Time is a Twisting Snake
"Tragedy is just comedy without the laughs." Sidney, a bad old sugar daddy of my long ago youth used to say. I think of those words often.
This story starts on one of those days in late spring when the sun dances on small waves and a breeze blows in off the Atlantic. Even the air in the Big Arena, as they call New York, feels fresh and almost natural on the day of the city’s annual marriage to the Atlantic.
If I believed in any of the usual gods I’d take it as a sign of divine approval that the joining together of legendary city and mighty ocean should occur on what would prove to be the most perfect of days in May.
Establishing a tradition is hard. It took Venice a few centuries to attain the full grandeur of its yearly marriage to the Adriatic. The Big Arena hasn’t been in the business of living in the arms of the ocean for nearly as long.
We’ve been playing this marriage game for less than a decade here in the late twenty-first century. And bad weather has produced scanty attendance a few times.
But today, last year’s hurricanes and images of Staten Island half-submerged are behind us. With the heat blast of summer yet to come, crowds in party clothes jam the high Sea Walls at the Battery.
We don’t yet have a proper Bucintoro, that floating gold throne room on which the Doges of Venice sailed forth each year onto the Adriatic Sea. I stand on the deck of a garishly painted barge loaded with flowers and towed by a fireboat. The regatta accompanying us includes everything from sailboats to ferries and is larger than it’s ever been before.
In a silver cape and a fake bishop’s miter I raise my arms with my palms open and pick up images. Then I turn 360 degrees, and send those pictures of the blue waters, the blue skies, and the Statue of Liberty behind her sea gates to my wide net audience.
People often ask how, considering my habits and proclivities, I've managed to survive into old age. My secret is simple: I've never done an honest day's work. By honest work I mean the boring nonsense others make you do. Not stuff like today which is more than a bit fly and for which I’m being paid but which I might almost have done for free.
I roll the words out. "We have surmounted snow and winds, blazing heat and floods, to come to you oh majestic Atlantic. We ask only to be one with you!" On every side palms open in my direction and images and audio go out around the world.
I know it’s over the top. But I was one of the first to see this opportunity. I toss the wedding ring into the water as a chorus sings, music plays, the crowd cheers, and the ceremony ends. I’m towed back to Manhattan feeling tired and in need of rest now that the drama is over. And each minute the Bucintoro looks more and more like a freight barge.
On the Battery Sea Wall correspondents with their palms up approach me. Lydia Greenglass cuts in front of all the rest, sticks a palm in my face. "Do you really think that you’re the right person to represent this city in a marriage with the Atlantic?" she asks. "This is a major ocean. Lots of people wonder why we couldn’t find someone a bit more prepossessing to represent us."
This is well beyond friendly banter. Her face looks different these days, younger. Work has been done. Her whole posture has changed. She’s now taller than I am. Lydia and I go back a few years, and relations have always been more or less harmonious. I try to treat this as a joke. "My body is a temple, Ms. Greengrass," I tell her. "Even if it's a temple that’s been sacked and defiled by barbarian invaders." I have a public that finds my repartee amusing.
Or at least I did.
She looks at me with real disdain, holds up her palms so her audience sees me up close. This is not a game. It’s a challenge.
We each have our following plugged into us. Mine, I am aware, is older, subject to attrition. Over the last few decades of hosting on the worldwide net, I’ve learned to judge an audience’s size, the ebb and flow of brief visitors and long time fans. I start to feel slippage, New Yorkers deserting my network presence.
"My body may not look like much at this point, Ms. Greenhell," I say. "But over the years, thank God, I’ve proven to be very hard to kill."
The crowd around we two jostles for position. I know this city well enough to understand that the Marriage is already ancient history. All palms face both of us as that part of the world that thrives on confrontation, watches.
"Anyone," Lydia says, "who went to the bother of relieving us of the wreckage you describe as a body should be regarded as a public benefactor."
Around us people gasp, people laugh. I imagine they’re doing so all over The Big Arena. In my own defense I will say I’m tired and taken by surprise. That’s an explanation but not an excuse.
A smile like a thin knife appears on Lydia’s newly sculpted face. She strokes her smooth, tanned arms and bounces on red tennis shoes—the kind with springs and ball bearings that kids wear. She turns and walks away taking most of the onlookers with her.
Lydia is younger than I but only by a decade or so. What I just saw, I realize, is the phenomenon they call an Addition. This means that everything but Lydia’s brain started out as another human being, a young one. She has had work done to make her host’s face look more like hers used to. The common understanding is that an Addition’s brain and body are a team.
