Five Members sat in council.
There are some activities, some patterns of human group behavior, that transcend era and culture, and meeting in council is one of them. In spite of the youth of the participants – they were in their late teens and early 20’s – and the informality of the setting – leather couches covered in scratch marks, unfinished walls – they still clearly were sitting in council. The seriousness with which they were watching the video, their intentional and controlled posturing and nuanced glances, would have been instantly recognizable to any Parliament or Diet throughout history. They had met to do business, to make a decision, to come to a consensus.
One Member rose to speak. “I don’t know about this girl,” said Carlos, tapping his phone.
Abruptly, the video paused. They now saw the girl, Petra, frozen, mid-sentence, mid-gesture, looming over them, larger than life on the 12 foot tall projector screen. She didn’t look like someone who would require scrutiny from anyone, let alone detailed conciliar deliberation. She was sitting on a small uphill slope of rolling grass, relaxed but still composed. She just looked well put-together: she was meticulously dressed; perfect subtle make-up; cheery, friendly demeanor. She projected a presence greater than her small stature: though on physicality alone she could be mistaken for a young teenager (she was, in fact, 21), her presentation was that of a 30 year old.
Christy resisted the urge to lower her head, instead presenting a stoicism she did not feel. She fantasized about a world where she could introduce the rest of Red Stripe Quarantine Group (Reg. No. F56D3, Bellevue, WA) to her girlfriend in a pleasant, friendly manner, like people do in video chats and VR hang-outs, except in real life. Failing that, Christy really wanted to fast-forward through this whole interview, not just the video itself, but also fast-forwarding or just skipping the lived experience of her closest friends scrutinizing and discussing the love of her life. But she knew that this was the only way she could ever see Petra in person. The other Members were entitled to their safety. It was, after all, the law. A law followed is a life saved.
But did it have to be Carlos who first spoke against Petra? Don’t misunderstand: Christy was duly grateful to Carlos. He had truly enriched her life, in the most concrete way possible, not with spiritual or social riches, but with hard American greenbacks (still called that even though cash had long since been outlawed as a disease vector). If he hadn’t joined nine months prior, if he hadn’t started, coyly and then loudly, saying “what if” – “What if we used our still to make hand sanitizer in addition to booze?” “What if we started growing aloe and selling the hand sanitizer?” “What if we started taking shifts, contacting distribution companies, and getting sold in local drug stores?” – she might have had to drop out of school, and Red Stripe, her chosen family, might have had to disband. And it was admittedly quite satisfying to see the “Red Stripe Hand Sanitizer™” labels on their products at the local corner stores when they went on their supply runs.
But, in practice, even though he was not Leader, that made Carlos her boss. And no one wants their boss interviewing or scrutinizing their girlfriend. Christy was grateful that Carlos had not succeeded in convincing Joe to let him shadow – or, really, co-conduct – the interview. Christy wished there had been a way to exclude Carlos from this stage as well. But there he was, dressed in his button up and slacks, even though it was just them, even though everyone else was wearing pyjamas, as if at any second he would find himself thrust into a video call with a supplier or distributor.
Lilith, Christy’s cat, sensed Christy’s anxiety, and came running over as soon as Carlos stood up. Christy picked Lilith up, put her on her lap, and sighed deeply. At the same time, she heard Joe sigh a more abrupt, exasperated sigh. “Huph.”
Christy recognized that sigh. She hoped that it meant that she would not be called upon to defend Petra, that Joe would take up her cause for her.
Joe was the official Leader of the Quarantine Group, and the original founder. Christy and the other Members – even Carlos, to some extent – looked up to him as an elder brother. Joe had been the one to actually conduct the interview that they were all now evaluating, and now he was ready to jump in on the discussion: “What do you mean, you don’t know about her? What’s your concern, specifically?”
Carlos lifted his hand in the exact way that he did before he was going to make a new, strict, unwelcome rule for the factory (the latest one eliminated water bottles in the room with the still). Christy suddenly realized she couldn’t bear to listen to what she felt certain was coming next, and so she had to get out ahead of it. “It’s not because she’s Chinese, is it? You do know she’s Chinese-American, right?”
As soon as she said this, Christy covered her mouth up. Of course Carlos knew that, and Christy had basically just called him stupid, and bigoted to boot. But it was a real concern, and one that she’d been worried about. After all, everyone knew the stories, both from grandparents who remembered it all and from history class in school: 53 years ago, in the first year of the Perpetual Quarantine (Q.Y. 1 for Quarantine Year 1), the First Virus started spreading from China to the other countries, because, as was invariably pointed out, China was the least hygienic, least responsible country.
