Station Eleven (Page 14)
Arthur’s mother calls one night and asks if he remembers Susie, that woman who was a waitress at the General Store Café when he was a kid. Of course he remembers Susie. He has vivid memories of Susie serving him pancakes in the café. Anyway, Susie’s niece came to live with her a few years back, for reasons that remain buried despite the dedicated excavation efforts of every gossip on the island. The niece, Miranda, is seventeen now and just very driven, very together. She recently moved to Toronto to go to art school, and could Arthur maybe take her to lunch?
“Why?” he asks. “We don’t know each other. She’s a seventeen-year-old girl. It’ll be kind of awkward, won’t it?” He hates awkwardness and goes to great lengths to avoid it.
“You have a lot in common,” his mother says. “You both skipped a grade in school.”
“I’m not sure that qualifies as ‘a lot.’ ” But even as he says this, he finds himself thinking, She’ll know where I’m from. Arthur lives in a permanent state of disorientation like a low-grade fever, the question hanging over everything being How did I get from there to here? And there are moments—at parties in Toronto, in Los Angeles, in New York—when he’ll be telling people about Delano Island and he’ll notice a certain look on their faces, interested but a little incredulous, like he’s describing an upbringing on the surface of Mars. For obvious reasons, very few people have heard of Delano Island. When he tells people in Toronto that he’s from British Columbia, they’ll invariably say something about how they like Vancouver, as though that glass city four hours and two ferries to the southeast of his childhood home has anything to do with the island where he grew up. On two separate occasions he’s told people in Los Angeles that he’s from Canada and they’ve asked about igloos. An allegedly well-educated New Yorker once listened carefully to his explanation of where he’s from—southwestern British Columbia, an island between Vancouver Island and the mainland—and then asked, apparently in all seriousness, if this means he grew up near Maine.
“Call Miranda,” his mother says. “It’s just lunch.”
Miranda at seventeen: she is preternaturally composed and very pretty, pale with gray eyes and dark curls. She comes into the restaurant in a rush of cold air, January clinging to her hair and her coat, and Arthur is struck immediately by her poise. She seems much older than her age.
“How do you like Toronto?” Arthur asks. Not merely pretty, he decides. She is actually beautiful, but it’s a subtle kind of beauty that takes some time to make itself apparent. She is the opposite of the L.A. girls with their blond hair and tight T-shirts and tans.
“I love it.” The revelation of privacy: she can walk down the street and absolutely no one knows who she is. It’s possible that no one who didn’t grow up in a small place can understand how beautiful this is, how the anonymity of city life feels like freedom. She starts telling him about her boyfriend Pablo, also an artist, and Arthur forces himself to smile as he listens. She’s so young, he tells himself. She’s tired of talking about herself and asks about him, and he tries to explain the surrealism of this world he’s stepped into where people know him when he doesn’t know them, he talks about how much he loves Los Angeles and how simultaneously the place exhausts him, how disoriented he feels when he thinks about Delano Island and compares it to his current life. She’s never been to the United States, although she’s lived within two hundred miles of the border all her life. He can see that she’s straining to imagine his life there, her thoughts probably a collage of scenes from movies and magazine shoots.
“You love acting, don’t you?”
“Yes. Usually I do.”
“What a wonderful thing, to get paid for doing what you love,” she says, and he agrees with this. At the end of the meal she thanks him for paying the check and they leave together. Outside the air is cold, sunlight on dirty snow. Later he’ll remember this as a golden period when they could walk out of restaurants together without anyone taking pictures of them on the sidewalk.
“Good luck on the movie,” she says, boarding a streetcar.
“Good luck in Toronto,” he replies, but she’s already gone. In the years that follow, he’s often successful at putting her out of his mind. She is far away and very young. There are a number of movies, an eighteen-month relocation to New York for a Mamet play, back to Los Angeles for a recurring role in an HBO series. He dates other women, some actresses, some not, two of them so famous that they can’t go out in public without attracting photographers who swarm like mosquitoes. By the time he returns to Toronto for another movie, he can’t go out in public without being photographed either, partly because the movie parts have gotten much bigger and more impressive, partly because the photographers got used to taking his picture when he was holding hands with more famous people. His agent congratulates him on his dating strategy.