Poloni is her body’s name. She still calls it that. When they were united this winter, she told her friends, and I heard it from them and forgot. She described how young Poloni from somewhere in in New Jersey sold her body so her family wouldn’t starve. Her desire, Lydia said, was to make Poloni’s features as beautiful as her soul.
I catch sight of Lydia Greenglass on the net. She’s being interviewed and shaking her head—formerly Poloni’s head—in wonder at her enormous good fortune in acquiring the body that she believed had, from its birth, been intended by God to be hers.
What bothers me most is that she wouldn’t have attacked like that if she hadn’t been sure that opinion was on her side. And I wonder if my time is over. My popularity is what brings me gigs like the one this afternoon. It’s where my income comes from, where my life comes from.
Dragging myself home all I can think of is that it’s over for me. I turn off the net, those incessant voices in my head, those images on my palms. I live in the old, low-rise corner of Manhattan full of life and illegal activity. But I’m too old and done to take part in any of it this evening. I climb the stairs and fall face first on the bed.
I awaken in the middle of the night from a dozing dream in which I have a prehensile tail and am quite smug about this somehow.
I sleep again and dream again. I’m a shark; ever vigilant, never resting. Fins guide me through dark waters. That morning I wake up amid scattered fragments of images and lost words whispered into my subconscious.
Out of habit I flick on the net and say, "More dreaming than I’ve done in years. The old don’t need as many dreams as the young." And voices rush in to agree and contradict and tell me I’m not old and that Lydia is a monster. Few of them sound young.
I make tea and toast and evaluate my holdings. What I own besides a nice enough apartment, is my public persona. I’m the old New York from back before hurricanes flooded the subways and the sea walls went up.
My voice was hoarse before its time. I sounded nice as a kid. I could sing. The current voice is that of the old wise-ass city, the voice of the guy with the racing form at the diner counter, the voice of the Groucho Marx inside each of us, a lost New York voice. I get dressed and go outside.
My apartment is in an old building in the ancient low-rise Village. Skyscrapers with their conveniences and amazing views look down on us. But being forty stories up when the power goes out and the elevators stop is to be trapped in a gilded cage.
I live close to the sea walls that ring Manhattan island. Young people play racquetball against them. Visitors sit outside cafés. Guides lead tourists through the old streets, babbling nonsense about past times. They bring them up rope ladders and over the walls—totally illegal but perfectly normal.
Down the outside of the wall they’ll go and into motorboats on the Hudson that will take them through the wetlands, the houses on stilts in Queens and on the Jersey shore, whole elevated towns devoted to pleasure. It’s how The Big Arena supports itself.
A police car rolls by and a cop nods at me. Someone across the street waves my way. And I have a palm up, showing this sunny morning. I’m at work as I walk, taking it all in, looking for an angle I can slide through.
I pass close to the sea wall where tourists look through windows onto the lordly but treacherous Hudson. I walk further and it’s young people, locals maybe, playing racquetball against the wall. It seems like there are more kids around here than I’ve seen since I was one and fresh in the city.
Something feels familiar. I stand still, look closely at the players and notice the active bodies and old lizard eyes. A good number of these are Additions. It reminds me of Lydia and I start to move away.
But as I do, one lithe young lady catches a rebound, looks my way, and nods. She’s a stranger. Or so I think until I find something familiar, the shadow of someone I remember in her eyes. It takes a few moments, but I recognize an old boon companion, a bit more than a friend if less than a dream lover, in days gone by.
"Mark?" I say and wait for this particular Addition to call time, motion a replacement into the game, and then to walk over and hug me. I’m a little reluctant, and Mark is a little amused.
We sit down at an outdoor café and exchange recent histories. "Mine’s pretty simple," I tell him. "I’m doing about the same things I was when you left for other parts. Except I’m older and more tired. But you…" I want to ask where he’s been and how he’s come to be what he is.
The face, young and dark, smiles at me. It’s not the face I knew. Except the eyes, which are brown not blue, but somehow are his.
He tells me how he’s traveled the world looking for a place that seemed able to adapt to the changes happening to this earth. "Matilda and I met in Brazil, and I convinced her that aside from the initial cost of the operation, two could live as cheaply as one," he said.
And I have a feeling there’s a lot more to this story.
We drink quite a bit of wine that long afternoon.
"Mostly I call myself Mark/Matilda because she’s so much of who I am." The voice is a warm purr. "I saw your wedding yesterday."
"And all that followed?"
"You were flummoxed, and I was surprised. The man I remember wouldn’t have let her pull that shit. I don’t like the way she presents herself and I didn’t like the way she treated you. But I had a feeling it was her transformation that got you rattled. And that surprised me. I think this would have fascinated the man I once knew."