Carlos put his hand back down and slowly turned towards her, adjusting his glasses, a gesture he had learned from his parents. “Of course not,” said Carlos earnestly. “The Administration would never allow any foreigners into this country, especially ones from such a place as China.” Everyone nodded. Everyone had also learned in school that immigration to the United States had been outlawed since Q.Y. 4, 49 years ago. “I am not one to hold the ancestors’ flaws against the descendants.”
Abruptly, a woman’s voice boomed above them, way too loud for comfort. “So what is the issue, then?” Carlos’s partner Jillian jumped, having forgotten, as was all too easy to do sometimes, about the sixth Member of their deliberations, Leila, who had videoed in for the meeting, her face visible on a small (only 3 foot by 3 foot) square on the projector screen, and her voice broadcast, apparently at the wrong volume, through their room’s sound system.
Leila was an out of house member of Red Stripe Quarantine Group; she was in the same “abstract” or “virtual” household. She had her own separate apartment, but her red wrist bracelet was the same as the others’, and it also allowed her to visit the Red Stripe Hub house whenever she wanted – which was legally allowed as long as it was the only other household she visited. Quarantine groups were currently allowed to have up to 10 adults and up to 4 locations, and Red Stripe’s model of a central hub with one out of house Member was not uncommon.
Leila needed this flexibility to study to be a doctor. Every day from Monday through Thursday, she went from her apartment to a physical lab on campus. At her designated time each day – which was assigned by lottery and could range from a pleasant 11AM to a torturous 3AM slot – she would walk over to the lab, fully masked. Once the previous student was confirmed as being out of the mini-lab she had been assigned, she would take a quick Sanitation Shower, do her lab work in her lab clothes (perhaps on a video chat with other students or an instructor), and then leave after 45 minutes. Next year, she would qualify for a full hour and a half, which she was looking forward to.
Then, Thursday night through the weekend, she would usually stay with the rest of Red Stripe in the main house. For this, she would book an autonomous car, which would then automatically take her to the main house as the only place she was legally allowed to go. As soon as she arrived, she would shower and stay in her pyjamas until it was time for her to go back on Monday.
And this particular meeting took place on a Tuesday, which is why instead of sitting on her currently-empty spot on the middle couch, Leila was sitting cross-legged on a brightly-colored patterned ottoman in her own little corner of the projection screen. “Petra is not ‘this girl,’ she’s Christy’s girlfriend. If you have a real concern, that’s fine, we can discuss it, but like, I really thought this was just going to be a formality. Don’t we all just want Christy to be happy?”
Christy felt like she would melt. Of course, she knew Leila would stand up for Petra, as Christy’s best friend and the only Member who had really had significant interaction with Petra before this. But actually hearing Leila jump in so boldly, so confidently just filled her with gratitude. She raised her hand up towards the camera in the shape of a heart, and smiled.
Carlos stretched his back out, and put his hands behind his back, and began to walk, and then to pace. This was how sermons were preached in the Watchers of the Vaccine, the niche religious group Carlos was raised in (Carlos wouldn’t let the others call it a cult, even though he no longer practiced). And, as with the clergy of that group, it meant that Carlos was about to give a sermon.
“She did the interview outside, in a park. She wasn’t even wearing a mask. Now I know, and she did make it very clear, that it was her group’s Liberty Day.” Every group had one day a week they were allowed to go for walks or to the park, indicated by the color of their bracelets. “And I also know there weren’t other people around, so she wasn’t violating the masks law. That is not my point.”
“Well, friend,” began Kevin, and then he paused. Everyone waited patiently. Kevin was Joe’s partner and led the group’s semi-weekly yoga classes, and he talked in the slow, overwrought way that people talk when they’ve smoked weed their entire lives. He waved his hand slowly as his brain loaded more words. “What is your point then?” More loading. “It’s more important to be safe than look safe, my friend. And she seemed really chill.”
At the word “chill,” Carlos reared back as if he was ready to charge. He pointed his finger with the energy of a punch, his face bulging red and about to boil over from anger. He inhaled deeply a few times, and when his face had finally returned to a more normal color, he spoke, with the sort of crisp calmness that in certain personalities can mask a seething rage. “I just don’t think that’s true.”
Kevin blinked. “What’s not true?”
