My father is a devote Buddhist, and my mother is more of an agnostic spiritualist, and though they have very different ideas about the nature of God, they got together because of their shared beliefs about economics. Mainly the belief that capitalism leads to the inevitable suffering of the majority. Ever since they married twenty years ago, they’ve known that they would eventually leave the planet to settle on a colony world with a different economic system. I’ve known it too.
Since the day I was born, my parents have been trying to prepare me for the idea that our future was not in the overcrowded apartment block in Queens where we’d lived all my life. They told me grand tales of green valleys dotted with low flying clouds and blue forests where the folk got around by riding gigantic flying squirrels. My childhood storybooks were filled with fantastic dreamlike realities that contrasted sharply with the bleak urban reality we faced every day. In the days when my parents were young children, stories about riding dragons or living on an ocean world underneath multicolored water would have been considered mere fantasy, but today, those are simply options available to the masses. Places one can choose to emigrate to on one of the thousands of new colony worlds open to humanity. My parents never shut up about how lucky I am to have been born in the 22nd century.
But despite all those wonderful possibilities, I was hoping that we’d get off the immigration waiting list in a few more years. After my eighteenth birthday, I would be legally able to choose whether I’d go with them. As it happened, though, our notification came three days before my fifteenth birthday, and I knew before even trying that convincing my parents to leave me behind with one of my grandparents would be impossible. I didn’t even try.
What I did try to do, was to get them to adopt my boyfriend. Unsuccessfully.
I tried my mother first. I confronted her in our cramped kitchen unit while we were washing up the dishes, “Emin and I will do all the homesteading stuff. You and Dad can go off visiting all the monasteries. He’s been studying how to grow crops online, and every time I’ve been to one of these informational sessions for the colony council, I’ve shared the info with him. He’s up to date! Plus, he worked as a carriage driver for that one summer, so he knows how to handle horses-“
Mother cut me off, “-Hester stop. I don’t want to hear it. You know the problem isn’t that he wouldn’t be useful.” She sighed and folded the cabinetry back to get our cramped one-room apartment ready for our evening activities. I helped her by letting down one of the three folding tables that served as our desks. I took great care not to annoy her by accidentally bumping into her. A hard feat in only 600 square meters. Father had gone out to pick up dessert down the street. He’d be back in a few minutes.
“I know what the main problem is, but that’s what Papa thinks, not what you think. You just want to make sure that we’ll be set up when we get there,” I chimed in. “And to be honest Ma, I totally agree with you. Dad is just thinking about all the fun stuff we’re going to have time for. But you know that even in a non-capitalist society, there are those who can contribute and those who cannot.”
She sat down at the far desk and started setting her tablets and screens up for her evening study session, even adults had to pass certain exams to qualify for a colony mission. Her studying mostly consisted of medical stuff since she was a nurse. Every planet had different dangers, different diseases, and different ways to die accidentally. She had to be ready to handle them. In most colony worlds, doctors were scarce, ours was no exception.
“Emin doesn’t have any vital skills to contribute. By the time we leave, he’ll be eighteen years old. Too old to apprentice for any medical, administrative, diplomatic, cultural, or engineering posts. He wants to leave with us because he thinks he’ll have an easier life, but without any previous education or the desire to get more, he’ll be doing the same things there that he’ll be doing here. Shoveling manure in a greenhouse in the Bronx, and shoveling manure in a field on Tusita will be equally unfulfilling.”
I pursed my lips at this but quickly relaxed them. Showing my temper to her would not serve my purpose.
“He wants to come with us because he loves me,” I said for the thousandth time.
“You are both very young. I know you think that he does, but Hester, the boy doesn’t want to marry you.” Another repeated argument. This was not going in the direction I wanted.
“He will want to, eventually. It’s a big step, Ma. Just because you and Papa did it early, doesn’t mean everyone has to.”
“Marriage is a bigger step than taking a one-way trip to another planet? A bigger step than never seeing his friends and family here ever again? I don’t want to talk about this anymore.” She turned her attention towards the screens in front of her, “get your desk set up, Hester. Papa will be cross if he sees you neglecting your language homework again.”
I could see it happening as she sat at the desk. I could see the future laid out, just like in one of those storybooks my parents had read to me as a young child. ‘My Life in Tusita’ and a nice painted image of the three of us against a backdrop of expansive green hills and giant peaks in the distance. Page one, Hester leaves her boyfriend behind. Before tears could well in my eyes, I turned around in the cramped space and grabbed my coat.
