By ANNIKA BAJAJ
“I think I might be in love with you.” Y leans against the cell wall with hands behind his head, foot tapping against the cell wall. (The other cell wall; the cell was very small.) He speaks the words harshly, almost violent in the sounds of the consonants.
“Love is a strong word, don’t you think?” This sentence under his breath in a delicate tone, pitched up for contrast. “Strong? Not strong enough.” The harsh voice again.
Y opens his mouth but is interrupted by an echo from down the hall. “Strong? Not strong enough! Oh darling! I love you so loudly!” The echo chuckles. “You don’t think it’s a bit over the top? This is why I’m fed up with playwrights. It’s just not that deep.”
Y thumps his fist once against the third cell wall (it really was a very small cell) and snaps back, “Not that deep? You write poetry and you think you know when something’s over the top?”
Y calls the echo X. Y hasn’t bothered to ask the real name of the echo, since he feels it’s appropriate to attach namelessness to facelessness, mystery on top of mystery. Or perhaps he just prefers that the bruises to his artists’ ego by this flippant critic stay a little less personal. The guards, unfortunately, don’t protect him against emotional injury.
Anyway — speaking of guards. The tallest of the bunch, whom Y has affectionately dubbed Goodcop, approaches the front of his cell. “Special visitor for you two today.”
“Us two? Me and the rat?” Y points to the dead rat in the corner of the cell that’s been slowly decomposing for the past month. Goodcop laughs out loud but somehow maintains a straight face — a magical feat that Y hopes to remember for when he’s out and gets to direct plays again, instead of just writing them in his head.
“You and the liberal arts college student,” Goodcop clarifies, jerking his thumb over at X. “Some weird popular psychology experiment for TV.”
Y bristles at the thought. “Seriously? I have better things to do with my time.” Goodcop quirks an eyebrow in disbelief, but Y insists, “You’re interrupting my creative process.” (X snorts from the next cell.) “Can’t it wait until next week?”
Goodcop adds, “You’ll get paid.” The creative process, it turns out, can be paused.
Goodcop moves aside to reveal a comically nerdy-looking woman in a pristine lab coat, peering over thick-rimmed glasses at a clipboard. She appears to be unaffected by Y’s disheveled appearance or his evident unwillingness to participate. Over the corner of their shoulder Y can see a person holding a camera — it appears their TV appearance began before they even had a choice.
The woman enunciates each letter of her spiel. “Let us begin. The story is simple. You must choose which one of you will die tonight. The choice must be agreed upon by the both of you. If you refuse to choose, you will both die tonight. Whoever survives will be released, and their record cleared. You have one hour to decide.” The camera light clicks off, and the woman shakes her head as if to shake off her TV persona.
“We’ll be needing your signatures for permission to film the execution,” she says, casual and unconcerned. “But we’ll be back for those later.” The Science Woman leaves a thick silence behind her as she exits the cell block.
Goodcop can’t quite look Y in the eye. He follows Science Woman out with barely a nod of farewell.
Y’s heart doesn’t skip a beat, and nothing flashes before his eyes, except for the resident cell fly. Y doesn’t consider the meaning of life, of where he might end up when he dies, whether it happens to be now or in forty or fifty years. Y continues to breathe.
X, on the other hand, is freaking the fuck out. Over hyperventilating breaths, Y hears them say, “What the fuck? I’m nineteen years old, I’m not supposed to make life-or-death decisions until at least twenty-one, or something? I’m not gonna fucking choose whether you live instead of me, I don’t even know what I’m doing next week, I’m not playing fucking God today—is this even ethical? Fuck whichever IRB that approved this fucking experiment!”
Y tries to bite back a laugh but it escapes in one loud, “ha!” that rings through the cell block. “Awful lot of ‘fucks’ over there for potential last words… not very poetic, is it?”
X audibly balks at his words. “Do you not even care about this? You don’t understand the weight of this thing they’re making us do? How are we even supposed to choose?”
Y counts the bugs on the ceiling. 1, 2. (The cell is, again, quite small.) “Isn’t it easy? You’re young, you’re in college, you’re creating art and honing your craft, you’re learning who you are, you’re making friends. I’m some thirty-year-old wannabe thespian.”
X is quiet for an empty minute. Then, tentatively, as if they’re touching a glass vase balanced at the edge of a cliff: “But… don’t you have something to live for?”
