On Closets and Straight Gazes – Bill Konigsberg’s [Openly Straight]

Front cover of Bill Konigsberg's Openly Straight

Front cover of Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight (2013)

I was thinking about how snakes shed their skin every year, and how awesome it would be if people did that too. In a lot of ways, that’s what I was trying to do.

As of tomorrow, I was going to have new skin, and that skin could look like anything, would feel different than anything I knew yet. And that made me feel a little bit like I was about to be born. Again.

But hopefully not Born Again.

-Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight (p. 4)

Bill Konigsberg’s delightful and heartwarming novel, Openly Straight, pushes readers to question the possibilities that “shedding one’s skin” offers, and the consequences that arise when reinvention threatens our sense of self. The novel is narrated by Seamus Rafael Goldberg (who usually goes by Rafe), a high school student from Colorado who transfers to Natick–an elite, all-boys school in the New England area. Although Rafe is openly gay, he decides to conceal his homosexuality while attending Natick to live a life free of labels, and to explore the possibilities of living a life unhindered by the so-called burdens of queerness.

Rafe, at first, claims that “The closet is when you say you’re not gay” (132). Problematically, he views the closet as a singular and individualistic space created by self-denial–and he fails to recognize that the act of being “out” relies on the obliteration of the many closets that appear and re-appear in our everyday lives. As pointed out by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Epistemology of the Closet

every encounter with a new classfull of students, to say nothing of a new boss, social worker, loan officer, landlord, doctor, erects new closets whose fraught and characteristic laws of optics and physics exact from at least gay people new surveys, new calculations, new draughts and requisitions of secrecy or disclosure. Even an out gay person deals daily with interlocutors about whom she doesn’t know whether they know or not. (68)

Rafe’s initial failure stems from his inability to understand that stepping out of the closet is not a one-step process, for it comprises an act of revelation and disclosure each time a new closet is erected in one’s life. I was impressed with how Konigsberg manages to invoke Sedgwick’s ideas of closetedness, especially as they are experienced by contemporary youths. Given that the novel takes place in a time where homosexuality is becoming more and more acceptable by mainstream society, I was delighted that Openly Straight explores the nuances and effects of closetedness in our brave new world. As evidenced by the novel’s protagonist, closetedness can still haunt even those who are out, open, and accepted.

Rafe is born into a family that readily and openly embraces his gay identity. However, Rafe is unable to appreciate his privilege because he deems that his homosexuality eclipses the other identities that he can embody–to the point where all he is able to see when looking in the mirror is the gay subject he is expected to perform, rather than the self:

Where had Rafe gone? Where was I? The image I saw was so two-dimensional that I couldn’t recognize myself in it. I was invisible in the mirror as I was in the headline the Boulder Daily Camera had run a month earlier: Gay High School Student Speaks Out. (3)

Rafe realizes that decision to hide his homosexuality and to pass as straight do come with certain perks. He is quickly accepted by the jocks at his new school, he is able to shower with his soccer team without worrying about the repercussions of the “straight gaze,” and traits other than his queerness are recognized. His ability to keep his self-imposed secret, however, is thwarted as he grows closer to Ben, a fellow jock and philosophy enthusiast who studies at Natick. As Ben begins to show signs of fluid sexuality, and as the two boys grow closer, Rafe reflects on how the perks of his reinvention come with the cost of being able to love truly and openly.

My favorite aspect of the novel is the complex relationship between Rafe and Ben. This relationship makes you feel all the warmth that you expect in young adult novels, yet this warmth is accompanied by realistic depictions of frustration and heartache. This is unsurprising, since Rafe and Ben’s relationship is based on experimentation and sexual confusion, even though one of the two characters definitely isn’t confused. This complex relationship ultimately leads Ben and Rafe to reflect on the nature of love–how it is possible to love people in different ways, and how it is possible for different types of love to overlap. This reflection leads to my favorite passage in the novel, in which Ben contemplates his non-normative affinities with Rafe:

I guess I’d like to think of what we have as agapeA higher love. Something that transcends. Something not about sex or brotherhood but about two people truly connecting. (225)

One another note, Openly Straight, in its essence, is about gazes, and how they control how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. Rafe’s decision to go back into the closet is driven by the fact he is tired of being viewed as a queer object by his friends, family, and peers. Rafe’s views are not entirely unfounded–he is constantly asked by friends and teachers to give his input as a queer subject. His attitudes, beliefs, and actions are constantly being traced back to his homosexuality by other characters. Rafe, understandably, feels the weight of queerness on his shoulders–and this weight is unshakable.

Rafe, nevertheless, complains about the gaze that others fixate on him, without coming to grips with the ways he gazes at others. In one of the later chapters of the novel, Rafe finds himself scrutinizing one of his queer peers at a Gay/Straight Alliance meeting–remarking on everything from his peer’s clothes to his haircut. As Rafe’s eyes remain fixated on his peer, he remarks how this other boy could pass for a woman if he wanted to. When Rafe’s peer notices that he is staring, Rafe becomes self-conscious about his gazing. It is at this moment that Rafe realizes that he is guilty of performing the very act of “straight gazing” that drove him back into the closet in the first place:

I was staring at this effeminate kid, and judging my own masculinity, or lack thereof. And was I so different from everyone else? Who was to say that Mr. Meyers in Boulder was thinking about when he looked at me? How come I was assuming that his staring at me had anything to do with me? (306)

Gazing, according to Rafe, is not a fixation based on rejection, pity, or disgust, but rather, it is a discursive relationship between the self and an other. Thus, the gazer reflects on his or her own selfhood as contrasted to another person–which leads Rafe to deduce that he could “spend a little less time worrying about what people thought about [him], since they probably weren’t thinking about him at all” (307). In other words, Rafe realizes that the fault and blame lies in the eyes of the gazer and not on the person being gazed.

I love this novel. I have been reading queer YA fiction for years, and I must say that Openly Straight astounds me on many levels. It is a testament to how much queer YA literature has evolved over time, and it makes me feel very optimistic about the present and future of the genre. I foresee that young readers will be particularly drawn to the humor and cleverness of this work. I also admire the fact that this novel offers readers the opportunity to explore a compelling, funny, and heartfelt narrative that doesn’t shy away from the complexities of contemporary queerness.

Works Cited

Konigsberg, Bill. Openly Straight. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2013. Print.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. Print.

You can purchase a copy of Konigsberg’s novel by clicking here.

Connection Failed: An Analysis of Christopher Isherwood’s [A Single Man]

Front cover of Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man (1964)

Front cover of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man (1964)

Failure is found at the heart of many great works of fiction. It is a common motif used to spark an emotional connection, sympathy, and at times, anger. Failure is not only the heart of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man–is also the blood, the flesh, and the soul of this novel. Centered on a single day in the life of George Falconer–a gay professor from England who teaches literature at a University in Los Angeles–A Single Man traces the protagonist’s psyche as he tries to cope with the stagnant nature of living, and his inability to feel a sense of belonging or connection with those who surround him. Suffering from a chronic depression triggered by the death of his lover (Jim), George desperately struggles to find solace through unsuccessful attempts at forging meaningful interactions and relationships with other people.

The opening event of the novel focuses on George as he wakes up in the morning. Here, we are offered a very detailed and biological account of the processes that take place as a sleeping body is galvanized into a state of alertness. This opening scene creates a split between George’s body and George’s being–a motif that becomes quite prominent within the novel. Throughout the day the novel takes place, George undergoes experiences that separate his thoughts from the actions that his body partakes in–almost as if his body were engaging in auto-pilot mode, leaving the pilot of his consciousness free to do and think whatever he pleases. This auto-pilot mode is activated in many occasions:

  • When George drives to his university, his thoughts wander away as his body automatically drives to its destination: “And George, like a master who has entrusted the driving of a car to a servant, is now free to direct his attention elsewhere” (36).
  • When he teaches, he enters a mode where he begins to spew theory, facts, and jargon without being completely cognizant of what he is saying to his students.
  • When he drinks, he engages in reckless behavior, such as swimming in a rough sea during the night, even though his mind is aware of the dangers of doing so.

The novel’s tendency of splitting George’s mind away from his body fosters an effect in which the reader perceives him as a composition of many selves and not as a single individual–thus emphasizing the novel’s central characteristic of approach life, time, and space as fragmented phenomena. This fragmentation, while very postmodern in effect, serves to illustrate the sense of disconnection and the lack of wholeness that George feels towards his surroundings. Even when looking himself in the mirror, George is unable to see himself as an individualized unit:

Staring and staring into the mirror, it sees many faces within its face–the face of a child, the boy, the young man, the not-so-young man–all present still, preserved like fossils on superimposed layers, and, like fossils, dead. Their message to this live dying creature is: Look at us–we have died–what is there to be afraid of? (11)

While staring at his reflection, George sees the phantoms of his past lives–lives that he considers present but dead; relics of a life that he used to have but that is no longer present. George recognizes this fragmentation, and he struggles to defy it so that others perceive him as ‘the whole George they demand and are prepared to recognize” (11). George is characterized by being overly concerned about what other people think about him. When other characters are talking to him, George’s mind engages in a frantic interpretive mode in which he tries to determine what is going through the other speaker’s mind. However, the inability to know exactly what others are thinking of him leads George to think obsessively about the failure of language to convey ideas in an accurate or precise fashion. Language, therefore, is a contributing factor that adds to George’s notions on fragmentation and the lack of wholeness in his life.

George’s nationality and his sexuality are other elements that fuel his sense of self-fragmentation and his inability to fully connect with others. He constantly claims how his British identity converts him into an Other within academic and non-academic contexts. His sexuality pushes him to feel a desire that is nearly impossible to quench–thus forcing George to live vicariously through small interactions, touches, and brief exchanges that he has with other men. One of these moments takes place when he accompanies one of his students, Kenny, to a book store. Kenny offers to buy George a pencil sharpener, which causes George to blush “as if he has been offered a rose” (81). What is clear here is that George is a man who is starving for connection. He craves to feel part of whole, even if this connection with the whole is momentary. He makes it overtly clear that his nationality, his way of thinking, his sexuality, and even his age puts him in a position in which he is minority. This sense of dissatisfaction with not belonging to a majority leads him to deliver a “sermon” in class, in which he attacks people’s conceptions of minority communities:

A minority has its own kind of aggression. It absolutely dares the majority to attack it. It hates the majority–not without a cause, I grant you. It even hates the other minorities, because all minorities are in competition: each one proclaims that its sufferings are the worst and its wrongs are the blackest. And the more they all hate, the more they’re all persecuted, the nastier they become! Do you think it makes people nasty to be loved? You know it doesn’t! They why should it make them nice to be loathed? (72)

His passionate tirade against minority cultures is longer than the fragment I’ve included above, but I hope this passage emphasizes the degree of self-loathing and confusion that George feels towards himself for being unable to become part of a greater collective. He always has been and always will be a minority. His efforts to be part of something greater than the self always fail–even the connection that he had with Jim is severed with the latter dies in a tragic car accident. George even admits that he is living makes him part of a minority, while those who have joined the rank of the dead are part of a majority:

George is very far, right now, from sneering at any of these fellow creatures. They may be crude and mercenary and dull and low, but he is proud, is glad, is almost indecently gleeful to be able to stand up and be counted in their ranks–the ranks of that marvelous minority, The Living. They don’t know their luck, these people on the sidewalk, but George knows his–for a little while at least–because he is freshly returned from the icy presence of The Majority, which [his dying friend] is about to join. (103-4)

This passage is an eerie foreshadowing to the events that culminate the novel. As George is drunkenly walking towards his usual bar after leaving his friend’s house, he encounters Kenny alone at said bar. The two get really drunk, and they end up swimming together naked in the salty rough waves of the sea in the middle of the night. It is here that George feels a brief connection with Kenny that “transcends” the symbolic. Kenny returns home with George, leading into a scene that seems like an obvious exchange of flirtation between the two. However, despite the fact that George desires to sleep with Kenny, he ends up passing out, awakening alone in his bed–where he decides to masturbate as a way of compensating for his failure to connect with Kenny, sexually speaking.

As the novel comes to a close, George ends up in his bed once again. In a circuitous fashion, the novel ends with George’s mind disconnecting from his body, returning once again to the description of the biological processes that his body is going through as it begins to fall asleep. Unexpectedly, George dies of a heart attack during his sleep. George’s life is characterized not only by a failure to connect with others, but also by a failure to be part of a whole during his life. It’s thus heart-wrenching to realize that the only instance in which he becomes part of a majority is through his death.

This novel is simply beautiful, rich, and complex. There is much more than can be said about this novel, especially in terms of its approaches to time and temporality, especially when contrasting the importance of the past, the present, and the future. This is definitely a novel that I want to revisit once again after I’ve had time to process it a little more.

Comments? Questions? Suggestions? As always, please feel free to add to the conversation!

Work Cited

Isherwood, Christopher. A Single Man. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964. Print (Hardcover edition).

Tradition, Change, and Kinship in Sherman Alexie’s [The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian]

Front cover of Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007)

Front cover of Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007)

Few young adult novels manage to tackle deep and complex issues with as much heart and nuance as Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (henceforth PTI). Initially, PTI can be approached as an autobiographical coming-of-age (graphic) novel that centers on the growth and development of Arnold Spirit Jr., a fourteen-year-old cartoonist and student who is born and raised in the Spokane Indian Reservation located in the Washington state area. The novel, which is told from Arnold’s first-person perspective, immediately lets the reader know that he is not considered normal from racial, physical, or social standards. He discloses that he was born with a condition known as hydrocephalus (the accumulation of water in the brain), he grew forty-two teeth instead of the thirty-two that most adults have, and the brain damage originated by his condition causes him to have seizures and to have a near-sighted eye and a far-sighted eye. Besides his physical ailments, Arnold reveals that his family is not only very poor, but also that his father is an alcoholic and his mother is a recovering alcoholic. These conditions lead Arnold to prefer a solitary life away from other members of his tribe, usually because they approach him as “a retard” (4) or as different. Arnold spends most of his time reading books, drawing cartoons, and spending time with his hypermasculine and stubborn best friend, Rowdy.

