$ _


// simon han

Breakfasts were fraught. A brand of eggs we'd never bought had been recalled. Roommates in a house older than ours had perished from a gas leak that the city hadn't cared to fix, and would we like a voice-controlled smoke and CO detector at a special, one-time rate? That was just what we read before we logged on for work. We described the small blows of our days as "apocalyptic." We moved through tall grass, itching everywhere. Every minute of every hour pinged in our pockets, a drill sergeant spitting in our ears, but softly. Life was the same for us as it was for everyone, we lied to ourselves. We did not know everyone. We hardly knew one another. We held little desire to know anything, but what we did not know caused us diarrhea. (And we all shared a bathroom.) We were not happy, but we were not unhappy, either. We were missing... something. We felt this lack more acutely than we ever had, even in the days when we had nothing. Nothing! We needed to go back there. So Carlos ordered some weighted blankets. Priya set up looping white noise playlists. Adedayo replaced our mothy curtains with blackout ones. Dexter angled our mirrors so we could brush our teeth and not see ourselves. We stripped our rooms bare and posted videos of them. We pitched in for 500 pounds of salt to fill the one bathtub in our one bathroom. For a day we took turns floating without acknowledging each other, our legs forced over the tub's edge, making puddles we couldn't see in the dark. This helped, at first. But then the Chinese restaurant where Justine worked closed. "Look at me," she told us. "Now I really got nothing." After we finished the final leftover red braised pork that Justine would ever bring back for us, we were stuck with her nothing. (Namely her inability to pay her share of rent.) When Bart suggested that the rest of us follow her lead, to voluntarily stop showing up at our jobs, even those of us working remotely laughed in his face. We wanted to experience nothing, sure, but first we had to afford it. "Are we committed to this transformation or what?" Bart asked. (We had to admit that we were not.) The problem, Bart went on, was that everything we'd done thus far was a half-measure. Posting a video that depicted nothing still took up space — took up more space, in fact, made that nothing an undeniable something. "We can't just simulate the feeling of absence," Bart said. "We have to become — quite literally — nothing." "This is starting to sound cult-ish," Adedayo said. "Bart isn't charming enough to lead a cult," Priya said. "I'm not proposing we kill ourselves," Bart said. "So what?" said Dexter. "We just wake up one day, dead?" "Not dead." Bart gestured, as if to cue the violins. "We find a way to exist in a perpetual state of not living. Invisible as air, but more so. Air carries particles. Viruses. Instead, we reach a state in which we carry nothing. Because we've become nothing. What if we created a plane of existence in which we did not have to exist?" "Who ate the last piece of pork?" said Carlos, and we all looked away. And yet, in the following weeks, Bart's idea took shape in us, began to feel solid, then heavy — a kidney stone the size of a baby, whose weight we could lessen only by considering it. He whined about us staying at our jobs, but there we could study our bosses, how they were able to perceive our living, breathing selves as nothing. The trick was to lose ourselves in those perceptions. That plus harder drugs, maybe religion. A religion that uses a lot of drugs. To look away from one another in a house that had been emptied of all but its walls was not enough. We put on thick blindfolds. And industrial earplugs. Bart made an unsavory joke about Helen Keller, and though we could no longer perceive him, we knew because he was Bart. After a few months, we had all either lost our jobs, or our desire to go to our jobs, or in Bart's case maybe not had a job to begin with. (We were never quite sure.) Soon we were blazed and relieved of every sense with our padded clothes and numbing cream and our taste and smell gone to the virus we'd all somehow contracted. On one of those nights, Carlos and Justine engaged in what Carlos described as the ghostliest sex of his life. "It was like it wasn't even happening," Carlos said to us the next morning, during our house meeting. (We'd taken off our blindfolds and earplugs for the moment, to discuss our landlord's latest ominous letter.) "What did I even say to you last night, Justine?" "Uh, that wasn't me," said Justine. "Focus, guys," said Bart. "How are we going to keep the house?" "I don't think this experiment is working," Adedayo said. "Yeah," said Priya. "I'm still... here." In the dark, we made out what could be Priya's outstretched hand. Dexter peeled off a strip of blackout tape from a window, and through the daze of light, fingers emerged. Little flabs of skin hung off the knuckles. The pinky quivered. The presence of the hand made us aware of the presence of air. We had to breathe it, to move through it. The floorboards warped and sagged below us. The walls appeared to sweat. Who were we in this place? Not white, for one. Not straight. Not rich. Not great. And now as we'd molded the world into one that did not include us, we'd become a... not something. Which was a true crisis, because a not something was not a nothing. It was worse: it was this hand, floating in space. Priya stared at it and screamed. We had to make changes. We laid off the drugs and fake religions. We did pushups and ate fruits and veggies and oats. We were lucky, we told ourselves. We were so very lucky. And then Bart gave in and called his parents and they took care of all of our late payments, and we realized that that fucker was the luckiest of us all. Why did he even live with us? When we asked him, all he said was, "Can you imagine being alone, now?" Eventually, Bart got us better jobs. A cousin's start-up. An uncle's real estate company disguised as a non-profit. The frames we'd torn off the walls, and the furniture we'd thrown out, and the bread and beer we'd tossed from the fridge, along with the fridge — he bought it all back and more. Some nights, we lay on the floor, hand in hand, surrounded by everything we'd ever had. Our phones again. Our VR headsets, workout bikes, streaming subscriptions, and, with our own money, a home float tank big enough for our legs. We used them all. We used them not at all. It didn't matter. They were there to tell us who we were.