a shaky video shot from an apartment window in Far Rockaway in Queens. Slowly slowly one by one, like bombs dropping in slow motion, two thousand and ten people fell – were dropped – from the sky, and they fell softly like leaves to the beach, all of them spread out on the boardwalk or in the sand, in the shallowest of waves. In the video the filmer moaned in a weird, distant terror. Someone called 911 but there were sirens already approaching, louder and louder, this slow orgasm of sound. The camera zoomed in, onto one motionless figure – a woman, and the waves lapped at her hand and pulled at her clothes. And then she sat up. And then they all sat up. And then everyone in the world took a deep breath. This was June 20 2009 at 7:42 PM.

 

I went to see Ira again the next night, at about ten so it would be the end of his shift. He had closed the iron gate in front of the bookstore’s entrance and was crouching to lock it when he saw me. “Hi,” he said. “You need another copy of that book or something?”

“I was hoping you’d let me buy you something to eat.” Ira looked up at me and then, so quickly I almost didn’t see it, he looked further up into the cloudy, red sky. Then he locked the gate and stood, extending his hand for me to shake.

“I’m Ira Harmon.”

“Charlotte Ross.”

He looked me in the eye for a minute. “Listen, I know I did that interview but I don’t really talk about it much. If you’re like, doing research, there’s people who specialize in that…” It was very like Ira to assume that I wanted to speak not because he was handsome or intelligent – he was both – but because of what he referred to only as “it.”

“I’m not doing that at all,” I said. “Well, I want to talk about it, but not solely about it. And I hate the spokespeople.” You were meant to go speak to the spokespeople if you were doing research about the twenty-ten. There were several in New York, not special but for their talent when it came to emotional oratory. They appeared on talk shows often, and, recently, for the first anniversary, three had wept passionately on Oprah, all fake, translucent clinging tears. I could muster nothing but distaste for them. Their emotion-warped faces, knots of whimpering mouths and wrinkled eyes, spoke not of true sadness but of a love of fame that led to the will to do anything.

 

In a window booth in a crowded diner on Flatbush Ira drank his coffee black. He did not dwell on it like the rest of them did. “I don’t like being important,” he said to me as we shared a plate of lukewarm mozzarella sticks. And yet Ira was important, because he was such an anomaly. “It wasn’t the terrible experience we make it out to be. The only thing I can hate them for is that they made me interesting.” He paused for a moment. “I’m sorry. You’re the only person besides my parents I’ve ever told any of this to. It’s not an exciting story.”

 

I wanted to tell Ira that it was for me, and that it would be for a great many people, but I didn’t say anything, and over the next two months Ira and I had dinner twice a week and he told me this story.

 

During the sixty-two hours of their abduction, the twenty-ten never once saw their captors. They slept and were fed regularly, one meal every eight hours, all of salad greens that were traced back to a ransacked farm near Kinderhook. Photos ran in the Post of a couple standing like American Gothic before a field that, according to the caption, had once been lettuce and had been left just neat rows of black soil. On the side, as an optional garnish, was a small cup of vinegar and olive oil. Special teams were dedicated to tracing the origin of this salad dressing, which was yet unknown. Beside each bed was a pitcher of water, which had been sucked out of a lake in the Catskills under cover of darkness. They had been given books, which had been placed neatly on each bed. Ira’s was Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. They were allowed to read much of the time, in long, thin, comfortable beds which were arranged like those in some strange, infinite, Annie-esque orphanage. There was a lot of crying. Most people did not read their books. Ira read his and his neighbors’, which were Valley of the Dolls and A Clockwork Orange. Over an invisible loudspeaker a mélange of calming classical music and occasional pop hits was played, and about every twenty minutes a series of names were called in a sexless, robotic voice. Ira was called over the dying strains of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” and returned at the beginning of the first movement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherezade.” When a name was called the person who belonged to it walked a gauntlet of teary stares to the center of the room and through an open door, into a small waiting room. There was more crying in this room. Ira was not afraid because all of those called before him had come back. He volunteered to go first.