The main tension of the novel is triggered when Arnold decides to transfer to Reardan High, a school populated exclusively by white, middle-to-upper-class students–making Arnold the only non-white student in the school. Arnold’s decision to leave the high school situated in his reservation is not only fueled by the fact that people are brutally violent towards him in the reservation (he literally fears his life when dwelling the reservation, and he is bashed by peers and adults alike), but also by a growing awareness of the stagnancy and immobility promoted by the reservation. Arnold is aware that nobody in his reservation has gone to college, and he is also aware of how social diseases such as alcoholism infect his environment to the extent that it kills people he holds dear, such as his grandmother and his sister. As he points out towards the end of the novel:

I cried because so many of my fellow tribal members were slowly killing themselves and I wanted them to live. I wanted them to get strong and get sober and get the hell out of the rez. It’s a weird thing. Reservations were meant to be prisons, you know? Indians were supposed to move into reservations and die. We were supposed to disappear. But somehow or another, Indians have forgotten that reservations were meant to be death camps. (217)

Leaving the reservation’s high school is seen as a betrayal by most of the Spokane residents. To make matters even more complicated, Arnold soon realizes that as the only Indian in Reardan High, he is seen by others as an outcast.

Image from page 63 of PTI, in which Arnold illustrates himself being verbally abused by his white peers at Reardan High.

Image from page 63 of PTI, in which Arnold illustrates himself being verbally abused by his white peers at Reardan High.

Arnold thus develops and grows in cultural borderlands–he isn’t white, and he isn’t Native American. However, Arnold’s choice to leave the reservation isn’t a matter of “arrogance” (217) as he later implies in the novel, but rather, it is a decision driven by the desire for a livable life. The notion of cultural forgetting becomes an important element in the novel, especially when focusing on the reservation as a space of death, alcoholism, and destruction. Arnold recognizes that the reservation does have some beautiful qualities, especially when it comes to the preservation of ancient customs and traditions. However, he comes to understand that this preservation and conservation comes with a price: immobility, death, and stagnancy.

Something I truly love and appreciate about this novel is the fact that it is in no way driven by binaristic forms of thinking. True, there are moments in which binaries are highlighted in PTI, particularly binaries of race, color, culture, and belief–but they are highlighted only to be obliterated at certain points of the narrative. Returning to the notion of mobility versus stagnancy and tradition versus innovation, Arnold doesn’t take a definite stance when it comes to these issues, and at times, he even seems to contradict himself when judging tradition and conservatism as positive or negative. He recognizes that immobility and tradition are sometimes self-sabotaging and at times irrational, but he also takes care to point out instances in which tradition seems to be even more enlightening and liberal when compared to contemporary and more “evolved” forms of thinking. This is particularly seen when Arnold describes his grandmother, who adhered to more traditional ideologies:

Now, in the old days, Indians used to be forgiving of any kind of eccentricity. In fact, weird people were often celebrated. Epileptics were often shamans because people just assumed that God gave seizure-visions to the lucky ones. Gay people were seen as magical, too. I mean, like in many cultures, men were viewed as warriors and women were viewed as caregivers. But gay people, being both male and female. were seen as both warriors and caregivers. Gay people could do anything. They were like Swiss Army knives! (155)

It is here that one of the root problems of Arnold’s society is exposed. He points out that with the advent of Christianity in the reservation, people grew to fear eccentricity and lost their ability to be tolerant. With this in mind, the tension of the novel is based not on the battle between tradition and change, but rather on the struggle between appreciating difference and eliminating difference. I think it would be too simplistic and naive to approach Arnold’s departure from his reservation as an act of assimilation or as a manifestation of a white-washing sentiment. I’d rather approach his departure as an effort to strive for difference, as an effort to live, and as an escape from complete assimilation. Furthermore, Arnold’s departure leads him to realize that he does not belong to one tribe, but to many: “I realized that, sure, I was a Spokane Indian. I belonged to that tribe. But I also belonged to the tribe of American immigrants. And to the tribe of basketball players. And to the tribe of bookworms. And to the tribe of cartoonists. . .” (217). Thus, rather than trying to adhere to notions of identity as a individualized entity, Arnold comes to understand, through his escape, that the self is pluralistic and multifaceted.

Besides a story of growth, development, and maturation, I would also classify PTI as a very unconventional love story. However, rather than focusing on love in romantic terms, the book focuses on the love that develops through the kinship between two boys. With this, I am specifically referring to the love between Arnold and Rowdy. This love is not romantic or sexual in any sense, but it is perhaps the most intense and problematic love expressed in the novel. Rowdy is one of the many people who views Arnold’s transfer to another school as a betrayal–and it ultimately leads Rowdy to develop an intense animosity towards Arnold and everything that his actions represent. This hatred leads Arnold to constantly reflect on his relationship with Rowdy, and the void that his absence represents in his life. Arnold’s relationship with Rowdy inspires and ignites the novel’s deepest reflections on notions such as gender, masculinity, and culture–and it also pushes Arnold to question unwritten social rules when it comes to boys crying or expressing any type of affection to each other.

Image on page 219 of PTI. The image shows Rowdy and Arnold jumping into turtle lake when they were in third grade. It is important to note that unlike many of Arnold's other illustrations, this drawing depicts a realism that differs greatly from the other "cartoonish" drawings that Arnold usually includes in his diary.

Image on page 219 of PTI, depicting Rowdy and Arnold jumping into turtle lake when they were in third grade. It is important to note that unlike many of Arnold’s other illustrations, this drawing depicts a realism that differs greatly from the other “cartoonish” drawings that Arnold usually includes in his diary.

Arnold’s relationship with Rowdy becomes an element that allows the protagonist to assess the limits of relationships, but even more so, it allows him to reconfigure his conceptions of notions such as kinship and family. Early on, Arnold confesses that Rowdy is the person that he feels closest to, and he questions whether it is acceptable to love some who is not connected to you through blood or DNA: “I think Rowdy might be the most important person in my life. Maybe more important than my family. Can your best friend be more important than your family? I think so” (24). When Arnold tells Rowdy that he is transferring to Reardan High, he is conflicted with the emotions that he feels because he doesn’t deem them to be culturally acceptable, especially when it comes to Rowdy, who tends to be very macho and very violent: “I wanted to tell him that he was my best friend and I loved him like crazy, but boys didn’t say such things to other boys, and nobody said such things to Rowdy” (48-49). As the novel unfolds, Arnold not only grows to understand the gender politics that reign in different cultures, but he also grows more comfortable with recognizing and validating his own feelings even when others fail to acknowledge them. Arnold’s recognition of the unwritten social rules of gender doesn’t stop him from admitting that he loves Rowdy, and more importantly, experience doesn’t stop Arnold from labeling his affection towards Rowdy as love. As he states in the last page of the novel: “I would always love Rowdy. And I would always miss him too. Just as I would always love and miss my grandmother, my big sister, and Eugene” (230).

In sum, Sherman Alexie’s The Asbolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a rich, heartfelt, and complex novel that I would definitely recommend to my colleagues and peers. I learned a lot about Native American culture from reading it, and it gave me yet another insight into the unique relationships that humans can develop with their cultures and with other people. I loved the clever incorporation of art into the novel (drawn by the talented Ellen Forney), and I appreciated how these drawings added interpretive nuance to the novel, rather than simply illustrating the novel’s events. Much like a graphic novel, the drawings in PTI contribute to its meaning just as much as words do.

You can purchase a copy of Alexie’s novel by clicking here.

Work Cited

Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2007. Print (hardcover edition).

On YA Fiction with Gay Latino Characters: Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Front cover of Benjamin Alire Sáenz's Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012)

Front cover of Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012)

Words were different when they lived inside of you.

– Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (p. 31)

A few years ago, I wrote a short essay that was published in the Changing Lives, Changing Minds blogs managed by UMass Dartmouth regarding the importance of young adult literature in my personal and professional life. In this small essay, I discuss that although gay YA fiction helped me to accept myself and to understand the nuances of sexuality and sexual orientation, I always felt a “rift” between my reality as a Latino man and the reality depicted in most gay coming-of-age novels, mostly because:

the representation of the coming out process within the literature is influenced by social, cultural, and racial factors, such that the depiction of the turbulent relationship between certain socio-cultural backgrounds and homosexuality seems to be overshadowed by the ostensibly progressive perspectives of gay males portrayed in novels with white middle- or upper-class protagonists.

Now, this is not to say that there was a total absence of gay YA novels with central Latino/a characters or protagonists. Alex Sanchez’s works, such as his heartwarming Rainbow Boys series and his politically charged novel The God Box have prominent gay Latino characters who happen to be well-rounded, and who are able to fall in love and find happiness (unlike other gay Latino characters in YA fiction, such as in the case of Nick Burd’s The Vast Fields of Ordinary, who are depicted as tortured souls unable to reconcile their personal desires with the demands of their culture). And while I’ll be the first to admit that Sanchez’s works were groundbreaking, I’ve pointed out previously that they are many times perceived as overly didactic, giving them an almost instruction manual-esque character–which is unsurprising given the fact that Sanchez obtained a master’s degree in guidance and counseling. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love Sanchez’s work. But I love it more for it’s emancipatory nature rather than its literariness.

Didactic is one of the last words that comes to mind when reading Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. I still can’t get over how beautiful and amazing this novel is (I know, beautiful and amazing are not “academic” judgments–but as the protagonist of this novel emphasizes, rules must be broken).  This novel is expertly crafted. The prose is simple, delicate, unpretentious, and poetic. The characters are complex, sympathetic, and real. Alire Sáenz plays whimsically with text and blank space, at times giving me the impression that I’m reading a poem rather than a novel. Finally, we have a young adult novel with a gay Latino protagonist that exudes literary merit while also keeping its soul accessible. This is the novel I wish I had in my hands as a teenager, but unless time machines are invented any time soon, I know that this is an impossibility. Alire Sáenz’s words found a way to dig deep inside of me, and as pointed out in the quote above, words mean different things when they dwell in you.

The novel centers on a fifteen year-old Mexican-American teenager named Angel Aristotle Mendoza (who is known as Ari by his family and peers) as he befriends fifteen year-old Dante Quintana, the Mexican-American son of an English professor and a therapist. Early on in this coming-of-age novel, which takes place from 1987-88, it is clear that both of these boys are very different in terms of their outlooks on life, due mostly to their different upbringings. Ari’s father is a Vietnam vet who rarely shares his thoughts of the war and who barely speaks at all, and his mother is a school teacher who maintains a strict yet playful relationship with Ari. Ari is constantly haunted by the fact that his brother, who is fifteen years older than him, was sent to jail when he was four years-old–and the family refuses to acknowledge the brother’s existence, even when Ari requests to know more about his sibling. Growing up with a distant father and family secrets results in Ari having difficulties to share his life openly with other people. Ari’s family contrasts significantly with Dante’s family, who refuse to keep secrets from each other, and who openly show affection. Dante is also an open book who shares his thoughts and emotions even when he is aware that they may offend or bother those who surround him. Despite these differences, they do share many common tastes–especially in terms of their love for language and the written word.

The development of the relationship between Ari and Dante is the crown jewel of this novel. The relationship between these two teens, who at first were friendless and  lonely, is quite intense. Their love for each other is first accentuated when Aristotle jumps in front of a car in order to save Dante’s life. Aristotle ends of breaking both legs and an arm in his effort to push Dante away from a speeding vehicle, and as he recovers in a hospital, the two boys begin to grow closer. As their relationship develops, we as readers observe how the two teens begin to deeply influence each other, and we also observe how their personalities and ideologies spark when coming into contact. I was drawn to specific moments in which Dante’s openness clashed with Ari’s reserved and conservative nature. An instance of this clashing can be seen in the following exchange between the two characters:

“I went swimming today,” he [Dante] said.

“How was it?”

“I love swimming.”

“I know,” I said.

“I love swimming,” he said again. He was quiet for a little while. And then he said, “I love swimming–and you.”

I didn’t say anything.

“Swimming and you, Ari. Those are the things I love the most.”

“You shouldn’t say that,” I said.

“It’s true.”

“I didn’t say it wasn’t true. I said you shouldn’t say it.”

“Why not?”

“Dante, I don’t–”

“You don’t have to say anything. I know that we’re different. We’re not the same.” (151)

What caught my attention in this passage was not only the differences in attitudes that exist between the two characters, but also the way Dante’s sexual orientation is handled in the novel. This passage is essentially Dante’s coming-out to Ari. Later on in the novel, Dante explicitly mentions that he has kissed boys and that he eventually wants to marry a man, but this “confession” is done fearlessly and effortlessly. Dante does have issues in terms of revealing his sexual orientation to his parents, but this is because he is an only child, and he is worried about the heteronormative expectation (especially within Latino communities) of providing grandchildren to his parents: “I’m the only son. What’s going to happen with the grandchildren thing? I hate that I’m going to disappoint them, Ari. I know I’ve disappointed you too” (227).

