from the title story of THE UNIVERSE IN MINIATURE IN MINIATURE:
Lucy says we aren't watching to see if he will die. "That would miss the whole point," she says. "And besides," she says, "that would be, like, cruel."
It's the third time I've asked her in the last month. Now she's frowning and staring at her monitor. She's pretending she hasn't noticed that I've asked her three times.
We are in our van. Dylan stole it. I think he stole it. He won't tell us, one way or the other. If he did steal it, he stole it from a pedophile, that is certain. It's night-black and gladiatorial. It has bubble windows in the back. Sometimes when we drive up Lake Shore I look out the windows and see the waves and imagine there are fish and bubbles and everything like that. Inside, it's nice—there's a long bench in the back where I usually sit. Most of Lucy's gear is up on hooks. I have my own cushions.
We're not moving now. We're on stakeout, parked at the end of Yellow Oak Lane. We're way out in the 'burbs. The black felt is in the windows.
"So you don't think it's cruel, anyway?" I ask. I think I might already be so far down the path of hating Lucy that it will be impossible to come back. This happens with best friends, doesn't it? If things don't go smoothly forever, you have to hate them eventually. Sometimes you come back and sometimes you don't.
"Do you guys think Sprite or 7UP is more evil?" Dylan asks from the front.
He's got his feet crossed on the dashboard—I can see that his right sneaker is untied.
"What do you mean by evil?" Lucy asks, not turning away from her monitor. She's got on a blue knit cap and her bangs are peeking out over her forehead. Her bangs are dyed dark red and I hate them.
"I don't know," Dylan says. "Which gives you a worse feeling?"
"That's your idea of evil?" Lucy asks. "Whatever makes me feel bad?"
"I don't know, Dylan says. "It's a gauge."
"Questionable," Lucy says.
"Okay," Dylan says. "Which makes you feel worse, then? That's all I'm asking. Sprite or 7UP?"
"When I drink it? When I look at it? What are we talking about?"
"When you imagine it."
"Totally Sprite," Lucy says. I see her eyes flick to me over the top of her monitor. "What about you, Rosie?" she asks me.
"I don't know," I say. "Not either of them, really. It's soda."
"You've gotta dig for it," Dylan says. He's leaning his head back over his shoulder. I still can't see his face. I can see one beautiful cheekbone. "These are feelings that hide themselves. Marketing and what have you. It's really hidden in your mind. But it's you. Embedded, like how the military embeds journalists."
"I have soda-hatred buried in me?" I ask.
"We all do."
"Because," he says, and I can see that he's staring at the black felt. When he gets frustrated he doesn't raise his voice or make angry expressions, he just stares in a different direction. "Because it's soda. We all hate it, right? Just because we all had to...you don't really like it. No one really likes it. I mean soda—do you really think it was like a market-driven thing originally, like someone out there was wishing for a bubbly...I mean it had to be invented before we even wanted it, so—soda is an embarrassing item. It's colored? It's as though we're in a zoo, isn't it? I mean we didn't choose for it to be here with us. You know? It's just here." Dylan is frustrated.
"What?" I say.
Lucy giggles, then says, "Dylan's about to admit to us that he got sexually abused by a can of soda when he was little."
Dylan, I see, smiles at this, closes his eyes. They're a strange couple. I can't understand them and I want to. Dylan is soft and ephemeral—I think of him as a fairy. Lucy is sharp, jagged metal inside. They are in love. I'm in love with Dylan. I think we all know that.
"Sprite," I say, turning back to my model. "I guess I do have an opinion."
"Sprite," Dylan says, making a mark in his notebook. He gives me a long smile, then smiles once more at the felt. "Thank you, Rose. I was going for Sprite, anyway."
I met these two a year ago, when all three of us started at the SSTD—the School of Surreal Thought and Design. There are nine people in our class, even though there isn't really a class, and even though I don't really know the other six. We don't meet in a room to talk things over. We don't have any professors. There is no paperwork. All we have to do, to graduate, is complete our projects. Our projects are whatever we want them to be. We have total freedom and I'm not sure anybody even looks at our projects when we're done.