Through another door was an empty room, tile-floored and tile-ceilinged with a reclining chair in the center. One wall was a mirror and Ira felt sure that they were looking at him through the other side. The light came from the ceiling. “Hello, Ira,” said the sexless voice as he sat in the chair. They enunciated his name in a strange way – two distinct, useless syllables – “Eye-wrah.”

Ira said, “Hello.”

“It is nice to see one of you not crying.” Ira smiled and the voice said, “You are very brave.”

“Thank you.”

 

“We are going to give you a kind of surgery that is very fast and very painless. You will not have a scar, and you will feel no effects when you go back home. This is for research purposes. We do not wish any harm to your species or any species on your planet.”

“You just want to watch me.”

“Precisely.”

“I’m not interesting.”

“You are interesting to us.” The voice came out of everything around him. Ira was flattered but nervous. He wondered if they had watched him before. “Please lie back for a moment. You may close your eyes.” Ira did and there was a mechanical noise and then a brief sharp pain which faded immediately. “You may sit up now.” Ira did. “We will return you to your planet shortly. Thank you for allowing us to give you this surgery.”

“You’re welcome,” said Ira, and he went back out into the infinite orphanage. Amidst all the crying the orchestra played that grand, lovely opening: “BA BA BA, ba-ba-ba ba ba ba.” Ira felt incredibly blessed to have spoken to them. His hands were trembling. In that room they all believed they were dying, but for Ira there was a feeling of being very alive.

 

In New York while they were gone we feared every errant noise and every movement of our shadows. They closed schools and the subway. Everyone in the world saw their own death and it followed them like a dog – it took a thousand forms, it was a horde of alien creatures, it was superior weapons, it was unrestrained nuclear warfare, it was mysterious disease. And the twenty-ten saw their own death, and it followed them like a dog when they walked from their beds up to the waiting room. But on Earth we saw it for those lonely hours and then we moved on.

I thought always that if they’d taken me I would have known it was a blessing. I would have known that I was chosen. I would have been afraid, but a good fear, a good nervous fear. The twenty-ten spoke only about the fear. “The crying,” Ira called it. When the twenty-ten wrote books (which they did often) they wrote extensively about the fear. I think there was at least one book just called The Fear. It was two hundred pages of description of terror. It shocked me that not one of twenty-ten people were worthy of their experience. They treated it like an extended nightmare. There were times that I sat beside one of them on the subway, on a park bench; there were times I watched them sob on television and I thought, “Couldn’t you have taken me?”

 

In the hospital just afterward Ira begged to keep whatever thing had been implanted in his brief surgery. It was just beneath the smooth skin by his left hip. Intelligently each surgery conducted by whatever abducted the twenty-ten had placed the surveillance mechanism in a different location. It had taken two doctors and a nurse an hour patting Ira down to find it, and once they did they delivered a shot of local anesthetic and one of them picked up a scalpel from a metal tray with a clattering sound like bolts falling.

Ira had not slept for about twenty hours. He had been given extensive examinations with what felt like every machine in the hospital. Fluid was drawn from his spine. Magnets circled his brain. Blood was taken. His entire body was x-rayed, with special attention to his lungs and heart, and the images were studied extensively by specialists flown in from around the world. Ira hated hospitals and he was exhausted and starving. And still he said “No. Please don’t cut it out.”

The surgeons could think of no effective retort.

“Leave it. Please leave it.” Ira told me later that he wanted to cry. He felt that weight – the weight of tears in his throat and behind his eyes. A thousand pounds. “You have to leave it. Please don’t cut it out.”

The surgeon then gestured to the nurse behind Ira’s shoulders, who lowered a mask over his nose and mouth to deliver anesthesia. When Ira woke up it was gone and there was a terrible bloody scar, tied up with coarse black stitches, where there had once been nothing.


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i wrote this story for esquire’s fiction contest. you had to pick one of three possible titles. i think by “twenty-ten” they meant the year, 2010, which was, at the time, next year (i wrote this in june 2009). when i wrote this i hadn’t written anything in six months. i wrote it the week before my high school prom. i had a really hard time writing in my senior year, and everything i was working on i really could not finish, so it was such a relief to write something i was proud of. 

the story i posted a piece from last week is called “the kind people.” 

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Filed under: fiction 
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