Dante’s belief that Ari is disappointed in him stems from the fact that he believes that Ari will break their friendship because of his sexual orientation. Ari, however, asserts that they are still friends–and they continue to be friends even when Dante overtly expresses his love for Aristotle. Despite how clear it is that Ari loves Dante, Ari constantly tries to assert heterosexuality. There is an instance in which Dante asks Ari how he is sure that he doesn’t like men if he hasn’t tried doing anything with them–prompting Ari to kiss Dante in order to test the gay waters. Ari claims that the kiss was not enjoyable. Even after Dante is (SPOILER ALERT) gay-bashed during the novel’s falling action, and even after Dante’s parents confess that theyknow Dante is in love with Ari, the latter is unable to say that the two are anything but friends:

I [Ari] wanted to tell them [Dante’s parents] that he had changed my life and that I would never be the same, not ever. And that somehow it felt like it was Dante who had saved my life and not the other way around. I wanted to tell them that he was the first human being aside from my mother who had ever made me want to talk about things that scared me. I wanted to tell them so many things and yet I didn’t have the words. So I just stupidly repeated myself. “Dante’s my friend.” (309)

Something I found remarkably groundbreaking was the fact that it is Ari’s father who helps him come to terms with his sexual orientation. During the final chapters of the novel, Ari and his father have a serious conversation regarding Dante’s feelings toward Ari. Ari points out that he is aware how Dante feels, but that ultimately he has no control over Dante’s feelings. Ari’s father responds by saying: “the problem isn’t just that Dante’s in love with you. The real problem–for you, anyway–is that you’re in love with him” (348). Ari’s father can’t stand seeing his son being consumed by loneliness and self-loathing, so rather than allowing his son to go through the difficulty of finding a way to come out (not only to others, but to himself)–the father becomes the catalyst that allows Ari to express his true sexual identity. I found this to be such a refreshing moment in this novel, for we witness an instance in which the father figure (who is typically represented as chauvinistic, patriarchal, and homophobic in other gay novels with Latino characters) disrupts heteronormative stereotypes by nurturing, rather than suppressing, his son’s homosexuality.

In sum, this is a beautiful, groundbreaking, and insightful novel, and this post really doesn’t do it any justice. I am honored and pleased to announce that I’m currently working on an essay focused on this novel for a collection of literary criticism on Latino/a young adult fiction. In this essay, I will explore how issues of futurity play a role in gay Latino/a YA fiction–and I am certain that Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe will add depth and heart to my academic inquiries.

You can purchase a copy of this novel here.

Work Cited.

Alire Sáenz, Benjamin. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. New York: Simon and Schuster BFYR, 2012. Print (Hardcover edition).

On Happy Endings and Gay Fiction: E.M. Forster’s [Maurice]

Front cover of E.M. Forster's Maurice

Front cover of E.M. Forster’s Maurice (1971)

“A happy ending was imperative. I shouldn’t have bothered to write otherwise. I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows, and in this sense Maurice and Alec still roam in the greenwood. […] Happiness is its keynote–which by the way has had an unexpected result: it has made the book more difficult to publish.”

(E.M. Forster, Terminal note of Maurice – p. 236)

Maurice, a central text within the gay literary canon, is by far one of the bravest creative works written within the genre of LGBT literature; arguably, it is one of the bravest texts of the early twentieth century. The novel is an essence a Bildungsroman that traces the emotional development of the eponymous hero as he deals with the repercussions of being homosexual in Edwardian England. During his time at college, Maurice Christopher Hall becomes involved in a romantic (yet strictly chaste) relationship with his Cambridge colleague, Clive Durham, until the latter decides to marry a woman–leaving Maurice desolate and heartbroken. Through his attempts to “cure” his homosexuality through hypnosis and other means, Maurice meets Alec, a gatekeeper at the Durham estate. He becomes involved both romantically and sexually with Alec, and decides to start a life with him–all while affirming his “Wildean” identity to Clive as an act of socio-cultural resistance. As Maurice admirably states in his declaration of queer embodiment to Clive:

I was yours once till death if you’d cared to keep me, but I’m someone else’s now–I can’t hang about whining for ever–and he’s mine in a way that shocks you, but why don’t you stop being shocked, and attend to your own happiness? (230)

Although written by E.M. Forster during 1913-14, he refused to publish the book during his lifetime because of the negative legal and moralistic attitudes toward homosexuality that permeated England during the advent of the century. While bravery isn’t necessarily reflected in Forster’s (perfectly reasonable) decision to withhold publishing the text during his lifetime, it is reflected in the novel’s content: to envision a world, fictional or realistic, in which two men could “fall in love and remain in it” was beyond the scope of most modernist writers. It’s also brave in terms of its optimism, for in a world in which literary merit is driven by pain, suffering, depression, and unhappy endings, writing a novel with a happy ending is indeed a deviation from the grim albeit expected nature of the “literary.”

It is no coincidence, however, that Maurice was written just before World War I. One could only imagine how this optimism would be affected if the novel were written a year or two later. Forster did edit the novel during the 1960s, and it was known for having an epilogue in which Maurice’s younger sister (Kitty) encounters him and Alec working as woodcutters (and the consequent hatred she develops once she puts two and two together). Forster decided to discard this epilogue because the novel’s action is set in 1912, and the epilogue would’ve taken place a few years later in “the transformed England of the First World War (239). Thus, even though the novel is edited decades after it was written, its narrative essence and its optimistic outlook remained unchanged because it is meant to be approached as a snapshot of homosexual love during a period in which issues of class, aristocracy, politeness, and appearance are crucial to character development. This, in conjunction with the fact that the novel was published almost sixty years after it was written, leads it to be approached as a period piece (even though it was not written to be read this way).

Given the fact that the novel was written so early during the twentieth century, it is surprising to see how forward-thinking the novel is in terms of its views on sex, homosexuality, and queerness. Maurice is shown from his early teens to sense some discomfort in terms of heterosexual courtship. This is particularly noticeable when Mr. Ducie is explaining the act of heterosexual intercourse (with diagrams and illustrations traced on sand) to a fourteen year-old Maurice at the beach. The young teen is unable to grasp the adult’s approach to the birds and the bees: “He was attentive, as was natural when he was the only one in the class, and he knew that the subject was serious and related to his own body. But he could not himself relate it; it fell to pieces as soon as Mr. Ducie put it together, like an impossible sum (7, emphasis mine). The design and mechanics of heterosexual intercourse do not mesh with Maurice’s sensibilities, thus linking homosexuality to organic or perhaps even genetic roots. Indeed, this biological perspective goes in accordance with the view of homosexuality as pathological during this period, and the hypnotist that attempts to cure Maurice of his “trouble” in the novel goes as far as to diagnose him with a case of “Congenital homosexuality” (167). This diagnosis may indeed seem problematic, but before jumping to conclusions, I want to focus my attention on an exchange that happens between Maurice and Lasker Jones (the hypnotist/therapist) during the last failed attempt to cure the former of his so-called ailment:

“And what’s to happen to me?” said Maurice, with a sudden drop in his voice. He spoke in despair, but Mr Lasker Jones had an answer to every question. “I’m afraid I can only advise you to live in some country that has adopted the Code Napoleon,” he said.

“I don’t understand.”

“France or Italy, for instance. There homosexuality is no longer criminal.”

“You mean that a Frenchman could share with a friend and yet not go to prison?”

“Share? Do you mean unite? If both are of age and avoid public indecency, certainly.”

“Will the law ever be that in England?”

“I doubt it. England has always been disinclined to accept human nature.”

Maurice understood. He was an Englishman himself, and only his troubles had kept him awake. He smiled sadly. “It comes to this then: there always have been people like me and always will be, and generally they have been persecuted.”

“That is so, Mr Hall; or, as psychiatry prefers to put it, there has been, is, and always will be every conceivable type of person. And you must remember that your type was once put to death in England.” (Forster 196)

Although homosexuality is approached as pathological in most of the novel, Lasker Jones and Maurice seem to come to the consensus that homosexuality is simply a way of being that has been policed and suppressed in an effort to further wedge the divide between the cultural and the natural. This passage is emancipatory in that it problematizes the view of homosexuals being unable to assimilate to cultural norms through an inversion of agency: the problem is not the homosexual’s inability to mesh with society, but rather, society’s inability to mesh with the homosexual (i.e. people who have existed, exist, and always will exist). This is precisely why a happy ending for the novel, as Forster put it, was imperative.

Forster could have played it safe to assure that Maurice was published during his lifetime: “If it ended unhappily, with a lad dangling from a noose or with a suicide pact, all would be well, for there is no pornography or seduction of minors” (236). But ending this novel in a tragedy would’ve not only followed the formula of countless other novels with gay content published during the time, but it also would go against the possibility of creating an active and effective identity politics. True, tragedy (and backwards feelings), in its own macabre way, has a way of inspiring and igniting a politics of identity; after all, it is pain that establishes the need for a politics of identity in the first place. However, considering all of the pain already portrayed in the novel, would it be necessary for characters to embrace death as a way of demonstrating the unfairness of the status quo? Forster suggests, in due course, that perhaps the shears needed to unravel the knot of (hetero)normativity are not found through death, solitude, and pain, but rather, through life, union, and happiness. Maurice, rather than basking in solitude, finds strength through Alec, and assures him that they “shan’t be parted no more, and that’s finished” (225). And although the forever-ness present within the lack of this parting may only be found in fiction, it is a fiction I’m willing to live through vicariously.

You can purchase a copy of Forster’s Maurice here.

Work Cited

Forster, E.M. Maurice. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1971. Print.

Queer Times: An Analysis of David Levithan’s [Two Boys Kissing]

Front cover of David Levithan's Two Boys Kissing

Front cover of David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing (2013)

In the notes and acknowledgments section written at the end of Two Boys Kissing, author David Levithan states that “This isn’t a book I could have written ten years ago” (199). Levithan is absolutely right. Back in 2003, when I was still a sophomore in high school, I could never fathom the possibility of finding a book that so openly and proudly embraces gay themes. Could you imagine walking through a bookstore in 2003 and identifying a single book written for a young reader with two boys kissing on the cover? Absolutely not. Levithan rightfully acknowledges that his book is symptomatic of the major events, challenges, and changes that the LGBT community has been facing for decades. However, Two Boys Kissing is much more than a focal point of gay and lesbian history. As I was approaching the end of this novel, I could sense that this book will trigger (or already has triggered) a major paradigm shift in the realm of gay (young adult) fiction. This is the book that we’ve been waiting for; this is the book that will change the game.

The heart of this novel’s plot is a narrative focused on two teenage boys named Craig and Harry, who are attempting to break the record for the world’s longest kiss in order to challenge heteronormative attitudes and ideologies present in their lives. But in addition to this central narrative, Levithan weaves the stories of other queer youths that are somehow connected to this record-breaking kiss: Neil and Peter,  who are in a relationship that would’ve been deemed impossible a couple of years ago; Avery, a pink-haired FTM transgender teen, and Ryan, a blue-haired boy Avery meets at an LGBT prom; Tariq Johnson, a teen who was gay-bashed–an event that inspires Craig and Harry to give a shot at breaking a world record; and Cooper Riggs, a gay teen who “could be outside his room, surrounded by people, and it would still feel like nowhere” (5). All of these narratives weave a complex web that attempts to illustrate the state of gay youth today, focusing not only on the progress that has been made throughout the decades, but also the issues that still need to be challenged in order for a progressive politics to take place.

There are two things that I find absolutely ground-breaking in terms of this novel: first and foremost, the novel is an overt attack on the lack of futurity that supposedly haunts queer lives. Rather than viewing queerness as limiting and as a domain of identity that embraces the “death drive” (think Lee Edelman), Levithan constructs a narrative that tries to disrupt these limits by constructing the future as a space that lacks precise definition but that is full of possibility. As the narrators of the novel eloquently put it:

What a powerful word, future. Of all the abstractions we can articulate to ourselves, of all the concepts we have that other animals do not, how extraordinary the ability to consider a time that’s never been experienced. And how tragic not to consider it. It galls us, we with such a limited future, to see someone brush it aside as meaningless, when it has an endless capacity for meaning, and an endless number of meanings that can be found within it. (155)

The second thing that I find groundbreaking comes into perspective when focusing on the passage above. Who are the narrators of this novel? Who are these subjects with such a limited future? The novel is narrated by the collective voice (i.e. Greek chorus) that consists of “your shadow uncles, your angel godfathers, your mother’s or your grandmother’s best friend from college, […]. We are characters in a Tony Kushner play, or names on a quilt that rarely gets taken out anymore. We are the ghosts of the remaining older generation” (3). Indeed, the novel is narrated by a generation of gay men who succumbed to AIDS during the advent and rise of disease. What we have then is a web of the present, weaved by the voices of the past, in order to enable a future. It can be argued that Levithan’s novel queers time to the extent that the boundaries of the past and present are no longer valid, turning the present into a state that can be perceived, scrutinized, and observed by voices from the past.

The attempt to bridge the past to the present creates a lot of tension within the novel, not only because the narrators seem to inhabit a space where time has no control, but also because these voices are unable to alter or change anything happening in the present. The voices are given the gift of knowledge, but they are unable to do anything with this knowledge other than observe, or give advice to the reader rather than to the characters of the novel itself (this is done several times when the narrators break the fourth wall to address the audience). Despite this tension, I think that the novel is novel in terms of altering the typical discourse of gay fiction. This discourse is altered by working towards a futuristic and emancipatory queer politics, while still keeping hold of the past–a past that triggered the need for a queer politics in the first place. Many gay works that perpetuate a sense of futurity do so by sacrificing the pain and torment found in the past. Levithan’s novel, on the other hand, embraces and highlights the pains and joys of the past-but also depicts this embrace as one that is willing to loosen its hold on queer subjects so they can continue moving forward. The past, in this case, becomes a launchpad to futurity rather than the binds that prevent any forward movement.