"I’m old," I tell him. Mark/Matilda smiles, and I remember that this exotic person isn’t that much younger than me. We talk about ourselves, and I find myself telling him my dreams: the prehensile tail, the shark swimming.
"We grow or we die is what the dreams tell you," he says. "And you don’t want to die. The city needs you. We all do."
When you get old, you’re seduced so rarely that it’s not immediately recognizable when it happens.
"I remember," Mark/Matilda says, "How, decades ago, a certain citizen could get on the net—back in ancient times when most of us still weren’t internally wired. It was like the streets, the curbstones themselves were talking, obscene, gritty, and brutally funny. The voice talked us through The Fresh Water Riots and that awful winter New York had two mayors at the same time and their supporters fought in the streets.
"The cops remember," the one turning me said. "I saw them salute you this morning. What are you going to say when people want you to lead, ‘I’m sorry but I’ve got an appointment to die of old age?' There’s a way for you to live."
I look at the young people and suddenly can easily spot the Additions among them. Maybe soon it will be everyone in the Big Arena. Except me.
I ask what it’s like to go through the process and Mark/Matilda tells me, "There are lots of moments like the one when you wake up a tiny bit and are aware of the one you love sleeping beside you. Except it’s closer than that."
"There’s no fool like an old fool." Sidney, my sugar daddy used to say in the long gone days when one took pride in one’s perversity.
It is my belief that if you have never done in old age something that would shock your younger self, you are in many senses of the word, already dead.
For this year’s marriage of the Big Arena and the Atlantic we still don’t have a perfect Venetian Bucintoro. But we’re a bit closer to it. The current barge is two stories tall; the gold is edged with scarlet, and spring flowers hang like sails on the jury-rigged masts.
This year’s aspiring Bucintoro features a display of the city’s current beauties. Some are simply themselves. That is to say we boast a fine bevy of "Standalones" as those without an added life are currently called.
But it’s the Additions, including myself and Torraro, (one always mentions one’s body) who capture the net’s attention. Mark/Matilda is among the most prominent. Also present is Lydia/Poloni. Once I joined the ranks of the Additions, Mark went out of his way to reconcile Lydia and myself. And she does seem a bit more subdued.
Being close to her means I am learning the ways of my adopted people. For instance, she and her friends are currently both upset and made envious by rumors of a new breed of Additions. The very old and very wealthy in China are now supposedly uniting with young people who are genetically manipulated to develop powerful sets of lungs. This new model can function under water for extended periods of time.
Frankly, I don’t see the point of this. And I’m much too occupied with getting used to having Torraro’s body to want anything more complicated.
Unlike Mark/Matilda’s description, life with him is not a case of awakening with the realization I’m with someone I love. Mostly it’s shock at feeling my young body bounce out of the bed and land on my strong feet each morning after barely a hint from my brain.
People say, "It's awful when you get old and can't remember your own name." NONSENSE in the last year forgetting who I was, amid the transplant operations, the endless physical therapy afterwards, allowed me a sense of removal, the ability to be a bystander and not an accomplice.
It meant not having to wonder about the source of the seemingly endless line of young people willing to have their bodies placed under the command of important, connected, or wealthy old people.
I, for instance, got paid to have the operation because Mark/Matilda felt I’d be worth having. And being old and confused permitted me not to wonder or worry too much about the payback. Except that sometimes at night when I’m alone I do.
I don’t say WE because despite what I was told, I never once have felt a trace of Torraro. When I hinted at this to Mark/Matilda, the answer was a slight shrug as they stepped away from the conversation and me.
For someone who has led a long life that hasn’t been entirely straightforward, the Additions evoke a certain déjà vu. They combine memories of old fashioned scams with the dark nostalgia of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers.’
Forgetting things, which I happily do, allows me to stride up and down the deck of this over-decorated barge, shaking hands and smiling. On this fine day in May I’m the Additions’ most recent trophy.
This would be fine except for the lurking suspicion that I’m enmeshed in something stranger and stronger than I want to know. I wonder if Torraro, Matilda, Poloni, and the rest are, in fact, the names of those whose bodies we wear and if anyone remembers what happened to those kids.
"Time is a twisting snake always ready to turn around and bite you," was something else Sidney the sugar daddy often said.
Richard Bowes has published six novels, four story collections and over seventy short stories. He has won two World Fantasies, a Lambda, Million Writers and IHG awards. His most recent novel, Dust Devil on a Quiet Street was on the 2014 World Fantasy and Lambda Awards short lists.
Recent and forthcoming appearances include: Datlow’s The Doll Collection, XIII (Resurrection House), Uncanny, Tor.com. Best Gay Stories 2014,The Revelator, The Time Traveller’s Almanac, Handsome Devil, Mammoth Book of Gaslit Romance.