“I changed my mind; I don’t want a red bean sundae. I’m going to meet Papa at the shop and change my order.”
As I left the apartment, I could hear my mother protesting about my unfinished units for diplomatic training, but I did not turn back. The door shut and I realized I forgot my key, but I knew she’d open the door for me when I came back.
It was cold outside, but these days the weather was either freezing or boiling. If I had to choose, I preferred cold. At least in that way, Tusita wouldn’t be so terrible. It might not have the beaches of New Goa, or the expansive oceans of Ursula, but at least the climate was mild if you weren’t hiking one of the 10,000-foot mountains. Emin liked the cold too. The uptown farm where he worked was always balmy and humid. It was underground and the heat lamps there made it summer all year round. Since he had dropped out of school last year, Emin had been working 10-hour shifts there, six days a week. It was the only way he could earn enough to rent in the city and still save money at the end of the month. I could only see him twice a month usually due to my school schedule and the irregular shifts that Emin had to do.
My father was sitting inside the plastic sheeting of a small neighborhood restaurant. There were only 4 stools in front of the counter, and I squeezed myself in beside him. He turned to me surprised and glanced around, “aap yahaan par kya kar rahe hain?/What are you doing here?”
He was speaking to me in Hindi to keep our conversation private from the shopkeeper who he knew only spoke Arabic, Japanese, and English. It was also probably to see if I was keeping up with my language homework, since Hindi, Mandarin, Spanish, and French were considered mandatory for all diplomatic apprentices. I answered him back politely but felt a little unsure whether I could really do this talk with him in Hindi.
“main aap se baat karana chaahata hoon/ I want to speak with you.”
“I was planning to come back in 5 minutes. What can’t wait?” His eyes racked my face suspiciously while glancing around us nervously. My father used to be a very nervous man.
“I do not want to go to Tusita without Emin. I want you to adopt him before he isn’t a minor anymore.” Being upfront with him was usually best in avoiding the flames of his temper. However, in this case, I did not know the proper word for ‘minor’ in Hindi, so I used the English word. That in combination with his name set off my father’s paranoia.
He pulled me outside, and continued the conversation in French, which had a proper French word for everything, “Pourquoi vous et cet imbécile ne pouvez-vous pas comprendre que ce que vous nous demandez n'est pas possible? / Why can't you and that fool understand that this thing you ask of us isn't possible?”
French was annoying grammatically, but I felt more comfortable with it than I did with Hindi, “Il n'y a pas de loi contre le mariage fraternel non lié au sang sur Tusita. / There is no law against non-blood-related sibling marriage on Tusita.”
“You wish your first act of adulthood on the colony world to be something so utterly taboo? People will ask questions, Hester. But even besides that, Emin is a hard worker, but he isn’t capable of being a good partner to a future diplomat. If you really wanted someone like him, you should have chosen to become a medic like your mother.”
“No tengo su aptitud para la ciencia. Heredé tus talentos, no los de ella. / I do not have her aptitude for science. I inherited your talents, not hers,” I answered him in Spanish for emphasis.
He grabbed my arm in response and snapped at me in English, “what are you thinking? The entire neighborhood can understand that! Get back to the house. I’ll speak with you later.”
I looked back at the other end of the street where home was and saw another page in the book materializing, Hester fails to convince her parents to take her love with them to Tusita. Complete with a picture of Emin watching the shuttle take off. Instead of following my father's command, I ran off in the opposite direction towards the subway. If I was quick, I could catch the 7 train before my father could follow. Thankfully though, he did not follow me, he just shouted curses at me in his native Nepali. As if they were breadcrumbs that would guide me back.
I exited the subway at Pelham Bay Park after transferring to the 4 train. Even at 10:30 PM on a Tuesday, the subway was fully packed. No amount of creative work shift scheduling could comfortably accommodate a population of 30 million souls who needed to go to and from work, to and from social appointments, to and from their lives, and the drudgery that supported their lives. No one lived in this neighborhood anymore. The entire area had been cleared years ago during my grandmother’s youth to create the farms and the restricted access park. One was necessary to feed the burgeoning human race that the Earth could no longer support, and the other served as a reminder to those of us that could not compete well in the capitalist system that being ‘useful’ wasn’t enough. The only people with the right access to that pristine place were those that were brain surgeons AND stock market virtuosos, or perhaps they were just politicians. A humble child of proletariats like myself could only gawk at it through dirty and graffitied plexiglass.