I think this novel greatly addresses questions pushed forth by Heather Love in her book Feeling Backwards: Loss and the Politics of Queer HistoryIn her book, Love constantly asks the reader to assess whether or not it is possible to have an awareness of the past without being consumed by it. Furthermore, Love ultimately wonders if it is possible to look back while still moving forward, or in other words, whether it is possible to work toward an emancipatory future without forgetting the past that necessitated this work in the first place. I don’t know if Levithan is familiar with Love’s work, but his novel seems to be a response, and perhaps, a solution towards the temporal issues found in queer lives. If he is not familiar with Love’s work, I think that Two Boys Kissing is the product of the same cultural demands that drove the creation of Love’s book in 2004.

Given that the genre of gay literature is usually saturated with perspectives that are driven by temporal extremes (i.e. the past and the future), it is frankly amazing to encounter an author that has been able to channel both the past and the present in order to envision a queer future. Thank you, David Levithan, for writing this book. Although you are right to establish that this book is a product of many past and current events, you are ultimately the agent that channeled a progressive queer history that still pays its homage to the past (and for young readers, nonetheless). I am more than certain that Two Boys Kissing will shift the paradigm of young adult and LGBT literature. The novel has already been nominated for the 2013 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, and I’m sure that this is only the first of many nominations and accolades to come.

You can purchase a copy of Levithan’s novel by clicking here.

Works Cited and Consulted

Levithan, David. Two Boys Kissing. New York: Knopf, 2013. Print.

Love, Heather. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Harvard University Press, 2007. Print

Chapters 1-3 of My Young Adult Novel, “Deviant”

This summer, I’ve been spending a lot of time editing and finishing a draft for my YA novel titled Deviant, a project that I’ve been working on for over two years. Although I thought I was finished with the basic draft this winter, I decided to reconfigure some key aspects of the plot, especially when it came to fleshing out some technical aspects of the universe I developed. This new draft, when compared to the older draft I posted last semester, should give you a clearer indication of the themes present within the novel, which include dystopia, education, predestination, and love.

I would greatly appreciate any and all feedback for these chapters. If reception for these chapters is positive, I might consider publishing a few more chapters on my blog.

Deviant Cover Angel Matos

Chapter I

Amethyst

I rest behind the garbage bin as I try to catch catch my breath. I think they finally lost track of me. I don’t know what’s more unbearable at this moment: the deathly grip of the temperature, or running desperately in the middle of the night with nothing but a hospital gown on. I mean, after all, it’s not too difficult to spot a red-headed teenager running frantically through the city in a pink gown. So much for keeping a low profile.

A sharp pain invades my right foot. Splatters of cracked wine-colored scabs meandered through the shades of periwinkle that cover my fingers. Bruises peppered my legs like confetti. I can’t remember the last time I had sensation in my toes. I huddle my legs against my chest in an effort to retain the little body heat I have left. With all the time I’ve spent immersed in ice during the past few months, I thought I’d be used to the cold by now. But the thought of ice did nothing but crystalize my fear.

I know one thing is certain. Either I’ll die out here in the snow, or they’ll catch me. Either way, I don’t think I’m going to last much longer. I wonder whether it would be more painful to freeze here next to a garbage bin or whether it would be worse to endure the toxins that they’re bound to inject within my body. Neither option seems too appealing at the moment. I take a deep breath, look up, and exhale. A large cloud of steam escapes my mouth. The cloudy wisps tango into the air until they dissipate into atmosphere, leaving no trace behind. If only I were like the steam. If only I can disappear into thin air on sheer will. If only I were free of my body. I guess death will provide that sense of evanescence I crave. Ironic, isn’t it?

I gently turn around and bend on my knees. I wonder if they managed to keep up with me. I grab the corners of the garbage bin with my fingers and I slowly tilt my head to the side. The three figures stand ominously across the street. Damn. I was too desperate to cover my footprints in the snow. I led them right to me.

I blow some steam into my hands, hoping to give them even a few seconds of heat and consolation. It’s useless. My fingers are a nauseating shade of mauve. Although they are numb, they are still shaking violently in a last ditch effort to produce warmth. This effort is in vain. My fingers will freeze. I will die. I’ve always been afraid to die, but the idea seems comforting at this point and time. Perhaps it’s because I’m cold and unable to think straight. But, perhaps I know deep down that whatever awaits me after death, even if it’s nothingness that awaits, is better than the misery I’m suffering in life. I’m beginning to sound like those angst-ridden teenagers in those texts that I always complain about, but I think I’ve earned the right to complain at this point.

I see a darkened alley nearby. Maybe if I make a run for it, they won’t catch me. I grab a crushed food can near the bin. This is it. I launch the can towards the opposite direction of the alley. I hear the metallic clink a few meters away.

I run. Well, I stumble. I’m losing my ability to balance myself. My feet are warning me that they can’t handle much more pressure. I feel a beam of light hit the side of my face as I head towards the alley. So much for my distraction.

I head towards the alley and reach a fence. Seriously, a fence? I thought fences in dark alleys were only used to make escape sequences dramatic in action films. The movie’s hero is chased by the villains and he or she dramatically climbs the fence and jumps over it avoiding the gang of thugs/zombies/cult members running after them. That’s not happening here. Between my frozen feet and my frostbitten fingers, it would be a miracle if I could climb half a meter. I frantically look around. The windows of the adjacent buildings are also too high for me to climb.

I’m trapped. I sit on the ground, knees against my legs. I lean my back against the cold brick of the one of the buildings. Flurries continue to descend from the sky, covering everything in an opaque whiteness. Everything looks exactly the same covered in snow. I chuckle as I think of snow, the element that is slowly draining my life away, as a leveling agent: everything and everyone gets covered in the same fashion by its flakes. Doesn’t matter what shape or size. The snow is careless. It lacks judgment. It’s impartial, unlike the people slowly approaching me.

Bursts of bright light invade my pupils. I cover my eyes, shielding them from the gleam of the three flashlights. My back presses firmly against the grimy wall. The rough texture of the brick perforates my skin. Sweat pours down my soiled hair. My chest heaves back and forth. A continuous flow of steam escapes my mouth. My carnation pink hospital gown offers little protection from the wind and the snow. I always knew that they would find me, but I didn’t expect it to be so soon.

I d-don’t care w-what you d-do or say. I’m n-never going b-b-back there.”

I’m not afraid. I’m freezing. Too bad my stuttering makes me seem like a coward. I have to show them that I’m not afraid. I stand up. My fragile body shivers and quakes as I try to straighten up my body. I shake my head side to side, dusting off the snowflakes that have accumulated over the crown of my head. I take another deep breath. This time, I pronounce the worlds loudly and clearly without stuttering.

Did you hear me? I…am never…going back.” I grab a heap of snow with my stiff fingers and fling it towards the flashlights. A wall of white sprinkles in front of my face as the three beams of light head towards me. Two of the beams of light die off; the other points directly at my face. Two men in black suits and cerulean ties grab me by each arm. The remaining light is soon consumed by the darkness. Even without the flashlights on, I can see their faces quite clearly. It seems that even the moon has a luminous interest in this recent development of events. The moon shining. The snow falling. What a lovely night this would’ve been under different circumstances.

There she is, dissecting my every thought and move with her incandescent eyes—one glows with a yellowish hue, like the eyes of the panther. I can’t distinguish the color of the other eye, but it is much darker than the one on the left. Strange. Nobody’s guardians deliberately select two different eye colors for their progeny. As a matter of fact, I think the Regime explicitly prohibits garish physical traits such as these. They would interpret it as a deviance from the natural order of things. The different eye colors must have been a mutation… an unfortunate accident. Leave it up to a marked person to police marked individuals.

She loosens up her ponytail. Her strawberry blond hair flows freely. Her flawless alabaster skin reflects the moonlight, and her bright pink dress-suit, on the verge of a neon tone, could be spotted miles away in pure darkness. She reminds me of those brightly colored frogs that live in the Amazons, distinguished by their dazzling colors that serve as a warning to other creatures. Even animals know not to mess with beasts that don extravagant, bright-colored coats. Who knew that someone so beautiful could be so… menacing. Yet this beauty is nothing but a mask. All that resides is ugliness inside of that captivating shell. Yes. Nothing but a ragged mummy within a jewel-encrusted sarcophagus.

Well, Amethyst, it seems like you thought you could escape the Hub yet again. But as you very well know, nobody escapes. Deviants such as yourself can never leave, at least not until reparations are finalized. I must say, however, that your attempt to escape was quite a… noble effort. Ineffective, but very noble indeed.”

There’s s-s-still p-plenty of time for me to es-ca-ca-cape.” No. I started stuttering again. The woman chuckles. Seems like she’s amused.

Did you hear that, boys? Amethyst still thinks she has a shot at freedom. Little girls and their big dreams. Dreams are for weaklings, darling.”

At least I’m c-capable of dreaming. M-monsters like you never dream.” Even with the two guards grasping my arms, it’s still getting harder to stand by the minute. I can’t collapse on the floor. I can’t let them see any more signs of weakness.

She steps towards me. Her eyes scan me top to bottom, basking in the pathetic visage in front of her. My bloody face. My bruised knees. My shivering body. She must be enjoying this spectacle. She leans toward my face. Her mouth is about two inches away from my own. She softly closes her eyes and whispers, “True. But that’s because monsters inhabit the realm of nightmares. And guess what, my dear Amethyst? Nightmares are still dreams. Cooperate, or I’ll make sure that you’re living a nightmare for the rest of your meager, pathetic existence.” She says this with a demeanor that is both calm and serene. Now I’m beginning to feel afraid. I try to respond, but no words come out of my mouth. Only steam does.

Denise knows better than to try and escape. She knows that we can repair her” says the woman, still inches away from my face.

Denise. For a moment, I nearly forgot about her. I tried to let her know of my plan to escape. I wanted her to come with me. The Hub, however, is very cautious with its administration. It would be a shame to allow a relapse to occur within its premises.

My mind wanders off to my time in the Hub. I recall the cramped white room with nothing but a bunk bed, a sink, and a toilet. The nauseating smell of disinfectant and toilet-cleaner constantly invaded my nostrils. My cellmate was a seventeen year-old guy named Trevor. He was clearly ashamed about his recruitment to the Hub. It could be worse. Enrollment in the Hub was usually one of the lighter punishments for Deviants like us.

He would toss and turn while sleeping at night, whimpering the name of a person that I didn’t know. A person that he refused to talk to me about. When I first mentioned this name, he cupped one hand over my mouth and just stared straight into my eyes. With his other hand, he gently made a zipping motion across his lips. I perfectly understood who this person was.

Trevor and I had known each other since our first year in the Culture and Communication Center. I was seven when I first met him. Our assigned Center is the least popular of all the training centers, and we knew that. Understandably, we weren’t excited to be there, but it’s not like we have much of a choice in terms of what Center we are assigned to at that age. Although we briefly talked during the first couple of years, we soon grew apart. Who knew that we would one day be cell mates at the Hub?

The transgression that led to my imprisonment happened about four months ago. All it took was one moment. One moment to obliterate years of work and effort. One moment to destroy a lifetime of possibility. When it happened, Denise and I knew we were doomed. Hopeless. Lost. The Regime doesn’t take these matters lightly if you are caught—and although it’s been decades since all the cells in the Hub have been full, you occasionally see one or two new faces in the dining hall every month or so. Denise and I were the unlucky ones this time. You can never be too careful here… the Regime is always watching. Always listening.

The alpha of this demonic pack stands in front of me, breathing heavily on my face, with a hand placed firmly into her pocket. I know what comes next. We all do. We’ve been warned about the penalties for multiple transgressions. We all knew the protocol that Hub-Masters usually followed when pursuing an escapee. Knowing what comes next, I looked at her adamantly with a sense of valor.

Leave…Denise… out of this.” I’m losing my breath.

Oh Amethyst, just drop the act of courage and valor. You already look pathetic. Do you want to actually be pathetic as well? I don’t have to explain what happens next. Accept your fate, and rest assured knowing that our country will become a cleaner place with your departure.”

I can’t take it anymore. With all my might, I yank my arms away from the guards and I lunge at her, trying my best to knock her into the snow. With any luck, her head will bash into the pavement. I lock my arms around her, but she barely budges. I must be way weaker than I thought I was. Adrenaline failed to be my hero at this point. The Hub-Master grabs me by my hair and tosses me on the ground. I look up and see those eyes. They truly do look monstrous in the moonlight.

I black out momentarily. I open my eyes and notice one of the guard’s boots embedded within my abdomen. The other guard swings his foot. I black out once again. Yes, that’s blood dripping out of my mouth.

I spit out the life-bearing fluid and watch the crimson masterpiece that I created on the silver snow. I lay the side of my head on the red-tinged surface. I will raise my white flag. “I can’t be repaired. I refuse to be repaired” I whisper, loud enough for them to hear me.

The woman gives me a half smile and pulls out the roll of parchment that I was expecting to see. Parchment. How old-fashioned. How traditional. One of my history instructors back at the Center mentioned that all agencies belonging to the Regime use parchment for most of their official documents. It makes them feel as if they were in touch with history. The days when Deviants were nowhere to be found. The days when the entire population upheld the virtues of purity and dignity. Strangely, with my act of defiance, I feel like I have fully embraced both of those virtues.