You are asking questions now. Do we pay for this? What manner of degree do we earn? Are we employable in the future? Is there a framed certificate?
None of that matters.
We are in this van, on this court, doing surveillance on this house, because of Lucy. This is her project. There on her monitor? It's a boy. His name is Ryan Conrad, he's twenty-seven, he's in a bed, and he has brain damage. Lucy's project is large and multi-tiered. She says she is breaking down the walls that went up after Milgram was deemed offensive. She says it's up to the artists now, if we want to understand people. Her project is to observe the wholesale collapse of a family following major trauma. Her chosen family is the Conrad family; three years ago Ryan Conrad went from a good-looking and somewhat free-spirited law student with an IQ of 132 to an invalid incapable of dressing himself with an IQ of 50. He slipped on the ice and hit his head on the concrete. He was in a coma for a week, then woke up not the same. I will tell you about his mother and father later. I will also later explain the further love complexities. Lucy and I are both in love with Ryan Conrad, too, but neither of us has admitted that yet.
She has placed eighteen spycams in the Conrad house. There are six in Ryan's bedroom. We watch him every night.
My project is about little models.
Dylan's writing a novel about scientists who accidentally destroy the planet Earth while trying to devise the perfect carbonated beverage.
It's that melancholy springtime. It's gray and cold and there have been no amazing days. It's the same in the morning, and I spend hours in my pajamas, sipping coffee in the chilly sunroom, wishing for the sun. After I make coffee in the French press I clean it out and then pour boiling water into it alone. I press the plunger up and down and watch the bubbles. I think I'm depressed, I think we're all depressed.
Later, I decide not to sit with Lucy and Dylan in the van, and instead go to a rock show at a club down the street from my apartment. The band is called SAUSAGIZER and they sing half their songs in French. I do a little dance near the bar, sipping at my drink. Almost the whole dance has to do with my toe. A few hours later, the bar has cleared out a little. SAUSAGIZER's bass player sits down next to me and asks me my name.
"It's Rose," I say. "Are you guys French-Canadian?"
"Bill is," he says. "The frontman." He points at Bill, who's in a booth with three really, really hot girls who look like maybe they live in a magazine somewhere. The drummer is also there. He is ugly.
"You're not?" I ask him.
"No," he says. "I'm just Carlo. Carlo Rodriguez."
"Is that actually your name?"
"No," he says. "My name is Kevin Johnson.
Kevin Johnson asks me what I do. I tell him I make accurate models even though they are technically not to scale.
"Models of what?"
"Do you know," I say, "how sometimes little boys, for science fairs, decide they want to make a model of the solar system?"
"So they find maybe a basketball and cut it in half for the sun? And then they use, like, a marble for the Earth? And so on? And their dads probably help and it turns into this huge project with cardboard and rope and everything? And how maybe sometimes the dad even says to the little boy, 'You know, Timmy, if we really wanted to be accurate about this model we'd have to drive five whole miles away to properly include Uranus,' and the kid is totally into it? Like his mind is blown by the scale?"
"Yeah," says Kevin. "I know about that."
"I make models of that."
"Cool," he says. "Wait. Of what, now?"
"I make models of little boys and sometimes their father making models of the solar system."
"You're saying this is your job?"
"Kinda," I say, "It's a long term project. It's art."
He nods, tilts his head, like maybe he's starting to see it. "So you make the universe in miniature in miniature, then," he says.
"No," I say. "I make the solar system in miniature in miniature. But that's close."
"Let's do some shots," he says. "I like Jack."
I agree to do some shots. I tell him Jack's a friend of mine, too.