Y quiets too. “I mean, yes. But not like you do.”
The quiet holds them for a moment longer. But X, as Y knows, can’t stay silent for long — too much time alone with their own thoughts — so Y breaks it with, “Would you do me a favor?”
“Write me down. In your poetry. From all your criticism of my writing I can tell you’ve got a talent, a passion. I’d like to be remembered by you.”
“I don’t —” X hesitates, although Y feels that the answer should be obvious — he’s practically doing them a favor! Inspiring material is so hard to come by sometimes.
“I just don’t want… I guess… alright. Tell me about your life, then.”
Y can’t remember the last time someone has asked him about his life beyond a how are you/Fine, you?/Good to see you! It’s been a while since he’s talked to a real friend. He tells X this, and tells them also that he’s finally reached out to friends from high school and college, from before he dropped out. People who went into music, disappointed their parents just like him, as well as those insane chemistry majors who stuck with it to grad school. The friendships are hesitant, just as they always are at the beginning, but Y finally feels lonely in a way that grows flowers from dirt, instead of the kind of lonely that congeals and clogs arteries and paralyzes limbs. He’s felt that kind of lonely too. He writes it into his plays — he tells X, “Always write your feelings down. They might be too strong in the moment you feel them, but someday you’ll look back and a full-length novel will be laid out in your journal.” He likes to give this kind of generic advice, where the person can’t really say why or whether he’s right and so is impossible to argue with — but he likes to think it’s good advice regardless.
Y tells X, if you ever find yourself failing to find yourself, work as a janitor in the venue of whatever art you’d like to do — a theater, for instance. Paid inspiration! Y tells X, if it doesn’t work the first time, ask your mom for some leftover homemade meals portioned into Tupperware (also for inspiration) and then try again. Y tells X, keep an open mind, you can change what it means to become who you want to be. X listens and Y imagines them nodding, taking mental notes. If he’s gonna die, at least he’ll live on in this younger generation, in these world-saving teenagers.
“So I’ve been writing plays the past year, still working in the theater, trying to get some traction in the art world. Felt like an abject failure for a good chunk of my twenties. Well, all of my twenties. But I feel like I’m getting somewhere now. Or, was,” Y adds, as an afterthought.
X sighs in a way too world-weary for their years. “That doesn’t sound very jaded to me.” Y opens his mouth to reply but X, characteristically, interrupts to say —
“I think it should be me.”
“Absolutely the fuck not!” Y guffaws. “The whole point of this was to capture my essence in your mind so that some part of me lives on! Or some poetic bull like that. My throat is dry from all that talking. Don’t waste it.”
X sighs again. “You don’t get it. I’m just… so tired.” Sigh number three. “I don’t wanna have to write down my feelings anymore. I’m tired of feeling.”
Y contemplates answering with a comforting word, but it’s like all the air has been sucked out of the room in preparation for the magnum opus of exhales, like X plans to breathe out the content of their lungs, stomach and veins all at once.
“First they say you have to know what you want when you’re eighteen. Then they say you have to discover all of your passions and pursue all of them all the time, and also make lots of friends and be close with all of them somehow, and also save the world, and also take care of your mental health, and also exercise five times a week. And I can barely go to the gym once a month. How am I supposed to decide what part of the world I can save? There’s so much of it burning, and I have maybe one thimbleful of water.”
“Why do you have to save the world?”
“How can I not want to, knowing what a messed-up hellscape it is? Knowing how many people I could help if I just knew where to put all of this wanting? But instead I just… feel everything, and it all hurts. And that’s why I write poetry. But it’s just pain on paper. It’s not art. It doesn’t do anything.”
Y pushes himself to his feet and touches the wall of the cell in X’s direction, and he wishes he could move through stone like a ghost.
“Do you get it?”
Y nods. X still can’t see him, perhaps will never see him. “More than you know, kid.”
“So do you see why it should be me? We’d both be getting a fresh start, in a way.”
“Not so fast, kid.” Y looks at the clock outside the cell. “Well, on second thought… looks like we’re running out of time.” There are ten minutes left until their hour is up.
“Guess we’d better make our final choice,” X says softly, but the words ring throughout the cell block, and then they laugh. “I just wish my final view wasn’t of this ugly-ass ceiling.”
Y sits down, leans his head against the wall, stares through the concrete ceiling, up to the sky.