She unrolls the parchment and reads the proclamation in a stern and cold voice. Even the snow seems termperate in comparison to that voice. I know the proclamation by heart—I saw it all the time in movies and television shows repeatedly, all telling the story of people who dare defy the fourth natural law. To add insult to injury, they even made the proclamation rhyme—a lullaby uttered right before our final sleep. It sounds just like I expect it to sound, but with my name and Borough mentioned in the first verse. Rhymes used to always calm me down as a kid. This rhyme manages to finish the snow’s job of freezing the blood running through my veins.

Amethyst Jacobson of the South-western Borough,

The Regime has been clear, its stipulations were thorough.

Your defiance of nature, and a will that won’t bend,

Leaves us no choice but to uphold and defend

The revered mandate of the fourth natural law:

your sacrifice will bring order and peace to us all.”

As she finished the proclamation, she kneels down on the floor and pulls out a syringe from her pocket. She pulls out a vial with a rose-colored liquid. I don’t even feel the needle piercing my flesh. I never thought I would die this way. I always thought I’d be old, surrounded by my loved ones, dying in the warmth of my bedroom. Or fighting bravely against my sworn enemies and foes. But here I am, weak and defenseless: a bloody rag doll laying helplessly as the snow carelessly embraces me.

I feel the heat draining away from my body. My chest tightens. No more steam escapes from my mouth. My eyes are open, but now, all I see is blackness. My spirit finally breaks as I realize that for me, there is no white light at the end tunnel.

Chapter II

WALTZ OF THE FLOWERS

Another lovely semester at the magnificent Culture and Communications Center. I wonder what academic joys await us this year” I say, staring at the colossal gates in front of me.

Oh please, you know a day here beats any day doing nothing at the apartment. At least here we can keep busy with our training rather than watching another pointless television show. If I see another stupid display of teenagers with unbelievable vocabulary ranges and raging libidos, I’m going to gouge my eyes out.” Alice is clearly upset that we spent so much of our summer lounging on the sofa. I, on the other hand, really appreciated that break from the bleakness and mundaneness of training at the Center. I’ve been here for way too long, and I still have about six more years to go. Yes, I’ve learned a lot, but I think I’ve reached a plateau in terms of my development. I mean, you can only hear and see the same thing so many times before it ceases to amuse you.

I guess to some extent, Alice is right to be bothered about the lack of excitement that characterized our break from the Center. To say that out summer was monotonous would be an understatement. I went out a couple of times, slept for countless hours, drank more alcohol than I should’ve, and basically did nothing else but glue myself to the sofa in order to watch reruns of my favorite shows. Now here I am standing in front of the same old extravagant ivory gate, with my roommate at my side, staring at the emerald-hued concrete building behind the bars. One man’s education is another man’s prison.

The building seems to be surrounded by even more glowing screens, maps, and advertisements than I last recalled. It’s only been three months since I last walked out of that gate. The same soft instrumental music emanates from the speakers that surround the gates. The music used to get on my nerves. It made the school feel artificial and staged, no different from those amusement parks that are found in some of the southern Boroughs. Now, I barely ever notice it.

The place looks a little different this time around” I say, looking at the screens near the main entrance of the Center.

Well, the place always looks different but it’s always the same. More display screens. More advertisements. If I see another jade statue of the number eight somewhere in the Center, I think I’m going to hurl.” Alice motions her index finger towards her throat as if she were pretending to puke. Sure enough, we approach one of the many statues portraying a V shape accompanied by three vertical lines, which prominently displays the history of our Center on the lavish holographic platform.

You know you love these statues deep down, Alice. How they represent the greatness of our Center, and how they illustrate how amazing our futures will be. I was thinking of getting you a small replica for your birthday. I think it will look marvelous on your night stand” I say with a smirk.

You get me a replica and I’ll shove the V down your throat and the I’s where the sun doesn’t shine. Don’t forget, your room is only about four meters away from mine. Don’t make me violent.” Alice doesn’t look at me once during the threat.

It’s a risk I’m willing to take. I’ll just make sure to sleep with one eye open and a heavy blunt object under my pillow. If worse comes to worse, I’ll either pull your hair or I’ll retaliate by lunging at you with my own little replica sitting on my desk.” I flash a charming smile, dazzling her with my immaculate teeth. She can’t help but laugh. Works every time.

Come on Levi, I know you wouldn’t lay a finger on me. You adore me too much.” She tilts her head and flashes a smile right back. I immediately give her a light shove with both hands. She sticks her tongue out at me.

The music playing from the speakers changes. A familiar arrangement of a harp and violins begins to increase in volume. Yes, they are playing Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers– yet again. You hear the song at least once every week. I look at Alice with the corner of my eye. Alice calls our music instrumental music. Where she comes from, instruments are usually accompanied with the voice of a human being, uttering words and phrases to the tune of the melody. The combination of music and the human voice is deemed unnatural in our country, so many of us have no idea of what that amalgamation sounds like. Well, I have an idea because of that one time Alice gave me a demonstration. The image of her moving her lips in unison with music was both unexpected and haunting, but I try my best to prevent myself from thinking about it too much. The last thing I need is to be caught breaking a natural law.

Do you hear what they’re playing again?”

Alice puts on a fake Northern accent, similar to the one we’ve seen on documentaries, and answers “Yes, my dear Levi. Why, it’s our song! Care to join me for a quick venture around the dance floor?”

Without missing a beat, I stretch out my hand and bow down. Alice does a simple curtsy and stretches out her hand towards mine. I bend down even further and touch my lips gently on the top of her fingers. “My lady, I would never miss an opportunity to dance with you.” I then grasp her hand firmly with one hand, wrap my other arm around her waist, and as I lift her off the ground, we begin twirling. We twirl until I feel dizzy. I place her on the floor, and we resume our habitual routine: prancing around each other, flapping our hands around like the wild geese that flock by the Center during the winter. I run towards Alice to lift her up for the grand finale.

Will you two cut it out already? You know it’s against regulations to cause a stir around the premises of the Center. Don’t make me report you to the Chancellor!”

It was one of the guards, dressed in the usual (and hideous) khaki green coats with way too many buttons and pockets. He towers over us by at least half a meter. His cheeks blush in a deep scarlet and he is sweating profusely. His lips are twisted in a snarl, and he holds his rifle firmly with both hands. So much for our grand finale.

We’re sorry, sir. We just got bitten by the music bug. We’ll be heading towards the Center now.”

Not so fast. Identification, please” says the guard as he pulled out the familiar black box from one of his pockets. We each took turns waving the back of our left hands in front of the scanner and watched as the small light glowed green twice.

You both may proceed, and no fooling around this time. Adults have no business moving around like that in Center grounds.”

Yes sir!” we say, giving the guard a salute with our right hand.

We both walk stiffly through the ivory gate, trying our best to hold back the laughter that is struggling to explode out of our chests. Waltz of the Flowers continues to play ever so lightly as we walk into the Center.

Almost everything looks exactly as it did last semester. A few new decorative plants surround the premises. The same tall emerald encrusted fountain still crowns the middle of the courtyard. The fountain is called the weeping willow, and it is made of a series of distorted male and female bodies entangled in a shape that resembles a tree trunk. Water shoots out of the top center part of the trunk in a mushroom shape, giving it the effect of willow leaves draping around the mainframe. The bodies in the middle are actually quite difficult to discern, because you have to look between the gaps in the flowing water in order to catch a glimpse.

The front courtyard of the Center is enormous, but it was only a small part of the massive Center system. Many think of Centers as small cities. Even though our Center is the lowest ranking one in the Republic, it is undoubtedly one of the largest. It houses over 1.2 million trainees, thousands of instructors, and it currently has over 152 buildings—and the number of buildings increases by four or five every year. Alice and I tried walking from one side of the Center to another. It took us nearly three hours to complete the journey, and that’s taking into account that we’re pretty brisk walkers. People usually take the underground platform system to travel from one building to another. This system is composed of fifty hover-platforms that float through a series of magnetic rails and tunnels underground. They travel so fast that you can reach the furthest building from the Center’s entrance in less than fifteen minutes.

It would actually be a lovely sight if it weren’t for all of the guards parading all over the Center, dressed in their unsightly green attire and their enigmatic mirrored helmets that cover half of their faces. Alice and I usually refer to the Center as Oz, an allusion to the Emerald City in L Frank Baum’s text TheWonderful Wizard of Oz, one of the few surviving texts of the twentieth century. I should add that this is an illegal text that people aren’t supposed to possess in any way or form. The designers of the Center mentioned something about the color green being calming or soothing, which is ironic because I rarely feel calm within these walls. Perhaps it has something to do with all of the guards and their rifles. The Oz reference is quite appropriate: even our daily uniforms are a pale mint color. The only difference between uniforms are the expected gender markers: males wear dark blue khakis while females wear long pink colored skirts that must cover their knees. Girls are typically referred to as watermelons due to the stark and jarring contrast of colors that they wear.

Despite the overwhelming presence of green, and the guards with rifles, Oz is not the most uncomfortable Center in the Republic. It surely beats TEC—the Technology and Engineering Center located in the Southern Borough of the Republic—in terms of style and comfort. Although Oz is certainly the least prestigious center of the eight located in the Republic, people here are known for being exceptionally nice and welcoming.

Although many consider it a burden to be assigned to Oz, they rarely focus on how easygoing things can be here. Although we still had to follow rigorous schedules, demanding instructors, and although we barely had free time during a semester, at least we didn’t live in the cold, mechanical world of the Southern Borough. In that division, everything from hobbies to leisurely activities are regulated by the Regime.

Levi. Levi! Helloooo! Is anyone home?” I snap out of my trance. How long was I just standing there, staring at the entrance to Oz? There is something about the first semester of the year that awakens a clash of emotions within me. Although I’m excited to meet my friends again and do something other than sit in front of my computer monitor, the repetitive nature of our training really gets to me at times. But I guess repetition is necessary if you are to become perfect. And if you can’t achieve perfection, you at least want to be good enough at something to get a job. Just a few more years in Oz, and I’m out of here.

Sorry Alice, just daydreaming again. It must be my nerves striking me.”

Because of the reception?”

Yeah. As much as I enjoy being surrounded by countless strangers, watching them dance like idiots and informing them about the glory and wonders that Oz has to offer, I’d much rather stay in my apartment reading a text or watching a film.”

Too bad the reception is mandatory. Who knows? You might make a new friend.” Alice gives me a gentle nudge and a mischievous smile. “You can certainly use a new friend in your life. Don’t get me wrong, I love you to pieces, but I’m not going to be around forever, you know?”

Sure. I’ve been at Oz for nearly seven years, and I can count all of my friends with the fingers on my left hand. I doubt this year’s transfers and recruits will be chock full of interesting subjects. Who knows, maybe I’ll meet some beautiful woman who will join me in my quest for cultural and intellectual pursuits.”

Oh yes, your brooding personality and sarcasm is perfect bait for all the young and cultured women out there. Watch out girls! Levi is back in town!”

Alice was right. I wasn’t very successful in courting women at all. I’m nineteen years old, and I’ve only had two girlfriends. Well, girlfriend is an overstatement, seeing as those relationships lasted about three months. They always complained. They always ranted about me not wanting enough. They also weren’t able to understand my so-called “constant fading away from reality.” But I couldn’t help it. Inside, I always feel like something is not right with me. For some reason, I tend to sabotage most of my relationships. Sometimes I think that I was just not built to be a boyfriend, if you get my drift. The more I think about it, the more I believe that some people are just not meant to embrace certain roles. Some people are not meant to be friends, or guardians, or instructors. However, we somehow fool ourselves into believing in the power of becoming… that we can learn to embrace and love things we are incapable of liking. Wow, I am a can full of sunshine, am I not?

The only person that I’ve always liked, well, loved, was Alice. With her, I could be myself. I could let go of my seriousness, embrace my inner goof, and dance faux ballet in front of the gates of Oz. When I say love, I don’t mean the marriage type of love, but rather a deeper kind of attachment. We truly respect and just get each other. We’re like family. Plus, she’s already in a relationship with Samuel. They’ve been together for seven years. I actually met the guy through video chat last May. He was very nice, and very funny. I can see why Alice would stick it out for someone like him. And in all honesty, I am happy for her. She’s my best friend, after all. Well, she’s virtually my only true friend. I am not feeling sorry for myself, I am merely stating the reality of my situation. There’s no need for anyone to feel sorry for me.

Alice transferred from the Northern Union to the Republic about three years ago. This, of course, is very rare. The Republic hardly ever accepts incomers from the Northern Union—so she must’ve been exceptionally brilliant—and she is. So she was issued a ten year Visa to live and train in the Republic, along with a full scholarship. Her guardians, or parents as they call them up North, were not enforced to pay the obligatory 30% of their yearly salaries to send their child to a training center. I still don’t fully get why she crossed the border to come here. The North is known for being liberal, to the point where virtually nothing is outlawed. It’s the antithesis to the Republic, a place known for regulating every possible choice and decision that you can make in your life.

I once asked her why she left the Northern Union to pursue studies here. She told me that entrance to a training institution, or universities as her country calls them, is not permitted until a person is at least eighteen-years old. Until then, they receive a general education that covers every imaginable area of study, from art, to culture, to math, to science, to language, to literature, and even physical education. Now, to me, that seems like a dream. You get to try a little of this and a little of that until you are absolutely certain of the path that you want to take in life. I guess freedom of choice is just as difficult as having no choice at all. At least if you’re life is a mess within the Republic, you can always blame everything on the Regime’s inflexibility and tendency to govern every aspect of your life. But when you’re in charge of every decision that must be made in your life, there is nobody else but yourself to blame when things go awry.