I went to the tunnel that led to the underground farm and used the card Emin had given me to enter. The guard didn’t even notice I wasn’t wearing the right uniform. I descended the ramp to the level where they were growing wheat and spotted Emin alone in the fields, clipboard in hand. He was alone, and I bit my lip looking at him sweating in concentration as he inspected the plants.
Sneaking up beside him, I hid between the row, and called to him in Spanish, “mi amor, baja y prueba la suciedad conmigo.”
He jumped at the sound of my voice, but as I pulled off my coat and pulled down my skirt a little to give him some encouragement, he soon got over his fear and fell upon me with sweet ferocity. We were a tangle of tongue and skin and desire. We could not be close enough together and I writhed under him in exquisite longing. This physical aspect of our relationship was very new to us. It had all been chaste kisses and warm embraces until I’d learned that I was going to be dragged off-world in less than 9 months. If I was going to leave Earth forever, leave Emin forever, the very least I wanted was a memory of being with him.
But just as I went to remove the barrier of our lower clothing between us, his hand flew to my wrist and he growled out, “no hagas eso, no podemos.”
We sat up at that, the spell of our lust broken, and I pulled my clothes back into place.
“Did you convince them?” He asked me in English.
“No,” I answered dejectedly, “my mother still thinks we should get married.”
“But if we do that, there’s a chance they could reject me. Tusita doesn’t need another farmer,” he sounded aggravated.
“The chance of rejection is slim. Even slimmer if I were pregnant,” the words slip out of me before I can stop them, and Emin stares at me surprised… in a bad way.
“Is that what you were trying to do just now? You want to be pregnant?”
“No, Emin. That wasn’t it. It’s just… if we were married and I were pregnant, they could not deny you a berth on the ship.” I lifted my hand to his shoulder.
He pulled away from my touch, “Hester, you are 15 years old. We are not ready to be parents, and I don’t want to contribute to the problem like that. My sisters had my nephews in high school for the sole purpose of getting public housing. I do not want to be like them.”
“The population of Tusita isn’t even at a million people. There are plenty of land and housing pods to go around,” I counter.
“I won’t use human beings… my own children… for such purposes,” he spat out at me, “you don’t understand. You have two parents and lots of skills that make you useful to society. Bolsas de carne like me only get things when it looks ‘cruel’ to deny them- not because they earned it, not because they deserved it. As your husband, I’d only be the farmer on your arm that married you to get a free ticket off the planet.”
And then I knew I’d hit a nerve. He wanted to leave with me because he wanted freedom. What I was suggesting was more chains. I was asking him to wear the chains of parenthood before he wanted them.
“I’m sorry, mi amor, my parents won’t adopt you. I can’t help what I am, and I cannot help what others would think. Marriage is the only way we can be together on Tusita,” and with that, I knew what the next page of my storybook would read.
Emin stood and gave an excuse for why their relationship was doomed. He told Hester he wanted to stay on Earth, and that he was sorry it had to be like this. He wanted her to be free to marry someone else on Tusita and have as many children as she pleased.
It happed just the way I predicted. Arrivederci, il mio primo amore. My Italian was terrible, but in my sadness, it seemed the only tongue worth speaking. I could not stop the tears running down my face in the sardine-packed 4 train nor on the slightly emptier midnight 7. The water that froze to my skin seemed to sing to me in half comprehensible operatic Italian love poems about loss and misery.
So, when I knocked on the door of the rat hole I’d be leaving in a few short months, and my father opened it, I shamelessly fell into his arms. I spoke of my heartbreak to my father in Italian. Knowing that my mother could not respond in that language to tell me that she was right. To tell me that Emin was not suitable for me. My father listened but did not comment until I had finished and ranted for some time afterward about how it just wasn’t fair. I ended my monologue with, “Non ho futuro adesso./ I have no future now.”
When he did respond to me, he used his native Nepali, which allowed my mother a way into the conversation. I sat in her lap like a child, and she stroked my hair while we listened to my father speak.
“You have a bright future ahead of you. You will be one of the voices of Tusita. I know it doesn’t seem like it now, but this distant memory of first love will fade. It will teach you to know yourself and what it is that you want.”
As he spoke, I imagined the last page of my book come to life before me, complete with an illustration of the three of us looking out the starship window at Tusita, where we would be reborn into new lives far from this crowded city and this crowded planet. I would live my life on a world named for the fourth realm of heaven without Emin. And eventually, I’d be okay with that.