“I wasn’t being strategic,” Arthur says. “I dated them because I liked them.”
“Sure you did,” his agent says. “I’m just saying, it didn’t hurt.”
Did he actually date those women because he liked them, or was his career in the back of his mind the whole time? The question is unexpectedly haunting.
Arthur is thirty-six now, which makes Miranda twenty-four. He is becoming extremely, unpleasantly famous. He wasn’t expecting fame, although he secretly longed for it in his twenties just like everyone else, and now that he has it he’s not sure what to do with it. It’s mostly embarrassing. He checks into the Hotel Le Germain in Toronto, for example, and the young woman at the registration desk tells him what an honor it is to have him staying with them—“and if you don’t mind me saying so, I adored that detective film”—and as always in these situations he isn’t sure what to say, he honestly can’t tell if she really did enjoy the detective film or if she’s just being nice or if she wants to sleep with him or some combination of the above, so he smiles and thanks her, flustered and not sure where to look, takes the key card and feels her gaze on his back as he walks to the elevators. Trying to look purposeful, also trying to convey the impression that he hasn’t noticed and doesn’t care that half the population of the lobby is staring at him.
Once in the room he sits on the bed, relieved to be alone and unlooked-at but feeling as he always does in these moments a little disoriented, obscurely deflated, a bit at a loss, and then all at once he knows what to do. He calls the cell number that he’s been saving all these years.
MIRANDA IS AT WORK when Arthur Leander calls her again. She’s an administrative assistant at a shipping company, Neptune Logistics, where she spends quiet days at a desk shaped like a horseshoe in a private reception area outside her boss’s office door. Her boss is a young executive named Leon Prevant, and his door is almost always closed because he’s almost always out of town. There are acres of gray carpeting and a wall of glass with a view of Lake Ontario near her desk. There’s rarely enough work to keep her occupied for more than an hour or two at a time, which means she can often spend entire afternoons sketching—she’s working on a series of graphic novels—with long coffee breaks, during which she likes to stand by the glass wall and look out at the lake. When she stands here she feels suspended, floating over the city. The stillness of the water, the horizon framed by other glass towers and miniature boats drifting in the distance.
A soft chime signifies an incoming email. During the long period when her position was staffed by an incompetent temp—“The winter of our discontent,” Leon Prevant calls it—Leon took to outsourcing his travel planning to his subordinate Hannah’s administrative assistant Thea, who is impeccable in a smooth, corporate way that Miranda admires, and who has just forwarded Leon’s flight confirmation emails for next month’s trip to Tokyo. In Thea’s presence she feels ragged and unkempt, curls sticking up in all directions while Thea’s hair is glossy and precise, her clothes never quite right whereas Thea’s clothes are perfect. Miranda’s lipstick is always too gaudy or too dark, her heels too high or too low. Her stockings all have holes in the feet and have to be worn strategically with specific pairs of shoes. The shoes have scuffed heels, filled in carefully with permanent marker.
The clothes are a problem. Most of Miranda’s office clothes come from a bargain outlet just off Yonge Street, and they always look okay under the dressing room lights but by the time she gets home they’re all wrong, the black skirt shining with acrylic fibers, the blouse in a synthetic fabric that clings unpleasantly, everything cheap-looking and highly flammable.
“You’re an artist,” her boyfriend Pablo said that morning, watching her while she tried various layering options under a blouse that had shrunk in the wash. “Why would you want to conform to some bullshit corporate dress code?”
“Because my job requires it.”
“My poor corporate baby,” he said. “Lost in the machine.” Pablo talks about metaphorical machines a lot, also the Man. He sometimes combines the two, as in “That’s how the Man wants us, just trapped right there in the corporate machine.” They met at school. Pablo graduated a year ahead of her, and at first his career seemed so brilliant that she stopped being a waitress at his invitation: he sold a painting for ten thousand dollars and then a larger one for twenty-one thousand and he was poised to become the Next Big Thing, but then a show got canceled and he sold nothing else in the year that followed, absolutely nothing, so Miranda signed with a temp agency and found herself a short time later at her desk in a high tower outside Leon Prevant’s office door. “Hang in there, baby,” he said that morning, watching her dress. “You know this is only temporary.”