“Part of being safe is looking safe. Care and focus defeat the virus. We’re not looking for ways to technically follow the law. We’re not looking to get a C+ in quarantine. We’re not going to be like the videos of Canada.” Canada, in spite of several attempted military interventions, still refused to quarantine to American standards. Protect your country, observe the quarantine. Carlos paused for a breath, and then continued. “After all, we make hand sanitizers. We must be above reproach.” Everyone nodded their half-hearted agreement. ‘Above reproach’ was one of Carlos’s catch-phrases. “And Petra… Well, she didn’t say anything about what personal disciplines she kept to avoid the spread of infection. She didn’t say how she would help contribute to our economy. She didn’t –”
Christy’s panic and helplessness slowly converted to anger. Would she ever be free of Carlos’s suffocating perspectives? It used to just be during their work shifts, but now not one part of her life was safe. Something would need to be done, she thought, in a boil gradually bubbling beneath the lid of her anxiety.
“Our economy?” Joe interrupted. “We have six people! And she said she had an online job, that she would pay her share of the rent. And that she was a good cook. I didn’t ask her for more details, so maybe she has more ideas she just didn’t mention. I think –”
“Yes,” Carlos said, his voice now ice-cold. “She said she wanted to share with us new, fun recipes. Recipes that, for all we know, involve endangering us all by going to multiple grocery stores in a single trip. Recipes with expensive ingredients –”
Christy’s anger finally burst through the lid, and she yelled, “Carlos!”
Joe and Carlos froze mid-argument, their gestures stuck like a video on pause, and the rest of the council gaped at Christy. In all the time they had known her, she had never raised her voice in anger before. In excitement, perhaps, or enthusiasm, but never in anger.
And indeed, in the light of their stares, Christy recovered her normal affect, and smiled, speaking as sweetly as she could, but with a hint of bitterness that her fellow Members weren’t used to. She decided to focus on one particular point. “We all are very duly grateful that you got us into the hand sanitizing business. But that means we should be less worried about money now, not more, right?”
Kevin agreed. “Wouldn’t you enjoy some” … wave, wave, words loading, inhale … “more new tastes?”
Carlos shook his head, as if only he understood the true severity of the situation. “That’s not the only example.” And at that, Carlos started tapping at his phone in his hand, jerking the video back in 15 second jumps. The out of context freeze frames, alternating between Petra’s elegant, nuanced body language and Joe’s extravagant gestures, formed a bizarre dance.
The others held in their intense emotions in patient but active silence. Christy clenched her fists in an effort to keep herself from crying or yelling – she wasn’t sure which.
Finally, Carlos seemed to have found the correct spot in the video. Joe had just asked “What is an ethical dilemma that you have faced?” Petra had said, “So, this one time I was at this party, and this girl was drunk…”
Carlos paused the video again, and looked out over the group. “Was I the only one who heard that?”
Everyone looked at each other, slightly uncomfortable. Finally Leila spoke up, saying what everyone else had been thinking. “She clearly means like a video chat or VR party.” Leila paused, and then continued, audibly affronted. “You’re not actually suggesting –”
“Christy,” said Carlos. “Has she ever taken you to a VR or video chat party?”
Christy paused. Petra hadn’t.
Well, that wasn’t entirely true. She had, but mostly with Petra’s own family or one of her close friends from her family’s group. Certainly not the “meet a lot of people” type of party, not something that you would call a party – loaded and edgy as that word was – even metaphorically.
So the question still stood. Did Petra have a past? Did Petra used to be a partier?
Christy would have to discuss this with Petra. But, she told herself decisively, it didn’t matter. The Petra she knew would never do something so irresponsible, and the past was in the past. Perhaps it had been a real party, and Petra was being forthright in bringing it up. She had also promised not to violate the group’s safety. If she really was being irresponsible, still, today, would she speak so openly about it?
In the midst of these thoughts, Christy remembered that she still had to speak, even though right then she’d rather not exist. She took a deep breath, hoping to inhale some courage along with the air. “I’m honestly quite hurt that we’ve come this far. Joe and Kevin, you have each other. Carlos, you have Jillian.” Jillian smiled coolly and waved from her seat. “I have been dating this girl online for three months now, and you know I have never met her in person. And now she’s giving up her whole life, her ability to see her parents every day, to talk to them in person, to live with me. I thought I lived in a place that wanted me to have a partner, to be happy!”
Kevin, now wearing an overwrought but sincere frown, sympathetically patted Christy on the back. “Come now. Carlos is just trying to do due diligence. He’s not actually going to veto her. We’re just maybe going to have to do another round of interviews. I know it’s annoying, but we’ll get her here, I promise.”