However, since Alice was young, she always was fond of history and cultural study, so she filled out a transfer application. After a lot of paper work, red tape, and bureaucratic nonsense, here she is: a place where all of her education is geared towards a single subject. I, on the other hand, would’ve given anything to leave the Republic for the Northern Union, but emigration is strictly forbidden for citizens of the Republic. We aren’t even allowed to vacation in other places other than the Boroughs. Alice has the choice to return back North at any time, where she is allowed to venture off to any place within the globe. However, I don’t know much about her life up North, mostly because she is restricted from sharing most details about her other life. Every time she shares a tidbit about her previous life, or even when she tells me what she did during her breaks in the Northern Union, she risks deportation, along with the obliteration of every single training credit she has received during the past three years. Did I mention that she also risks the possibility of public execution?

I’m not completely ignorant of the rest of the world, even though I will never get to see it with my own eyes. I’ve heard of Europe, the Caribbean islands, and even the lush jungles of South America, but my experience of these places is limited to video clips, photographs, and the occasional gossip that is heard about other countries. We are told that this prohibition had to do something with upholding the moral fiber of our country and preventing it from being stained by outside influences. Even the few people who immigrate to the Republic, such as Alice, have to take a series of behavioral tests in order to prove that their sense of morality fits within the social and cultural context of the Republic. Or, that they could at least pretend to uphold the same values.

Alice stands there with her arms folded and a bored look on her face. The sunlight greatly highlighted the sapphire hue of her eyes. Her snowy skin provided such a beautiful canvas for those blue eyes. And her hair, caught somewhere between dark-brown and black, delicately curled down from the crown of her head to her shoulders. But best of all was her simplicity. She never wore makeup, and unlike other girls in the Center, she didn’t get up two hours earlier to make herself beautiful. She always says that people should love her for who she is. And it works. Everybody adores Alice.

Too bad nobody looks good in their Center uniform. The stark contrast between the colors of her blouse and her skirt give her a garish look. “Well, I guess we better head off to the Nucleus and see what training assignments we will be given this semester. Let’s see what bores I have to sit through this time around.”

Alice nods her head. “We better hurry. The Distribution ceremony will take place in about twenty minutes” replies Alice unenthusiastically.

We walk to the closest glass dome near us. I arrive near the entrance of the dome and I wave my left head in front of the scanner perched on a platform. “Welcome to the CCC Underground Platform System. Your Network account will be charged two R-Credits for entryway into the terminal. Please state your destination” says the speaker located underneath the scanner. I bend slightly towards the speaker and loudly say “Nucleus.” I wait for about two seconds, and a small green light next to the speaker turns on. “Thank you, Mr. Solis. Your designated platform code will be sent to your Network armlet immediately. Enjoy your trip!” Such a polite machine. My Network armlet immediately lights up. I’m assigned platform N4.

Platforms depart every 10 minutes, so I wait for Alice to pay her entry into the dome. She’ll mostly likely be assigned the same platform anyway.

Did you get N4?” she asks as she walks in.

Yeah, it’s over there on the right” I say, pointing towards the direction of our platform.

Inside the Dome, we are surrounded by a series of eighty enormous round platforms. Each platform is marked with a letter and a number, and each one stops at three different destinations. They all can easily fit about two-hundred people. Every building of the Center is connected through a large underground web, and Domes are considered focal nexuses of this web because it is possible to reach any destination in the Center through a Dome. If taking a platform through a building, you’ll usually have to make a connection somewhere.

Alice and I walk to platform N4. The platform is nearly packed. We climb the chrome-colored stairs and wait above the transparent surface. Advertisements for new films and texts shine brightly across the floor. I look around and see new and familiar faces heading off to the Distribution ceremony. They make the ceremony sound extravagant and fancy, but the only exciting thing that happens is that we’re given the code that will allow us to access the training sessions that we were assigned for this semester. Every semester, the Center offers a very particular number of sessions for an exact number of students. We have no choice in terms of the training sessions that we take here at Oz. The administration makes those choices for us. We do fill out some forms with classes that we’re interested in, but rarely do they take those forms into account. I’ve been pretty lucky since my time here. I’ve enjoyed almost all of my training sessions, and even those worst one of them wasn’t that bad. Just boring and repetitive.

Please make sure your feet are located within the premises of the platform. We will depart in thirty seconds. Make sure to rest your back firmly against the panels once they rise” announces a speaker located in the center of the platform. A series of panels rises from the edges of the platform, allowing nobody to enter or nobody to leave. I walk towards one of the panels and press my back firmly against it, just as we were instructed to do. I hear the familiar buzzing noise and I watch as ropes of light girdle around our waists. This is to make sure that we stay balanced during the short trip, and to make sure that nobody is launched out of the platform during our journey. A few seconds later, I feel the platform dropping into the ground.

The thing I most look forward to in Distribution ceremonies is the ride on the platforms. Don’t get me wrong. I use the platform every day I spend in the Center, so I’m already used to it. However, there are many first years and transfer students who have never used an underground platform system before. Many first-timers are absolutely amused and amazed by the experience. The hilarious cases are those who are scared out of their mind—screaming at the top of their lungs during the entire trip. Alice once showed me a Network site dedicated to displaying pictures of people during their first trip in an underground platform. I find this amusing because I was with Alice during her first ride on a Center platform. I was minding my own business on the platform three years ago, but I was distracted by the fervent high-pitched screams that were unleashed ext to me. I turned my head to see a stranger (who turned out to be Alice), screaming aloud with her eyes shut. The noise coming out of her mouth was unnatural. It sounded like a cyborg howler monkey, if you get my drift. I laughed beyond belief, and once we arrived at the Nucleus, I helped a very dizzy Alice step out of the platform. Instant friendship.

Every underground tunnel has its own décor and flavor. Tunnels to the Nucleus are adorned with holographic projections of space and the Milky Way, accompanied by loud music and varying temperatures. It’s like venturing in a high speed rocket through the galaxy. We zoom past the sun and feel a rush of hot air against our faces. We ride alongside Hayley’s comet and watch as the entire tunnel becomes illuminated in a flash of white. The platform is traveling so fast that you can see women’s hair dancing in a chaotic frenzy. It’s hard to believe that we’re really in a large magnetic tube that connects from the Dome near Oz’s entrance to the Nucleus, and two other destinations afterwards.

Here comes my favorite part: the drop. I always know when it’s about to come because of the projection of the Orion constellation over our heads. As soon as we’re under Orion’s belt, the platform plummets into the darkness. I hear most of the first years screaming their hearts out, and I hear Alice laughing maniacally at their reactions. I was told that during the inauguration of the underground traveling system a couple of years ago, many elderly people died of heart attacks. It’s easy to see why that happened. I always thought that the intensity of this transportation was amazing yet impractical for so many reasons. On the other hand, I love the fact that I ride through a roller-coaster virtually every day of class. Besides, those who are too afraid to ride the platform can always use the much-slower trolleys around the Center.

This is, without a doubt, my favorite underground tunnel. We soon see a projection of planet Earth, which means we are close to our first destination. The platform stops moving. It begins to slowly ascend as we see the circle of light above us, leading to the Nucleus.

The red light under the speaker in the center of the platform illuminates. “Arriving at destination one – The Nucleus. Please remain inside the platform until your glow belts are deactivated” says the voice coming from the speaker. The platform rises all the way to the top. The halo of light encircling our waists fades away as the panels surrounding the platform lower beneath the surface. I see a larger dome around me made out of green-tinted glass. A first year next to me collapses on his knees as beads of sweat drop from his forehead. The platform is not designed for the faint of heart. Alice and I step out of the platform and head off to the Great Hall of the Nucleus.

Chapter III

Seat 212

I just love that each tunnel has a different theme. I’ve been using these platforms for three years and every single time I get excited. I can’t believe that our Center is lucky enough to get one” says Alice.

I can’t tell whether I love the one to the Nucleus or the underwater themed tunnel that leads to the Rolf’s Aquatic Center” I reply.

I just love the faces of all those first wretched little first years. Poor things have never experienced anything quite like underground travel” says Alice as we reach the Dome’s exit.

It wasn’t just the first years. Did you see the transfer students wailing as well? The thing travels so quickly. Didn’t you freak out a little your first time?” I say with a knowing smile. The image of a screaming Alice haunts my mind again.

Of course not! The underground tunnels were one of the neatest things I have seen in my life! It’s a shame that most of the other Centers don’t have them.” There she goes with her “tough-girl” act, but she’s fooling nobody.

Well, that’s because most of the other Centers are either smaller or have technologies that we haven’t even heard of. I’m sure TEC has a transportation system that exceeds our wildest expectations. I heard that they actually teleport from one building to another.”

Ugh, those annoying TEC people. They think they are high and mighty just because they go to the highest ranking Center. At least we learn about things that are important.”

Mmm, yeah, important, but you have to admit that what we do here isn’t exactly useful” I reply skeptically.

What? Of course what we do is useful! How dare you imply otherwise?” replies Alice adamantly.

Come on, Alice. You have to admit it. Other Centers create mind-blowing technology and save lives. They come up with new medications, new cost-effective ways to produce foods. They even managed to salvage the parts of the Republic that were drowning in water after the ice caps melted. And what do we do? We learn about the past and learn to judge and evaluate the beauty of things. Even then, we’re not really allowed to be creative, right? We just take notes and learn how to apply tired and old stories and theories. Any time we try a new approach, we are criticized and we fail our training courses.”

At least we’re doing something that we love to do.” Alice seems hurt by my words.

Hey, most people don’t even make the choice to come to this Center. You and I are the rare exceptions. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that what we do has no importance. And when it comes down to it I love what I do. But, when it comes to pragmatics, we’re not really moving mountains or saving drowning cities.” I think about what I’m saying, and it sounds like I totally hate Oz and everything that it stands for. I don’t. I absolutely love what I do. I study the history of words, the beauty of language, and the role of culture in the formation of thought. But ever since I began my training here, I’ve been plagued with doubts and questions about the usefulness of my education. I believe what I do has meaning, but this meaning is so difficult to convey to people from other Boroughs. To be honest, I can’t really discern this meaning in the first place, so how could I possibly convey it to other people?

We are saving lives” states Leona, firmly. If it weren’t for people like us, people would lose what little humanity they have left. Some people are just too closed-minded to realize this. And come on, even the Republic realizes the importance of a cultural education. This Center wouldn’t be here if they didn’t.” Alice is right. I never really thought about this before. But why would the Republic have an Center devoted to such a liberal type of education (well, at least more liberal when compared to other Centers)?

The Nucleus is packed full of old and new faces. Every trainee dons the traditional Center uniform. I feel like we’re swimming in a sea of absinthe. The Nucleus is decorated the same way it always is during the Distribution ceremony. The baroque style columns and moldings that surround the building are glowing with white lights that twinkle like stars. Grape vines wrap around the walls and the tables in the reception area. White candles illuminate the entire entrance. The tables were stocked high with bread, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, and wine.

I see a younger trainee trying to grab a small bottle of wine, but his hand is blocked by an invisible force. Poor thing. He doesn’t know that the alcohol is surrounded by a protective perimeter. The perimeter scans every subject’s biochip, so only those who are over the age of sixteen can stick their left hands in the perimeter to grab a drink. Rumor has it that the perimeter even limits the total amount of drinks that you can take. I wouldn’t know. I know better than to have too much to drink at Center events, especially with all the instructors and administrators lurking around.

Alice and I walk past the reception area to the tower of the Nucleus, there the Distribution ceremony will take place. The ceremony is always the same process every semester for students in Cultural and Communications training. We all gather around the Great Hall located on the second floor of the tower. All official and administrative business takes place in this sixteen story tower, and all of the center’s technology and officers are managed in the upper offices of this building. The Center’s Chancellor even has the entire upper floor all to himself—the penthouse, he calls it. Since the Chancellor lives there, we can only begin to imagine the luxury present within this floor. According to the Center’s official Network site, the chancellor’s floor has over 15 rooms, a ballroom, 12 bathrooms, and 5 offices. It’s massive, to say the least. Only the best and worst of students ever step foot within the penthouse, so I guess on the bright side, it’s a good thing that neither Alice nor I have had a reason to visit that floor.

We walk up the stairs to the second floor and we see the great hall. Lavish green tapestries with the Center’s insignia embroidered in golden thread—a series of dashes arranged in a circle with the Roman number VIII inscribed in the center—draped the smooth marble walls. Clouds and fog with a green hue swirled around the ceiling. Of course, these weren’t real clouds. They are projected using the same technology found in the underground platform system. Hundreds of thousands of chairs encircle a podium in the middle of the hall. Large monitor screens hover around the green swirls in the ceiling in order to give students sitting far away a closer look at the podium.

Waves of trainees are scattered around the room, trying to locate their assigned seats. Three guards stand near the entrance of the hall, two holding rifles and one sitting next to a box of folders, located near a list displayed on a rather large tablet computer. When I first arrived at Oz, I used to be terrified of the guards and their rifles. But after years of attending training here, it’s inevitable to get used to it. I’d be more surprised to see a guard without a gun, regardless of what building or Borough I’m in. I guess the Regime really underestimates our Center’s ability to cause a scene or to create a disruption given the serious lack of guards present in the area, especially when compared to other Centers within the Republic.