A week goes by and I don’t call Lucy or Dylan. I want to drift away from them—more than anything, I want to drift away. I sometimes imagine myself totally alone and I enjoy the feeling. And I mean something by alone, something more than the word holds. I mean something blank and pure and vacant, plus me. And also moral. This blank and pure vacancy that includes me that is also moral is so empty, it is so one, that my presence in it makes me not exist, although I am still there, and that’s what lifts all the weight.
I have tried to explain my religion to both Dylan and Lucy. Neither of them get it. Dylan sometimes says it sounds romantic, the way that it’s confusing and lonesome, and he says that he wishes he had a machine that could let him be me for one minute so he could feel what it feels like to live with this idea of mine. He said he would call the machine The Machine of Understanding Other People. I told him I thought that was romantic.
But I’m not that kind in the end. I’m a faker when it comes to suffering. I don’t want it at all.
Dylan shows up one afternoon. When I open the door he's sanding there, wearing his headphones, hair wet, distracted by the cracks in the hallway's drywall. I'm not used to seeing Dylan standing. He's usually behind the wheel of the parked van with his feet up, notebook in lap. He's about nine hundred feet tall.
"Hey," I say.
"Hey," he says. He's lurking.
Dylan once told me that he was an octoroon. I said to him, "You don't look totally white, it's true," and he said, "but also other things." "Like what?" "Polish."
"What's up?" I say. "Do you wanna come in?"
"I felt like maybe walking for about a half a mile and then having some tea," he says. "So, no."
"Okay," I say. "That's specific."
"Yeah," he says, nodding, looking over my head. "I'm just into that kind of thing lately. Just, like, totally knowing."
"I think this is a time I should wear my Ducks, then," I say.
"Okay. Do that."
"I bought my Ducks on eBay for fifty dollars. They are those old shoes from the eighties that are rubber and shiny and resemble ducks, but just in the way that the constellation Orion looks like a guy.
"Lucy thinks my Ducks are twee," I say to Dylan as we walk. "I think she thinks my models are twee, too."
"Maybe," Dylan says. "I don't know. Lucy thinks a lot of weird shit."
"I think my models are twee, though," I say. "I condemn my own art as I make it. It's part of it. Is that okay?"
"Where have you been? Dylan asks. "Why don't you come in the van anymore?"
"I don't know," I say. "Ryan. I feel bad for Ryan and his parents. I really do. I think we might all be evil for doing what we're doing to them."
"It's just Lucy."
"We're there," I say. "We helped put the cameras in. You wore the cat burglar outfit."
Sometimes Ryan Conrad cries, and Lucy records it all. He talk but he moans, and his mother sits with him and talks to him about the news. Her name is Katherine Conrad, Kathy for short. She's a small woman, tenacious, though—I have admired her strength, watching her lift and pull at Ryan's body to help him bathe. She maybe five foot three and a hundred pounds and sometimes she cries, too, and I can feel everything, and I cry, too. Lucy never cries. Once she told me she wishes she cried along with them. Another time she recorded me crying as I watched them and asked me to talk about why it was sad. First I said it was lost potential, because Ryan had once been strong and powerful and now he wasn't, and that is basically the saddest story there is. Than I closed my eyes and listened harder to the feeling and I realized that it was sad for his mother in a different way, but I didn't understand it.
"Lucy's up in Ann Arbor," Dylan says, "interviewing people who used to know him in college."
"I don't think I'm an artist. Are you one?"
"No. I don't know. Yes."
"Is she evil, though?" I ask. "Are we evil for helping? Should we stop her?"
"It's not evil. We're just watching."
"But it's more, isn't it?" I ask. "Aren't we taking by watching?"
"No. Definitely not. And besides. It's her project."
We have tea in Lincoln Square and then Dylan walks me home and asks me, at the door, if I think that the two of us having sex would change the dynamic back and make me want to start sitting with them again at night. He says he misses me in the van and he says he and Lucy are having problems. He says he thinks he loves me and he asks me if I love him.
I say no but somehow we still end up having sex.