Carlos looked sternly at Kevin. “Don’t trivialize this! Everyone has a right to be comfortable with the people they’re quarantined with, the people we spend all our time with, the people who we trust not to get us sick. If I don’t feel comfortable with her –”
Joe interrupted. “Carlos, if I’d known you were looking for more detail about how she’d contribute economically, I would have asked her more relevant questions. And I’m sure Leila’s right about the party. Perhaps we should just do another round –”
“She could have brought it up!” Carlos said, measuredly but twice as loud as Joe. “She could’ve explained when she realized what it sounded like she was saying! Our goal isn’t to bring her on board and lie to ourselves that she’s a good fit. If I were Leader of this group, performing these interviews, I wouldn’t prompt her to say the words to check a box, that’s not how this works.”
Kevin gasped in slow motion. Even Jillian blinked. Everyone had always been able to hear Carlos thinking about how much he wanted to be Leader; it was an extremely loud thought. But this was the closest Carlos had ever come to actually saying it. And certainly the other Members could see the logic, and no one could argue that he hadn’t earned it, or didn’t deserve it, on some level. But on a level no one was really able to articulate, no one really supported the idea either, and up to this moment, Carlos had simply been biding his time as it gradually seemed more and more inevitable.
But no one said anything, so Carlos continued. “And I think I miscommunicated earlier. It’s not just what Petra did or didn’t say that bothers me. Maybe she just used to go to a lot of VR parties. That probably is what she meant. But that’s not what is really bugging me. That, we could do follow-up research on. That, I’d do another interview for.
“But her personality test – her personality test showed that she’s an extreme extrovert. I know those types! They stretch every law and regulation to go outside and meet strangers as much as possible. They go grocery shopping just to talk to other people. They are responsible for so much contagion.”
Christy hadn’t reviewed the personality tests and so she had never learned this, but she didn’t think much of it. She could see how someone could confuse Petra for an extreme extrovert; perhaps this was a testing glitch.
“Hey, I tested as an extreme extrovert!” said Joe. “Are you going to accuse me of endangering all of us?”
Too much was happening for Christy. Her girlfriend was potentially vetoed; Carlos was making an active bid for the Leadership; and now Joe, her friend, or rather, the older brother her birth family lacked, had actually been an extrovert this whole time? Along with Petra? The test was thoroughly broken. Or maybe the word just didn’t mean what she thought it did. In any case, nothing Petra had in common with Joe could possibly be held against her, no matter how bad it sounded.
Carlos echoed Christy’s thoughts. “I’m not saying the test is 100% –”
“But I am an extrovert. Being an extrovert is not a bad thing!”
A few seconds of stunned silence passed.
Finally, Leila’s voice cut through from the speaker. “Carlos! What on earth is wrong with you? Why are you putting Christy through this?”
Carlos looked towards the speaker, then the screen, a little flustered. He started to say, “I…” and then paused.
Leila seemed to take this pause as a moral concession. “You want to veto Petra, and make an ass out of yourself as you do it? Fine. I can’t stop you. But I can leave this group. Christy and Petra and I can start a new one. I have my own apartment already, and I have savings, you know. You think you’re so special and so important just because you started a business and –”
“I will not,” yelled Joe, “I will not see this group, that I spent years bringing together, fall apart like this! We are a family, people. And Christy does deserve happiness. And Carlos, Carlos does deserve recognition for his activities; we’d all be bankrupt if it weren’t for him. Leila, you only have savings because of him. You know that.”
Christy knew that Leila didn’t see it that way. After all, as Leila had told her many times, though never in Carlos’s hearing, they all contributed to the business. Carlos just contributed differently. But Christy saw what Joe was trying to do, and waited quietly, realizing it might be her only chance at Petra moving in, and thus at happiness.
Joe took a moment to catch his breath, and then continued. “So I’d like to propose a compromise. We vote Petra in, and we vote, in the same vote, to make Carlos the official Deputy Leader. Next time, Carlos,” he said, looking over at him, “you and I design the interview process together, and we work to build a fairer process. We also try extra hard, in the future, to make a policy that favors romantic partners of existing members, and has clear criteria for acceptance. Does that sound good to you, Carlos?”
Carlos paused for a moment, and then nodded. “Yes, that sounds perfect.” And everyone could hear the simultaneous thought: “Only Deputy Leader?”
Christy felt her chest relax as all the tension escaped, creating an embarrassingly audible, vocalized sigh.
“Alright,” said Joe, “everyone in favor of making Carlos Deputy Leader and taking Petra on in our group, please say ‘aye.’”
“Aye,” said everyone in the group.
“And any opposed, say no?” Joe continued. No one said anything.
“Well,” Joe continued, “the ayes have it. Congratulations, Christy! I look forward to meeting Petra in real life.”