We stand in line to register for the Distribution ceremony. Alice stands in front of me, constantly looking back while rolling her eyes. Unlike me, Alice is totally impatient, and lines are most certainly not something she looks forward to. I on the other hand have the patience of an ox. Many people underestimate the beauty of lines. The organization. The opportunity to closely scrutinize those around you. Sometimes I stare at other people while waiting in lines, wondering what thoughts, worries, or concerns are drifting in their mind. Some people would rather be at another place. Some people have other things to do during the day. The usual impatient suspects in a long line are those with their arms crossed, an unmistakable frown on their facade, and a foot tapping desperately—as if that were going to make the line go any faster. I wonder what ants think as they line up behind each other with food in their mouths. What makes us any different from ants? The line steadily moves forward, and soon, it’s Alice’s turn. She walks towards the guard sitting next to the box of folders and pronounces her name and personal information clearly.

Alice Elizabeth Blake. Vocation: Cultural History. Origin: Blue District – Northern Union.”

As soon as she mentions the fact that she’s from the Northern Union, she gets the same dubious look that she always gets from residents of the Republic. People point and whisper. It’s not every day that you encounter a Northern native—they are an rarity in these parts. Sometimes people walk away from her when they discover that she comes from a more liberal and devious nation. Other people react in disgust. Once in a blue moon, you might even have the occasional person who is curious about the Northern Union, and they begin to assault Alice with a barrage of questions. But she always keeps her lips tight, being extra careful of not sharing any information of her home with any citizens of the Republic. Despite a few seconds of what seemed like hesitation and resentment, one of the guards standing near the entrance pulls out a dark green box from one of his pockets. He motions Alice to lift up her left hand, and he promptly scans it with the box. The tablet next to the sitting guard soon displays Alice’s picture and loudly enunciates all of her personal information, including her age, her Network code, her DNA structuring sequence, and even her blood type. The screen then displays the number 3274 on the screen in big red letters.

Alright Miss Blake, you’re assigned seat number 377,327. Please grab your customized information packet and proceed to your designated area” replies the guard in a disinterested fashion. It never ceases to amaze me how a human being can seem so void of life. I don’t even want to begin to imagine what training guards must go through before becoming active units. I never see them smile, laugh, and I’ve certainly never seen them express fear. Most of the time they don a stoic persona, and I think that anger and seriousness are the only emotions they are capable of showing. I used to think that most of them were robots or androids, but I once witnessed a guard getting shot about two years ago, while venturing through one of the poverty-stricken areas of our district.

Since Alice’s arrival to Oz, we’ve never once sat together during the Distribution ceremony. The chances that I’d be assigned anywhere near her seat were quite slim, so I was preparing myself to sit next to people that either annoyed me greatly, or that were significantly older or younger than me. Students are typically enrolled in a Center at the age of seven, after taking several aptitude tests administered by the Regime. The only exception to this were the very few students arriving from the Northern Union, or students who transfer from another Center in the Republic—a rare occurrence at Oz, seeing as it was typically viewed as the most useless and impractical Center of the eight. Trainees are required to remain in Oz until the age of twenty-five, when they are deemed absolute experts in their assigned area. Although you are required to stay in Oz dorms during your first couple of years at the center, all students are welcome to move to the adjunct apartments located one block away from the center after the age of sixteen. After commencement at the age of twenty-five, students are assigned a job at any one of the eight boroughs, according to their performance at the training Center and of course, to the good graces of the job assignment committee. Those who were brilliant and lucky were typically assigned a position as a Center instructor or administrator. Those who weren’t as brilliant or just plain unlucky were typically given the most undesirable jobs in the country—which implies years of training gone to waste.

I was next in line.

Levi Thomas Solis. Vocation: Cultural Studies. Origin: North-Eastern Borough – The Republic.”

After the guard scanned my left hand, my information was also announced by the screen, along the depiction of the number 211. Great. I knew that I wasn’t going to sit anywhere near Alice, but now I have a seat that is extremely close to the main podium. Now I can get an even closer look of Chancellor Crawford, who always looks as if he were about to collapse and wither away. I jokingly told Alice once that he must be over one-hundred and twenty years old, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that my statement may not be much of a joke, but rather, a factual statement. I reluctantly grab my information packet and head towards the front rows. I have no idea why I ended up so close to the podium. The first couple of groups are usually assigned to new and transfer students. I prepare myself mentally to sit next to a bunch of anxious seven year olds. Luckily, most of them are nervous out of their mind, so I don’t expect them to cause much commotion. I don’t even expect most of them to talk to me, which is a good thing.

I approach seat 211, and of course, there is a small blond-haired girl with intense cobalt eyes sitting on seat 210. Her legs are shifting erratically, and she has been peeling away on the skin found on the edges of her thumbs. All that left is purple-tinged blood stains and small stumps where her nails used to be. I instantly recalled that feeling of being unsafe. Of looking around me and feeling as if I were being judged by every subject around me. When I transferred to this Center, I was no different from the girl sitting next to me. Contrary to my usual behavior, I decided to help this stranger to calm down. At least it will help the time pass by swiftly.

Don’t be nervous,” I say. “They do the same thing every year. Chancellor Crawford stands in front of the audience, discusses the history of the Republic and the mission of the Center, and then you are free to access the training assignments that were distributed to you.”

She glances at me with those intense blue eyes and gently smiles. “Oh, I am not nervous about my assignments. I’m just not used to being away from home, away from my guardians and away from my home. I guess I’m not really thrilled to be here, that’s all. Plus, I’m bored out of my mind. I’ve been sitting here for over an hour. I always arrive to meetings and ceremonies early. I can’t even fathom the thought of arriving late to a scheduled event. Could you imagine that? My guardians would be so disappointed if I were ever tardy. Well, at least they would be upset if nothing bad prevented me from arriving on time. I sure in that case they would understand! This place looks amazing, does it not? I arrived to the Center yesterday, so I’m still trying to soak everything in.”

Her voice was as gentle as her smile, enthused with the animated spirit of a young child. But she talked way too much, especially for someone her age. Even her vocabulary seemed a little too developed for a newbie. Something tells me that I am going to completely regret reaching out to her. She stretches out her hand towards me. “The name’s Wendy. Wendy Conrad.” I visibly flinch when I hear the name. Wendy is a very rare name. As a matter of fact, I’ve only encountered the name once before, and that was in one of the illegal texts that I downloaded titled Peter and Wendy, written by J.M Barrie. It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but it’s mostly about a boy with the gift of flight who never grows old. He lives in the distant island known as Neverland, and every once in a while, he flies to London to secretly listen to the bedtime stories of Wendy Darling—a young Londoner who lives with her brothers. One night, while listening to a story, Wendy spots Peter, and he somehow loses his shadow. I’m not making this up. After sewing the shadow back on Peter, he invites her to fly away with him to Neverland to be the mother of his gang of friends known as the Lost Boys. Adventure and mischief ensue! I know, this is probably the worst plot summary ever, and to be honest, the story sounds insane. But the tale is absolutely delightful. Too bad it’s on the Regime’s list of banned texts. After all, the idea of people flying away to unknown lands, and the thought of people never aging, seems too fanciful for a society based on reality.

Hey are you Okay?! I said my name’s Wendy Conrad. Do you have a name or are you just going to stay there, shaking my hand? Are you okay? Are you feeling ill? You look a little too old to be a first year. Surely you must’ve been here for a few years already. Unless you are a transfer student. Do they even allow people your age to transfer to another Center? And why would you choose this Center?”

The pace of Wendy’s questions was inducing a sense of nausea that I’ve never felt before. After processing the drill of questions during a few seconds of silence, I finally open my mouth. “Yeah, I’m a transfer student, but I transferred to this Center years ago. Sorry I spaced out, I just don’t think I’ve ever heard your name before. I’m Levi Solis.”

Pardon me?” replied Wendy with a confused face.

Levi. Well, I guess my name is as rare as yours is.”

What does that name even mean?” replied Wendy, honestly baffled.

My guardians told me that it means ‘joined in harmony,’ or something like that. I guess they had a lot of expectations of me when they chose me as their neonate. They told me that it comes from an ancient religion known as Hebrew, which no longer exists in this part of the world. My guardians tried to explain it to me once, telling me that I was meant to be the glue that keeps people together, but I was too young to fully get what they were saying. I guess nowadays I feel like anything but a person who brings people together.” I felt surprisingly talkative to this stranger I just met. She might have seemed annoying, but there was something about her youth that seemed generous and trustworthy. Here I am blabbing away just as much as she was. Since when did I become such a social butterfly?

Well, I like your name. I actually like it a lot. I’m actually glad my parents named me Wendy. I don’t think I’ve ever met another person with my name. Did you know that my parents made up the name? They wanted to assure that I was unique. I guess both of our parents had similar visions in mind! Your name is nice. It has a nice rhythm to it. Levi. Lee-Vie. LE-VI.” Wendy began to pronounce my name carefully over and over again. This was going to be a long morning. I couldn’t help but think that Wendy’s parents were lying to her when they said they came up with her name on their very own. They must’ve read Peter and Wendy before and were unwilling to admit it. Either that, or they truly did make up the name on their own, which comes to show that originality truly is dead this day and age.

After a few seconds of repeating my name, she looks at me. “So what Borough are you from?” she asks.

I’m from the North-Eastern Borough, near the coastal section. My guardians’ house was only about ten minutes away from the beach. How about you?” I ask.

I’m from the great Southern Borough!” Wendy was beaming with pride as she uttered her Borough of origin. People from this area were known for being very proud of their roots and origins, which is unsurprising seeing as their ancestors were known for initiating the the Second Civil War back in the day. I should’ve known that she was from the Borough based on her accent. My accent is somewhat similar to hers, but without a doubt, hers is heavily inflected and her vowels seem to stretch out a bit more.

Oh, how is it over there in the South?” I ask.

Things are amazing. Everything is so neat, pristine, and pure. I was rather upset when I was told I was being sent to this Center. After all, everyone knows that this is the most liberal Center in the Republic. My guardians once told me that they thought the Republic would be a better place if this Center were shut down. I used to agree with them, but just look at where I’m sitting right now. I always dreamed of making them proud. Now I’m going to be spending more than a decade here.”

Oh please, it’s not that liberal. There are plenty of rules, restrictions, and regulations here. You’ll definitely notice that once you’re here for a while.”

Yeah, but here you can get away with way more. We follow a very strict code of conduct in the South. We like order. We thrive on the values of leadership and dignity. We pride ourselves on being the most advanced society by looking forward, not by gluing ourselves to the past. The past is nothing but a dirty scourge that is better left untouched. It makes me ill to think that we will be forced to relive it constantly in this Center.” She was beginning to sound like one of the guards that haunt the premises. I think we have a future Regime administrator in the midst.

Don’t sound so disappointed. Things aren’t that bad here. I think you’ll grow to love this Center. Sure, some training sessions are boring and repetitive, but you’ll come to see that learning about the past is key to understanding the present. I feel like I’m part of a secret society who knows and understands why the world works the way it does. We get to know things that other people can’t even begin to fathom.” Wow, I’m beginning to sound like an Oz fan boy. I guess I have a greater attachment to this place than I’m willing to admit.

Wendy shrugs her shoulders. “I can’t believe I performed so miserably at the aptitude tests. My guardians enrolled me in a special pre-training course at the age of three to try and get me into one of the best Centers. I guess my nerves got the best of me. I only excelled in the color-matching exercises for some reason and the administrators assumed that I had a knack for art. Now here I am, enrolled in Artistic Studies. I’m sure I’ll make a grand living learning how to mold ceramic figurines and using finger paints. Master pottery today, rule the world tomorrow.” The resentment in her voice was shocking, especially when coming from the mouth and mind of a seven year old. I imagine that her guardians were beyond disappointment with her placement. Isn’t that the problem with most parents, though? How they are constantly trying to mold us into miniature versions of themselves? Maybe Wendy really does have a knack for art, but they’ve completely destroyed her ability to come to this realization.

You don’t really have to take a practical route when doing Artistic Studies. Plus, you’re free to change to any other vocation within this Center if you want. Don’t start limiting yourself during your first year. Even though you feel like you’re restricted by coming here, you still have options. The ability to make choices can be quite liberating if you think about it.” I do my best to encourage her.

She shrugs again. “Who cares, it’s not like we choose our profession at the end of our training anyway. I’ll probably end up fat and alone, working in some crummy administrative office. It’s not fair. We are raised to think that the world is our oyster, only to realize that the oyster is clamped shut, unable to open or budge. What’s the point of possessing a pearl if you’re unable to show it to the world?” Wendy crosses her arms and looks away. I wonder who put those ideas in her head? That wording does not sound like it was produced by someone her age. I don’t think I’ve ever met somebody so pessimistic—and what’s creepy is that she masks the pessimism with an air of cheeriness.

I want to come up with another encouraging reply, but I say nothing. I just sit there, awkwardly, imagining her overweight and alone, living with two cats and hating everything that Oz stands for. I know what it’s like to be unhappy with your assigned Center. At least I had the opportunity to change my life. Wendy, on the other hand, was assigned to the lowest ranking Center, so she has no chances of changing her career path. She is doomed to be stuck here. She is doomed to disappoint her parents and herself. That’s way more than any seven year old should have to deal with. What will these seeds of resent and disappointment do to Wendy once they are fully bloomed? Is it possible that she will learn to love this place, or will this disappointment prevent any change from happening?

About two minutes were left for the distribution ceremony to begin. I noticed that the seat next to me left, labeled 212, was still empty. Great! More room for me, and less chances of another annoying first year sitting on my side. All I need as another Wendy to sit on my left, incessantly complaining about the woes, trials, and tribulations of being assigned to train at Oz. I stretch my legs, place my information packet on the empty space. I zone out into nothingness, getting ready for Chancellor Crawford to give his usual speech. I cross my arms behind my neck, take a deep breath, and shut me eyes for a few seconds.

Excuse me, but I think your packet is on my seat.”

I open my eyes and look up. A guy, a few centimeters taller than me, stands above me, flashing a timid smile. I can immediately tell that he is not a first year. His short chestnut hair, with flecks of red and blonde, rests lightly on his head, styled in a carefully planned yet modest fashion. His rosy cheeks and chin are covered in light stubble. He seemed very familiar at first, and that’s when I noticed his eyes. You would think we were family based on our eye color, a color which seems to be as rare as my name. At first glance, they seem to be hazel colored—a light, honey color verging on yellow. But the closer you watch, the more you begin to notice flecks of gold, black, tan, and green embedded within the iris. When your head shifts, the color of the eyes begins to shift from gold, to coffee, to emerald, giving the illusion that his chameleonic eyes are indecisive when it comes to choosing a stable font. My eye color is exactly the same, but this is difficult to notice most of the time due to the almond shape my eyes have. But his eyes are wide, expressive, and intense to the point that they make me feel slightly uncomfortable.

Due to the prominence of genetic manipulation a few decades ago, life givers, the people in charge of cultivating human embryos in the Republic, decided to create children with green, blue, or even purple eyes. Nearly everyone at Oz has intense blue or purple eyes, and these colors are quite uniform. Darker shades of eye color—blacks, browns, grays—became a rarity, mostly because of their association with lower classes, and especially due to the fact that genetic manipulation is prohibited in the Northern Union, making dark eye colors way more common than they are here. In some cases, some children are intended to have light-colored eyes when created, but unexpected mutations take place and the child ends up having dark-colored eyes. Eyes with multiple colors, or eyes with multiple shades of coloring, are virtually unheard of.

My guardians chose me specifically because of my eye color. They said it made me “one-of-a-kind.” The more I think about it, the more I notice that my guardians were obsessed with the concept of uniqueness. My name, my eye color. I guess they were always expecting me to do something different in life, which is weird given the Republic’s crave for uniformity. I actually liked my eye color a lot. It made me feel special. Exceptional. Yet, I guess I was not as exceptional as I thought I was. Here is another person, with eyes identical to mine, staring right back at me. Besides our eye color, we are different in almost every other aspect. I’m a couple of centimeters shorter than he is, my skin is about a shade darker than his light skin, my hair is dark and wavy, and I’ve barely even begun to grow a beard.

First the girl with the uncommon name, and now the guy with the exceptional eye color. Today seems to be a day of infrequencies, something that is more than welcome in the wonderful land of Oz. I lift my packet off the seat. “Sorry about that. Thought that you weren’t going to show up.” He nods and quietly sits down.

Wendy immediately notices the new guy’s arrival. You can tell by the way she arches her eyebrows up that she is definitely interested in the arrival of this stranger. Wait, isn’t she only seven? Isn’t she a little young to be interested in men this way, especially a guy who can easily be almost three times her age? “Hi there, handsome! What’s your name? I’m Wendy Conrad! You look lost. Are you new around here? I’m a first-year student. Not too excited about being assigned here, but I guess I have no other choice. Why are you so quiet? By the way, why haven’t you told me your name yet?” She doesn’t even give the poor guy a chance to breathe.

He turns around, but keeps his eyes locked on me for a second. He opens his mouth to answer, but Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture began to blast through the speakers as the lights grew dim. You can tell that our chancellor has a penchant for Tchaikovsky, and his use of the 1812 Overture for his entrance into public affairs has been played out to the point of cliché. Oz has the only chancellor that demands an entrance with music, which makes sense because Oz is, after all, a training center devoted to culture and communication. His entrances do nothing to help our reputation, though.

Rising towards the podium is Chancellor Crawford. His body looks even frailer then when I last saw him. He wears his usual dark, double breasted navy suit with a powder blue rose lapelled delicately on the right side of his chest. Of course, he wears the avocado colored cape he always wears to Distribution ceremonies. We never expected the ruler of Oz to make a public appearance without something green on his body. For a man who dresses so extravagantly and who demands music for his entrance, he is quite serious and stern. He stares at us quietly with his eyes, whose color matches that of the rose on his chest. His skin looks leathery and tight. He’s gotten so many surgical procedures done that he barely looks human anymore. Alice once made a remark that he looks like ape genitals. I’ve never seen ape genitals before, but that didn’t stop me from unleashing a roaring laughter. The thought of that joke made me chuckle. The stranger on seat 212 immediately began staring at me as the chuckles became harder to contain. I cover my mouth and force myself to concentrate on the stage. Chancellor Crawford pulls out a small role of parchment from the inner part of his suit, and he begins to unravel it.

I get goosebumps. Not from the old and tired spectacle playing in front of me. But rather, because of that distinctive sensation you get one someone is staring at you. I slowly shift my eyes to the right. Wendy has her sight glued to Chancellor Crawford as he struggles to unravel the parchment in front of him. Why he hasn’t transitioned to the use of a tablet computer is beyond me. I turn my head to the left and I catch 212 quickly turning his glance from me to the chancellor. Why was he still staring at me, even when I was no longer chuckling? I guess it is strange to see an unfamiliar face laughing for no apparent reason. A better question at this point is why he was pretending not to stare at me. I look forward to the stage and I notice that Crawford has finally managed to unravel the parchment. He says the same tired speech that he says every semester, with a couple of modifications of course. His booming and raspy voice permeates the great hall.

Welcome trainees, old and new, to the winter semester of the 212nd year of liberation. Yes, it has been 212 years since the foundation of the Republic and the establishment of the Regime. 212 years since we established ourselves as a self-sufficient country founded upon the virtues of purity and dignity. A country based upon the natural laws that were bestowed upon us as human beings. Since our segregation from the former United States of America, now simply known as the Northern Union, we have prospered as a moral nation, a nation free of corruption, a nation free of decay, a nation free from disorder. We are here today because our ancestors, who envisioned our current state as a future possibility, bravely fought the oppressors in the Second Civil War. We are here today to become the people that they wanted us to be; no, the people that we need to be, in order to continue prospering. We are here…”

My Network armlet lightly vibrates and glows. It’s a message from Alice.

ALICE ELIZABETH BLAKE (6000259881): Gag. No wonder they hate me. My country deviates from the virtues of purity and dignity. Woe is me.

I chuckle lightly and respond, cautious not to draw too much attention.

LEVI THOMAS SOLIS (3768792110): I always knew you were a scoundrel. Get out of my country, now! The Republic will becomes pure once again!

ALICE ELIZABETH BLAKE (6000259881): Oh, please. You know they love having me here. There’s nothing more pleasing to the Republic than a convert from the Northern Union.

LEVI THOMAS SOLIS (3768792110): You are a prime example of the ideal convert. May we one day develop the intellect and the moral fiber to follow your example, princess Blake.

ALICE ELIZABETH BLAKE (6000259881): Quit bantering, you unworthy peasant, and pay attention to the ceremony. Your highness has not had her morning coffee and it’s taking every ounce of will to stay awake.

LEVI THOMAS SOLIS (3768792110): Looks like someone had a whopping bowl of bitchy-o’s in place of her coffee this morning. Never overestimate the power of substitutions!

As I click send, I look quickly to my left and I notice that 212 was snooping at my message because he was laughing at my exchange with Alice. I shoot a dirty look at him, but he is no longer paying attention to me or my Network armlet. I once again look at Chancellor Crawford, noticing that he is speaking of Oz rather than the foundation of our glorious nation.

“…which is why the Regime established eight training centers across the Republic, in order to ensure that all citizens in the workforce, despite differences of profession, continue to uphold these values. Most of you were chosen to train here, and a couple of you graciously decided to transfer here. The Culture and Communications Center, affectionately referred to as Triple C by the members of our community, houses the most creative, intuitive, and imaginative thinkers within the Republic. Pupils at this Center hone their critical thinking skills, their historical awareness, their ability to create and replicate, and their familiarity with great works of the human mind in order to better understand the world that we live in. You’ll not only learn about yourself in Triple C, but you will also learn about everything that makes a human mind great and inimitable.”

Chancellor Crawford coughs casually. He pauses to take a sip of water. After wiping his chin with a velvet handkerchief, he continues his spiel. “As most of you should know by now, Triple C is divided into three schools: History, which focuses on the analysis of past events in order to comprehend our current condition; Communications and Arts, which focuses on how diverse mediums facilitate the exchange of ideas; and Cultural Studies, which focuses on the historical study of creative objects crafted by the human mind, and what makes them outstanding or beautiful.”

The aims of Oz are so different from those of the other Centers. I should know, because at the age of twelve, I transferred from the SSC to Oz. The SSC is the Science and Society center located in my home Borough, the North-East. Transfers from one center to another are no easy feat, but I think my stubbornness played a major role in the administration’s decision. Actually, all of the Centers are ranked by the Regime according to usefulness and intellectual demand. The Technology and Engineering Center, unsurprisingly, has been ranked number one for the past three decades. Science and Society is currently ranked number two. The third most prestigious center is the Medicine and Pharmaceuticals Center. Admission into any one of these is one of the greatest honors that a citizen from the Republic can receive. When citizens of the Republic are six years old, we take an aptitude test with a theoretical and a practical component. Some exercises are the typical math problems you encounter in most aptitude texts. Other tests require you to arrange colored blocks in a particular order, or to identify fruits according to smell. There is even a small obstacle course that all of us have to complete.

Many subjects don’t really exceed at these tests, which is unsurprising because there is only so much intellectual and physical development that you can expect from a six-year old. When a subject excels in a particular area, they are sent to the center that best cultivates that ability. Subjects with aptitude in most areas are sent to high-ranking centers, while subjects that don’t excel in any areas are sent either to Oz or the Military Training Center. Many were shocked and displeased with my choice to transfer to Oz. You can transfer to a Center that is below the ranking of your assigned one at any given time. But nobody, under any circumstance, can ever transfer to a center with a higher ranking. Therefore, after transferring to Oz, there was no turning back. My guardians were so upset with my transfer that they stopped speaking to me. It’s been over six years since I’ve last spoken to them.

“…I bid you all farewell, and may you continue to uphold the values and virtues of our great and powerful Republic. Thank you.” The Chancellor rolls up the piece of parchment and places it in his breast pocket.

I stand up and join the rest of the crowd in applause. Many people begin to leave in order to avoid the stampede of trainees leaving the building. Wendy is standing on her chair, jumping up and down, squealing with excitement. So much for the nerves caused by being away from home for the first time and her displeasure with the Center. I have to admit, Chancellor Crawford is quite the master when it comes to rhetoric, so it’s no surprise that his words somehow managed to touch Wendy deeply, as seen by her enthusiastic applause. I look to my left and noticed that 212 was no longer there. His information packet was left behind on his seat. Did he forget his packet, or did he leave it there deliberately? I pick up the packet and look for the name on top spelled in bold letters: Nathaniel Patrick Husher – Cultural Studies. Apparently, Nathaniel and I not only have the same eye color, but we’re also in the exact same school and concentration. Why did he leave his packet behind? Isn’t he interested in knowing what training courses he was assigned this semester?

I tuck his packet into my bag, and I open my own packet to see what courses I was assigned. Inside, a small piece of light blue parchment was rolled, inscribed with the confirmation code I need to access my schedule through the Network. After accessing the CCC application in my Network armlet, I punch in the twelve digit code and a list of 3 courses is projected from my armlet:

  • ENGL00602 – Fictions of Growth and Development II – Monday, Tuesday (8:00-10:00) – Inst. Grey
  • CULT46601 – Gender and the Republic – Wednesday, Thursday (9:00-11:00) – Inst. Anderson
  • CULT45665 – Cultural Practicum: Culinary Arts – Friday (13:00-17:00) – Inst. Ryan

I groan when I see that I was assigned Fictions of Development II with Grey for my English language requirement. I took the first part about four semesters ago. He wasn’t really a terrible professor, but it was truly one of the most boring training sessions that I’ve ever taken in my life. We mostly read various nineteenth century texts that managed to survive the Scourge of Alexandria, which dealt mostly with how young men and women engaged in excruciatingly long journeys in order to identify their true moral and spiritual selves. Instructor Grey told us that nineteenth century texts are really valued by the Republic, mostly because they were deemed to be handbooks for modest and appropriate behavior, and also, because characters who deviate from societal expectations are usually punished towards the text’s conclusion. Most of the texts that we read were too long and bizarre. There was this one novel I read… I can’t quite remember the name… but it dealt with a young woman named Tess who gets raped. She gets pregnant, loses her child, but she is forever scorned for being an impure woman. She ends up marrying a man, only to run away later on with another man who she deems she will be happier with. What happens towards the end? She is punished, of course, for her infidelity, and the novel ends with her execution. Such a lovely ending, isn’t it?

On the other hand, I was genuinely excited with my cultural-historical requirement, Gender and the Republic, because although I’ve heard much about gender and sexual deviance from films and television, I haven’t had much of a chance to learn about it from an academic perspective. We all have to take a “practical” course every semester, and I guess learning how to cook decent meals would be a good skill to develop, especially since I rarely prepare my own meals and choose to eat at the dining hall instead. I double-tap on the screen to put my armlet into sleep mode, and I head out of the great hall to search for Alice.

Copyright © 2013 by Angel Daniel Matos

All rights reserved. This post or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a review.